UCL Faculty of Laws


Hybrid | Grounding Associative Obligations: Against the Value-based Account

30 May 2023, 4:00 pm–6:00 pm

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This event has been organised by the UCL Legal Philosophy Forum

Event Information

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UCL Laws


UCL Faculty of Laws
Moot Court (Ground Floor)
4-8 Endsleigh Gardens

Please note that the time allocated for this seminar will be devoted to discussion of the paper.

Speaker: Jingzhi Chen (University of Oxford)

About this event

It is a widely-held intuition that we owe certain people, such as our parents, children, or friends, special obligations, which require us to prioritize their interests over those of strangers. These obligations are often called associative obligations (AOs). On what basis can those obligations be grounded? The value-based account answers that our obligatory reasons to prioritize our associates’ interests are grounded in the fact that doing so instrumentally or constitutively promotes the value of a special relationship. This paper challenges this influential account by pointing out that it has a problem in explaining the anti-maximizing feature of AOs: they sometimes require us to prioritize our associates’ interests even when doing so sacrifices the best available outcome in the situation.

Many theorists have raised a similar concern. One of the main reasons for their skepticism is that the value-based account struggles to show how the value that ultimately grounds AOs is sufficiently substantial to be greater than the value that may be sacrificed in specific situations. This paper takes a different approach to developing the objection. I argue that even if the grounding value of AOs is indeed greater than the value that may be sacrificed in the situation, there are alternative ways to promote the grounding value of AOs. In other words, taking sub-optimal actions for our associates is not necessary for achieving the value that is purported to ground AOs. If this is so, it becomes unclear why we still have reasons to take sub-optimal actions when alternative ways can yield the same, if not better, valuable state of affairs with less sacrifice of value.

About the speaker

Jingzhi Chen is a fourth-year D.Phil student at Balliol College, Oxford. She is supervised by Prof. Ruth Chang, and her doctoral studies are generously supported by the Law Foundation at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford.

Her academic interests lie in political and legal philosophy. In her D.Phil thesis, she explores the grounds of associative obligations, which asks in virtue of which we have obligatory reasons to treat certain individuals, such as our parents, children, or friends, preferentially. In her research, she will argue that associative obligations are grounded in the joint commitment among individuals who share a sustaining practice, of which the practice of special relationships constitutes a part. By identifying the conditions under which joint commitment holds a grounding force, she hopes to reconcile the tension between individual autonomy, obligations arising from special relationships, and distributive justice.

Prior to her D.Phil study, she has previously studied law at the University of Oxford (M.Phil), China University of Political Science and Law (Master of Laws), and Beijing Institute of Technology (Bachelor of Law). Her MPhil study at Oxford was kindly sponsored by the David and Jayne Paterson Education Trust.

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