Toward an Ethics of Right Relations

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised: August 29, 2007

Related Page: Notes on the Golden Rule
Station Determines Duties
Covenant Ethics

In the introduction, the ethics of Right Relations is contrasted with ways of discussing ethics that are more common among recent philosophers. Ethical philosophies that focus on voluntary action, intention, consequences, rules, and so forth, are often given an individualistic emphasis, giving primary attention to the person making choices or the consequences of action as experienced in the consciousness of individuals. Often the relationships between individuals recede into the background or even disappear from awareness.

By contrast, an ethics of Right Relations puts relationships at the center of attention. It takes seriously the proposition that relationships are of central importance to human life. The essay looks at two ways of beginning to understand the ethics of right relationships: One way is summarized in the slogan "My Station Determines My Duties"; the other way, meant to complement and correct for the imperfections of the first, uses the idea of a Covenant (understood in a special way).

Covenants are like legal contracts in some ways, but the differences may be more important than the similarities. Both begin with voluntary acts and involve reciprocity, but in covenants the commitment of the participants is open-ended. The participants are committed not just to the other person on conditions negotiated in advance but to the relationship itself. They want the relationship to thrive and see it as valuable to try to "repair" (heal?) the relationship if it gets or starts to get "broken." Covenantal right relationships are contrasted with a common attitude I call "contractual legalism," in which the parties to a contract don't care about the relationship beyond what has been explicitly promised by the parties to each other and the parties have a "short-term" egoist approach to human interaction.


When we try to think systematically about living ethically, what is the focus of our inquiry, the main thing we are thinking about? Here are some answers that have been offered by various moral philosophers:

a) voluntary action (for which the person, the moral actor, is morally responsible)

b) intention, deliberation, and choice (the psychological side of a)

c) ways of life, where life is largely composed of the voluntary actions that we undertake (but this point emphasizes the continuing focus or goal of a life as well as the nature of the particular actions that make it up)

d) rules of action, which enable us to distinguish between praiseworthy voluntary actions and blameworthy;

e) consequences, and rules that judge actions and policies in terms of their probable consequences

f) moral character, what kind of a person a moral actor is, her moral dispositions (virtues and vices like courage, cowardice, generosity, stinginess, honesty, industriousness, etc.)

Most moral theories, when spelled out, try to cover most of these aspects, but they tend to make one of them central. Thus, Aristotelian ethics makes moral character central, and after that ways of life; but Aristotelians have much to say about voluntary action as well as intention, deliberation, and choice too. Utilitarians emphasize consequences. Natural law theorists and Immanuel Kant emphasize rules. Kant also emphasizes intentions but rather discounts consequences.

But there is another possible emphasis, right relationships. The focus is how we relate to one another in specific interpersonal relationships, relationships that have a history, that go beyond one or two interactions. Notice that the emphasis on voluntary actions, intention and choice, and even consequences tend to focus on the individual moral agent, and encourage us to forget that these often occur in the context of a relationship that endures or might endure over time between persons. Even the emphasis on moral character, because it encourages us to look at the moral habits, intentions, reasoning, and choices of an individual moral actor, can be given an individualistic twist. (The same can be said for an ethics of rules or of rights understood in terms of rules.)

The individualistic ethic may be corrosive, because it tends to dissolve the interconnected web of human life. It may even be anti-environmental because, by de-emphasizing relationships, it encourages us to ignore our relationships with nonhuman life.

Ethics of right relationships provides a corrective to this individualistic emphasis. Ethics of RR asks about the quality of our relationships with others. It emphasizes reciprocity and the responsibility of two or more parties to repair the relationships when they are flawed.

Let's consider two ways into the ethics of right relationships. (Note: There is a third way, not necessarily incompatible with the two ways outlined below, centered on the Golden Rule. See Notes on the Golden Rule.)

1) My station and its duties

This path encourages us to reflect about our actions in the context of the roles we occupy in society. These roles are usually—always?—paired with other roles. This manner of thinking uses an organic analogy. Just as each organ in a healthy body has its own role or set of proper tasks, so also every person who has a particular role has a set of proper tasks.

So, the ethics of station and duties says: What is my role?

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus tells his students, "ask how you are described." His point is that there is usually one word that describes our role. Brother, Sibling, Father, Son, Husband, Wife, Business Partner, Patron, Client, Citizen, Magistrate, King, Subject, Doctor, Patient. Obviously, we can occupy several roles, but at any given time, one role tends to be primary.

Answer that question and it won’t be hard to determine what you are supposed to do. Very often tradition and custom will answer it for you. Generally, you are supposed to perform your role, whatever it be, to the best of your ability.

Roles typically come in pairs, for instance: son (or daughter) and parent, teacher and student, doctor and patient, (ordinary) citizen and magistrate. We can also determine our duties toward individuals with whom we are related by asking who they are, i.e., what is our duty to a person who fits their proper description. (See note.)

The Station and Duties conception of right relationships is perfectly illustrated in the first several verses of the song "Tradition," sung by the lead male character, Tevye, in the musical version of "Fiddler on the Roof." In the monologue that precedes the song, Tevye says, “Because of our traditions, each one of us knows who he is and what God intends him to do.” In the verses that follow, one each for The Papa, The Mama, The Daughter, The Son, the characters describe the duties that each member of the family has, depending on his or her proper description.

If this were all there were to ethics, it wouldn’t be a very big subject. But it is a start.

Another example: In an ethics class one person is the professor and the others are students. Using the Station and Duties model of Right Relationships, it follows that the students are called upon to be the best students they can; and the professor to be the best teacher he or she can. The students are not called upon to get an A, but to read the assigned materials, be prepared to discuss them in class, ask questions to promote their own learning, complete the papers on time, etc. The prof is called upon to grade fairly. She is not called upon to win the Annual Teaching Award or Most Popular Teacher prize, but to do what is in her power to promote learning.

Limitations of the Station-and-Duties Ethic

No doubt, the ethics of Station and Duties has its limits. For instance, to work perfectly without adding any other dimension all the roles would have to be perfectly well defined. There would have to be no cases of dilemmas in which two or more roles a person occupies come into conflict, e.g., what a person should do as a student in the class that is going to meet in a half hour and what he should do as a roommate of somebody who seriously needs his help right away. More profoundly, the roles would have to be part of a truly healthy social organism: societies that have standard roles for master and slave are probably not healthy. Health is a metaphor here for social justice.

Another problem of the Station and Duties approach to Right Relationships is that in a rapidly changing high-tech capitalist society like our own, roles are much less stable than they were in the time of Epictetus or Aristotle. In fact, the story on which the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" is based is set in early 20th century Russia, which is undergoing economic change under the impact of global capitalism (yes, even then!), and part of the irony that drives the story is the fact that the traditional roles described by Tevye and the other characters in the "Tradition" song no longer work very well. For one thing, according to Tradition the Papa is supposed to pick a husband for his grown-up daughter and the daughter is supposed to accept his choice.

Without further qualification, the notion that the roles we occupy in life determine our duties has serious problems. One of the difficulties is that it is too easy to conceive of roles as rigid or inflexible and as pre-structured by traditions that hamper the development of individual capabilities.

2) The Idea of Covenant

The basic idea of covenant

Here, another somewhat traditional notion may help. It’s the idea of a covenant. Now, a covenant is like a contract in that it is typically between two parties, but in our context a covenant is not a one-shot deal or limited to one two-way transaction. It’s a mutual commitment over time, and it assumes the recognition of a need for flexibility.

The source for this notion of a covenant is the story, in the Hebrew Scriptures, of the long-term covenant-relationship between Yahweh, on the one hand, and Abraham and his descendents, on the other. This relationship had its ups and downs. It seemed at times to be broken beyond repair and yet was frequently renewed.

Commodity exchange vs. Covenant: The Risk of Short-Term Egoism

Before describing what it amounts to, let's compare it with another example of a two-way connection: commodity exchange. We sometimes think of exchange in terms of a minimum ethics involving voluntary agreements and refraining from force. You go to the bookstore and buy a used textbook as is. A page may be missing or it may have markings on it. The bookstore does not guarantee it won’t. It reveals what it should reveal and engages in no misrepresentation. What you see is what you get. You pay the agreed amount in cash and walk away with the book, and the bookstore doesn’t charge you with theft. The objects have changed hands, but nobody has done anything against the basic rules of commodity exchange. Behind this simple transaction there is a simple, often unstated custom: If each party to the transaction follows rules of honesty and respect for the other’s freedom, then making the payment requires the transfer of the property.

Contracts come into the picture as soon as there is a gap in time between the agreement and the payment, or the agreement and the delivery of the product, or when promises are made regarding other future responsibilities of the parties.

Although contracts may seem like covenants, often they are part of a situation directly contrary to right relationships. If one aims to keep a contract only by doing the minimum of what one has promised but otherwise pursuing what seems in one's short-term self-interest, that is a recipe for the destruction of human connectedness. The emphasis on doing what is in one's short-term self-interest is a kind of egoism: egoistic people of this kind look at everything and ask, “What’s in it for me?” and if they can’t see what’s in it for them in the short term, they quit, they give up, they walk away. Short-term egoism coupled with legalistic contract thinking is a recipe for lack of connectedness.

Covenants Leave Short-Term Egoism Behind

Not so in a covenant. Marriage is often discussed in the context of a covenant. So are voluntary relationships of persons who join a church. There can be other cases as well.

Covenantal forms of right relationships, then, are not limited to what is explicitly stated in a contract or in the vows or in the promises that individuals make when they make a voluntary commitment to a church or synagogue. A covenantal relationship assumes that the interactions will not always be smooth. A covenantal relationship assumes that as the relationship develops or proceeds over time, implicit (unstated but somehow present) dimensions of the interaction will become explicit. A covenantal relationship assumes that adjustments may be necessary. The relationship may even be redefined in major ways without dissolving. One does not merely walk away when the interaction hits a rough spot. One tries to talk about it, learn the other person’s perspectives, make adjustments where possible, and overcome emotional hang-ups (which often block adjustments like that). Covenantal relationships, when they exist and are cared for by all the parties, tend to be more interesting and fulfilling than merely contractual ones.

Relationships between partners in an educational relationship, teacher-student relationships, inevitably have some contractual dimensions, but they can be viewed partly in terms of a covenant. (There may also be a covenantal relation among students in a particular class, for instance, to listen respectfully when another student asks a question and to be respectful of one another when topics come up that stimulate differences of opinion and to offer one's own perspectives in turn.) Of course, such relationships have fewer nuances than covenantal relationships one may have with someone with whom one lives. And they may only last one semester. But they do not work well if the primary approach is egoistic—if the primary goal is to get an A or recite canned lectures with the minimum amount of effort. They do not work well if the student does not pay attention to the rules or standards that will not be obvious at first--that cannot be summarized on a two-page syllabus, but must be learned or recalled as you go along.

Covenants Have a Focus: A Subject-Matter

Another thing about covenantal relationships: there is almost always some subject-matter the covenant is connected to. In a relationship between spouses it may be a central task, such as the raising of children. In a church or synagogue it may be worship or ministry, whatever is involved in "keeping the faith." In the student-teacher relationship it is the subject-matter that brings them together. Key to the effectiveness of the academic covenant is genuine interest in, curiosity about, or devotion to the subject-matter.

Note. Here is a related passage from Epictetus, Encheiridion chapter 30:

Duties are universally measured by relations. Is a certain man your father? In this are implied, taking care of him; submitting to him in all things; patiently receiving his reproaches, his correction. But he is a bad father. Is your natural tie, then, to a good father? No, but to a father. Is a brother unjust? Well, preserve your own just relation towards him. Consider not what he does, but what you are to do, to keep your own will in state conformable to nature. For another cannot hurt you, unless you please [i.e., judge that what he does is bad for you--J.G.]. You will then be hurt when you consent to be hurt. In this manner, therefore, if you accustom yourself to contemplate the relations of neighbor, citizen, commander, you can deduce from each the corresponding duties.