It is a common mistake, made even by some libertarians and former libertarians, that libertarians reject the idea of unchosen obligations. Gene Callahan, apparently a former libertarian turned communitarian, is the latest to make this mistake. He says:
Obligation . . . is the crucial idea denied by libertarian political theory.1
Well, this is just patently absurd. Libertarians, of course, do not deny that individuals can have obligations to others, including non-humans.
Fortunately, Callahan goes on to clarify what he means:
We can have obligations that we did not agree to take upon ourselves.
But this is something that not all libertarians deny, as a wide and deep enough perusal of libertarian literature will demonstrate.
At the very least, libertarians recognize the unchosen obligation not to threaten or use initiatory physical force against other rational beings (i.e., to refrain from what we call aggression).
Libertarians generally make two important sets of distinctions regarding obligation: that between negative and positive obligations and that between enforceable and unenforceable obligations. One can go further and recognize that obligations can have different weightings relative to one another such that one obligation can override or delimit the legitimate means of fulfilling another.
Rights, at least as I define the term, are legitimately enforceable2 moral claims against another’s prior obligation not to threaten or use initiatory physical force. The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP)3 and corresponding rights4 are unchosen, enforceable negative obligations.
Can we have unchosen positive obligations? Libertarians need not deny this, and not all do. It should be easily recognized that unchosen, unenforceable positive obligations are strictly compatible with the NAP/rights.
What about unchosen, enforceable positive obligations? Provided they are compatible with the NAP/rights, if there are any that meet this description, then libertarians need not deny unchosen, enforceable positive obligations outright. I’ll leave it up to the reader’s imagination to come up with possible examples of unchosen, enforceable positive obligations that are compatible with the NAP/rights. If you take the challenge, bear in mind what I wrote about how one obligation can override or delimit the legitimate means of fulfilling another.
Suffice to say that it is a myth that libertarians (need to) deny unchosen, even positive, obligations. Callahan is attacking a straw man.
To criticize libertarians in general for denying unchosen, enforceable positive obligations, or just certain of them, would be more accurate. But to do so would be to take the position that the threat or use of initiatory physical force (i.e., aggression) is at least sometimes justified — that, for example, what is usually thought of commonsensically as theft or trespass or murder in everyday life, is not theft or trespass or murder in the “political” sphere, i.e., when the state or the “community” does it.5