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Address and Response: The Normativity of Requesting, Begging, and Commanding


There are many ways of getting a person to do something without using or threatening physical force. A sergeant can command a private to clean the latrine; a parent can ask her teenage son to babysit his little brother; and a homeless person on the street can beg you for change. My aim in this dissertation is explain the normativity of these various forms of address and identify the similarities (along with the differences) amongst them. The guiding thought that structures my proposed accounts is that the values of these different forms of address depend on how they contribute to (or detract from) the values inherent in our interpersonal relationships.

Chapter One poses three questions about the normativity of requesting: (1) What kind of speech-act is performed in making a request?, (2) How demanding are our reasons to grant requests?, and (3) What explains why we ever have reasons to grant requests? In response to (1), I claim that requesting involves an attempted exercise of a normative power, which is an ability to intentionally effect a normative change by communicating the intention to do so. In response to (2), I argue that requests generate “weakish” obligations that implicate the requester and the requestee in relations of interpersonal accountability while still affording the requestee significant discretion about whether to comply. Request-based reasons are thereby distinguished from command-based ones which afford their targets very little deliberative discretion. In response to (3), I argue that we possess the power to request because of the valuable role in plays in conducting our interpersonal relationships (e.g. friendship) on terms that realize important interests we have in autonomy, equality, and recognition, interests that are constitutively linked to the value of such relationships.

Chapter Two takes up the question of whether requests can ever be wrongful. Now many requests don’t raise any normative concerns even if granting them would be burdensome (e.g. your shy friend asking you to go to a boring party so she’ll have someone to talk to). But things seem different in other cases. If a man asks his female subordinate for a backrub in the workplace, something seems normatively problematic regardless of whether he truthfully notes that she’s free to decline. I argue that some requests, like this one, wrong their requestees even though they do not harm them. The proposed explanation is that, in making such a request, the requester expresses a lack of due consideration or regard for the significant interests of the requestee. The request itself, qua communicative act, thereby constitutes a form of disrespectful treatment that the requestee has reason to object to and which implicates them in a regrettable relationship of inferiority.Chapter Three turns to the phenomenon of begging and poses two questions about this social practice: (1) What is it about begging that makes it inherently demeaning, as it seems to be?, and (2) How can begging motivate the person it addresses? In response to (1), I argue that begging constitutively involves relating to another person as an inferior, rather than equal, as a means of motivation. This gives the act a kind of expressive badness that the beggar has reason to regret even if they have all-things-considered reason to beg for aid (say because that’s the only way of addressing their terrible condition). Several different cases of begging are considered in provided a normative explanation of the practice that reflects the fact that it is unified in some ways and protean in others. In response to (2), I propose four different but mutually consistent ways in which begging can motivate its target: (i) via benevolence, (ii) via flattery, (iii) via vicarious embarrassment, and (iv) via emotional manipulation.

Chapter Four takes up the classic problem of political obligation (“PPO”) which we may provisionally characterize as the philosophical challenge of explaining whether there’s a moral duty to obey the law as such. In the first part of the chapter, I introduce two forms of skepticism that question PPO’s philosophical significance. The first form denies that the existence of political obligations would make a significant practical difference for what agents have reason to do while the second form denies that political obligations are important for addressing potential complaints that individuals have against the state’s activities. In the second part of the chapter, I propose an associative account of political obligations that purports to justify PPO’s significance in the face of both forms of skepticism. On this view, respect for the law constitutes a valuable form of recognition, and the individual members of a polity, construed as free and equal moral persons, owe this form of recognition to one another. But having respect for the law, which ultimately amounts to having respect for one’s fellow citizens, is nothing more or less than having political obligations. PPO is then significant not because it helps explain whether we have reasons to do what the law dictates or whether a complaint against the state can be met, but rather because political obligation represents a rather demanding political ideal which is a core element of a fully robust form of justice.

The dissertation concludes with a brief appendix on the normative grounds of parental authority. I consider two different “child-based” models and argue that they entail either (1) that the relation between being a parent and having parental authority is implausibly weak and accidental, or (2) implausible conclusions about the kinds of accountability relations that are associated with successful exercises of parental authority. I suggest that a “relationship-based model” can avoid these two worries by basing parental authority in two importantly related sets of interests: (i) those that parents have in shaping and nurturing their own child’s development in ways that reflect their own reasonable conceptions of what’s valuable in life, and (ii) those that children have in their relationship being shaped in this way by their parents. These two sets of interests jointly constitute a core element of what makes the parent-child relationship deeply valuable in the first place and what makes parenting, as it seems to many, one of the most valuable things one can do in life.

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