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On flakiness, part three: Flakiness and obligation

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This is the third piece in a miniseries called “On flakiness.” Read the other parts at this link.

The essential sociality of flakiness

Talk of flakiness may appear trifling, but it is talk in which we engage nonetheless, and it is telling that we have a word for it. We evidently find some value in identifying certain actions and calling them as “flaking,” and this reveals something of our values more broadly. By the end of this article, we will see that what we think about flakiness should tell us a lot about what we think about a broader class of thing: obligations.

Consider this scenario: I had planned to go to a club meeting today. Upon waking up today, though, I realize my bed is far too warm to exit. There are 15 people in the club and I hold no leadership role, so my absence will not be missed. I message the group: I won’t be able to make it. Have I flaked on the meeting? Intuitively, I think, the answer is no.

This is the third article in a series called, “On flakiness.” In my discussion, I’ve relied on the notion that to flake is to cancel plans without a legitimate excuse. But my example above suggests that simply talking of “plans” is too broad to capture our intuitions about flakiness. There is a specific kind of plan for which canceling can be called “flaking.” It involves at least a certain social relation between me and others: In order for me to be said to have “flaked on” a plan, I must be essentially involved in a plan — a plan that also involves others.

It’s obvious that the plan must involve others in order for me to flake — that it must be a plan for a social activity. When I cancel on another person, I have changed their plans without their agreement. But when I decide to cancel my own plan that only involves me, I always have a say in it. So I have broken no promises.

More interesting is the idea that we should be essentially involved in a plan to be said to have flaked. In the club meeting scenario, my absence is not missed, and the club meeting goes on normally without me. My deciding not to attend the meeting has changed nothing essential about the meeting. Thus there was no strong expectation that I should be at the club meeting — or that I should prioritize it over other things I might want to do. In this sense, I shouldn’t be said to have flaked.

Compare this to a scenario where I cancel dinner with a friend at the last minute. The activity is essentially that the two of us have dinner together. When I cancel, my friend must decide whether or not to go to dinner at all, or perhaps to invite someone else. Either way, the activity is no longer dinner with me. Inasmuch as my friend cares that dinner was dinner with me, the activity has been essentially changed, and so it seems I have flaked on my friend.

What it means for an activity to be essentially changed is vague, as we can see by adding more friends to the dinner plans. If three friends plan to go to dinner, and one cancels, the other two can still go to dinner, but there is perhaps something essentially changed about the dynamic. How about a group of four? Five? Six? Once we get to six or seven friends, in some cases the absence of any one friend might not essentially change the activity of going to dinner with friends, and thus any one friend is not essentially involved in the plan. But there is no clear dividing line, and the situation would also change depending how much my friends cared that I was there. Flaking is a vague concept — this shouldn’t surprise us.

Obligations, and reasons good and bad

What is significant about these cases in which a plan is made that involves me, but doesn’t essentially involve me, is the fact that no one is expecting me to produce some excuse, legitimate or not. While other participants in the activity might wish that others showed up, any one person is not central enough to the endeavor to be required to justify their absence.

In contrast, in cases where we deem it appropriate to say someone has flaked, it is because we feel owed some reason for that person’s absence. And it makes sense that we would expect such reasons chiefly when that person’s presence is an essential part of our endeavor. Flaking, we’ve seen, requires this sort of social relation: a social plan wherein someone’s presence is essential.

This connects the “canceling plans” part of our notion of flaking to the “legitimate excuse” part. (Though here, I want to rephrase “legitimate excuse” as “good reason”: “Excuse,” to me, already implies something illegitimate). Flaking comes down to the fact that one has canceled and given no good reason.

Flakiness is thus in the larger class of broken obligations. In making plans with a friend, I’ve promised to try my best to follow through and, if I cannot follow through, to explain why in a way that leads my friend to release me from my obligation. If I neither follow through nor give a good reason why not, I’ve broken the obligation. On the other hand, if I give a good reason why I cannot fulfill the obligation, I avoid breaking it: My friend, realizing that, given my reason, it would be onerous to expect me still to come to dinner, releases me from my obligation.

On a broader scale, the relationship between flakiness and obligation is what makes an analysis of flakiness interesting. What counts as a good reason is a central part of what will count as breaking an obligation and what will count as being released from the obligation. But what we think constitutes a good reason depends on what we think an obligation is. If the relevant obligations are ironclad, it may turn out there are very few good reasons. On the other extreme, some obligations might be easily blown over, such that a much larger class of reasons are good reasons.

Our understanding of flakiness should tell us about how we think about this larger class — “obligation” — and about how we evaluate as “good” or “bad” the reasons people give for what they do. In our ethical intuitions, obligation is tightly bound up with reasons — one simple explanation is that we feel that others are obligated to give us good reasons for what they do. Beyond good reasons for why a friend has canceled dinner, we want good reasons for why a politician has dropped support for a bill, or good reasons for why someone has become angry at us for a small transgression.

Reasons and obligations, and some of the realms of life in which we can see them, will be the topic of the final piece of “On flakiness.”

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Opinions Editor, articles in Opinions and Arts & Life.