Bob Corbett
June 23, 1999

A recurrent question which has been on my mind for several years is the question of our moral obligations toward others. I've gone from a strong position in which I was sure of moral obligations, to a position in radical opposition to that view, holding there was no rational senses of obligation to others, to where I am now, sort of in the middle, but greatly puzzled, not knowing much what to make of this issue.

Perhaps an easy way to see the problem is to consider the distinction between charity and duty. There are some acts which most of us regard as duties toward others. Parents should take care of their children, people should keep promises, honor contacts and so on. These are considered by most to be duties. There are other acts which we might choose to do for others and people might even approve of our doing so and honor us for the acts, but they generally would not condemn us for not doing these acts. One category of such acts are what we normally call charity. Given money, goods or time to help others whom we have no obligation to help. We may have a duty to help our own children, but if we give $500 to help starving children in some place struck by famine that is charity. We do "have" to do it morally, but we choose to. The question that I am asking is two-fold. Have we got the distinction right, and what, exactly does it mean?

I will first briefly review, with some pointing to developed examples, of some of the arguments that have attracted me in the past, and why I eventually gave them up, and finally come to the present, where I am thinking and puzzling these days.

First stage. For a long time I was convinced we had moral obligations to distant and unknown others rooted in justice. That is, I believed that we often had obligations to distant and unknown others on the basis of justice. I wrote about this in a number of papers, but the argument is perhaps best made in one called "Downward Mobility and the Other." The shortest version of the thesis is that we in our country (any first world country would do) creates distinct advantages for its citizens by using methods of acquisition of things from poorer nations which violate justice. These are such things as natural resources, land use, and the more elusive loss of political autonomy. Based on this alleged advantage a duty of justice seemed to prevail.

This argument was, however, very mixed up between personal responsibility and societal obligation. My tendency was to place the central burden upon the individual. This was spelled out in a paper "The Primacy of Personal Lifeform."

There is a whole series of related papers on my web site in the section on Voluntary Economic Simplicity.

The second stage of my thinking on this issue came from a series of courses which I taught between about 1980 and 1988. I tried to demonstrate this moral obligation and never could get it done to my own satisfaction. The argument just wouldn't come clean, it always had problems. I began to suspect this was not a moral obligation as such, but a highly recommended act of human concern and compassion for others.

At the same time that this was going on I had been developing a notion of the source of fundamental values, which I believe are ultimately chosen by people without much determination by human reason. This is another issue of great complexity and I will just drop it here, but perhaps in a different reflection come back to it. It's another issue that's much on my mind. However, it is important for me to note it here, since it deeply impacts my thinking on this issue of our obligation to distant and unknown others.

The third stage of my journey on this topic came from a slightly different aspect of the question. Virtually all my thinking on the issue had been concern the possibility of violations of justice, that is, of situations in which the power of our state and economic system (any first world state would do) seemed to be such that it caused others harm in order to get out benefits.

But what of the question of cases in which we (individuals or states) were clearly not guilty of any violation of justice. Then did we have obligations to distant others? I'd never thought about it much until a number of philosophers began to raise these questions. I got interested in the positions of James Rachels and Peter Singer, both of whom held we did have such obligations and that it flowed from a moral principle which goes something like this: "If another is suffer pain and misery and I can help that person without causing myself comparable pain and suffering them I am morally obligated to do this." There were two things that bothered me about this principle:

  1. It didn't seem to be grounded in anything except Rachels' and Singer's moral intuitions, grounded in their Utilitarianism. That didn't impress me much.
  2. There were many seemingly absurd consequences of this theory, such that, if taken at all seriously, would seem to necessitate that each of us live near or at the level of just above misery. The inability to work out the moral principle in any logical and reasonable manner and yet avoid this outcome didn't see possible.

In 1995 I wrote a paper that is extremely harsh and I think ultimately unsatisfying. It is called"Our Moral Obligations to Distant Others."

My own assessment that this paper was to some extent mean-spirited and missing something, led to the fourth phase of my dealing with this issue, which is sort of where I am now.

I had a strong feeling that a view that said we had absolutely no obligations to others except for one's of justice, seemed too strong. Yet the principle of Rachels and Singer seemed just as exaggerated on the other side. I have been trying to make some progress in thinking this through.

There are two issues I'm concerned about. The first is the question of do we have the SAME moral obligation to each and every person (which Rachels and Singer's principle suggests). I don't think so, and I've been trying to develop a notion that the notion of how CLOSE another is to us is determinative of our obligations to that person. I wrote about this in a very recent short paper entitled "Well-fed Cats and Hungry Children," in which I elaborate a rather exaggerated position to make the point.

A second issue is much bigger and tends to move me much more toward the emerging sympathies in contemporary ethics for Virtue Ethics. The position that attracts me, and seems to help get at some of the problems I've been having with this issue in the past 20 years, is that the focus has always be on acts. Which ACT is the good one in this case or that. However, in dealing with the same sort of problem in the area of voluntary economic simplicity, I had already begun to address that question not in terms of this act or that act, but in terms of what sort of person are you over time. I had written about this as early as 1993, but in that different context, and didn't really see the connection to the problem of our obligation to distant others until this year.

Where, then, am I now, on this question? Very muddled and not terribly sure. But I know I lean toward the following propositions and have arguments which I think can support them, by not many essays or fully developed positions already written up. For what they are worth to stimulate some thinking in others and perhaps some discussion of these issues, here are some claims:

  1. Fundamental moral obligations cannot be dictated by human reason. Rather, we choose them for ourselves. Human reason is a tremendous help in letting us see what it is we are choose and what follows from those choices.
  2. We develop some moral obligations to others on the basis of implicit contracts. Parents bring children into the world and thereby incurring obligations.
  3. We develop other moral obligations on the basis of explicit contracts which bind us not only legally, but morally as well.

Beyond this we have no moral obligations which we do not accept for ourselves. I believe that the central tool in determing those sense of further obligation come from how close to us we perceive the other, human or non-human, and that this is not morally suspect, but a perfectly acceptable human response to the world around us.

Ah, but I'm just not so terribly sure of all this and welcome your discussion.....

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett