Bob Corbett
Fall, 1995

For many years I have been interested in the question of what moral obligations we might have to complete strangers. The question of moral obligations of those close and known to us is not as problematic to me. There seem to be clear moral obligations to those close to us rooted in some sort of moral contract where I voluntarily enter into relationship with people with a more or less understood set of mutual expectations. The voluntary nature of these relationships seem to carry with them moral obligations.

But what about total strangers? With the exception of the social contract of government, typically I do not enter into agreements with strangers, and, for all intents and purposes, do not even know they exist.

The problem first arose for me as a problem of justice. Many years ago I became interested in how my lifestyle,particularly my habits of consumption. impacted other people. In studying some aspects of the world economy I came to believe that at times my own patterns of consumption offended the bounds of justice, requiring the land, labor, natural resources or political security of others in order that a system of exchange might continue in which I gained a significant unearned and undeserved advantage over others.

Thus I sensed a moral obligation to strangers rooted in justice. On this view my patterns of consumption offended their right to freedom. In contemporary moral theory this sort of claim is rooted in what philosophers call negative rights, that is, rights to be not interfered with. It is taken that individuals have an innate right to their own freedom and the control of their own property. There may be significant reasons why the state or even other individuals may override this prima facia right of the self, but good reasons are necessary to do so. Any violation of these negative rights is taken to be a violation of justice. Most of my adult life I have been persuaded that there were such negative rights rooted in justice, but I've never seen arguments which have adequately spelled out what those obligations were in detail, nor have I be able to construct an account of this obligation of justice that satisfied my own moral sensibilities.

Recently, however, I've been especially troubled by another form of the argument that we may have moral obligations to strangers. This argument is not rooted in the justice and negative human rights, but is rooted in what the authors call the obligation of beneficence.

It is the purpose of these remarks to give an account of two of those arguments presented by two important contemporary moral philosophers and to argue that the alleged moral obligations rooted in beneficence are not demanded by reason, or at least by the sorts of reasons adduced by these two defenders of them.

In PRACTICAL ETHICS Peter Singer has argued that we have a moral obligation to help those suffering from famine. This moral obligation is rooted in the concept of beneficence, an alleged moral principle. Singer formulates that obligation in the following manner: "if it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it."

Working from this asserted principle, Singer goes on to distinguish between absolute poverty -- a state where one does not have the necessities to even stay alive, or at least to maintain a life of minimal human dignity, and absolute luxury -- a state of where one has goods beyond those of absolute poverty. He argues that the principle of beneficence requires that everyone's necessity is morally prior to anyone's luxury, and thus we are morally required to attend to everyone's absolute necessities before attending to our own luxuries.

The one virtue of Singer's distinction between absolute poverty and absolute luxury is that the distinction is quite clear and we can empirically distinguish between them in most actual cases. The difficulties, however, are moral and not empirical, as I will try to show below.

James Rachels, in his paper "Morality, Parents, and Children" makes a similar argument directed primarily at parents, arguing that they have a responsibility to provide for the needs of every child in the world prior to providing for their own children's luxuries. Rachels does allow that one may provide for one's own child's necessities before incurring any moral obligation to help any other child with his or her necessities.

Like Singer, Rachels roots his argument in the principle of beneficence -- namely that if we can do some good for another in need without doing any comparable harm to ourselves, then we ought to do it.

How, more carefully, do they get to this point. Let's start with a single case. Suppose I have my basic survival needs taken care of, and am about to go to a movie costing $5.00. Yet I hear of a person near starvation, and learn that this $5.00 might well save the person's life for today at least. Now, apply the principle of beneficence. "...if it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it."

Certainly my going to the movie is relatively little to give up in relation to this person's gain of life itself. However, the rub is that there are millions, hundreds of millions, in such predicaments of necessity.

So when does beneficence demand that I help out and when not? Both Singer and Rachels claim that the only objective ground of cut off is the concept of necessity for actual survival, or an even stronger mandate of a concept of minimal human dignity. After all, is giving up a non-necessity comparable with losing a necessity? Thus we are caught in the counter-intuitive bind that given the state of the world, we are morally obligated to live at the level of bare subsistence and to give the rest of our wealth and even services, away.

There are some aspects of the arguments of both Peter Singer and James Rachels which I find extremely disturbing. The briefest version of my concerns are to articulate three areas:

  1. I find myself believing they place too much weight on the moral obligations supposedly connected to positive moral obligations to others, that is, to the obligation of beneficence.
  2. I worry that they construe moral rights in such a way that my obligation to the other is never much balanced by the other's moral obligation for him or herself.
  3. I am puzzled by the line of argument that takes a supposedly obvious moral principle that says: If I can help the other who is in dire need without in any significant manner inconveniencing myself, then I am obliged to do so -- and goes from a few cases of helping someone directly in front of me, to claiming that each of us is responsible for the great suffering in the whole world.

The outcome of these three positions is, for me, a morality that has lost touch with everyday reality, and, most sadly, pays almost no attention to the concept of a person's responsibility for him or herself.

Rachels embraces a distinction between negative and positive rights. As I explained above a negative right is understood as a moral call on each individual to not interfere with the freedom of another to do what he or she wants. This negative right is never taken to be absolute. For example, it is generally recognized that individuals do not have the right to be free from my interference if they themselves are interfering with the freedom of another. Many also argue that even if an individual is only using his or her freedom to harm him of herself, say by using drugs, then we, the outsiders, may morally interfere.

Positive moral rights are another thing altogether. These would be rights that the other has to call on us to do something FOR the other, not to leave the other alone. These might include such things as claiming one has a moral right to food if hungry, or medical care, education and even help to receive and have fulfilled less acute desires for goods or services.

While Singer does not do morality from the point of view of rights, but from utility, he none the less allows that for the sake of the argument at hand, his position holds for a theory of positive rights just as well as it does for a theory of utility. Thus what is said below applies equally to his argument. As I indicated at the outset, I am persuaded that there is a strong case in the name of justice that we often have moral obligations to distant others in the name of negative rights. There is a great deal of evidence that strong and powerful nations like the United States interfere in the internal doings of weaker and poorer nations, and in so doing, often take or make use of the land, labor and natural resources of the poorer and weaker nation for the benefit of citizens of the richer and stronger nation. Likewise, a more powerful nation often interferes in the political life of a weaker nation helping to create a situation wherein citizens of the poorer and weaker nation are subject to political conditions that violate their own political rights (negative rights again) to freedom.

In such cases I would argue that we, as citizens, have moral obligations to resist and not take advantage of these violations of the negative rights of others.

However, putting aside the violation of negative rights, do we have obligations to the poor and suffering strangers of the world (including the poor and suffering of our own nation, state, city and even local neighborhood or block we live on)?

I will argue that there are certain cases in which I am persuaded that we do, but that these are exceptional cases of immediate needs in immediate environments, and that in the general case we must answer -- NO, I have no moral obligation.

This certainly sounds like a heartless position. I argue it for two primary reasons:

  1. First of all the consequence of taking a broader view of such moral obligations would put us into the position of only being able to justly use and consume enough goods for our own minimal survival. This, by the way, is precisely the conclusion which both Rachels and Singer arrive at in the articles cited above. There is so much misery and tragedy in the world, affecting so many hundreds of millions of people, if not billions of people, that there would be no reasonable cut off point of moral obligation other than arguing our own prior right to survival. Anything beyond this would be excess goods and would fall into the category of that which we would be obligated to use to alleviate the more desperate needs of others.

This seems like a totally silly position to me. Virtually no one will live it and Singer admits this straight up. He even calls our behavior the moral equivalent of murder. "If these are the facts [facts about poverty and death, which are quite non-controversial], we cannot avoid concluding that by not giving more than we do, people in rich countries are allowing those in poor countries to suffer from absolute poverty, with consequent malnutrition, ill health and death." Both Rachels and Singer maintain, however, that we should keep up the fiction and do what we can. This position seems to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of Kant's useful moral dictum that the ought implies the can. Their view is that this ought only implies that we ought to do what we can, and that this can will be significantly less than we ought.

  1. However, more importantly for me, is that such a morality pays absolutely no attention to the question of a person's responsibility for him or herself, or for parents' responsibility for the children they procreate, or a nation's responsibility for the well-being of it's own citizens and so on down the line of social structure.

I believe that asking each individual to take responsibility for all the misery in the world does great harm to the concept of personal responsibility for ourselves.

The world is a place of hard struggle. Nothing about life is given. One may well be born into, or "fall" into some position of privilege without much effort on the person's own. On the other hand, most people must work, struggle, fail and succeed, as they try to satisfy their material needs, and to create lives that have some material, spiritual and psychological security and joy. Achieving such security and joy is, on the view of responsibility which I find most attractive, the obligation of each and every person to achieve for him or herself, and not the obligation of others to provide it. Thus I am suspicious that the concept of positive rights has undesired consequences on personal responsibility.

Certainly people may try their very best and fail. When that failure is caused because others violate their freedom, then I support the notion that the others have violated their rights and have a moral obligation to cease and desist and even to make restitution. However, in the case where the people do not have their personal freedom significantly violated, but fail to exert the appropriate effort and care on their own, then I would argue that the rest of us do not have moral obligations to do what people should be doing for themselves.

The hardest cases are situations where people have exerted their own effort as sincerely and fully as they can, and still fail to produce a minimally livable life for themselves, or cases where people have been surviving and even prospering on their own, but are hit by unexpected natural disasters that leave them in the direst straight, like the famine of which Singer speaks, or children living in families that don't or can't provide for them, as Rachels describes in his argument. Or those who suffer the brunt of some horribly repressive government.

Even at this point, I would argue that such situations are to be expected in human existence and are simply part of the risks of living. Thus I would argue that others do not have moral obligations toward the positive needs of others.

This does not mean that I do not feel and often offer aid to people in such situations. I believe that this is a very desirable thing to do and that all should be encouraged to do so and looked upon favorably by others for living such a life of beneficence. However, I would strongly argue against our having a moral obligation toward the so-called positive rights of others. Beneficence, on this view, is an honorific, but not morally obligated affair.

However, I do think there are certain cases which are of such a different order that they must be considered as exceptions to my refusal to accept moral obligations to anything except negative moral rights of others.

In general these are acts which occur spatially and temporally in our immediate space and time, and whose attention on our part would result in significant aid to those in dire need, while causing relatively little difficulty or inconvenience to ourselves, or put differently, where the loss encountered by us in time, money, convenience, labor, etc., is proportionally tiny in relation to the good that can be done, in the case where the good is of a grave and serious nature.

To take a common real life situation as an illustration -- suppose I come upon an automobile accident where someone needs some immediate life-saving attention and that I am there and have these skills. Virtually nothing very serious prohibits me from giving of these skills. In such a case I would see myself as not only having a strong recommendation on the grounds of beneficence to respond, but even to have a moral obligation. This would be within that area of special cases, dictated by the immediacy of the situation.

On the other hand, suppose I were in the position of the New Yorkers we read about a few years back, who watched as a person was raped and murdered in front of them and did nothing. Here I would argue that beneficence highly recommends they act and even take risks to help the suffering person. But, my position would say that the danger of the situation is such that it takes this case beyond the area of moral obligation and places it squarely into the area of voluntary beneficence.

What grounds would I have for arguing the vague notion that there is a moral obligation to beneficence in cases of extreme immediacy, and yet none to the more remote sorts of cases to which Singer and Rachels apply this obligation?

Actually it is a practical argument rooted in the Kantian notion that the ought implies the can. Certainly in the Kantian case this was a logical can, not a practical can. However, I find it unacceptable that both Singer and Rachels argue the follow two points simultaneously:

What they affirm in "b" seems decent human behavior, but not a moral obligation. From time immemorial there has been a debate in religious circles as to whether absolute perfection were demanded of the good person (or for eternal salvation), or whether some weaker sense of just being basically good were adequate. The general view in this debate has been that while perfection is a highly commendable, recommended and noble goal, only basic goodness can reasonably be required.

I am strongly persuaded by this view and believe that given this limitation on beneficence, the most that can be required is the obligation which I suggest of extreme immediacy. Again, I would support the notion of urging people to go far beyond moral obligation in this matter, and have striven to do that in my own life. But I am arguing that to have a moral obligation to beneficence or positive moral rights, except in the most pressing immediate circumstances, is too much to ask.

Yet, I do find there to be something inexpressibly pressing about those cases that are immediately in front of one, and don't themselves lead to the unrealizable requirement of idealized perfection, that should be given the status of moral obligation. What complicates this problem in our own time is the immediacy that the media brings directly to us. Many would find the appeal to beneficence strongly in the case of the automobile accident I described above, and thus feel a moral obligation. However, when the evening news can bring the terribly suffering of people thousands of miles away, directly and immediately into our living room, people can feel that there is little difference in the two cases.

Again, I argue that the practical necessity of having a moral obligation which we can keep, requires us to be limited in obligation to those cases that we experience directly in the chances of living, and not to the entire world of suffering which we can know.

I know my general view sounds quite harsh. Perhaps it is. However, while it amounts to a virtual libertarian view of moral obligation to the positive rights of others, it is accompanied by a vehement humanitarian sentiment that encourages generous and constant concern for the well-being of distant others, and a willingness to sacrifice to help them, not out of a sense of moral duty or obligation, but out of a sense of loving concern for other people.

At the same time, I would hope that such a stern moral position would underline the notion that people have a rigorous moral obligation for their own well-being, and must exercise the maximum energy and courageous action to take care of themselves, their families and their own political environments. We may well get help from generous and kind others when in need, but we cannot expect this help as our moral right. Yet, we may well expect that our negative moral rights of freedom to act and decide as we wish, within the legitimate limits placed on us by our society, will be our moral birthright.

I might mention in closing that I recognize that one may argue that many obligations which might be, at first glance, regarded as obligations of beneficence or of positive moral right, can be reconstrued as negative rights based on the grounds of unjust interference in the responsible acts of others trying to take care of themselves. This claim seems true to me and I think more attention to the responsibility each of us has for the acts of consumption and political and economic benefit that we enjoy, may well show these benefits are rooted in violations of others' negative rights. However, were this so, it this does not defend the argument of beneficence or positive rights, and thus is not my concern in these remarks.

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Bob Corbett