Imperfect Duties, Group Obligations, and Beneficence

in Journal of Moral Philosophy
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There is virtually no philosophical consensus on what, exactly, imperfect duties are. In this paper, I lay out three criteria which I argue any adequate account of imperfect duties should satisfy. Using beneficence as a leading example, I suggest that existing accounts of imperfect duties will have trouble meeting those criteria. I then propose a new approach: thinking of imperfect duties as duties held by groups, rather than individuals. I show, again using the example of beneficence, that this proposal can satisfy the criteria, explaining how something can both have the necessity characteristic of duty, while also allowing agents the latitude which seems to attach to imperfect duties.

Imperfect Duties, Group Obligations, and Beneficence

in Journal of Moral Philosophy

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References

  • 1

    George Rainbolt‘Perfect and Imperfect Obligations’Philosophical Studies 98 (2000) pp. 233–56.

  • 4

     See Violetta Igneski‘Distance, Determinacy and the Duty to Aid: A Reply to Kamm’Law and Philosophy 20 (2001) p. 612; and John Witherspoon Lectures on Moral Philosophy ed. Collins (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1912) p. 56.

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  • 8

    John Stuart MillUtilitarianism (Indianapolis: Hackett2001) pp. 49–50; Onora O’Neill ‘Children’s Rights and Children’s Lives’ in Constructions of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990) p. 189; Pufendorf On the Law § III.iv.6.

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  • 11

    Michael Stocker‘Acts, Perfect Duties, and Imperfect Duties’Review of Metaphysics 20 (1967) pp. 507–17.

  • 18

     See Jan NarvesonMorality and Utility (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press1967) pp. 231–8; and Bertrand Bandman ‘Do Future Generations Have the Right to Breathe Clean Air?’ Political Theory 10 (1982) pp. 95–102.

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  • 19

    Jonathan Cohen‘Who is Starving Whom?’ Theoria 47 (1981) pp. 65–81; Liam Murphy Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003).

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  • 21

    Ibid. p. 77.

  • 23

    This case is from James Rachels‘Killing and Starving to Death’Philosophy 54 (1979) pp. 162–3.

  • 24

    Cohen‘Starving’ pp. 76–8; Murphy Moral Demands pp. 127–33. Actually Murphy’s analysis of this scenario is a bit more complicated in ways that sometimes yield more plausible but sometimes more implausible results. For example Murphy acknowledges that on his view it follows that anyone who would on balance be better off under full compliance with morality isn’t required to help at all in the real world. So if you would have a higher level of well-being under full compliance you have no obligation to do anything for anyone else. Since it is not entirely implausible to suppose that many people would be better off in a world of full compliance (as compared to the actual world) Murphy’s principle of beneficence would never require such people to save a drowning child even if doing so meant no more than tossing a life preserver. (Murphy tries to soften the blow of this conclusion a bit but his efforts don’t strike me as very successful.)

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  • 25

    Anthony Quinton‘Social Objects’Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 75 (1975) p. 17.

  • 26

    John Searle‘Collective Intentions and Actions’ in Intentions in Communication (Cambridge ma: MIT Press 1990) p. 1. Other non-reductive views can be found in Margaret Gilbert On Social Facts (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992); Russell Hardin Morality Within the Limits of Reason (Chicago: Chicago University Press 1988); and Austen Clark ‘Beliefs and Desires Incorporated’ The Journal of Philosophy 91 (1994) pp. 404–25; among many others.

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  • 27

     See e.g. Onora O’Neill‘Global justice: whose obligations?’ in The Ethics of Assistanceed. Chatterjee (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press 2004) pp. 242–259 and David Miller ‘Holding Nations Responsible’ Ethics 114 (2004) pp. 240–68.

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  • 37

     See e.g. Thomas PoggeWorld Poverty and Human Rights (Cambridge: Polity Press2002) for an argument of this type. If these sorts of considerations are the ones underlying our duties to the poor then (as Pogge stresses) the duty is no longer a positive duty to aid but rather a negative duty not to harm (or a duty to fulfill contractual agreements etc.). ‘Beneficence’ therefore may no longer seem like the proper label. I agree that this is a somewhat revisionary suggestion. That said this analysis would apply to most of the cases that are central to philosophical discussions of beneficence and arguments like Pogge’s are frequently treated as players in the beneficence debate – rivals to traditional accounts grounded in positive duties. (See Garrett Cullity The Moral Demands of Affluence (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004) pp. 8–9 196–9.) For these reasons although my proposal may be revisionary it doesn’t strike me as objectionably so.

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