Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Is there an obligation to aid?

It's suggested by some ethical thinkers that there is a general, weak ethical obligation to render aid to others, insofar as it does not impose an unreasonable cost on the one giving aid. Articles like this seem to (uncritically) accept that claim. Is it really well-founded, though?

I tend to think not. This is in large part because of my committment to a moral view known as partialism. It's hard to find links regarding partialism that aren't behind a password wall; but, the definition is pretty intuitive. It's the contradictory to impartialism. That is, while impartialism says that moral reasons are reasons regardless of who they are about, partialism says that moral reasons are reasons only in regard to who they are about. So, for example, an impartial morality would say that, if one has reason not to lie, then one has this reason regardless of who one is lying to. A partial morality, on the other hand, would say that, if one has reason not to lie, this reason only has force based upon who one is lying to. (The example could also be spun subjectively: that is, impartially, one has reason not to lie regardless of who one is; while, partially, one has reason not to lie depending on who one is.)

I'm not going to defend partialism generally, but it is not as implausible as it might initially seem. We often favour our family members and friends over complete strangers. So, I will help my friend pay his electric bill before I will buy food for a starving man I don't know. We also tend to favour our own goals and projects over those of others. I will spend money on my own education before I will donate to a local public school. So, to at least some extent, we're all already partialists.

The interesting question, of course, is whether we should be. I don't have a general defense of partialism, but I think I do have one in the case of rendering aid to others, which goes like this. There is a limited amount of aid I can give. I am a finite being of finite resources. Thus, I need some basis on which to decide who gets my aid. I need to keep back at least a small amount of this aid for myself -- I must ensure my own survival, else I cannot aid anyone. But this is a partialist reason: it favours my survival over that of others. Impartially, I should be evaluating whether my survival is worth as much as that of someone else; perhaps I should be sacrificing my life and health to a great physician who will thus be able to cure cancer. If I am to favour my survival over others, then I have already accepted a partialist criterion for deciding whom to aid. And it seems that I am right: a morality that would (or could) require (rather than possibly approve of) self-sacrifice seems far too restrictive to be a human one. Therefore, the partialist criterion is, presumptively, the criterion to be used in deciding when to render aid.

Certainly it is possible for the partialist criterion to give out in some cases of aid, and be replaced by an impartial one. The most obvious suggestion is cases of aiding others rather than aiding myself. I freely grant that others are different than myself, and the difference is morally significant. However, I don't see why the morally significant difference between myself and others can be taken to justify switching the criteria. For, the impartial criterion serves to obliterate the morally significant differences between myself and others: it presumes that what happens to others is morally equivalent (in some sense) to what happens to me. Thus, if we use the difference between myself and others to institute an impartial criterion for distributing aid, we end up undercutting the difference, and thereby destroying the base upon which the impartial criterion was supposed to be resting. In short, we kick the chair out and kill the impartial criterion.

Therefore, there is no general obligation to render aid to others; there is, instead, an obligation to render aid dependent upon partialist reasons.

In the case at hand, though, the aid is calling 911. Even though this aid would not have been terribly costly to those who gave it, given what I have argued so far, it might seem that there is no obligation to give it. But, that conclusion is not supported by my partialist criterion for aid. Being someone's neighbour is a partialist consideration. Certainly, if the choice is between a neighbour and a friend, or a neighbour and oneself, the neighbour would lose out. But, if the choice is between aiding no one and aiding a neighbour (or, aiding a stranger and aiding a neighbour), then the neighbour wins. Therefore, although the article is incorrect to presume a general requirement to aid anyone, there is at least some reason, in some cases, to aid a neighbour. (There's a passing reference in the article to the Kitty Genovese case. Note that Ms. Genovese was killed outside her home, and hence her neighbours did indeed have a partialist obligation to render aid.)


Cidney said...

Re: I don't have a general defense of partialism...

Isn't that system more efficient (and thus, from a utilitarian standpoint, more likely to do the greatest good if everyone is primarily concerned for their own network of people, and let others rely on their own neighbors, friends and family)? There are also the cases where attempting to help a stranger does more harm than good (as a direct result of my actions and lack of insight into the situation, not because of whether or not the stranger goes on to become a mass murderer.)

ADHR said...

It certainly is more efficient to be a partialist, and if one takes a utilitarian view, that would serve as a moral reason. Problematically, I lean more deontological than utilitarian, hence I would need some way to square the intrinsic and unique worth of a person (pretty basic deontological claim) with partialism.

I'm not sure that the second point -- doing more harm than good -- is a problem peculiar to impartialism. Partialists are going to run into it, too. I may be trying to help out my best friend, only to realize that my actions have actually caused them harm that I failed to foresee.

Under most (reasonable) moral views, I'm only obligated to do what I have good reason to do, given my current epistemic status (and other practical limitations, such as what I'm physically capable of doing). So, if there's something I don't know (or, worse, couldn't know), then I'm not wrong to act on the absence of this knowledge. (Although, if I haven't made ethically adequate effort to improve my knowledge, then I could be wrong for that failure to learn.)