Help and beneficence

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 27, 2021, from

1. Principles of beneficence

A requirement to help or benefit a person to whom one stands in some special relation (such as a family member) is a ‘special obligation’. A requirement to benefit people generally is a ‘principle of beneficence’. Some principles of beneficence require us to promote other possible aspects of ‘the good’ in addition to human wellbeing, but our focus is on this central case. Further, as our topic is the general form principles of beneficence might take, we will not consider different possible accounts of wellbeing (see Eudaimonia; Happiness), though of course any actual principle of beneficence requires such an account. Nor will we discuss the problems that arise when a person who could genuinely be helped opposes the intervention (see Autonomy, ethical; Paternalism).

The idea of a general principle of beneficence, as distinct from special obligations, has roots in the West in Judaism and Stoicism, and was developed in Christianity in the form of the virtue of charity (see Charity). We should note here that possession of a virtue involves a certain motivational state, whereas following a duty or obligation need not (see Virtues and vices §§4–5; Duty §3). The scope of this entry, however, does not extend to the question of ethically appropriate motives, nor to the question of the ‘natural’ motivational sources of beneficent action (see Moral motivation).

Locke understood charity as requiring us to meet the serious needs of any person (1690); this is a more stringent requirement than the duty of beneficence Kant argued for (1797) (see §2). But the modern moral philosophers who take beneficence most seriously are the utilitarians: the whole of morality, on their view, consists in a requirement to promote – indeed to maximize – the good (see Utilitarianism). And the utilitarian tradition has no doubt influenced many non-utilitarians in their attitude to beneficence. It is notable, for example, that W.D. Ross (1930), who argued strongly against the reduction of all of morality to beneficence, accepted, as part of morality, a duty of beneficence of the same stringent maximizing form as the utilitarian principle.

Recognition of a principle of beneficence of some form continues to be common in moral philosophy in the late twentieth century, even among philosophers who reject the primacy of duty and obligation: ‘virtue theorists’ are likely to discuss a virtue of charity or benevolence (see Virtue ethics). There is, however, an important school of thought, with historical roots in parts of the social contract tradition, that relegates beneficence to the realm of the supererogatory (that is, morally good but not morally required) (see Supererogation §§4–6). This position is at its most plausible in the context of a liberal egalitarian theory of justice, such as that of John Rawls (1971) (see Rawls, J.). The idea is not merely that a just institutional scheme will remove the need for individual acts of beneficence, but that on a proper moral understanding, requirements of justice exhaust the normative domain claimed for requirements of beneficence. An important objection to this view is that it leaves it unclear what is required of a well-off individual in an unjust society; this problem is especially serious in the international sphere, where the prospect for institutions that promote distributive justice is remote. Advocates of the view could reply that unmet human needs do indeed raise an urgent moral issue, but that it is extravagant to respond to this issue by attributing responsibility for the wellbeing of all humanity to each moral agent (see §2). Rather, we should see the responsibility of individuals as mediated: they are required to support reform of the institutional structures that allow the needs to remain unmet.

There is a further difficulty for a moral account in which beneficence is supererogatory. While ‘ordinary’ moral thought is by no means settled on the issue of beneficence generally, it does seem to be so on the special case of easy assistance in emergency situations. That it would be wrong to walk away from a child drowning in a shallow pond seems so uncontroversial a claim that some philosophers, notably Peter Singer (1972), have seen in such ‘rescue’ cases firm intuitive foundations for an argument for a general principle of beneficence. This argument could be blocked by offering some principled distinction between rescue and non-rescue cases and by suggesting that the former generate some kind of special obligation. It is by no means clear, however, that a principled distinction is available.

Citing this article:
Murphy, Liam B.. Principles of beneficence. Help and beneficence, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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