Help and beneficence

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L035-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 17, 2024, from

2. The problem of demands

A principle of beneficence makes each of us responsible, in some sense and to some degree, for the wellbeing of everyone else. As we have noted, this can seem to be an extravagant position. The underlying worry here is simply that principles of beneficence require too much from individuals. Applied to utilitarianism, this ‘over-demandingness objection’ is long-standing, going back at least to Henry Sidgwick. But the issue of over-demandingness has received most attention since the 1970s, stimulated in part by a more general attack on modern moral theories that has centred around the work of Bernard Williams.

It might be thought that the cause of the extreme demands of the utilitarian principle is that it requires us to promote all aspects of the wellbeing of others, and that a more plausible principle of beneficence would require us to meet only the most basic of human needs, such as those for food, shelter, and health care. A principle of beneficence, however, that requires us to do whatever we can to meet even just these needs remains, in the circumstances of the late twentieth century, extremely demanding on individuals. The principle would, of course, be much less demanding if all or most people complied with it, but clearly we cannot assume ideal levels of compliance when assessing actual demands. (That the utilitarian principle is extremely demanding is sometimes denied on the grounds that an individual is rarely in a position to make great sacrifice that will be beneficial on the whole; this claim is typically based on scepticism about, for example, the effectiveness of humanitarian aid programmes.)

The real cause of the extreme demands of the utilitarian principle is its maximizing form: it requires individuals to promote the good up to the point where further sacrifice would burden them as much as it would benefit others. If extreme demands are objectionable, then a possible plausible principle of beneficence would seem to be one that requires sacrifice only up to a certain point. As an example there is the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic idea of giving up a ‘tithe’ or tenth of what one produces or earns. The problem, however, is to identify the criteria that would justify any particular limit to demands. Indeed it is on reflection difficult to accept that there could be a limit to required sacrifice that remains fixed whatever the changes in circumstances.

Other non-maximizing principles are possible. Thus Kant’s duty of beneficence, on some interpretations, requires agents to adopt a ‘maxim’ of benefiting others, where this is compatible with acting to benefit others only rarely and in minor ways. For someone who takes beneficence seriously, this will be an unacceptably minimal principle. Likewise, the suggestion that no particular degree of beneficence is morally required, that all we need say is ‘the more the better’, will be seen as too close to the view that beneficence is supererogatory. A third view is motivated by a concern not with the extent of the demands of a maximizing principle, but with the way it imposes demands when not everyone is complying with it. As we have noted, a maximizing principle typically demands more of a complying agent as the number of other people complying decreases; this is to make agents responsible not just for their own ‘share’ of the demands of beneficence, but also for the shares of everyone else. If this is objectionable we could consider a principle of beneficence that requires agents to sacrifice only as much as it would be optimal for them to sacrifice under full compliance. Among other problems, it is not clear that this suggestion can account for rescue cases.

Citing this article:
Murphy, Liam B.. The problem of demands. Help and beneficence, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L035-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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