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Do We Have an Obligation to Help the Starving

Essay by   •  May 12, 2011  •  Essay  •  1,168 Words (5 Pages)  •  2,301 Views

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By definition, deontological ethics are based upon duty or obligations. The question still remains, however, of how far this duty extends, and this becomes particularly apparent with the somewhat difficult issue of famine. Common thought suggests that people should aid the starving, but it seems that they are apparently under no formal obligation to do so. How then, can we determine how far the deontologist's obligation, which is the basis for action, to help the starving extends, provided that they have one? Also, it still has to first be decided whether the deontologist does in face have an obligation to help the starving; they may, in fact, be even less obliged to do so than if they were governed merely by common thought. For simplicity of argument, only Kantian ethics will be examined, and not other forms of deontological ethics.

The Kantian has a duty to act only in a way that they could will their action, or (more accurately) the 'maxim' their action is based upon, be universalised. If a Kantian denies that they have an obligation to help the starving, they claim that they will the maxim of "Whenever I become aware of famine, I will do nothing in response," or "Whenever I become aware of someone in greater need than myself, I will not aid them," to be universalised. An emotional response suggests that they cannot will this. Kant claims that actions based upon emotion, rather than duty, are not morally right. Instead, it is important that the moral agent can consistently will that their act be universalised. Not extending charity in the form of famine relief could subsist as a law of nature, however, Kant himself points out that this would be inconsistent. If a case where the moral agent became impoverished arose, they could not will for that same maxim to be universal, as they would "deprive himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he wants for himself."1 Based on Kant's reasoning, we can easily conclude that the deontologist does, in fact, have some obligation to extend charity to the starving and famine-stricken.

Kant makes a clear distinction between 'perfect duty' and 'imperfect duty', with a perfect duty always taking priority over the first. A situation where perfect duties conflict, or could only be completed at the expense of another, should never arise. The deontologist's duty to help the starving is clearly imperfect, due to the way that it can reasonably conflict with other duties, such as justice (commonly accepted as a perfect duty). O'Neill claims that the duty to justice is fulfilled is in provision for dependents. Displaying charity towards the starving could be done by allocating one's resources so that the charitable act is done at the expense of providing for dependents, which would be failing to fulfil a perfect duty (which would be immoral), implying that charity is an imperfect duty. Conversely, it could be thought that the duty to help the starving actually falls under the duty to justice, particularly if the people concerned are facing poverty as victims of injustice. However, a distinction has to be made between acting justly and helping those suffering injustice. For the Kantian to act justly, they only have to ensure that their own actions are in themselves just; they do not have to rectify another's acts of injustice. The deontologist will undoubtedly end up rectifying someone else's unjust acts at some stage in fulfilling their imperfect duty of charity, but such an action would not be considered part of fulfilling their perfect duty of justice.

The deontologist's obligation to the starving exists,

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