At the moment, I’m interested in imperfect duties and, in particular, the duty of beneficence, and I need some help tracking down the relevant literature with regard to two particular aspects of this duty. First, it seems to me that the duty of beneficence is not a duty to do x amount of good for others (where x is some percentage of the total amount of good that one could possibly do for others), but is instead a duty to dedicate y percent of one’s time and/or resources to helping others. If it were the former as opposed to the latter, then, a person who donates only to NPR (National Public Radio) would have to donate twenty times as much as a relevantly similar person who instead donates only to Oxfam if Oxfam does twenty times as much good for others as NPR does with the same quantity of donated monies. Now, surely, someone has made this point, but since I don’t know the literature that well, could you tell me who and where.

Second, it seems to me that the duty of beneficence requires that we help others to a certain extent over each relatively short segment of our lives and not just that we help others to a certain extent over the courses of our entire lives. I take it, then, that someone violates the imperfect duty of beneficence if she does nothing for others throughout most of her life even if, at the end of her life, she ends up doing as much for others as those who fulfill the duty of beneficence by helping others throughout their lives. Now, clearly, this sort of idea comes from Kant, who holds that the duty of beneficence is a duty to adopt a certain end. But is there someone who makes this point a bit more explicitly. If so, who and where?

15 Replies to “A Request for Help Regarding Imperfect Duties

  1. Doug-
    I can’t be of much help to you in terms of the literature on this topic. Can you say something more, though, about your stance on the x amount of good/y amount of resources distinction? It seems obvious that what counts as “doing enough” to help others has to be scaled to the resources that you have available. But if some ways of putting those resources to use are much more effective than others, then isn’t there some obligation to favor those that produce the best results? We can easily imagine ways in which large sums of resources could be expended that would result in only very small gains to anyone’s well-being (e.g., buying caviar for famine victims). Perhaps satisfying the duty of beneficence requires BOTH expending a certain percentage of your resources and producing at least a certain percentage of the greatest amount of good that could be produced with that sum (as far as you know). That gives you some room to choose to devote your resources to causes that are close to your own heart even if you know that they would do more good elsewhere, as long as the amount of good you produce is near enough to the most that you could have produced.

  2. Hi Dale,
    I agree that, other things being equal, there is an obligation to help others in as an efficient manner as possible. But often things are not equal. Often, as you put it, some cause is closer to our heart than another.
    You say, “Perhaps satisfying the duty of beneficence requires BOTH expending a certain percentage of your resources and producing at least a certain percentage of the greatest amount of good that could be produced with that sum (as far as you know).”
    This is a good suggestions, but I suspect that the latter threshold is quite low.

  3. Doug –
    Marica Baron’s Kantian Ethics Almost Without Apology might help, especially the third chapter.

  4. I doubt that either feature is a genuine feature of imperfect duties, but is merely an imperfect approximation to the leading idea. If we look to Kant for guidance, here, I suspect that the distinction is best understood in terms of the objects of duty. Perfect duties require the adoption of actions, whereas imperfect duties require the adoption of ends. The imperfect duty of beneficence requires that you adopt the good of others as an end. The “laxity” of imperfect duties is due to the fact that this is one end among others and these must be rationally ordered—you must prioritize ends, adopt means to these consistent with other ends, schedule means to their fulfillment, and so on. So, the idea that you regularly act on some end is a mere symptom or manifestation of this more fundamental distinction as opposed to the means by which the distinction is drawn.

  5. Mark,
    I didn’t mean to suggest that I was pointing to any fundamental distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. But, admittedly, what I said was misleading. I should have said “it seems to me that the imperfect duty of beneficence does not require…” rather than “it seems to me that the imperfect duty of beneficence is not a duty to…”
    Do you think that the imperfect duty of beneficence requires that you adopt the general good of others or the good of only some unspecified set of others as your end? If it’s really the general good that should be your end, then I have hard time believing the best way to prioritize your ends would be such that it makes sense for you to give to NPR rather than Oxfam. It would make sense, perhaps, only if NPR had played some very important role in your life. But don’t we want to say that regular listeners of NPR could choose to give to NPR as opposed to Oxfam and thereby fulfill their imperfect duties? Also, what if Bill Gates is, for today only, tripling donations made to Oxfam. Does that cause donating to Oxfam to shoot right to the top of your prioritized list of ends unless you have some very compelling end that would be served by your doing something else with the surplus money that you on hand today?

  6. I want to second Mark’s point:
    I doubt that either feature is a genuine feature of imperfect duties, but is merely an imperfect approximation to the leading idea.
    The key to understanding the duty of beneficence (I think) is understanding the idea of having an end throughout one’s life. And this will not be a matter of conforming one’s actions to an algorithm.
    On the notion of what it means to have an end I highly recommend Barbara Herman’s work. Several chapters of Moral Literacy discuss and expand upon Kant’s view that we are morally required to set as ends our own perfection and the happiness of others. Also Tom Hill has some excellent stuff on beneficence in Human Welfare and Moral Worth.

  7. I would also suggest Baron’s book.
    A few other places to look:
    1. Chapter Nine of Allen Wood’s Kantian Ethics is a discussion of the varieties of duties available in a Kantian system.
    2. Paul Guyer devotes two chapters to Kant’s system of duties in his book, Kant (from the Routledge Philosophers series)
    3. Lara Denis connects imperfect duties to lack of virtue in “Kant’s Conception of Virtue” (from The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy, ed/. Guyer)
    4. I second Adrienne’s recommendation of Tom Hill’s work on this topic. Several essays collected in Human Welfare and Moral Worth: Kantian Perspectives address this topic, including “Beneficence and Self-Love”, “Happiness and Human Flourishing” and “Meeting Needs and Doing Favors”. I think the latter essay might be most explicitly directed at your particular interest.

  8. There’s an interesting paper by Daniel Statman in APQ in 1996. It’s title is “Who needs imperfect duties?”, and it is an interesting critique of various different ways to spell out the idea of an imperfect duty. Schneewind’s paper, “The Misfortunes of Virtue” in Ethics a while back is also useful for the historical background to the concept of an imperfect duty.
    If I may be forgiven the shameless self-promotion, I’ll also mention a recent paper of my own that just came out in J of Social Phil. It’s available online at
    The basic idea is to try to make some headway on the problem of the limits of obligation by thinking of beneficence as an imperfect duty that arises from taking the happiness of others to be an ultimate end–i.e., in effect treating beneficence as a project in Bernard Williams’s sense. Hill and Baron both make remarks (in passages cited above by others) that can be read as suggesting this idea, though as far as I know the suggestion has not be worked out in much detail in the literature.

  9. Thanks, Robert. I had already printed out your article and am planning to read it.
    Do you have any thoughts on how we’re supposed to understand “taking the happiness of others to be an ultimate end”? Does it have to be all others whose happiness I take to be my end? If I make it my end to help inner city children in the city that I live in but decide that I will do nothing for those in the Third World, have I taken the happiness of others to be my end? If I believe that charity must begin at home and I do a lot for others in my own country but never do anything for anyone outside my country, have I fulfilled the imperfect duty of beneficence?

  10. I think that we should regard beneficence as taking human welfare in general as an ultimate end. While this does allow for some individual variation in patterns of aid, my view is that there is a presumption in favor of efficiency–that is, in favor of making larger rather than smaller contributions to human happiness with whatever resources we devote to it. (I take such a presumption to be part of what it is to set something as an end.) In other words, I think that it would be difficult to maintain that one has really set human welfare (and the alleviation of human suffering) as an ultimate end without giving at least some priority to the worst off. However, I don’t think that there are hard and fast answers to questions about how many to help, and about how to distinguish among relatively equally badly off potential recipients of beneficent aid, and about exactly which balances between helping those very badly off who are faraway versus our less badly off neighbors are permissible.
    On my view, what it comes down to is whether one’s pattern of giving (and other altruistic behavior) is, given one’s circumstances, a reasonable expression of the adoption of the welfare of other persons (in general) as a central life project (as opposed, say, to the adoption of the welfare of certain particular other persons or classes of other persons).

  11. Patricia Greenspan’s got a nice piece: “Moral Reasons, Imperfect Duties, and Choice”, but you may well be aware of this.
    Can’t an imperfect duty be generated by an imperfect moral reason, if we understand the relevant moral reason to be an all-things-considered reason to strike a reasonable balance between acting altruistically and self-interestedly? Doesn’t this fit quite well with your account of imperfect reasons Doug?
    I don’t see why the duty of beneficence requires that we help others only over relatively short periods of our lives. Surely this is a combinational feature of imperfect duties: how we act now or later is a central feature in determining how we morally ought to act over the course of our lives as a whole.

  12. I think that some of the puzzles you point to here and in your earlier post are caused by the “quota” or “disjunctive” view of imperfect duties. As far as I know, Richard Price [A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals] was one of the first to talk about this in detail. For contemporary stuff, you probably already know Michael Stocker [Rev. of Metaphysics 1967] and a couple articles of George Rainbolt’s. But there are several other conceptually distinct options out there: imperfect duties as duties to cultivate dispositions (several virtue ethicists), as non-coercible duties (Grotius, Pufendorf, Home), as duties without correlative rights (Pufendorf, Mill, O’Neill), etc.
    For more on the Kantian view, I second the recommendations of Herman, Hill, and Baron. You might also find chapter 6 of Cummiskey’s Kantian Consequentialism useful as a foil. Note, though, that these views threaten to just push back the problem of imperfect duties one level. The “problem” with imperfect duties is in trying to make sense of “fuzzy” duties, like beneficence, that seem to allow a lot of latitude. If the duty of beneficence is a duty to adopt an end, presumably there isn’t some single, well-defined way to do that. And so, as you noted above, now we’re faced with the problem of explaining what counts as an acceptable specification of the end. This may be an easier problem than the original problem of imperfect duties, though it’s not obvious to me that this is so. And many discussions (e.g. Herman’s) have trouble with it, I think.
    For what it’s worth, I think all of these approaches give rise to problems…

  13. On the Kantian conception of the duty of beneficence, I think it cannot be the duty to adopt as an end the general welfare. Or, anyway, the general welfare isn’t the most immediate end one is obliged to adopt. This is because it’s the duty to adopt others’ happiness as an end, and happiness constitutes the satisfaction of one’s ends. So it’s really the duty to support others’ (permissible ends).
    If you throw in some empirical facts about the current state of the world and the successful pursuit of most ends presupposing decent health, education, etc, you might conclude that the best way to support others’ permissible ends is to fight starvation, poverty, and political persecution. This would get you to some positive conclusions about morally superior ways to distribute your resources.

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