Some thoughts on moral duties

I came across a blog post while browsing through Reddit’s philosophy subforum* concerning Adam Smith’s theory of duties. As the writer says,

“According to Smith, you know an act is right when an impartial spectator would sympathize (or empathize) with the emotions motivating your act. Smith says that an impartial spectator will always empathize with both the kindness of someone who acts to benefit others and with the gratitude of the recipients of that kindness.”

Obviously there are problems with this if you believe, as I do, that judgments do not proceed from one universal reason or emotional basis common to all, but that reason and emotional responsa are conditioned by time, place, upbringing, and so forth. If I were to give a homeless man one dollar on the street, an impartial observer might see that action, deduce that I did it out of sympathy for the plight of the man, and empathize with my sympathy. Another impartial observer might scorn my action as naive weakness, and not see it as beneficent. There is also the question if emotions are spontaneous upsurges of feeling (nonrational reactions) or judgments (which are dependent on rational thought), and then, whether there is such a thing as an impartial observer at all.

But I feel that I am digressing now, for the universalism of Smith’s doctrine is not important compared to whether it is applicable in a given situation. Most commonsensical ideas of beneficence converge on certain actions, such as charity, because despite superficial differences in evaluations of moral actions, there is always an underlying universal idea that is instantiated in different forms. The cynic may find my charity stupid, but he does not necessarily reject the idea of charity in general, only this specific application. Most people will, in fact, sympathize with an act that is truly worthy of sympathy.

As Smith bases his moral calculus on sympathy, he believes that all acts which elicit sympathy – that is, beneficent acts – are morally right. The author of the blog piece then inquires: “Does it follow that acts of beneficence are moral duties?”

This is an important distinction. An action may be beneficent, but it does not follow that it is also a duty to do it. For example, if I believe that my act of charity is beneficent, and beneficence is morally right, then it follows that it is morally right for me to do it. However, I do not have to do it, as the homeless man is not entitled to my charity, as I am free to dispose of my private property as I choose, whether in something morally correct (charity) or morally indifferent (buying that exquisite panini from the shop down the street). If the case were opposite, that every act of beneficence is also a moral duty, then it would be impossible to live oneself. Each moral agent would be required to give charity to every homeless man, to donate to every worthy cause, to spend one’s entire time devoted to bettering the lives of others – something that is obviously ridiculous, save for thinkers like Peter Singer, who believe in the absolute maximization of utility.

But something that is beneficent may also be required. It is beneficent for me to give a man who is starving to death food, as most impartial observers will agree, but it is also morally required that I do so: if I do not, he will die, and I was the only person capable of saving him from death. Why is the former not necessary, but the latter is? Both cases are of positive action, but in the former case, the homeless man is not dependent on me to help him. His situation is only marginally different whether I act or not, and he will continue to exist irrespective of my choice. In the latter case, giving charity means the difference between a clear moral good (a person lives) and a clear moral bad (a person dies). The starving man is entirely dependent on me to keep him alive, and the mere fact that a human being is dependent on me gives me a moral duty to help him.

What this ultimately points to is an underlying moral order that one must appeal to in order to make sound moral judgments. There is a distinction between something that is morally right but not morally necessary, and things that are right and necessary. This is the division between imperfect duties, which are good to do but are not owed to anyone in particular, and perfect duties, which are absolutely good and owed to everyone. However, the next question follows: where does the division lie?

The author gives the following thought experiments:

  1. A friend that brings you coffee in the morning
  2. Shipwrecked sailors on your private property
  3. A dying man at your oasis
  4. Stealing to save humanity

And then he analyzes each in terms of Smith’s own moral basis. I will only look at the first two for the sake of brevity.

1. Here, “a friend usually brings you coffee in the morning. If he fails to bring you coffee one morning, are you justified in resenting him? Has he acted immorally?”

The author and I both agree that resenting him is unjustified. You have come to expect receiving coffee in the morning, but an expectation of beneficence from your friend does not make a moral claim on him. He is, at all times, free to dispose of his private property in any way he sees fit. At best, you can consider him rude, especially if he stops his habitual action abruptly and without explanation, but rudeness does not necessarily have a moral component (I refer you to my post on an ethics of offense).

By Smith’s logic, you are also not justified, because an impartial observer would see your indignation as nothing more than a hissy fit. Furthermore, “an impartial spectator would never want to force someone to be kind,” because an act of beneficence done out of resentment isn’t really beneficent at all according to Smith’s logic, because it does not have the underlying emotive force. A consequentialist would view it as beneficent because the result is good, but this lacks the nuance of the situation: a man who accidentally shoots and kills his neighbor while cleaning his loaded gun is different from the man who breaks into his neighbor’s house and shoots him in cold blood, as most people of sense realize.

2. “Let’s say I own some beachfront property. One day a ship wrecks offshore in a storm, and the exhausted voyagers crawl ashore on my beach. Do I have the right to expel them from my property back into the ocean, presumably to die?”

This seems to be the same case as the first, because it deals with the disposal of one’s private property. However, in the first case, there was no duty for my friend to bring me coffee. It would be an act of beneficence, sure, but I am not entitled to his beneficence. In this case, the dependence of the shipwrecked sailors on my beneficence gives me a perfect duty towards them. Because they depend on me to save them, I must save them.

This is in accordance with Smith’s logic, for an impartial bystander would not sympathize with my selfish use of my private property, but with the poor sailors, who I am condemning to death. What this really illustrates though is the limits of an ethic based on beneficence (if Smith actually based his ethics on appraisals of beneficence, which I am not sure of as I have not read his work). Emotional appraisals of action are, as I have outlined, often relative to specific individuals, and always conditioned by one’s previous experiences.

When the shipwrecked sailors come to your beach, you may feel annoyance instead of beneficence, but you help them anyway. An impartial observer might notice the scowl on your face and deduce your mental state, so whither the basis for the judgment of the action as morally correct? How can one sympathize with an emotion when there is no emotion to sympathize with? Again, “an impartial spectator would never want to force someone to be kind,” but at the same time, he would also find it wrong to expel the sailors. This is because the action goes beyond beneficence, which may or may not be a duty, to justice, which is absolutely good and is always a duty.

I once had a discussion with a woman over the Jewish versus (Protestant) Christian views on following the word of God. She held that one had to cleave to the love of Jesus, and if one did not feel complete love for his word and what he wanted you to do, what is the point in doing it? I held that love and emotions fade, and if all you have is fervor to sustain you, you will inevitably fall off the path. There must be a sense of duty, no matter your feelings on the matter at hand. God commands, and you follow, not because He loves you or you love Him, but because the relationship between God and man, like soldier and officer, demands obedience.

What obedience really is in this case, is a trade-off between one’s absolute freedom to do as one likes (the negative right of non-interference), and another person’s positive right to exist. When one’s negative right to non-interference conflicts with another’s positive right to live, I think morality demands that we yield to that positive right. This may lead to a slippery slope, as the ever-proliferating list of positive rights, such as healthcare, a “living wage,” and other such progressive inventions have shown. However, within the right to live there is a clear distinction between the right to survive, and the right to thrive. It is a perfect duty to defer to someone’s right to survive, even if it demands usage of your private property, but it is not a perfect duty to provide for others so that they may thrive – you are required to give the starving food, but not the poor healthcare, for example. Thus, this right to another’s property is contingent on immediacy and dire need.

Furthermore, though a person may have a right to another’s property in dire need, he does not have a right to obtain it by force: the shipwrecked sailors may petition me for usage of my beach, and I also may refuse. I have committed a moral wrong by sending them out in violation of my perfect duty, and I ought to be prosecuted for this. However, the sailors may not, upon my refusal, unsheathe their cutlasses, cut me down in my house, and use my property as they please. They may not coerce me to make use of my property, but must petition me for its use, and if need be, compensate me at a fair rate.

I am sure I can use more thinking on this matter, and would welcome any comments or concerns.

*As an aside, while most of Reddit is a spectacular waste of time, there are some truly spectacular resources you can tap into if you so choose. I tend to frequent the subforums on philosophy, Stoicism, history, and Ancient Greek. The help I have received there for my questions and my arguments, from intelligent and skilled people, has been invaluable.

5 thoughts on “Some thoughts on moral duties

  1. “There is also the question if emotions are spontaneous upsurges of feeling (nonrational reactions) or judgments (which are dependent on rational thought), and then, whether there is such a thing as an impartial observer at all.”

    Not to digress but how would you answer the second question? Is there such a thing as an impartial observer?

    • I believe Adam Smith intended the impartial observer as someone who was not involved in what he was seeing. To return to my example of giving the beggar a dollar, an impartial observer would be another person on the street who witnessed the exchange, but who was otherwise unknown both to me and to the beggar. He was not invested in the exchange one way or another, and so could make an impartial judgment. Obviously such people exist, so in this restricted sense, I think there can be an impartial observer.

      But then again, what makes someone impartial in the first place? His ability to view events from outside of his own standpoint, and then act from that position. The impartial person may not be impartial at all concerning issues of homelessness and charity. But he may have a moral framework that he ascribes to, or that he uses to make judgments, and he can remove whatever biases he has and judge solely based on principles.

      Do you notice the circularity of this? To impartially judge a situation, a person must remove himself and judge based on principles. But he must first accept those principles as true, so he never removes himself at all – at best he removes some of his gut reactions and falls back on more abstract reasoning, which is not natural to him. Taking Adam Smith’s yardstick, he must in fact become even more invested, because whether an action is morally right is dependent on the impartial observer’s sympathy for the action. He doesn’t act from abstract principles, but from a nebulous feeling that X is right because he agrees with X.

      To sum up my thought, an observer can only be impartial insofar as impartiality means surrendering one’s subjective emotions, feelings, judgments, etc. to an abstract deductive system that exists outside of himself. But impartiality in an expansive sense, of truly transcending one’s own viewpoint, is impossible because our own viewpoint is all we have. And to be fair, I am very hesitant to say that Smith endorses this expansive definition.

  2. A well argued piece. I am reminded of the line of argument Acceptance and Commitment Therapy adduces. Feeling like doing something does not work well as the basis for determining what is best for me to do. Usually it is best to overcome my reluctance to act, because of pique or fatigue or whatever, by drawing upon my commitment to a chosen set of values.

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