Do We Have a Duty To Others?
In a previous post I argued that we have duties to ourselves and now I want to examine whether we have a duty to others as well. We can begin, as we did in previous post, with some insights from Kant.
In the Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant writes as follows: A man, for whom things are going well, sees that others (whom he could help) have to struggle with great hardships, and he asks, 'What concern of mine is it? Let each one be as happy as heaven wills, or as he can make himself; I will not take anything from him or even envy him; but to his welfare or to his assistance in time of need I have no desire to contribute." If such a way of thinking were a universal law of nature, certainly the human race could exist, and without doubt even better than in a state where everyone talks of sympathy and good will, even exerts himself occasionally to practice them while, on the other hand, he cheats when he can and betrays or otherwise violates the rights of man. Now although it is possible that a universal law of nature according to that maxim could exist, it is nevertheless impossible to will that such a principle should hold everywhere as a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would conflict with itself, since instances can often arise in which he would need the love and sympathy of others, and in which he would have robbed himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he desires."
There are several points worth examining in Kant's thinking. First, notice that his scenario about having a duty to others is one in which it is possible to help. It would seem that we can have no duty in cases where we cannot be of any help at all. Second, notice that Kant does not claim that a universal law could not exist which endorsed egoism (which is the view expressed by the man in question for whom things are going well." Egoism is the view that we ought to act for our own self-interest and not for the interest of others.
The important point for Kant is that while such a universal law of nature could exist which endorsed egoism it would "conflict with itself." Indeed, as many of have examined egoism have recognized, in many cases acting for the sake of others is the best way to further our own self-interest. So, Kant seems to be arguing that we have a duty to others which is based on our own self-interest. That is, if we don't help others when they are in need we cannot expect that others will be willing to help us when we are in need.
Not exactly the altruism you were expecting perhaps but, as Ayn Rand and others have recognized, there are many problems with pure altruism as well. Our duty to others is not absolute in the sense that we must sacrifice our own lives for the sake of others. While there are examples of people doing this (i.e. saving a person's life while sacrificing their own) these actions are not usually considered as one's duty to perform. In ethics they are called supererogatory actions; one's that go above and beyond the call of duty.
The interesting question is whether there are examples of actions that we have a duty to perform that help others but do not further our own self-interest. Many think not as we can always find some way in which helping others is in our own self-interest as well even if it is simply a matter of making ourselves happy. Indeed, many people find that they feel happier when helping others. Does this negate the moral value of their actions? The Dalai Lama certainly doesn't think so. In fact, he endorses helping others in part precisely because it is an effective path to happiness for ourselves.
So, where does this leave us? We certainly do have a duty to others and this duty can be justified in part due to the fact that it is in our own self-interest to perform such actions. But, how do we know if we are doing enough to fulfill this duty? If we are not fulfilling our duties to others how do we rectify this?
Now, the question arises how do we insure that we are fulfilling those duties. I want to make several points regarding this that may not immediately occur to you. First, most of us fulfill our duties to others on a daily basis without even being aware of it. Second, often the best way of fulfilling our duties to others is to act indirectly. Third, sometimes the best way to fulfill our duties to others is to act according to our own self interest. By making these points I am not trying to diminish the importance of volunteer work or giving to charity. I am simply saying that there are other ways that we can, and in fact do, fulfill our duties to others.
1. In a free market economy we each earn our living by serving our fellow man (to borrow a phrase from economist Walter E. Williams). How we choose to serve is up to us but the fact that we earn a living does not diminish the fact that we do so by serving. Unfortunately, many people seem to believe that serving others only has moral worth if done for free! But, why should this be the case. To care for the sick as doctors do, to educate the young as teachers do, each count as important services we provide to others. There are countless other examples we can cite since, in fact, each job can be seen as providing service.
Clearly, some of these services provided are not as critical as others and there is not always a correlation between the importance of the service and the income it can earn someone. For example, professional sports pays more than teaching. This is due, in part, to the fact that in a free economy one can also earn income by providing not simply what people need but what they want and often people's views regarding their wants are stronger than their views regarding their needs. That is, people are willing to pay more for wants than needs. But, providing them does constitute serving others.
2. In his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels advocates an ethical theory called "multiple strategies utilitarianism." The basic idea behind this theory is that we act ethically when we are contributing to the general welfare of people but we can do this in two ways. We can act directly to affect the general welfare but we can also act indirectly. For example, parents contribute to the general welfare of their community by raising well-behaved, well-educated children. However, they are not directly intending to improve the general welfare by doing so anymore than I am directly intending such benefit by cutting my grass. However, the end result is to improve the general welfare.
Adam Smith famously makes this point in his book The Wealth of Nations. We are, says Smith, led by an "invisible hand" to benefit society even as our intent is to benefit ourselves. In fact, Smith goes so far as to say that attempting to directly benefit society often has negative consequences. As he puts it, "I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it."
3. Adam Smith's insights help to make my third point which is that sometimes the best way to fulfill our duties to others is to act according to our self-interest. A famous example of this has been studied regarding surviving a plane crash. If you manage to survive the impact the question is what is the best way for you to help others survive and escape from the burning plane. Perhaps surprisingly, the best course of action is for you to get yourself off the plane without stopping to help others. Why? Because once you stop to help someone else you are no longer a helper you are an obstacle to others' escape. However well-intentioned you may be that is the fact of the matter for the people you are preventing from escaping. You do them, and yourself, a much better service by removing yourself as an obstacle to their egress, i.e. get yourself off the plane!
I'll end with a story which nicely illustrates this point and the point of this blog post in general by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn:
The Buddha said, "There once were a couple of acrobats. The teacher was a poor widower and the student was a small girl named Meda. The two of them performed in the streets to earn enough to eat. They used a tall bamboo pole which the teacher balanced on the top of his head while the little girl slowly climbed to the top. There she remained while the teacher continued to walk along the ground.
"Both of them had to devote all their attention to maintain perfect balance and to prevent any accident from occurring. Once day the teacher instructed the pupil: 'Listen, Meda, I will watch you and you watch me, so that we can help each other maintain concentration and balance to prevent an accident. Then we'll be sure to earn enough to eat.' But the little girl was wise and answered, 'Dear master, I think it would be better for each of us to watch ourself. To look after oneself means to look after both of us. That way I am sure we will avoid any accidents and will earn enough money to eat.'"
The Buddha said: "The child spoke correctly."