Hooker and Imperfect Duties

Brad Hooker Week on PEA Soup continues… In Chapter 8 of his Ideal Code, Real World, Hooker considers some ways of dealing with the problem of how much the relatively well off are obligated to do for the less well off. The trick here is to come up with some sort of principle that covers our intuitions about various cases (and in particular to find a principle that is not overdemanding). One way of dealing with the problem is to adopt the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties and then incorporate an imperfect duty of beneficence. Hooker rejects this solution, for two reasons, neither of which I find wholly adequate (being the Kantian that I am).

First, he asks us to imagine that you can only help one of two people in need of aid – where person 1 is in greater need of aid than person 2, and where 1 can derive greater benefit from the exact same aid that you would otherwise give to 2. The objection is that the “imperfect duties view” would give you the choice to help either person, but our intuitions suggest you must help person 1. The problem with this criticism is that just because we hold the perfect/imperfect duty distinction, this doesn’t mean that all acts of aid fall under the imperfect duty of beneficence. Many Kantians emphasize, for instance, that I have a perfect duty to help a person in immediate need of critical aid (and that this would trump any other imperfect duty of beneficence). So, on the one hand, if person 1 has such an immediate need – as I read Hooker’s case – then Kantian ethics indeed comports with our intuitions, since it would require us to help person 1. (Ditto for Hooker’s claim that for Kantian-style ethics, if I saved someone’s life in the morning, I don’t have to save someone else in the afternoon, and for his claim that the imperfect duties view wouldn’t require me to transform someone’s life if that would mean some non-trivial cost to me. Both of these can fall under other, perfect duties of aid.) If, on the other hand, neither 1 nor 2 is in immediate need of critical aid, then it might fall under the imperfect duty of beneficence, but I see no clash with our intuitions here either. Imagine I have only $10 to aid others, and I could give it to a friend who could use it for one more bet on the blackjack table, or I could give it a child, who, comparatively speaking, could derive much more benefit from it (e.g., he could finally get the toy he’s been dying all year to have – thanks to Doug for the case). Here person 1 (the child) can get more from my available aid than person 2 (the friend), but I don’t see our intuitions saying that I don’t have a choice here in how to fulfill my duty of beneficence.

Second, Hooker claims that unlike his principle, the imperfect duties view doesn’t give us a lot of help deciding how much to sacrifice, when something must be sacrificed for needy others, since it allows us an indeterminate amount of leeway in any given case. Kantians (and others) usually reply that there is no algorithm for deciding this – careful judgment is the best we can do. Hooker acknowledges this, but claims that his view is superior because he does provide some help. He repeatedly emphasizes the need for judgment on his own view, so I’m not sure how compelling this comparison ultimately is. But let’s grant that his view does have the advantage here; I’m not sure it’s a very significant advantage. For the point remains that the imperfect duties view can be a theoretical account of our judgments, even if it can’t spit out judgments like a calculator (and, of course, leaving a role for judgment is another intuition we often have about ethics).

9 Replies to “Hooker and Imperfect Duties

  1. For an intersting discussion and post on the over-demanding objection, see C.T. Dreyers webblog, The Tribunal of Experience.

  2. Thanks for the post, Josh.
    Pace Hooker, I don’t see that the “‘imperfect duties view’ would give you the choice to help either person’ (quoting from Josh’s post). The choice would concern WHETHER to aid. IF one chooses to aid, then she must aid person 1 – or so says the imperfect duties view (as I understand it).
    Am I wrong?

  3. It seems that your version of the “imperfect duties view” will be overly demanding, for, on your view, there is a perfect duty to help a person in immediate need of critical aid and there are, at any given time, hundreds (perhaps, thousands or millions) of people who, as the result of the latest disaster, are in immediate need of critical aid that we could provide by wiring our money to one of the charities involved.

  4. Doug,
    I don’t see how the “imperfect duty view” I suggest entails any such perfect duty (to rescue) – though it’s of course compatible with such a duty, and though Josh appears interested in combining the two.
    Ryan

  5. On Ryan’s comment, there’s certainly that interpretation of imperfect duties – it’s a common one, indeed. Perhaps part of the problem with discussing imperfect duties, in fact, is that there are different interpretations.
    Indeed, this seems to be part of why I’d disagree with Doug. Having a perfect duty does not mean (as I understand it) that it is a standing order that always places a demand on the agent. Rather, as I understand it, it’s an order that, in contrast to imperfect duties, offers no leeway in how, when, in what circumstances (and, if we follow Ryan, whether) one will satisfy it, such as the leeway we have in the imperfect duty to give to charity. But this lack of latitude-in-fulfillment does not mean that it always makes a demand on me; instead, it means that *when it applies to me, which might be limited to very specific circumstances*, I have no latitude. We might (in the spirit of Hooker’s arguments from intuitive plausibility) limit perfect duties’ demandingness based on certain obvious facts about our inability to reach out to *everyone* in need, and so we’d limit it to those nearby (or some such). Or we might limit it to just those cases that get a contradiction-in-conception on Kant’s universalizability test. In any case, the point is that it can be limited, and so I don’t see a reason to think that in principle it is subject to any unique sort of overdemandingness objection.

  6. Joshua and I agree that no plausible moral theory can, in calculator fashion, spit out judgements about when and how much we are required to do for others. In other words, both of us accept that there is an ineliminable role for judgement in moral decision-making.
    And I accept from him that Kantianism can be configured so as to generate a perfect duty to help those in immediate need of critical aid. But now what is Kantianism to say about a case where there are two people each in immediate need of critical aid but the agent is physically able to rescue no more than one of them? Suppose one of these people in need of rescue stands to lose an arm if not rescued. Suppose the other will die if not rescued. Suppose neither of these people related, or in any other special way connected, to the agent. Can Kantianism explain why the agent should save the one whose life is at stake rather than the one whose arm is at stake? Such situations seem to me to illustrate that we need more than the distinction between perfect and imperfect duties of beneficence.
    And with respect to duties of beneficence, I think we need some help about how much self-sacrifice is required. The role of judgement won’t be eliminable here. But I think we need more guidance than Kantianism gives us.
    To be sure, Kantianism is a resourceful tradition. I accept that it might be able to come out with an adequate account of beneficence. But I don’t know of an adequate Kantian account of this.

  7. Ryan: I apologize; I should have made clear that my comment was directed at Josh’s post.
    Josh: You suggest, “We might (in the spirit of Hooker’s arguments from intuitive plausibility) limit perfect duties’ demandingness based on certain obvious facts about our inability to reach out to *everyone* in need, and so we’d limit it to those nearby (or some such).” It’s true that we’re not able to reach out to everyone in need, but that’s because there are just too many, *not* because we can only help those nearby. In fact, as Unger and Singer rightly point out, we are probably in a better position to help those far away in that those far away are in greater need and our money can do more good in the Third World. And it’s easy to help. When a disaster occurs and emergency food, water, and medicine are needed, many charities are able to move money and resources to where it’s needed in a matter of days if not hours. To help them provide more food, water, and medicine, you need only wire the money to the appropriate charities. So I don’t think that you can limit our perfect duties’ demandingness by restricting our “perfect duty to help a person in immediate need of critical aid” to those nearby. Nevertheless, you suggest that there might be another way: “limit it to just those cases that get a contradiction-in-conception on Kant’s universalizability test.” Could you explain how this would suitably limit our perfect duties so that they’re not too demanding. I believe the burden is on you to show that your view is not too demanding.

  8. My comment replying to Brad and Doug was running long enough that I’ve just started a new post on the topic, on June 29, if you’re interested.

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