Duties of Beneficence

Convenors: Brian McElwee and Iason Gabriel


The nature and extent of our duties of beneficence has been a central topic in moral and political theory since the publication of Peter Singer’s ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’. (Singer 1972) Given the extent of severe poverty across the world, it seems clear that the comparatively wealthy are morally obliged to strive to improve the well-being of some of the world’s poor. Whether by giving to effective charities or by campaigning for justice, we appear required to devote some portion of our wealth, resources, time and efforts to helping the less well-off.

What is the extent and shape of these duties of beneficence? A consensus of sorts has developed in the moral demandingness debate around what might be called the moderate view, rejecting both extremism (the view that we are morally obliged to do as much as we possibly can to help those in need, even if this dramatically reduces our own well-being) and minimalism (the view that devoting efforts or resources to helping the poor is wholly morally optional).

Even after the significant recent scholarship on duties of beneficence, many key questions remain unsettled:

Firstly, if the consensus moderate view is correct, what theoretical justification can be given for it? Can we appeal to anything beyond our intuitions about how much morality can require of us by way of cost or sacrifice? Can we articulate with any precision just how much we are required to do? Do particular rationales for rejecting extremism, or for rejecting minimalism, provide any guidance on how to make the extent and shape of our duties of beneficence more determinate?

Secondly, if we settle the question of how much it is reasonable to demand, are we also obliged to give to the most effective charities, and to devote ourselves to the most effective means of promoting the well-being of those in need? Or do we have significant discretion over how to discharge our duties of beneficence?

Thirdly, what are the ultimate philosophical grounds for rejecting a theory of our duties of beneficence on the basis that it is over-demanding? What *is* demandingness? Should we understand the demandingness of a particular theory solely in terms of costs the agent who is to comply with the theory? How are costs to agents to be weighed against the costs borne by the poor, which will predictably increase if we accept a moral theory which demands less of the well-off? And how are duties of beneficence affected by the non-compliance of other relatively well-off agents with their moral obligations?

Finally, are our moral duties to help the world’s poor best understood as pure duties of beneficence, or as duties of justice? Should we prioritise negative duties to avoid harming the world’s poor over positive duties to help? (Pogge 2002) Or is the distinction between positive and negative duties unhelpful, given the ‘new harms’ distinctive of today’s globalised world? (Lichtenberg 2010)


We invite abstracts of 400-500 words (suitable for 30 minutes presentation) addressing these themes. Please send to brian.mcelwee@sjc.ox.ac.uk by 15th May 2015. Some bursaries are available from MANCEPT for current graduate students.

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