Barbara Herman Moffett Lecture Recap: "The Challenges of Beneficence: Revising the Terms"

Dec. 19, 2019

When we think about helping others in need, the scenarios that first come to mind are likely the extreme cases we see in the news: a group of strangers forming a human chain to save a drowning person or a passerby catching a toddler falling out of a window. 

We might also feel overwhelmed by the scale of need that exists in the world we live in, and puzzled by the scope of our personal responsibility: can we, in good conscience, host a birthday party for our child when the resources spent on the party could instead help people in need? 

Barbara Herman, the Griffin Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, addressed some of these complex questions in her fall 2019 James. A Moffett ’29 Lecture in Ethics, titled “The Challenges of Beneficence: Revising the Terms.”

She began by offering several Kantian insights and arguments to lay out a framework through which we can view beneficence and its demands on us, particularly the idea that beneficence is tied to the pursuit of happiness, and the help that a beneficent person might provide to the shortfalls in effective agency of another person.

According to Kant, if we view human beings, whose natural end is happiness, as ends in themselves, “Everyone must also try, as far as he can, to advance the ends of others. Because, if that representation [of humanity as an end in itself], is to have its full effect in me, the ends of a subject that is an end in itself, must, as much as possible, also be my ends."  

However, when it comes to helping others achieve their ends, Kant believes we have “permission to limit one maxim of duty by another in accordance with the different objects of our love.” This distinction, as Herman pointed out, means that we might choose to help our parents before we help our neighbors.  

Herman used this distinction as a springboard to explore beneficence through the lens of relationships, which she argues are the most common framework within which we can think about our moral duty of helping others achieve their ends of happiness – contrary to dominant approaches in moral philosophy which focus on random encounters between strangers.  

“In the textbook stranger-helper cases, all we get to see is need. In the relational context, need presents as embedded in a life. As we are closer, we know more about a person, more about her ends, about how this or that interest matters to her now and likely later on. We may let our own experience bear more on the way we choose to help than we would with a stranger.”

She added: “The focus on ends that Kant suggests leads to the idea that beneficence lives in relationships… (that) relational beneficence is the norm not the exception, and helping is an activity that typically takes place between ordinary persons leading their lives.”

In other words: “Drowning strangers are not the paradigm case from which to build an account of the helping duty, and writing checks not the paradigm helping action.”

So how does situating beneficence in this relational context help us consider our responsibility, or lack thereof, to help others?  Herman distinguished three different kinds of duties which she contended are too often blurred together, arguing, “We do have to rescue drowning persons, we also need to make charitable donations to institutions that serve needy populations… [but] what we should not assume is that all these activities are instances of one duty of beneficence. Thinking they are is a source of much of the puzzlement that surrounds morally sanctioned helping.”

In contrast to relational beneficence, Herman followed Kant in distinguishing a second kind of duty, a “duty of common interest,” or humanitarian beneficence, which Herman described as an aggregative duty, or “a duty to help that all of us together have toward all of us.” 

“Its scope includes stranger beneficence, small and large accidents, and some of the immediate need caused by natural disasters. The aim is to manage a crisis and secure basic conditions for an eventual return to a normal life.” 

Finally, she went on to distinguish a third category of duties related to need, which includes global poverty or food scarcity that is not the result of an accident or natural disaster but rather a morally malfunctioning global order.  These needs “that result from injustice,” are not tp be confounded with the needs which humanitarian duties or relational beneficence address.   In this third category, “the need, though great, does not directly belong to the duty of beneficence, not to me singly or to us as an aggregate of individuals. It belongs to the agents of the global order, and to us, derivatively of course, but not merely to us as individuals,” said Herman.

So, if we are not morally obliged to help everyone in need, can we still throw the birthday party? Herman answered: “We don't think that everything that's bad is mine to fix; why think it's otherwise with helping?”