Is generous action an enforceable moral duty?

Last week, I talked with the students at Merrimack Valley High School in Concord about Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. According to Smith, you know an act is right when an impartial spectator would sympathize (or Coffee cupempathize) 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. So, as Smith sees it, acts of beneficence are always right. Does it follow that acts of beneficence are moral duties?

Bring me some coffee.
The simplest example we discussed in class is that of a friend who 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?

There is a clear answer here using Smith’s logic. An impartial spectator wouldn’t empathize with your resentment against someone who merely failed to be generous one morning. And an impartial spectator would never want to force someone to be kind.

Smith believed that we do have duties to be beneficent toward others, but they’re not duties we should enforce. To go further, duties of beneficence are what philosophers call imperfect duties, that is, they are not owed to specific people in specific circumstances. We have a duty to live beneficent lives, helping others freely and cheerfully, but we don’t have a duty to perform specific beneficent acts to specific people, like bringing coffee to my friend on a specific morning.

By contrast, if you’d given money to a friend to buy coffee, and he pocketed the money and didn’t get the coffee, then it would be okay to resent him! That’s a violation of a duty of justice – it’s stealing. Duties of justice are always perfect duties: they’re the minimum requirements we must satisfy to avoid deserving punishment.

Of course, there are much more complicated cases, and we will talk about them in our discussion tomorrow.

Let them live!
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?

Using Smith’s approach, we can say an impartial spectator would empathize with the resentment of the shipwrecked survivors if I turned them away. That resentment leads to an appropriate desire to take back unjust advantages, by force if necessary, and such an unjust act can legitimately be punished or prevented with force.

This is my oasis.
The beach scenario reminds me of a case that the famous 20th century political philosopher Robert Nozick used in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He imagined an oasis in the middle of the Sahara, unoccupied and unclaimed. Suppose two travelers dying of thirst come across it, but one runs ahead and claims it as his own. May he justly exclude the other from drinking, or, not much better, demand all his worldly goods in exchange for one drink?

Nozick says no, and I think he’s right. My private property rights don’t let me exclude others in dire need from resources that, without my ownership, would otherwise be open to the world. Nor may I threaten to exclude others to gain some advantage from them. If people crossing my property to safety damage it, though, they should be liable to pay for the damage.

So…are some acts of beneficence duties of justice as well?
Well, no. Think back to the shipwrecked sailors I allowed onto my property. That wasn’t an act of beneficence – it was an act of justice, the minimum required of me to avoid deserving punishment. Those sailors didn’t owe me any gratitude for my action at all. We only owe gratitude to someone who helps us even though “he isn’t required to do that.” In other words, if he chooses to fulfill an imperfect duty in such a way that we benefit, we owe gratitude, because he wasn’t morally obliged to help us specifically. Since acts of beneficence properly call forth gratitude, they cannot be duties of justice.

A final case: Would you steal to save humanity?
There’s a difference between forcing someone to share natural wealth on one hand and forcing someone to share a private invention on the other. Nozick says it would not be okay to take by force a medicine someone has invented but does not wish to distribute. The medicine is not appropriated from nature; it would not exist without the inventor’s efforts. The inventor has a right to distribute it, or not, as she sees fit.

Nozick’s position again seems about right to me. To take the medicine by force would be to effectively steal the inventor’s labor, stealing time from the inventor’s life. But could exceptions be made for extravagant thought experiments we could concoct?

Suppose a mad scientist invents an asteroid-destroying machine but refuses to allow its use, even though an asteroid is bearing down upon Earth and will soon destroy it, wiping out the human race. Would you take the machine by force if necessary? Would allowing the human race to be wiped out be a greater evil than the one theft? If so, does it follow that everyone’s property is up for grabs depending on what the outputs of some utilitarian calculus reveal? Would it be okay to steal in order to save only thousands of people…or hundreds…or tens?


  • I would agree with you in saying that Nozick’s position is correct. If someone spent their private time, effort, and knowledge creating something, who am I, or who is anyone, to take it and claim it as public property? It is not okay to steal someones invention from them. In my opinion, it would be worse to steal someones private time or ideas for public gain than to steal someones money. That is why personally, I would not steal the asteroid-destroying machine. I do not believe that it is the inventors duty to share his privately created invention.

  • I would agree with you in saying that Nozick’s position on taking a privately invented concoction is entirely correct. In my opinion, stealing another person’s time, efforts, and/or thoughts is much worse than stealing money. To take something that is not yours, let alone someones ideas, would be entirely wrong. It is up to the inventor to decide what presence the invention has in society. That is why, personally, I would not steal the machine, definitely not by force.

    • That’s pretty radical! I should note here that Nozick does say that normal moral constraints might go away to avoid “catastrophic moral horror.” The destruction of much of humanity might fit into that category. If so, it might be OK to steal the asteroid-destroying machine, and compensate the inventor.

  • You wrote, “My private property rights don’t let me exclude others in dire need from resources that, without my ownership, would otherwise be open to the world.”
    To me, “dire need” may lead to a slippery slope. Someone can come up with a definition of this term that results in no private property rights.
    My private efforts allowed me to afford the beach front property. What rights to the shipwrecked passengers have to occupying my private property, acquired through private efforts.

    • I think it’s the fact that the beach would be open to the world in the absence of my appropriation that, in combination with my monopoly power, makes it illegitimate for me to exclude others. It goes back to Locke’s Proviso: it’s OK to appropriate nature so long as you don’t harm others by doing so, but not OK when it does harm others. Well, my appropriation of the beach does make those shipwrecked sailors worse off if I try to exclude them or threaten to exclude in order to make an unconscionable contract (like “give me all your life savings”). By contrast, if I make a new medicine, I’m not harming anybody by not sharing it, even if I have a monopoly over it, because it wouldn’t exist without my efforts.

      • Aaron Hartfield

        Late reply; however,

        By your definition, any private building could make people worse off. There are infinite scenarios I could come up with that would make people worse off due to a building.

        • In most scenarios, it seems to me a private building would make people better off. Even if they don’t have access to the building themselves, they probably have access to the goods or services that the people in the building make. Usually, private ownership of land does make everyone else better off. It’s just in these extreme scenarios like the desert oasis example that they might not.

        • Aaron Hartfield

          You are saying that there are some private residences where private property rights can be violated in certain circumstances?
          That doesn’t seem very sound.

        • The circumstances would be extremely rare, because private residences are creations of value, not just previously unowned wilderness. But here’s one… Imagine you fall out of an upper-story window and on your way to death below, manage to grab hold of a flagpole sticking out of someone else’s apartment’s window. The owner of the apartment opens the window and says, “That’s my flagpole – let go!” If you let go, you’ll fall and die.

          Should you let go? I say not.

  • Enjoyed reading this…my immediate thoughts went to our government taking from those who work to give to those who don’t work and could. I would not deny a family or person in true need, but would like imposters to be weeded out. It is now too easy to defraud not only the government, but the citizens of America as well.

  • I give money to the homeless I encounter (when I can) not much, but enough to by coffee or a sandwich. If the homeless person spends the money on alcohol, or whatever, that’s his business. I don’t need to resent him. I gave him something, it belongs to him to do with whatever he wants. My act of giving does not require appreciation from the other, though it is an added benefit of giving. Otherwise I am not giving freely. I’m not sure about the idea of it being a duty that I perform a kindness. Doing so benefits me because it makes me feel caring. I don’t feel duty bound to do so. Am I interpreting the word duty incorrectly? I wonder.

    • So I think Smith would say using the money you gave him for alcohol would not be an injustice for the homeless person, since the impartial spectator doesn’t empathize with any resentment against him. Now, if he had agreed not to spend it on alcohol but then did anyway, then there would be cause for some degree of resentment (I think Smith would say).

      Smith would say you have a duty to be a benevolent person in general, but not to perform any specific kindness. If you never performed kindnesses, that would speak poorly of your character.

  • I must admit I’d steal the mad scientist’s machine. I’d feel bad about it. If, after humanity was saved, he chooses to press charges for theft, I’d plead guilty. But I’d do it. I’m normally not a consequentialist, but sometimes it becomes compelling.

    • Morality is made for people, not people for morality, after all! Note as well that you don’t have to be a utilitarian to think that consequences matter. Even Kant thought consequences matter. Utilitarians think consequences (for happiness) are the only thing that matter for determining the right thing to do, which strikes me as not very plausible.