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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 empathize) 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 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.

My private property rights don’t let me exclude others in dire need from resources that would otherwise be open to the world.

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.

My Oasis

We only owe gratitude to someone who helps us even though “he isn’t required to do that.”

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?

Reprinted from Ethics and Economics Education.

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