Ethical obligations of assistance


In his book The Limits of Morality (1989), philosopher Shelly Kagan suggests that there exists a pro tanto reason to promote the overall good. According to Kagan, a pro tanto reason is a reason that has genuine weight, but which may be outweighed by other considerations. In short, Kagan argues that if you are in a situation where you can do either A or B and your interests are equally affected no matter what you choose, you have a reason to choose the action that promotes the overall good. To illustrate his point, Kagan asks us to imagine that he is in a burning building. During his escape he find a child and a bird trapped within. Since he needs one hand free to clear the path, he can only save one of the two and Kagan picks up the caged bird and leaves the burning building. Clearly, he has done something wrong. As Kagan himself point out, the best explanation for this ethical judgment seems to be that we always have a reason to promote the overall good and that in the case of the burning building, no reasons seem to outweigh Kagan saving the child instead of the bird.

In Kagan’s view, no reasons are ever strong enough to outweigh the pro tanto reason to promote good, which makes him support a consequentialist approach to ethics – according to consequentialism, agents should perform the act that leads to the best overall consequences. We find the idea of a pro tanto reason to promote the good intuitively appealing, but we reject consequentialism. In our view, consequentialism is too demanding, since it implies that every time we have the chance to promote the overall good, we should do it.  According to consequentialism, it is thus wrong to spend an evening and a few dollars going to the movies instead of using that time to visit the sick or elderly and donating the money to charity – this seems highly counter-intuitive. In trying to create wide reflective equilibrium, we need principles that are more in line with our considered ethical intuitions, which is why we opt for the assistance principle (presented above). The assistance principle does not imply that we should spend every minute of our life promoting good, since such a sacrifice clearly seems to undermine our ability to run a healthy and competitive business. The assistance principle thus fares a lot better than the consequentialist credo in terms of matching our considered ethical Intuitions.

Kagan, S. (1989). The Limits of Morality. New York: Oxford University Press.