Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory

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Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory



    Liam B. Murphy




    Oxford New York Athens Auckland Bangkok Bogotá Buenos Aires Calcutta Cape Town Chennai Dar es Salaam Delhi Florence Hong Kong Istanbul Karachi Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Mumbai Nairobi Paris Sāo Paulo Singapore Taipei Tokyo Toronto Warsaw and associated companies in Berlin Ibadan

    Copyright ? 2000 by Liam B. Murphy

    Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. 198 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10016

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    All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Murphy, Liam B., 1960-Moral demands in nonideal theory / Liam B. Murphy. p. cm. -- (Oxford ethics series) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-19-507976-0 (alk. paper) 1. Benevolence. 2. Social ethics. 3. Utilitarianism. I. Title. II. Series. BJ1474 M87 2000 170'.42 -- dc21 99-029459 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

    Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper



    My first thanks go to Barry Taylor for his extraordinary teaching at the University of Melbourne, the inspiring example of his philosophical mind, and his judicious but kind encouragement.

    I first wrote about the issues of this book in my doctoral dissertation at Columbia University; scarcely a line of the dissertation remains, but my understanding of these issues has been fundamentally shaped by the suggestions and criticisms of my advisers, Charles Larmore and

    Thomas Pogge. I have also been greatly influenced by conversations with Robert Myers that began while I was finishing my dissertation and, happily, have continued since. In writing the book I have also been helped by the comments of many other people, including members of audiences at various colloquia and workshops, I would like to thank in particular Richard Arneson, Ruth Chang, Frances Kamm, Muhammad Ali Khalidi, Lewis Kornhauser, Jeff McMahan, Tim Mulgan, Joseph Raz, Amélie Rorty, Carlos Rosenkrantz, Lawrence Sager, Samuel Scheffler, Gisela Striker, William Talbott, and especially Ronald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel.

    Special thanks are due to Sibylle Fischer for her comments on many drafts and for almost ten years of discussions of the themes of this book; I have not managed to convince her of the wisdom of my ways, but the attempt has made the book much better.

    The readers for Oxford University Press were Shelly Kagan and Larry Temkin. Their extensive and extremely insightful comments on both details and fundamental issues helped me to improve every chapter in important ways. I am immensely grateful to them both. My greatest debt is to Derek Parfit. From his early enthusiastic encouragement, without which I probably would not have written this book, to his more recent voluminous comments on my manuscript, which cor-


    rected several important errors and led to improvements on almost every page, his generosity to me has been literally astonishing.

    I am grateful to Columbia University's Society of Fellows in the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation for a Teaching Fellowship, to Harvard University's Society of Fellows for a Junior Fellowship (and to Diana Morse for making life at the Society of Fellows so easy and so happy), to the Filomen d'Agostino and Max E. Greenberg Research Fund of New York University School of Law for financial support, and to my colleagues at NYU for their kind encouragement. Some passages from my article "The Demands of Beneficence", Philosophy

    & Public Affairs 22 ( 1993): 267-92 (? 1993 Princeton University Press), appear in different places in this book; I thank Princeton University Press for permission to reprint this material. Finally, I would like to thank Elizabeth Newman for allowing me to reproduce her photograph of the corner of Barkly and Canning Streets, Carlton, Melbourne, circa 1979. New York City L. B. M. September 1999



     3 1. Introduction

     9 2. Over-demandingness, Alienation, and Confinement

     34 3. Doubts about Over-demandingness

     63 4. Moderate Beneficence?

     74 5. Responsibility in Nonideal Theory: The Compliance Condition

     102 6. The Distribution of the Effects of Compliance

     117 7. The Collective Principle of Beneficence

     135 Notes

     159 Bibliography

     165 Index



    I. The Puzzle of Beneficence

    In some areas of moral and political thought, something like a consensus exists. No one denies that it is wrong to kill a person for the sake of stealing his car. Other areas of normative thought, by contrast, are characterized by great disagreement and uncertainty. The issue of *required beneficence is a salient example. Most well-off people feel that they should "do

    something" to alleviate severe suffering, such as that caused by famine. But there is certainly no agreement about the extent of this obligation to promote the well-being of total strangers. Furthermore, and more important, most individuals have no settled view of their own about the question.

    Of course, disagreement and individual uncertainty are found in other areas of normative thought as well. The issue of beneficence, however, is distinctive in a further respect, marking a striking contrast with issues such as abortion or euthanasia. For on the question of the shape of required beneficence, people not only tend to be uncertain but also appear to be quite 1content about this condition of uncertainty.

    How can this be? If I can greatly reduce people's suffering, and I believe that it can sometimes be wrong for me not to greatly reduce people's suffering, how is it that I can remain contentedly unsure, in any

    ____________________ *Beneficence is distinct from benevolence. Th e latter is about being well-disposed toward

    others, caring about their well-being; the former is about actually promoting others' well-

    being. Different accounts of beneficence employ different accounts of wellbeing (see chapter 2, section I) and differ further over whether "others" includes nonhuman animals (I

    do not discuss this issue). Strictly, "beneficence" is about doing good, which may involve more than promoting well-being; however, the narrower sense of the term, which I will use throughout, seems closer to ordinary usage.


    given case, whether failing to help is or is not wrong? As moral questions go, this one would seem to be very important, for the decision I arrive at is of immense significance for the people who are suffering. Since we typically care rather a lot about not doing even trivially wrong things of other kinds, such as stealing an apple from a market stand, or missing appointments without apology, our complacency about the question of required beneficence needs some explanation.

One possible explanation turns on empirical beliefs. Sidgwick observed that there seemed to 2be no "consensus as to what each man owes to his fellow-men, as such." He also claimed

    that "each person is for the most part, from limitation either of power or knowledge, not in a 3position to do much good to more than a very small number of persons." Given that very

    badly off strangers lived in Sidgwick's vicinity, and that organized efforts to assist the poor were not unknown in Victorian England, this claim seems wrong even for Sidgwick's time. A hundred years later, when efficient international humanitarian aid organizations and public and private agencies within our own countries can very effectively transform the surplus money of the well-off into greatly improved prospects for the very badly off, the claim is *fairly clearly wrong. But Sidgwick's view about the severe practical limits to any one

    person's ability to benefit other people is still widely held, and no doubt at least partly explains the prevailing complacency about beneficence.

    However, a much more significant part of the explanation seems to be normative. It is widely believed that when it comes to the well-being of strangers, the question is not so much one of what people should do directly, but rather one of which institutional regime they should support. One way of developing this idea leads to Rawls's division of normative theory into 4individual morality for people and political justice for institutions. I myself reject this

    division, but even if we were to grant it, the underlying problem of the extent of people's 5responsibility for the wellbeing of mere strangers would not go away. As I explain in section

    III, whether our responsibility for the well-being of others is mediated by institutional structures or not, we still have to know what the shape and extent of that responsibility is. In any case, the thought that beneficence is "for the government" suggests not just an institutional focus; more important in the current context, it also suggests that we tend to view beneficence in terms of collective responsibility. In this respect beneficence is different from other moral obligations, such as the obligation not to kill someone for monetary gain. This further distinctive feature of beneficence may do a lot to explain most people's complacency about it. For though each person is not sure what her responsibility is, what does seem evident enough is that

    ____________________ *See further chapter 2, sectio n I.


    most other people are falling short of whatever their responsibility may be. The practically

    relevant question of the shape of required beneficence is thus a question of "nonideal theory" -- a question, that is, of what a given person is required to do in circumstances where at least 6some others are not doing what they are required to do. This question of nonideal theory is

    especially puzzling in the context of collective responsibility, and a person may justify her neglect of it by noting the absence of any sign that others are prepared to do their part, whatever it may be.

    But that is not a good reason to avoid the question. We need to focus more than we traditionally have on the practically urgent problems of nonideal moral and political theory. II. The Problems of Moral Demands

    Whatever the reason for most people's contentment with not knowing what they owe other people as such, it is certainly the case that it is very difficult to come up with plausible answers to the question. Of course everyone accepts that it is morally good to promote the interests of worseoff people; "charity" brings social honor. But our question is what beneficent acts are required of us: When do we act wrongly for not promoting someone else's interests? If we limit ourselves to charity, the answer is "never" -- beneficence is always supererogatory. I take it that it is not especially controversial to reject this view; as I have said, most of us believe that well-off people -- or at least their representative institutions -- do have to do something. A "principle of beneficence," as I understand it, is a moral principle that sets out what beneficent action is required of people. The charity view thus presents no principle of beneficence at all -- indeed, it denies that there is such a thing.

    One of my two main aims in this book is to suggest a plausible principle of beneficence. The normative question to which such a principle is an answer is urgent and weighty, but there are no natural candidates. And thus my own suggestion -- the "collective principle of beneficence" introduced later in this section -- is offered in the spirit of exploring neglected possibilities. I believe that the collective principle of beneficence is more plausible than the alternatives I am aware of; but this does not mean that I find it overwhelmingly compelling considered on its own. In all parts of normative theory we must make arguments of relative * This cautious methodology is especially important in a case like plausibility

    ____________________ *See Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 52: "Objections by way of counterexamples are to be made

    with care, since these may tell us only what we know already, namely that our theory is wrong somewhere. The important thing is to find out how often and how


    this, where disagreement and uncertainty make it abundantly clear that there is no default view on the subject, no view that stands unless rebutted.

    In making the argument of relative plausibility for the collective principle of beneficence, much of my attention is devoted to the best-known principle of beneficence -- that embraced in the utilitarian tradition. The "optimizing principle of beneficence" requires agents always to do the best they can for others. It requires us to keep benefiting others until the point where *further efforts would burden us as much as they would help the others. This principle has the

    virtue of simplicity, but the demands it makes strike just about everyone as absurd -- as we 7say, a principle that makes such demands "just couldn't be right." Explaining why the

    demands of the optimizing principle of beneficence are absurd, if they are, is the second main aim of this book.

    The most obvious explanation is that the demands of the optimizing principle are simply excessive. I discuss this problem of over-demandingness in chapter 2, arguing as well that some other objections that can be raised against the optimizing principle may reduce in the end to the same issue of excessive demands. But having thus argued that the simple problem of over-demandingness is most likely what is really of concern even for those who raise more sophisticated objections, I turn in chapter 3 to cast doubt on that concern. The very idea of excessive moral demands turns out to be unclear. Efforts to introduce clarity, and to rescue the idea from the accusation that it simply states a bias in favor of the moral and political

    status quo, in the end serve only to undermine the initial intuitive force of the problem of over-demandingness.

    This collapse of the most natural explanation for the apparent absurdity of the demands of the optimizing principle of beneficence lends support to the alternative diagnosis I offer in chapters 5 and 6. I argue that


    f ar it is wrong. All theories are presumably mistaken in places. The real question at any given time is which of the views already proposed is the best approximation overall. To ascertain this some grasp of the structure of rival theories is surely necessary." *According to utilitarianism, the optimizing principle of beneficence is the only moral

    principle there is. Some writers use the word "consequentialism" for what I call utilitarianism. I understand consequentialism more broadly, as any view that assesses the

    rightness of action in terms of the goodness of consequences, where the goodness of consequences is not necessarily solely a function of well-being. (On the terminological

    issues discussed here and in the note on p. 3. I follow suggestions made by Derek Parfit.)

    I should point out here that talk of moral "theories" and "principles" in this book is meant to imply neither any particular metaethical commitments, nor any assumption that normative thought can be reduced to something like a decision procedure. As I understand

    it, a moral principle is just a representation, at whatever level of specificity is possible, of a particular area of moral thought; and a moral theory is just a representation, at whatever level of specificity is possible, of the whole of moral thought.