Do we have a duty to help others?

As usual, one of Andy’s posts has me thinking… this time it’s the one on Anthony Bourdain…

Andy argues that we ought to do what we can to help others, and I agree in general — the question is why?

One way to justify that answer is that it’s good for us to help others.  As a young married LDS woman, I accidentally helped the wrong family move.  A group of us went after church to help someone moving into our ward.  We didn’t know them and we simply showed up en masse to help a couple of guys in a rental truck.  We’d loaded most of their apartment when they asked where we’d come from — we looked surprised and told them the LDS church.  Turns out they weren’t the family we’d intended to help, but they were the family who needed the help the most.  It made us feel good and we stayed the extra hour or so it took to finish the job.

Afterward, we felt good that we’d helped someone who was clearly in a pinch…

The other reason to help is because helping actually benefits the person who gets the help.  This is a bit more complicated, as it needs to be separated from instances like the first — where helping others helps us.  Maybe helping others isn’t much of a sacrifice for us, so we don’t notice — perhaps if you’re wealthy and give anonymously via your money manager, you don’t know who you’re helping and they can’t thank you…

Is there an obligation to help others in this kind of situation — were you don’t benefit? I tend to think so, I think that you have a prima facie duty (ala Ross) of beneficence –the duty to help when  you can.  This duty is based on the fact that you CAN help someone have a better life, so you ought to do so.

The conditions surrounding the prima facie duty are pretty simple.  1) there must be a person who can be helped, and 2) it must be the case that you can help them.  There is nothing else grounding this duty.

Are there limits on this obligation?  Perhaps, but it doesn’t seem to me that most of us are anyplace close to reaching those limits.

Another of Andy’s comments in his post has me thinking about this dude — Kant

IF a photographer takes photos of a dying person in order to help other dying persons, is the original dying person being used as a means only?

Perhaps what a person can do is take photos, compelling photos that will prompt others to give more than they otherwise would.  The photographer is using their unique skill and talent,  doing what perhaps only they can to relieve suffering, even if they are using the image of a suffering person who won’t live long enough to see the relief.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative says, roughly, persons should treat themselves and others as ends in themselves and never as means only.  What that translates into is that we ought not take advantage of others’ in order to achieve our own goals.  This doesn’t seem to exactly rule out the photographer’s actions — especially when you take into consideration the photographer’s good motive (which is Kant’s main deal… you must have a good motive), namely helping others.  IF the photographer’s motive is to get rich and others are helped accidentally, then it doesn’t seem to be OK by Kant.

So — these were a couple of mostly unrelated ramblings about our obligations to others… what do you think?

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