Reason for Rescue: An Essay on Beneficence

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Duties of beneficence are not well understood. Peter Singer has argued that the scope of beneficence should not be restricted to those who are, in some sense, near us. According to Singer, refusing to contribute to humanitarian relief efforts is just as wrong as refusing to rescue a child drowning before you. Most people do not seem convinced by Singer's arguments, yet no one in my view has offered a plausible justification for restricting the scope of beneficence that doesn't produce counterintuitive results elsewhere.

I offer a defense of this restricted scope by introducing the notion of unique dependence, a notion that is both intuitively attractive and theoretically grounded. Roughly, someone is uniquely dependent on you when you are the only individual in a position to provide assistance. Why unique dependence deserves the importance ascribed to it is further explained by the following considerations.

First, when someone is uniquely dependent on you, you are in control of her situation. But this control cannot be exchanged for a reduction of suffering elsewhere without treating the value of this person as interchangeable with the value of others. But treating a person's value in such a way does not reflect our beliefs about the dignity and autonomy of persons.

Second, the relation of unique dependence entails that one's beneficiary is determinate. The reason this is important becomes clear once we accept the plausible (Scanlonian) idea that moral justification depends on what determinate individuals could or could not reasonably accept, not on the aggregative wishes of the whole. Thus when you refuse to make the sorts of contributions to humanitarian relief efforts that Singer and others demand, there is no determinate individual who can claim that had you made the effort to save her life, she would almost assuredly be alive.

Addressing distant suffering is, and ought to be, the work of collective bodies, particularly those bodies that set policy. Your individual obligations are to those bodies. When you refuse to contribute, you are responsible for not making an effort to reduce suffering, but you are not responsible for any determinate deaths.