Interpersonal Comparisons of Dignity and Eleemosynary Duties

“Imagine that a Wall Street billionaire is passing a bag lady on the street. She begs for a dollar. Should the billionaire give it to her? It’s just plain obvious that the bag lady would benefit more from the dollar than the billionaire. The donation would detract from his happiness less than it would add to hers. Therefore, interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible, and these comparisons ground our eleemosynary duties.”

So runs a familiar thought experiment beloved of utilitarians and consequentialists about property (like Rawlsians). Indeed, to deny that interpersonal comparisons of utility are ever possible seems willfully obtuse. Moreover, to deny that there are any eleemosynary duties is heartless and wrong. What I wish to challenge here is the idea that interpersonal comparisons of utility ground those duties.

Just as the original scenario resorts to the intuition pump, I shall do the same. This scenario is likewise intended to illustrate clear differences in utility across persons.

Imagine that you have been fairly well-off. Two formerly well-off friends of yours have, however, fallen on hard times. They have lost their jobs and run through their savings. They have sold their houses, moved into cramped, run-down apartments, and are generally living a hand-to-mouth existence in which they lack some of the “primary goods” needed for a decent life, such as the ability to save for the future. One friend bewails his condition constantly; he is clearly deeply unhappy due to his financial circumstances (but not suicidal). The other friend seems to accept his lot with relative cheerfulness; while he regards his financial circumstances, which are just as bad as those of the other friend, as a serious difficulty, he maintains an optimistic view on life and on the whole is not terribly unhappy.

Which of these friends is more deserving of your support, or are they equally deserving? For the utilitarian, the answer is clear: the unhappier friend deserves more financial assistance, as financial assistance will do more to raise his spirits. But is that the right answer? Intuitively, it is not. Intuitively, the second friend deserves as much support as the first, and we might even be more favorably disposed to aid the second friend — while we pity the first, we admire the resilience of the second and want to see that character trait rewarded.

Is there any principle beside the principle of utility that our intuition would support? I suggest our sympathy is activated by a natural respect for the dignity of other people. When we see people reduced to circumstances in which they cannot live a decent life, we sympathize with them and want to help them, even if they are not drastically unhappier than we are. The reason we sympathize with them is that they cannot do some of the things we regard as essential to a well-lived human life, such as the ability to plan for the future and lay by a store for executing those plans. We engage in interpersonal comparisons of dignity (my financial circumstances do not threaten my dignity, but his threaten his), and those comparisons ground our duties to aid others, as well as our duties to refrain from infringing on their rights.(*)

If both eleemosynary duties and duties of justice share a common ground in the dignity of the human person, then might not fulfilling the former require relaxing the latter? Doesn’t this position still justify a redistributive welfare state of the kind advocated by Singer-esque utilitarians? Dignity-centered morality may indeed justify the use of force to satisfy some duties to aid, but it would reject the notion, common among utilitarians, that all duties to aid are in principle enforceable. For instance, a dignity-centered morality could justify a starving person’s use of force to obtain the means of immediate sustenance, or a shipwrecked crew’s use of force to find shelter on private property. But it would not countenance, say, my friends’ coercing me to assist them to raise their financial circumstances. Justifying that statement is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I would refer interested readers to fellow Pilei (Pileator?) Jim Otteson’s forthcoming book, Socialism.

The other concern about a dignity-centered basis for eleemosynary duties is that it leaves a vast gray area. Exactly how far does someone’s circumstances have to fall before her dignity is at stake? Exactly how close to one’s personal acquaintance does someone have to be for a specific duty to aid her to apply? But these gray areas are virtues, not vices, of a moral principle. The sharp-edged answers of classical utilitarianism lead it into pitfalls. (One might of course say the same about particularly rigid forms of Kantianism.)

In conclusion, accepting that there are duties to aid the less fortunate whom we come across does not require accepting some form of utilitarianism. Indeed, a dignity-centered view of ethics does a better job of accounting for our intuitions about duties to aid.

(*) I am not claiming that human dignities can be quantified and summed up, or that a moral principle like “maximize total human dignity” is comprehensible, let alone persuasive.

One thought on “Interpersonal Comparisons of Dignity and Eleemosynary Duties

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