Limits

If beneficent duties are more than supererogatory, or optional, a persistent issue is how to discern their proper scope. Where do obligations to benefit others end? Are we morally required to give away all our surplus income and, beyond that, to chasten ourselves to more modest patterns of consumption? Are physicians obligated never to say "no" to patients so long as any thread of hope for improvement exists? Would beneficence require acceptance of higher taxes to fund universal health coverage, or does acting for my fellow citizens' good require me to die cheaply and forgo expensive treatments with low probability of benefit?

Beneficent duties may be limited in two ways. The first limiting force is duties to oneself. Self-respect, and an appropriate attention to one's own well-being, will of necessity restrict activities for the good of others, unless beneficence is given a preemptive place and is conflated with saintliness. Hume, for example, believed persons can be "too good," carrying "attention for others beyond the proper bounds," blunting a due sense of pride and the self-assertive virtues (p. 93). A second kind of limit involves our psychological capacity for identification of and sympathy with those who could use our help. The press of human suffering that could be alleviated by our actions is immense. To conceive of this larger and seemingly inexhaustible world of suffering as our charge would likely be debilitating. Jonathan Glover has suggested that a restricted but feasible beneficence may be the price we pay for our sanity. Limits to the duty to promote good restrict us, but also orient and direct our finite capacities. But perhaps the greater risk is that we will draw a circle around duties in a niggardly fashion, that our imagination will not be too large, risking paralysis, but too stingy and self-serving. It is this narrow and parochial tendency that concerns the advocates of a robust and extensive beneficence.

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