Yesterday, I received an email from a reader that asks a question about moral obligation and giving to the poor:
Hi Keith, I came across an argument that I’d like your opinions on in terms of its premises and conclusions. I have my own but I don’t have a lot of experience in philosophy and so I wanted to hear the thoughts of a professional.
“It is sad that some people live in poverty in our country, but what is there to be done? Some people, such as highly educated doctors or visionary business leaders, contribute more to society, and so reap richer rewards. Why should they be under any obligation to give away some of their hard-earned wealth? If the government were to force them to do so in order to help people who contribute less, that would clearly be unfair”
This is the argument that I was hoping to hear your thoughts on. Thank you in advance and hope to hear from you soon.
As I understand it, the argument quoted includes the following reasonable assumptions:
- Everyone has a right to the rewards they earn through contributing to society (Assumption 1)
- Poverty is sad – unfortunate, undesirable, etc. (Assumption 2)
- It is good and morally praiseworthy for the rich to give some to the poor (Assumption 3)
- It is bad and morally impermissible for the government to force the rich to give to the poor (Assumption 4).
- (A fifth, and unstated assumption, is this one) It is morally obligatory to do what is good (Assumption 5)
The paragraph is responding to an argument that might have gone like this:
Premise #1. It is morally obligatory to do what is good (Assumption 5) Premise #2. It is morally good for the rich to give some to the poor (Assumption 3) Conclusion #1. It is morally obligatory for the rich to give some to the poor (from 1-2).
The paragraph responds by questioning the conclusion. Why should the rich be forced to give to the poor? There are two kinds of force: moral force and legal force. Moral necessity arises from people having a conscience and binding themselves to just behavior. Legal necessity arises from a government or ruler enforcing laws. The paragraph argues that neither type of necessity forces the rich to share with the poor because everyone has a right to the rewards they earn through contributing to society.
Here’s my response:
Assumptions 1-4 are all true.
Assumption 5 is false: Not all morally good actions are morally obligatory actions.
For example, it would be noble or honorable for me to quit my job and serve in a non-profit. However, it is morally permissible for me to stay at my day job. It would be honorable and praiseworthy for me to volunteer every evening at the local homeless shelter, but I am morally within my rights not to do so.
The scale or spectrum of moral value has four sections:
- morally necessary,
- morally forbidden,
- morally permissible (but not beneficial); and
- morally permissible (beneficial but not obligatory).
For example, it is morally necessary that I raise my kids well and love them; it is forbidden that I beat and abuse my children; it is permissible but not beneficial to yell and scream at them; it is permissible and beneficial but not necessary that I tell them every day, “I love you.” How much affection and unconditional love a parent shows to the child is up to them – obviously, the more the better but each has to do what they can.
So the conclusion the paragraph is refuting is indeed false: it is not morally obligatory for the rich to give away all their money (or even much) to the poor. However, there is a moral necessity that we share some amount with the poor and tithe or donate some amount to God and his workers. The amount is not defined exactly by morality nor by law. It is up to the individual to decide how much of their own hard-earned money to give away – obviously, the more the better but each has to do what they can.