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Is there a duty to help those who are suffering? A philosophical point of view founded in ethics.

Published by Lawrence Sheraton , a.k.a “Mr. Ethics” of www.EthisDefined.org

Some background on ethics:

Ethics is concerned with elements of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.  Ethical considerations are manifested when two entities interact, where the interactions of one entity causes harm to or unfairly treats the other.  We tend to focus on the negative ethical acts as these are the ones that require remedy.  People treating each other kindly and fairly requires no action of others to further assist those on the receiving end of good treatment.

An understanding of ethics is knowledge that is applied mainly defensively.  Understanding ethics will allow you to defend yourself against another person or group of people.  It will allow you to defend others against groups acting unethically towards them.  

Ethical understanding is a hard thing to apply in a harmful or unfair manner, although I am sure it is possible...  The phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” comes to mind.  An understanding of ethics does not necessarily promote altruism.  

Understanding ethics won’t make you a better person, it will just make you a better judge of right and wrong.  Knowledge of what foods and activities are healthy does not mean you will eat healthy foods and engage in healthy activities.  You have to have an internal drive to be healthy and just as important the restraint to resist unhealthy activities; knowledge of health is not enough.  Understanding the “right” food and activities to pursue does mean that you are the master of your destiny when it comes to your general health however.  

The same goes with ethics.  It is not enough to know what is right and wrong ethically, you have to have an internal drive to do the right thing.  The world will test you continuously, and the right thing is often the more difficult and demanding of your options.  In this manner, the food analogy works quite well.   

Understanding ethics will allow you to destruct cultural norms; such as ones shrouded in morality (elements of Authority/Respect, In-group/Loyalty, and Purity/Sanctity).  Some cultural constructs are good, others are not.  Many times we need to unlearn our cultural constructs before we can decide which ones to keep, which to modify for the better, and which to discard.  Some constructs have been institutionalized.  

Institutions provide a great means of focusing groups of people towards specific goals.  Institutions require a certain level of introspection from time to time to ensure they are on the right path.  Tradition can be the enemy of forward progress.  Ethical understanding can provide the guidance to keep things moving in the right direction. 

Getting back to the question at hand, “Is there a duty to help those in suffering?”... 
From an ethical perspective the correct answer is “it depends on the circumstance”… as all ethical situations are circumstantial. This question is too vague to be answered definitely from an ethical perspective.

The phrasing of the question has an implicit bias; the words “duty”, “help”, and “suffering” imply the answer - Yes.  A duty is something a person of virtue is compelled to do; the compulsion being an inherit drive to “do the right thing” from an ethical/moral perspective. Help is an ethically and morally founded word, as in harm/care. Suffering implies harm is being done to someone; another ethical/moral trigger. Helping those in suffering is almost always a positive thing.  So the easy answer is Yes.  

You could have phrased the question another way, “Are you obligated to help a person or group of people who are suffering?”  The word obligation means basically the same thing as duty except obligation has a negative connotation; it is something that is expected of you, from which you have little choice. “When you can’t say no, your yes’s mean less”.  

The cause and level of suffering would likely be a factor; for instance - Is the suffering self imposed; is it a repeated cycle of self inflicted suffering, etc.  Your relationship to the entity may factor in - family, friend, stranger, member of a different group or species, non-living, such as the environment, etc.  Given your level of empathy and your perspective of “your group”, these things may be irrelevant but they are typically considerations that need to be weighed from an ethical or moral perspective.  The cause of the suffering is an ethical condition, the relationship of the other to you is a moral condition; the latter may be irrelevant from a strictly ethical perspective.   

Social Progress:  

“Social progress makes the well-being of all more and more the business of each.” – Henry George.

Henry George was an economist/philosopher in the mid-eighteen hundreds. He is from the liberal school of philosophical thought that defines the aim of social progress as improving the welfare of an ever increasing percentage of people in perpetuity. As western societies have become wealthier and more liberal in their thinking, they have tended to try to mitigate personal suffering through social welfare programs. These programs are designed to alleviate the worse kinds of individual suffering through government provided programs that pool the resources of the many to help the few who are down and out.

Government welfare programs also have the effect of individuals left to assume that “others” in suffering in their society will be taken care of by the government because that is one of its roles. They contribute indirectly by paying taxes that pay for these services and therefore a portion of compassion is outsourced. As cold of a statement as that is, it’s likely a better thing than no assistance. With ethics, “better” is sometimes the best we can do.

Does it make a difference if a person’s suffering is caused by his own bad behavior?  Where is the line between compassion and personal responsibility? 

The cause of a person’s or group’s suffering may or may not compel others to come to their assistance. It typically does factor into another’s decision to help a given person or group. If someone is consistently irresponsible or self-destructive; can you help them? If someone does not want your help, can you help them?  Should you try?  These questions get into the murky grey world where answers of “better” or “worse” are the closest approximations to truth we can gleam.  

Your moral/ethical framework will determine how you emotionally internalize these problems. Your personal framework will determine your political framework. There is a reason more people are compelled to help a child suffering as opposed to helping a homeless person on a street.  It is assumed that the child’s circumstances are not of their own making; whereas a grown adult on the street has likely made many bad decisions or may be “damaged” beyond repair.  These assumptions may be unfair on an individual basis, but are likely generally true.  

We all have an emotional spectrum which defines the pain we feel and which allows us to empathize with the pain others are experiencing. Our spectrum of who falls into the group “Others” varies widely as well. An “other” can be anyone who is not you, your family, your friends, your city, state, national group, humans, animals, all living creatures, or the earth itself; so the spectrum that one internalizes can be quite small or quite large.

From a pragmatic standpoint, we only have so much time, energy, and resources. So if you are looking to prioritize your ability to help others in suffering, how you go about it matters. If you see an adult on the street, “helping” that person is a tricky question. Is your goal to help them with money so they can buy some comfort (food, water, clothes, shelter, drink, drugs, etc). Do you give them food, shelter, etc? Do you try to help them out of poverty? Who do you choose and why? Does it matter as long as you are helping? The first thing you have to ask is, can I help this person? What if you do all you can do to help and the situation remains unchanged, when do you give up?  

The problem may be too big for one person, so a concerned person needs to be compelled enough to enlist the help of other concerned people to address it.  

The greatest amount of empathy with the largest pool of forgiveness likely exists between a parent and their children. As kids become adults and take more and more responsibility for their actions, a parent’s role retreats. There is a point with parents of adults who are constantly irresponsible, self-destructive, or mentally damaged (ranging from depression to schizophrenia, etc) where even a parent’s seemingly endless pool of empathy will dry up over time. For some parent’s the pool of empathy has an endless depth, for others its finite. As individuals and as societies we have to determine where we draw the line. These are murky questions and the line is always moving.  There are many situations for which the answer “right” and “wrong” are not available; only “better” or “worse”.  Picking the better path is not always clear, and many times it requires multiple approaches - variations on carrots and sticks.  

The source of the suffering matters.  The “fairness” of the circumstances matters.  Is the suffering caused by an act of God, another person, genetics, the person themselves?  The fairness/reciprocity pillar of ethics/morality requires reciprocity for justice to be done.  

“Justice is giving someone what they deserve” - Aristotle 

The more you can make an issue of suffering about an individual, the more people will likely respond empathetically. The more its about a group that is “other” from them, the more likely they are to ignore the problem.  This has to due with our genetic moral frameworks.  
Your question is difficult one and one that requires specific examples for a definitive ethical answer. And the truth is, each circumstance may have a different ethical approach but that does not mean there isn’t an ethically valid answer for each circumstance.

If you can help mitigate or dissolve another’s suffering, it is likely better to try than to do nothing or worse, exacerbate the problem. As a society, when prioritizing resources we should look to the ethical spheres of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity in appropriating our resources.

Good questions, no easy answers.

- Lawrence Sheraton,  a.k.a  “Mr. Ethics” of www.EthicsDefined.org
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