Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fair Shares and Others' Responsibilities

If others fail to fulfill their obligations of beneficence, are we obliged to pick up the slack? Liam Murphy's Fair Share view denies this, claiming that we are obligated to do our fair share (as it would be under full compliance), and no more. It would be "unfair", the thought goes, to impose any further costs on us beyond that. We should not have to suffer because of others' moral failings.

I'm not convinced that that line of thought actually makes any sense. For what about those who remain in desperate need of aid? Surely they should not have to suffer because of others' moral failings, either. And their suffering is much, much more serious than ours would be. It seems that others' moral failure leaves us with a choice: (i) pay slightly more than ideally should have been required of us, or (ii) allow others in need to suffer much, much more than they ideally should have to.

Now, maybe it's unfair that we are left with (i) and (ii) as the only available options. But on what planet is (ii) a fairer outcome than (i)? If an impartial benevolent spectator had to choose for us, isn't it obvious that they should pick option (i)? Insofar as considerations of "fairness" enter the picture at all, they surely support those in dire need who haven't received the aid they were rightly entitled to. If it's unfair for us to have to pay more because others aren't pulling their weight, it's grossly unfair for those in need to experience great suffering because of this fact.


  1. The fair share position has to be mistaken. Consider those cases where, if someone fails to do his fair share, and the rest do theirs, then the outcome is worse than if no one did his fair share. In such cases, if someone fails to do his fair share, it is false that I should do mine anyway. There are all sorts of examples. Just to pick one. Bob needs two doses of medicine D. One dose will make him sick and otherwise fail to help. Two doses will make him equally sick, but will fend off a much more serious disease. Suppose you fail to contribute your dose. It seems clear to me that I should not do my fair share.

  2. Maybe better. The only reasonable conclusions are that I should contribute both doses or none. I definitely should not do merely my fair share.

  3. I was a bit unclear in my portrayal of the Fair Share view. It doesn't say that you should behave exactly as if everyone else were perfectly fulfilling their obligations. (That's clearly mistaken, as your example illustrates.) Rather, the claim is that the amount of sacrifice you are obliged to undertake is determined by how much you would have to sacrifice under ideal conditions. But it may be that, in our non-ideal conditions, the particular sacrifices we should make may be different. Just equally weighty.

  4. It seems to me that the Fair Share view has to assume that obligations are fixed independently of the circumstances. I think most of the plausibility of such a view would be due to the fact that we do have obligations that work this way -- many legal obligations, for instance, since they have to be fixed beforehand, have to be relatively circumstance-insensitive. Under such conditions, the Fair Share view makes a lot of sense; you cannot refine legal obligations sufficiently to take into account all the circumstances, so you establish what would be the fair share, and you don't demand more (legally speaking). But it's much less plausible to assume that this would be the case with obligations generally; obligations of beneficence are a particularly good example, since, except possibly for the most general kinds, they seem to require special consideration of circumstances.

  5. Good post Richard. I've never been at all taken by the fair share view, but hadn't heard that criticism. My own criticism involves situations like that of German citizens during the holocaust. There is an interesting question about how much they were obliged to risk/sacrifice to help prevent the holocaust. Most people think that there was at least some sacrifice required. On Murphy's position, however, the level of sacrifice in the situation where everyone did their fair share is negligible (Hitler would simply have had to give up his desire to destroy the Jews), so there was no sacrifice required of german citizens.


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