Duty to Help Revisited; the Right to Receive Help

Recently in comments on an earlier post there was a discussion about the duty to help. I had originally asserted that libertarians don’t believe in a duty to help, and the commenter said that libertarians (or at least some libertarians) do believe that there is a moral duty to help, but that people shouldn’t be forced to do it. I pointed out that libertarians believe in a duty to fulfill contracts and that it’s okay to force people to do that, and I asked what’s the difference?

The answer boiled down to this: There are two reasons to fulfill a contract. First because it is the morally right thing to do, and second because the other party to the contract has the right to expect that the contract will be fulfilled and will be unjustly harmed if it is not. However, for helping, only the first reason applies. You should help to be a good person, but the help-ee has no right to expect help.

So if you force someone to help it doesn’t accomplish the goal of making them a good person because they are not choosing to do good, they are being forced. And since that’s the only reason the duty to help exists there’s no reason to force them if it won’t fulfil that goal.

Whereas with contracts, the second reason is why people should be forced to fulfill their duty. Forcing someone won’t achieve the goal of having that person be a good person, but it will at least prevent the unjust harm to the other party.

And from this conversation I realized something. The real difference I have with libertarians on this issue is that I believe that there are situations where the help-ee has a right to expect help and it would be unjust for that person not to receive help. I think this condition can occur in two ways: emergencies, and the requirement of equal opportunity.


Last winter there was a tragic case in our town. A woman who lived alone went out to have a cigarette. She slipped on the ice, fell, hit her head, and went unconscious. She froze to death before she woke up or anyone found her. Anyone walking by could have roused her or called 911. It would have been easy to save her life. As far as I know no one did walk by in time. But if someone did she had a right to expect that they help her. It would have been unfair for her to suffer death if someone else could have easily helped but didn’t feel like it.

There is a fundamental connectedness among all human beings that gives us both benefits and responsibilities. Humans are not born into isolation free from any involuntary connections to other humans. I have a brother. I didn’t get a choice whether to have a brother. Even if I refused to have anything to do with him I would still have a brother. Having a brother is one of the best and most important things in my life. I am not shackled and chained by this involuntary connection as libertarians would have me believe. Think of how sad it is when someone is estranged from their family. That’s our natural moral sense telling us that these family ties are good. It is literally true that every human being alive is genetically my distant cousin. We are all one family and we should act that way.

Now, I do believe there are limits to the duty to help in emergencies. In particular if helping is dangerous or difficult the potential helper has a right to self preservation and autonomy that may take precedence. But if the harm that the help-ee will suffer is vastly greater than the cost of helping then the help-ee has a right to expect help.

The Requirement of Equal Opportunity

Equal opportunity is a necessary requirement before we can call our society fair. And let’s face it, we don’t have completely equal opportunity. One of the best statistical predictors of a person’s income is their parents’ income. Another good predictor is the person’s education level, but a good predictor of a person’s education level is their parents’ education level. Until there is no statistically significant difference between the children of the rich and the children of the poor we don’t have equal opportunity.

Conservatives sometimes point at a success story of someone who started out poor and made good. They say or imply that the rest of the poor could have done that too, and their fate is their own fault because they are lazy and irresponsible. The problem with this reasoning is that “possible” is not the same thing as “equally easy”, and it needs to be equally easy before we have equal opportunity. Sure, there are lazy and irresponsible kids in the slums. There are also plenty of lazy irresponsible kids in upper middle class suburbia who wind up better off because their parents and other support structures do a better job of encouraging and directing them and cushioning their mistakes. Being perfect is not a requirement for deserving equal opportunity. Until a lazy irresponsible kid from Watts gets as much help as a lazy irresponsible kid from Beverly Hills we don’t have equal opportunity.

To the extent necessary to create conditions of equal opportunity the more fortunate, who got better opportunities, have a responsibility to help the less fortunate, who got worse opportunities. The amount of required helping being proportional to the difference in opportunity. The less fortunate have a right to expect that help, and it is unfair if they don’t receive it.

2 thoughts on “Duty to Help Revisited; the Right to Receive Help

  1. a slide down precisely the kind slippery slope such a focus was supposed to avoid. It turns out that in a consumerist, youth-worshiping culture, giving older persons the choice to kill themselves makes them anything but free.

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