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Philosophische Zeitschrift der Kant-Gesellschaft

Ed. by Baum, Manfred / Dörflinger, Bernd / Klemme, Heiner F.

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A Duty to Be Charitable? A Rigoristic Reading of Kant

Peter Atterton1


Citation Information: Kant Studien. Volume 98, Issue 2, Pages 135–155, ISSN (Online) 1613-1134, ISSN (Print) 0022-8877, DOI: 10.1515/KANT.2007.007, August 2007

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To be beneficent, that is, to promote according to one's means the happiness of others in need, without hoping for something in return, is every man's duty. Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals

Almost everyone agrees that we have a moral duty to pull out a drowning child from a shallow pond even if this means getting our clothes muddy. But what are the limits of the duty of beneficence? In “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, which first appeared in 1972, Peter Singer attempted to specify those limits in terms of the following principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” Singer went on to use this principle to argue that we ought to be doing all we can to prevent Third World hunger. At the same time, he challenged the well-established Western moral viewpoint that makes it an act of charity rather than a duty for a relatively affluent individual to give money to help feed the world's poor. Singer left open the question of whether the traditional distinction between duty and charity should be redrawn or abolished altogether, although he insisted that giving to others who are starving, even at the cost of giving up luxuries such as new clothes or a new car, is not an act of charity, but a duty.

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