Obligations to People We Don’t Know

English: Statue of Immanuel Kant in Kaliningra...

English: Statue of Immanuel Kant in Kaliningrad, Russia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the classic moral problems is the issue of whether or not we have moral obligations to people we do not know.  If we do have such obligations, then there are also questions about the foundation, nature and extent of these obligations. If we do not have such obligations, then there is the obvious question about why there are no such obligations. I will start by considering some stock arguments regarding our obligations to others.

One approach to the matter of moral obligations to others is to ground them on religion. This requires two main steps. The first is establishing that the religion imposes such obligations. The second is making the transition from the realm of religion to the domain of ethics.

Many religions do impose such obligations on their followers. For example, John 15:12 conveys God’s command: “This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you.”  If love involves obligations (which it seems to), then this would certainly seem to place us under these obligations.  Other faiths also include injunctions to assist others.

In terms of transitioning from religion to ethics, one easy way is to appeal to divine command theory—the moral theory that what God commands is right because He commands it. This does raise the classic Euthyphro problem: is something good because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is good? If the former, goodness seems arbitrary. If the latter, then morality would be independent of God and divine command theory would be false.

Using religion as the basis for moral obligation is also problematic because doing so would require proving that the religion is correct—this would be no easy task. There is also the practical problem that people differ in their faiths and this would make a universal grounding for moral obligations difficult.

Another approach is to argue for moral obligations by using the moral method of reversing the situation.  This method is based on the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the basic idea is that consistency requires that a person treat others as she would wish to be treated.

To make the method work, a person would need to want others to act as if they had obligations to her and this would thus obligate the person to act as if she had obligations to them. For example, if I would want someone to help me if I were struck by a car and bleeding out in the street, then consistency would require that I accept the same obligation on my part. That is, if I accept that I should be helped, then consistency requires that I must accept I should help others.

This approach is somewhat like that taken by Immanuel Kant. He argues that because a person necessarily regards herself as an end (and not just a means to an end), then she must also regard others as ends and not merely as means.  He endeavors to use this to argue in favor of various obligations and duties, such as helping others in need.

There are, unfortunately, at least two counters to this sort of approach. The first is that it is easy enough to imagine a person who is willing to forgo the assistance of others and as such can consistently refuse to accept obligations to others. So, for example, a person might be willing to starve rather than accept assistance from other people. While such people might seem a bit crazy, if they are sincere then they cannot be accused of inconsistency.

The second is that a person can argue that there is a relevant difference between himself and others that would justify their obligations to him while freeing him from obligations to them. For example, a person of a high social or economic class might assert that her status obligates people of lesser classes while freeing her from any obligations to them.  Naturally, the person must provide reasons in support of this alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to present a utilitarian argument. For a utilitarian, like John Stuart Mill, morality is assessed in terms of consequences: the correct action is the one that creates the greatest utility (typically happiness) for the greatest number. A utilitarian argument for obligations to people we do not know would be rather straightforward. The first step would be to estimate the utility generated by accepting a specific obligation to people we do not know, such as rendering aid to an intoxicated person who is about to become the victim of sexual assault. The second step is to estimate the disutility generated by imposing that specific obligation. The third step is to weigh the utility against the disutility. If the utility is greater, then such an obligation should be imposed. If the disutility is greater, then it should not.

This approach, obviously enough, rests on the acceptance of utilitarianism. There are numerous arguments against this moral theory and these can be employed against attempts to ground obligations on utility. Even for those who accept utilitarianism, there is the open possibility that there will always be greater utility in not imposing obligations, thus undermining the claim that we have obligations to others.

A fourth approach is to consider the matter in terms of rational self-interest and operate from the assumption that people should act in their self-interest. In terms of a moral theory, this would be ethical egoism: the moral theory that a person should act in her self-interest rather than acting in an altruistic manner.

While accepting that others have obligations to me would certainly be in my self-interest, it initially appears that accepting obligations to others would be contrary to my self-interest. That is, I would be best served if others did unto me as I would like to be done unto, but I was free to do unto them as I wished. If I could get away with this sort of thing, it would be ideal (assuming that I am selfish). However, as a matter of fact people tend to notice and respond negatively to a lack of reciprocation. So, if having others accept that they have some obligations to me were in my self-interest, then it would seem that it would be in my self-interest to pay the price for such obligations by accepting obligations to them.

For those who like evolutionary just-so stories in the context of providing foundations for ethics, the tale is easy to tell: those who accept obligations to others would be more successful than those who do not.

The stock counter to the self-interest argument is the problem of Glaucon’s unjust man and Hume’s sensible knave. While it certainly seems rational to accept obligations to others in return for getting them to accept similar obligations, it seems preferable to exploit their acceptance of obligations while avoiding one’s supposed obligations to others whenever possible. Assuming that a person should act in accord with self-interest, then this is what a person should do.

It can be argued that this approach would be self-defeating: if people exploited others without reciprocation, the system of obligations would eventually fall apart. As such, each person has an interest in ensuring that others hold to their obligations. Humans do, in fact, seem to act this way—those who fail in their obligations often get a bad reputation and are distrusted. From a purely practical standpoint, acting as if one has obligations to others would thus seem to be in a person’s self-interest because the benefits would generally outweigh the costs.

The counter to this is that each person still has an interest in avoiding the cost of fulfilling obligations and there are various practical ways to do this by the use of deceit, power and such. As such, a classic moral question arises once again: why act on your alleged obligations if you can get away with not doing so? Aside from the practical reply given above, there seems to be no answer from self-interest.

A fifth option is to look at obligations to others as a matter of debts. A person is born into an established human civilization built on thousands of years of human effort. Since each person arrives as a helpless infant, each person’s survival is dependent on others. As the person grows up, she also depends on the efforts of countless other people she does not know. These include soldiers that defend her society, the people who maintain the infrastructure, firefighters who keep fire from sweeping away the town or city, the taxpayers who pay for all this, and so on for all the many others who make human civilization possible. As such, each member of civilization owes a considerable debt to those who have come before and those who are here now.

If debt imposes an obligation, then each person who did not arise ex-nihilo owes a debt to those who have made and continue to make their survival and existence in society possible. At the very least, the person is obligated to make contributions to continue human civilization as a repayment to these others.

One objection to this is for a person to claim that she owes no such debt because her special status obligates others to provide all this for her with nothing owed in return. The obvious challenge is for a person to prove such an exalted status.

Another objection is for a person to claim that all this is a gift that requires no repayment on the part of anyone and hence does not impose any obligation. The challenge is, of course, to prove this implausible claim.

A final option I will consider is that offered by virtue theory. Virtue theory, famously presented by thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius, holds that people should develop their virtues. These classic virtues include generosity, loyalty and other virtues that involve obligations and duties to others. Confucius explicitly argued in favor of duties and obligations as being key components of virtues.

In terms of why a person should have such virtues and accept such obligations, the standard answer is that being virtuous will make a person happy.

Virtue theory is not without its detractors and the criticism of the theory can be employed to undercut it, thus undermining its role in arguing that we have obligations to people we do not know.


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  1. An excellent outline of all the philosophical arguments in favor and against we having obligations to others.

    It seems that it all boils down to whether or not we choose to having obligations towards others insofar as we can really choose.

    In my case at least, empathy for others leads me to feel or believe that I have obligations towards them. If I felt no empathy, I’d feel no obligations.

    In fact, there are certain human groups (no, not other races) for which I feel very little empathy and in fact, I feel fewer or weaker obligations towards them than I do towards human groups (some of which live on the other side of the world from me and which I don’t know) with which I empathize.

    Why do I empathize with certain human groups and not with others?

    There are lots of factors, biographical, cultural, personal, maybe genetic, educational, political, sociological, psychological, which vary from case to case and would take volumes to explain.

  2. I think most of these can easily be countered with the Psychopath argument, who feels no empathy or obligation. So to ‘do on to others…’ a psychopath may respond with how thrilling it is to kill.

    I think the better approach is to limit inhibiting other people’s happiness and individuality. So, “don’t force or harm others, unless in self defence” appears to be the best approach. Does someone see any issues with this idea? Addressing both force and harm is important.

  3. The psychopath argument does have some appeal. As you note, someone who has no warm empathy would lack that motivation. But, a rational psychopath could see the value in obligations and accept obligations based on a “cold” consideration. To use a less extreme example, a professional who does not have an emotional bond with a person could still accept professional obligations on a basis other than feeling for people.

    Someone who is willing to hurt others would not accept that limit, just as your psychopath would not feel empathy.

  4. Empathy does seem to have a very important psychological role in people accepting obligations. But, I think that there can be “cold” foundations as well.

  5. Thinking it over, I’d say that, in my case at least, there is an interplay between empathy and the cold factors.

    Empathy leads me to establish certain cold rules, which then function when empathy does not and then in other circumstances, the cold rules open new doors to empathy.

    Establishing chronological priority is difficult because some ethical principles I learned as cold rules as a child or young person and form part of my superego, so to speak, while others were formed by experiences which made me empathize with victims of injustices, to which I had previously been blind.

  6. Perhaps this may be too simplistic an approach but I cannot understand how we can have obligations to people we do not know. Until you have met a stranger and gone through a process of familiarisation with him or her, you surely do not know how to treat them, they may be friendly or antagonistic, conniving or completely honest and straight forward. I think each stranger is in the nature of terra incognita and it is initially incumbent on one to discover what lies within this unknown territory. We do approach people with preconceived ideas however. For instance we may approach strange men in a different way from how we approach strange women. We may always adopt a friendly approach to strangers, but I would not call this obligatory. I would not say it is obligatory not to force or harm a stranger; because circumstances may arise where this is necessary without further thought. I think acting in such manner as is obligatory can only occur where you have certain information about a stranger which will be great benefit to him or her or otherwise. How ever the so called stranger is not really a stranger because you already know something about them. It could be asked, one is surely obliged to refrain from killing people we do not know? But it seems this would breakdown on the battlefield.

  7. Obligations towards strangers.

    How about?

    Offer your seat on the metro to pregnant women and very elderly people.

    Give, if you can, to charities which help the homeless and children with cancer.

    Don’t exploit others.


  8. s. wallerstein,
    Don was referring to people we do not know and have never met. If a woman was pregnant then you know something about her.

  9. Obligation is somewhat of a stern cold term, connoting the necessity to take some action whether we like it or not. For instance offering one’s seat to a pregnant woman or an elderly person is often done out of the goodness of one’s heart or, given all the circumstances, the best decision you could make. Obligation seems to note that one should give up one’s seat to the pregnant woman or elderly person notwithstanding the fact that as a result of a broken leg you would be more at hazard than they would be were you standing. There are many legal constraints which can be interpreted as obligations, for instance paying one’s fare before one makes a journey. There are obligations to play a game according to the rules. In certain settings there are also obligations so far as etiquette and tradition is concerned. To break any of these rules is regarded severely and there may even be punishments for so doing. There is rarely if ever any reason not to enforce the rule.
    So far as acts done within the context of morality are concerned my own opinion is that every difference makes a difference thus one never can replicate the same conditions again after a so called moral act has been performed Thus. a moral act in one set of circumstances can be regarded as an immoral act in another similar set of circumstances Moral principles are at best crutches that a morally sensitive person would not require, and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error. cf Stanford Encyclopedia, Moral Particularism.
    Out of all this it seems to me to speak of the obligations we have so far as people whom we do not know are concerned is to make judgements for action before we are in possession of all the salient facts. So far as I’m concerned there are some charities to which I would contribute because it seems a good idea, and the money I lose, may benefit somebody who has greater need of it than myself. I would certainly not claim that I was obliged to do this.
    I would say that for most decisions or acts that one makes in life one should take into consideration the present position and what is best to do in those circumstances. Certainly history can be a help in making a decision, but one should remember as I have outlined above, every difference makes a difference

  10. Don Bird,

    It’s easy enough to reformulate the rule about yielding a seat in the metro to a pregnant woman. We could make it an obligation to yield one’s seat to someone obviously weaker.

    However, as I stated above, I believe that we choose our obligations or they are chosen for us by our culture, education, upbringing, etc.

    There are no absolute obligations and no one is obliged to be obliged.

    Having conversed previously with you, I chose a few examples of obligations about which I sensed we might be in agreement, that we both might feel obliged about, but as I said, everyone chooses their obligations or has them chosen for them by their society and family, etc.

    The rules just make it easier to act. If I’m sitting in the metro reading a book and see a pregnant woman or an elderly person with a cane, I simply get up and offer them my seat without reflecting at all and go back to my book if there’s enough space to read it standing.

  11. David Keith Johnson

    Impossible to divorce self interest from this discussion. We are talking about what Dr. Matthew Ies Spetter at the Riverdale Ethical Culture Society called ethical norms, behaviors we expect of one another so we can function among people we do not really know. Of course the headlines and news sources are jammed with tales of people who do not subscribe to these norms – but that is new, is it not? You could not make a head line out the number of people who honored stop signs all across the world while driving about – a fairly innocuous example of an ethical norm. However, as person who was almost killed by a another who failed to honor this obligation to me, it seems typically significant among its more dramatic and affecting fellows – helping the weak, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, et al.

  12. David Keith Johnson

    *that is news, is it not? . . .
    And of course, Dr. Spetter might have been quoting someone, though his capability for creating such an original idea as “ethical norms” was obvious to any of us privileged to learn from him. (I have not interacted with him since the mid 80s. I hope he is still among us.)

  13. Ultimate or absolute reality is universal, to fragment it, to say one part is worthy of good or obligations but another part is not, is not corresponding to reality. Corresponding to reality is good, opposing reality is not. Evil has been described as a hinderer or that which is opposed to or obstructs reality.

    In a relative sense universal principles can be honored in the breach, such as if a stalker is not told the truth of where a person is hiding, or in a just war. In one case absolute truth becomes relative in the other the edict not to kill becomes relative.

    To correspond to reality in an absolute or relative sense is considered honorable, not to correspond is considered dishonorable.

    There may be many ands, ifs, buts, and maybes to justify narrow or selfish behavior but it is not complicated, if what is done or not done does not correspond to reality, to what is universal, it is not good.

  14. Re S Wallerstien Sept 11th

    Yes I think we are in agreement about what we would do in the three examples you gave. I would not regard them as obligations but acts done out of the goodness of our hearts and the hope it may bring some comfort to a deserving person if that is not too pompous a frame of mind. Whatever the case we do have to make a decision before acting and in this connection I may not offer my seat had I just emerged from hospital after treatment for a accident to my leg. However were the lady on the point of collapse and no other person appeared likely to offer her a seat I would offer her my seat and damn the leg. As I keep saying every difference makes a difference and the decision we make in one set of circumstances may not be the same as we make in other similar circumstances.
    Were I scarcely able to stand at all and yet still offered my seat to the lady I guess Kant would describe that as an act of moral worth. Try to make the right decisions taking if you can, all circumstances into account, and what is best for everybody including oneself and hope all turns out well. I cannot see what more one can do.

  15. By the way Dr. Matthew Ies Spetter died Dec 2012 aged 91.

  16. David Keith Johnson

    Thanks for the news, Mr. Bird. What a life. My wife and I were privileged to be married by Dr. Spetter. The theme of his homily was “forgiveness” as a key to marital cohesion – a commonplace from anyone else, but remarkable from a man who had lost a family to the Nazis and suffered in the camps. His take on the present discussion would have been enlightening to all, I am confident. To stay on topic, does the experience of suffering wrongs that are imposed not on a personal basis, but based on an arbitrary category (nationality/race, etc.) or some chance, change one’s obligations to strangers to behave ethically? I cannot believe it would, yet I would expect someone who so suffered to be susceptible to bitterness that would impede the empathy or even the rationality underpinning altruistic behavior.

  17. I think individual judgment is really down played, if I knew the person I can decide by reason whether or not to help the person.
    If I don’t know them it goes to the possibility of them being either help or no help kind of people by not knowing them I’m not going to be able to judge whether or not I personally would put them into either category.
    Imagine two situations one the “pope” needs you to hold a door open for him. The other “hitler”. Saying I’m obligated to help someone I don’t know is telling me I’m morally obligated to potentially help both these people.
    I would help anyone in my judgment of deserved assistance but I can’t see my obligation to the other side.

    The goal might even get changed, their all children… They haven’t done anything wrong yet so…
    The yet is my problem her just because they haven’t, doesn’t mean they won’t.
    Say I save a million children from starvation they then grow up to become a ratical group that ends up starting work war three.
    I was obligated to save them tho…

    Lastly if my rationale judgment of the person doesn’t matter, from a kantian look, I’m morally obligated to help the person without the use of my rationale will, thus treating myself merely as a means to save the people I don’t know.

  18. This blog has started a discussion between two of us on the question of altruism, and I would like your take on this, and anyone else who is reading for that matter.

    I donated my kidney to a stranger. I did so knowing that that the act would make me happy, which it certainly has, even more than I imagined. If altruism is doing a virtuous act with no expectation of reward in any way, can my act be considered altruistic? I think not, others don’t agree. What say you?

  19. s. wallerstein

    Ned Brooks,

    If you donated a kidney to a stranger, you’re more than an altruist. You’re almost a saint. I admire your generosity.

    Considering how petty and selfish most of the people around me are, I consider someone who offers their seat on the metro to a pregnant woman be an altruist.

  20. Thank you, but it was a very easy thing to do. I just need to convince more people of that fact and then there won’t be 103,000 people living hellish years on dialysis while their health deteriorates and their families suffer.

  21. s. wallerstein

    Ned Brooks,

    Besides being exceptionally generous, you express yourself very well. Perhaps you can write Mike LaBossiere or Jeremy Stangroom (the blog manager) to do a guest blog here or for one for them to blog about you. It would be interesting to learn your motives in depth because, as I said, in daily urban life I see few people willing to go out of their way for anyone else besides their immediate family and by “go out of their way,” I refer to simple gestures like offering a seat on the metro to a pregnant woman.

  22. You are my life long friend, I take compliments well. But please check out my website donortodonor.com and learn about the man for whom I am now trying to find a donor, that’s my current mission. There is a link there to an embedded interview I did with Freakonomics podcast three weeks ago. This effort is only about 5 weeks old but it seems to have legs.

    I would be interested in doing some sort of blog here, do you know Mike?

  23. s. wallerstein

    I’ll look at your blog when I have more time later. Thanks.

    I don’t know Mike personally. You might try contacting Jeremy Stangroom too.

    Let me compliment you on your efforts to find donors once again. I would not donate an organ to a stranger myself and in any case, I’m probably too old (70). However, some are more generous than me.

  24. Well, you are on the cusp. I donated mine at 65. I will contact them both and I’d love your take on the website, thanks.

  25. s. wallerstein

    Ned Block,

    I looked at your website: very impressive and professional.

    I also listened to your podcast. I kept thinking of something my father used to say, “if it’s too good to be true, it’s not true”, but in this case, it probably is true.

    Keep up the good work. Try writing Mike and Jeremy Stangroom. I can’t guarantee results, but one of them might be interested in having you blog or writing about you.

  26. “if it’s too good to be true, it’s not true” – that’s my argument against altruism.

    Thank you for listening to that podcast, it takes a little time I know. I have gotten some really heartfelt messages from people across the country who say they are motivated to consider donation because of the podcast – it doesn’t get any better than that.

  27. s. wallerstein

    I don’t quite understand your argument against altruism.

  28. Sorry, I’m just being facetious – suggesting that if you peel back the reasons why people do things for reasons that appear altruistic you may find a variety of alternative motivations. I am no different, so I guess I fall into the category of being skeptical of true altruism. When you give your seat in the subway to an elderly person or a pregnant woman, do you not feel ever so slightly more virtuous than those around you? I know I do. Is that not a reward in itself? That ever-so-slight smugness? Maybe I overstate the point, but these acts are not without their own internal reward systems.

  29. s. wallerstein

    I don’t believe in pure souls: they only exist in religious tales or patriotic myths.

    Everyone has mixed motives and no doubt the most noble person who you can admire, say, Socrates, was thinking “how did I get myself into this mess?” as they handed him the hemlock, which he drank apparently without fear, being a good actor.

    For me, a courageous person or a generous person or an altruistic person is one who acts courageously or generously or altruisticly with relative rationality.

    I say “relative rationality” because someone who donates their kidneys because they believe that it will help them win the lottery is deluded, not altruistic.

    One more point: virtues are relative to human behavior, not to some stuff in saints’ lives invented by creative folk in the Catholic Church or other churches. Since most people will not give 10% of their income to charity, someone who gives 10% of their income to charity is altruistic or generous, even though Jesus in the Bible tells us to give everything to the poor.

    So compared to the standards of contemporary capitalistic society, your donating a kidney is generous or altruistic.

    “True altruism” (your term) does not exist. We need only psychoanalyze any altruistic person and we’ll find a complex tangle of motives and drives, but once again, that does not mean that the person is not altruistic, in a human all too human (real) way.

  30. I had forgotten all about this blog which goes back to 2014. Ned said that giving his kidney had made him exceedingly happy which to me seems a little strange. Any charitable act I have ever committed has been done because it is obvious to me that somebody is in trouble and I can with very little inconvenience to myself get them out of trouble. In this connection I never give loans, only gifts. A Loan to a person does not really lessen their burden to any appreciable extent. Any help or assistance I’ve given to another person I cannot really say has ever made me happy or on the other hand, regretful, although I daresay the recipient of my so-called generosity may well have experienced some happiness. You cannot just stand by in life and see someone with a problem and knowing that you can assist them, very often with very little inconvenience to yourself, do nothing. I’m wondering on what circumstances I would donate a kidney. I suppose if it turned out that a family member was in dire need of a transplant I may well find it necessary to volunteer myself but it would be not without some concern for my own well-being and future well-being. I don’t think happiness comes into it, not for me at any rate it seems more a matter of practicality I’ve got something that can save their lives and not kill me it seems as simple as that but wallowing in happiness I am not sure about. To wallow in self-satisfaction concerning something one has done for someone else somehow seems to me, I don’t know— all I can say is– not quite right. I have no intention of donating my kidneys at the moment to a stranger. When they become available hopefully they may be of some use to someone. I have tried to take care of them during my life and so far they have served me well and hopefully may do the same for someone else. I’m now sitting here wondering to what degree of inconvenience I would have to experience to be less generous than I normally am.

  31. s. wallerstein

    Don Bird,

    I agree with most of what you say.

    I would only donate a kidney to an immediate family member or a very close long-time friend. Like you, that would not make me happy in the least, but I’d feel anxious and in addition, annoyed because I dislike being in the hospital, because the whole procedure is very time-consuming, etc.

  32. I am now wondering if it be more praiseworthy to do a charitable act which annoys me rather than one which pleasures me. I seem to recollect that Kant had something to say in that connection but I can’t be bothered to refresh my memory just at the moment. I think if I really wanted to help someone I could endure quite a lot annoyance/inconvenience provided it was of substantial help to the other party. I see helping other people as a necessity rather than a pleasure. But I must admit that I do not actively seek out those who want help but if I stumble across them or they approach me, I may well do what I can to help. I suppose my countenance is one of easy-going rather than philanthropic. That said there are millions of people in the world who do need help but I don’t think, as I have already said, I’m prepared to spend the whole of my life, seeking them out.

  33. s. wallerstein

    Don Bird,

    I think that Kant believed that truly moral actions are rational, neither done out of pleasure nor annoyance, but rather following the rational moral law, that is, the categorical imperative.

    I like to help people: people in the street often ask me for directions and I find it pleasurable to help them. I enjoyed being a teacher and helping people, especially young people, to learn. If a neighbor has a problem, I help them and I enjoy that. So too if my son needs advice, but from sitting down with my son and helping him organize his financial affairs, which I enjoy doing, to donating a kidney is quite a distance and donating a kidney, even to a loved family member, would not be pleasurable for me.

  34. 當關愛成為美德,讓座就是義務? - *CUP - pingback on October 11, 2016 at 7:49 pm
  35. Tegegnework Yirga

    I am so much moved by the topic as well as by the discussion.

    thanks, Tegegnework

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