I'm interested in sources discussing the obligations we have to be "beneficent", e.g. through charitable donations. Famine, Affluence and Morality is one of the more famous articles of this type. SEP has an overview as well.

I am more interested in utilitarian-based reasoning, and things discussing what the "common man" can or should do, as opposed to things like medical ethics.

  • Zizek writes critically about the hypocrisy of charity as it operates within a capitalist framework; RSAnimate has put together a great animation that might be a helpful introduction to his concerns, which you can view here: furthertheless.com/2011/06/zizek-on-charity (It is based on a presentation given in '09, around the time First as Tragedy, then as Farce would have been published.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Apr 25, 2012 at 13:39
  • 1
    @Joseph Wow, Zizek and animation? I think I died and went to heaven. Apr 25, 2012 at 20:25

2 Answers 2


Beneficent behaviours as you have defined, are a narrow sub-set of so-called beneficent behaviours and makes an assumption that only "altruistic" behaviours (characterised by giving, selflessness etc...) are beneficent.

Philosopher Ayn Rand noted that there was "no conflict of interests among rational men", the full quote states:

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.

This suggests that a man can act in a self interested manner and still achieve so called beneficent results.

I challenge your premise that we have to be obliged to act selflessly. I instead suggest that through reasoned, selfish, action we can achieve a state of social harmony and remove the poverty and suffering charity is supposed to alleviate (There is nothing wrong with charity, per se. I am just saying there is no moral imperative to act in a charitable fashion).

As to the essay you linked to I found it a little disturbing. The author (of whom I am unfamiliar) seemed more concerned with "society" and the poor and destitute than with individuals. I recognise this trend in modern philosophy - that is, the trend to disregard the individual as inconsequential or irrelevant - but I strongly recommend you look elsewhere for arguments for or against altruistic behaviour.

  • Haha, interesting meta topic: is Ayn Rand a legitimate philosopher? Not exactly what I was looking for, but thanks, good to have dissenting opinions. (I'd be more interested in criticisms like William Easterly's, if you have things like that.)
    – Xodarap
    May 28, 2012 at 21:11

It may be that "obligation" is parasitic on the good in which case behaviors altruistic or otherwise might be described without reference to obligation. So, one might be generous not because there is an obligation to be so, but for some prior reason which might make obligation irrelevant.

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