Which, if any, moral theories say that doing some good deeds absolve us from doing certain others?

So suppose that Dave gives quite a lot of money to charity. Do any moral theorists claim that absolves him of the obligation not to lie about his affairs?

What if telling the truth would jeopardise his giving to charity?

  • Only slightly tongue in cheek: "No good deed goes unpunished."
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 16, 2017 at 18:42
  • I think you should always try to do the right thing and do good. However, your question does bring to mind the idea of karma. I thought of the phrase "karmic debt". I think karma would be theology though. Mar 17, 2017 at 2:15
  • This question seems to be mainly about the distinction between freedom of choice and general morality -- relative to hypocrisy. Giving money to your charity of choice is a good deed, of course. But there are natural limits on how much money we have available to give, so we are normally compelled to pick and choose from among the potential beneficiaries of our monetary generosity. But being essentially honest isn't a 'good deed' (or a favor); it's the morally right thing to do, regardless. Lying isn't as much a "deed" as it is a reflection of one's character.
    – Bread
    Mar 16, 2019 at 19:13

1 Answer 1


Kantian 'imperfect duties' (unvollkommenen Pflichtcome) come to mind. We have an imperfect duty of beneficence. This means that we have an absolute duty to help others - no rational agent could prefer a world in which nobody helped anyone else since this would be most likely self-harming. But that does not mean that I must e.g. donate to every charity that asks for money. I have a choice, from the unlimited range of possible charitable actions, of which specific charitable actions I will do. So I give money to African famine relief but not to Syrian refugee camps. Or I give to both of these but not to Homes for Retired Actors.

There is nothing glib or arbitrary about my choice. I make it conscientiously in light of what I know about the level of need, the reliability of the charity and so forth. But the point holds good : giving to one charity or to a number of charities absolves me from a duty to give to others. I have finite resources after all and other proper demands on my income.

For Kant on imperfect duties see Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, II Metaphysical Principles of the Doctrine of Virtue', §VII. (Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy)

Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy), Editor-Mary J. Gregor; Introduction-Roger J. Sullivan. ISBN 10: 0521566738 / ISBN 13: 9780521566735 Published by Cambridge University Press, 1996: pp.153ff; note also p.32.

  • Was about to write basically the same answer you've got here (philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/8870/…)
    – virmaior
    Mar 16, 2019 at 18:24
  • 1
    Had I known you were about to write, I'd not have done so. I just chanced on the question, edited it to correct grammar, then answered it. The fact that you largely agree with my answer is more than just reassuring. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 16, 2019 at 18:27
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    I particularly like the use of sources and plan to go back at some point and edit my older answers to include more of them. That definitely improves the quality of our site.
    – virmaior
    Mar 16, 2019 at 19:21

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