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I recall reading about this in Highschool, but I can't figure out who it was.

The premise was that every man has agency, and they are obligated to use that agency to change their environment for the better. I don't think it tried to establish what "better" meant, but left it up to whatever moral compass the person in question adhered to, trusting that the cumulative efforts of everyone to make their specific environment better would come out in the wash and lead to greater good.

An example would be WWII, Hitler used his agency to create/enforce an Aryan race. Everyone else used their agency to stop that because it was a bad idea. The end result was the Nazis lost the war.

I can't remember which time period this Philosopher lived it, but I think it was Western Philosophy. Maybe Late Renaissance or Ancient?

Google is not being of much help, so I'm hoping someone here knows what I'm talking about and can point me in the right direction.


More things I can remember:

Much like Maslow's Hierarchy, an individual had an obligation to smaller environmental units first. Like self, then family, then community, then nation. So you had and obligation to family first, then nation, etc.

I think the philosophy was based on the idea that we have no control over where fate puts us (born a king or born a pauper). So your obligation was to make what you can for the better. Like a king would have an obligation to the whole nation, but the pauper only to his family. And the more influence you got, the more you had an obligation to.

  • I am unfamiliar with the tags here so please feel free to add some that are relevant, I was not able to find any others. Thanks – amflare Sep 25 '17 at 22:31
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    This sounds very generic, any deontologist recognizing the duty of beneficence would do, you'll have to be more specific, I am afraid. The language of "agency" is pretty modern, so I doubt it comes from Renaissance or antiquity, but the sentiment itself occurs already in St. Augustine, who derives it from Christian love, and probably earlier. – Conifold Sep 25 '17 at 23:16
  • I just recently learned that Jean-Paul Sartre was an avowed Marxist and fan of Che Guevara who was apparently a big believer in action. But he may be just one of many examples. – David Blomstrom Sep 26 '17 at 0:12
  • @Conifold - I added some more. Does that help at all? I can try to dredge up some more memories if needed. – amflare Sep 26 '17 at 1:11
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Let's see whether there is a solution to your question through the method of eliminative induction. Let's call your premise the duty of beneficence:

The duty of beneficence: everyone is obligated to use her agency to change her environment for the better.

  1. First elimination

The ethicist we are looking for must acknowledge that there exists the duty of beneficence. Libertarians (Robert Nozick and Ann Landers) are eliminated.

  1. Second elimination

The jurisdiction of the duty of beneficence is not universal or global, but situational and localized. The duty is affected by agency (causality in making a difference) and a special tie. Differing capacities demand differing jurisdiction. The duty of beneficence of a king reaches much farther than that of a pauper. Also, there is a moral difference between saving a friend and saving a stranger, when both need our assistance and we can save only one. Saving a friend is intrinsically more morally valuable. Peter Singer and Richard Arneson (act utilitarians) are out as they believe that the duty is global and impartial. Also eliminated are duty ethicists since they also hold universalizability and impartiality. In other words, utilitarians and Kantians are eliminated.

  1. Third elimination

You stipulate that the moral theorist we are looking for may not be contemporary. Virtue ethics theorists generally hold the view that the duty of beneficence exists, but that it is constrained by the duty to near and dear. The duty to carry grocery bags for one's wife is far more stringent than that for neighbor's wife, if both require assistance. Virtue ethics theorists believe that morality is agent-relative since morally right act is not codifiable (the moral compass cannot be reduced to a moral principle that tells us what is a right or wrong act. Aristotle, Thomas Hurka and Samule Scheffler are virtue ethists, but the latter two are eliminated due to being contemporaries. So Aristotle got to be the guy you are looking for.

Postscript: Aristotle and generosity

In Aristotle, the duty of beneficence turns out to be the virtue of generosity. Generosity is a mean between wastefulness and stinginess. A man equipped with the virtue of generosity will give to the right person, the right amounts and at the right times. To obtain the virtue, he needs to be able to judge that his beneficent act will not sacrifice his own wellbeing, and will make a difference in the wellbing of the recipient. So a generous man will not give his lunch money to a drug addict. Aristotle maintains that private property is a necessary condition for generosity. Intuitively, if one owns nothing, one cannot give any. Since an ideal society is a society of virtuous people, and since generosity is an important virtue the exercise of which is preconditioned by a system of private ownership, Aristotle concludes that communism (of Plato) is a bad society as it eliminates people's ability to act generously.

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