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The Independent Institute
Working Paper #18

Islands in a Sea of Obligation: Limits on the Duty To Rescue


Abstract: If we have a duty to rescue in a local emergency, must we also have a duty to rescue people from chronic famine in foreign countries? The basic puzzle is illustrated by the following pair of cases. ACCIDENT: You come across a traffic accident. You know that one of the victims will survive if and only if you stop to help. You also know that if you stop to help, it will cost you a hundred dollars. Compare this to: FAMINE: You receive a letter in the mail asking you to send a hundred dollars in support of a famine relief effort. You know that a life will be saved if and only if you contribute. Are these cases morally different? Assuming for argument’s sake that we have a duty in the accident case does this entail that we also have a duty to participate in famine relief efforts? Or are there obstacles blocking an easy move from such a premise to such a conclusion? I consider obstacles pertaining to beneficiaries: what we must do and what we must not do in the face of uncertainty about whether intervention will do more harm than good. Second, I consider obstacles pertaining to the self: the difference between duties we accept so as to make life meaningful and duties we must, for the same reason, reject. Finally, I consider obstacles pertaining to institutional frameworks that help to determine what we ought to expect from one another.