As a rule, society considers helping others to be a virtuous and noble deed. If you approach anyone on the street and ask them if helping others is a good thing to do, the answer would most likely be “Yes.” However, after getting this initial affirmation, there are many other subsequent questions that need to be asked: Who should we help? When should we help? How substantial should our assistance be? Are all those in need entitled to receiving help? How do you determine the line between those who need help and those who do not (Ford 637)?
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Through asking these questions, it is possible to conclude that not everyone needs, or deserves, help. Assisting others is easy when it is convenient and does not necessitate much effort. Each of us is prone to acts of kindness every once in a while, be that helping an old woman across the street, lifting heavy bags for someone, or giving some change to a beggar. These acts do not take much and can make a person feel good about themselves.
However, when pressed to act kindly on a more frequent basis, kindness can start to seem more like a chore. This is especially true when a request for help comes at an inconvenient time. In this paper, I will investigate a personal ethical dilemma, which revolves around helping others even at the most inconvenient of times.
The situation I am about to describe happened roughly 4 years ago when I used to live in a rented apartment in a large apartment block. Two stories below lived a lonely old woman who often struggled with getting her shopping up the stairs. I assisted her with her bags whenever I met her, out of the kindness of my heart. This continued until one day she showed up at my doorstep, asking me to buy some groceries for her.
Since she was old and frail, I agreed. Before too long, I started assisting her in all kinds of matters: I bought groceries for her, kept her company when she wanted to talk to someone and loaned her small sums of money, which she always returned. None of these things were particularly difficult to do, but they did start to increasingly impose on my time. Although tolerable at first, eventually I was beginning to grow weary of helping her. My weariness slowly grew into resentment, and I started to pretend to be away, refusing to answer her knocks on my door or to provide the company she desired.
The dilemma I faced was that of whether or not I had an obligation to help her out versus my entitlement to private time. Every time, I had a choice to either help out and, thus, suppress my resentment and desire for peace, or refuse to do so by coming up with excuses for myself and for the old lady in question. This constituted an ethical dilemma. For me, the key concerns in the situation I have described are those of duty versus inclination, as well as virtue versus self-indulgence.
Another thought to consider is whether or not the old lady required my assistance as much as she said she did. The questions considered within the scope of this reflection can be viewed through the prism of various philosophers who have addressed the issues of duty, virtue, and the accumulated well. I will analyze the dilemma from the standpoint of two philosophers, Emmanuel Kant and John Mill.
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To analyze the situation described above from an ethical perspective, I chose two differing frameworks: Kant’s deontological ethics and John Mill’s utilitarian ethics. These philosophical views offer two different outlooks on the issue based on virtues and duties to be upheld in a healthy society, as well as the total amount of pleasure accumulated as the result of my actions. To put matters into perspective, a standardized situation relating to my dilemma will be used to determine the most ethical course of action:
– Situation: I am in my room playing computer games and indulging in otherwise non-essential activities. I receive a knock on the door and go to open it. The old woman in question asks me to go buy groceries for her. It is late, and if I do not go right now, chances are the shop will be closed by the time I finish with my leisure time. I have no desire to go to the shop. What is the most ethical course of action?
Kant’s definition of duty and virtue is characterized by using the Categorical Imperative (Kohl 332). Helping others, according to Kant, is an imperfect duty, as while it is desirable that helping others all the time would be a universal rule, it is impossible to determine the exact amount of assistance the provider should give or the amount the recipient should receive (Stern 31). Thus, according to deontological ethics, while it would be an ethical duty to provide assistance of some kind, the amount should be left to the provider’s discretion.
I find this approach compelling because it reaffirms the necessity to help others in need while providing alternative ways of assistance. In the situation described above, I could have shared some of the food I already owned or asked one of my friends to help in my stead. Either way, I would not have left the old woman without some kind of assistance.
John Mill’s utilitarian ethics has a different approach to determining the most ethical solution to the problem. Namely, his idea is to calculate the amount of pleasure received by both parties and compare it with the number of negative emotions in both cases. What separates Mill’s ethics from Bentham’s utilitarianism is his differentiation of pleasure; from base pleasure, a lower form of pleasure, and higher pleasure, which has inherently more value. Base pleasures are satisfied by completing certain physiological wants and needs, whereas higher pleasures are based on aesthetical and moral accomplishments (Philp and Rosen 54). If we apply utilitarian ethics to the dilemma presented above, we will derive two different equations:
- If I refuse to help out, I will satisfy my base desire for entertainment. At the same time, I will suffer from what my consciousness perceives as an immoral action. The old woman would not have her base needs satisfied and will suffer from hunger, as well as from my rejection. Net pleasure: Negative.
- If I help out, I will not satisfy my base desire for entertainment. After the deed is completed, I will receive higher pleasure from overcoming my own laziness in order to help out another. The old woman will have her base desires for nourishment satisfied and will feel grateful for my help. Net pleasure: Positive.
I found John Mill’s approach to utilitarianism useful, as it provided clear and calculable reasons for acting virtuously rather than selfishly. It shows that if I helped out, my personal net pleasure would have grown as well, as higher pleasures are considered superior to base pleasures. At the same time, my net pleasure would have been negative if I refused, for the same reasons.
If someone approached me with a similar situation, I would advise the person to analyze it from several angles. Assuming that the dilemma revolves around helping/not helping others, the most important questions to consider are the following (Becket et al. 107):
- Is the person in question objectively capable of performing the task they are asking you to do?
- How hard would it be for them? How hard would it be for you?
- Are you capable of completing the task without compromising your own agenda?
- Does postponing the task compromise its purpose? Will your agenda be compromised if you postpone it?
- Can the task be delegated to someone else?
- Can it be replaced with an alternative?
- What is the total happiness/grief balance if you accept or refuse?
As it is possible to see, the questions posed above are the amalgamation of Kantian ethics and utilitarian ethics. While Kant would advise providing assistance, either way, John Mill does not rule out the possibility of refusing assistance altogether. It can be argued that Kantian deontological ethics could also be used to justify denying assistance in an event where the person is fully capable of completing the task on their own. In that situation, it is unethical of them to ask for assistance in the first place, forcing another person to work extra hard.
The questions I would not recommend focusing on would be those of personal gain. If there are any monetary rewards involved, besides the moral satisfaction of assisting another, then the question moves from the realm of helping to the realm of service provision, which would require a different analysis and a different set of questions to outline the ethical playing field. The concept of helping is defined as selfless assistance without any explicit financial or emotional gain. While helping others often results in gratitude and happiness, it should not be expected as a form of payment.
My advice to the person in question would change depending on the physical, intellectual, and economic standing of the person asking for my advice. Different people, by nature, have different capabilities of providing assistance (Howe 15). While a healthy and young person could be expected to help an elderly person out by offering them a seat on the bus, it would not be as appropriate for another elderly person to do the same, in similar circumstances.
Likewise, the amount of money spent on charity should be different if the person in question is richer or poorer. The personal qualities and capabilities of the individual looking for advice would affect the answers given to the list of questions provided above. In addition, familial ties to the person asking for help may prove to be a crucial determinant in deciding the course of the action.
Kantian and utilitarian ethics work well together, as one helps determine the course of action based on the notion of duty in relation to the common good, while utilitarian equations provide adequate explanations to what good actually is. While neither may have the perfect answers for every possible situation, they constitute a solid framework for simpler ethical dilemmas encountered in our day-to-day activities.
Becket, Chris, et al. Values and Ethics in Social Work. 3rd ed., Sage, 2017.
Ford, Robert. “Who Should We Help? An Experimental Test of Discrimination in the British Welfare State.” Political Studies, vol. 64, no. 3, 2016, pp. 630-650.
Howe, David. An Introduction to Social Work Theory. Routledge, 2017.
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Kohl, Markus. “Kant on Determinism and the Categorical Imperative.” Ethics, vol. 125, no. 2, 2015, pp. 331-356.
Philp, Mark, and Frederick Rosen. Editors. John Stuart Mill on Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Other Essays. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Stern, Robert. Kantian Ethics: Value, Agency, and Obligation. Oxford University Press, 2015.