Christina Dineen, "Need and Normativity"

What is it about someone needing something, or being ‘in need’, that exerts a normative pull? This paper will question the source of this pull – that is, why we might take someone needing something to give us a moral reason for action, and what such reason for action might look like.

I begin with a survey of research in moral and social psychology on empathy and altruism, which suggests that people sometimes take the needs of others to be reasons for action. This indicates that the normative pull described is a common empirical phenomenon. I then move to consider three philosophical accounts of the way that someone needing something gives us moral reason for action. On a picture associated with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, the face-to-face encounter with the other puts me in a relation of asymmetrical responsibility to them in their vulnerability. Sarah Clark Miller’s Kantian care ethics posits that I have an imperfect duty of beneficence to the needy that is rooted in the mutual dependence inherent in the human condition. Finally, a neo-Aristotelian account drawing insight from the foregoing views is invoked to suggest that it is the morally relevant capacities of the being in need which makes their need morally significant and gives us reason to act. We are morally required to answer this need with responsiveness. This account is also shown to avoid two interrelated objections: demandingness, and the problem of obligatory aid. If it is right that we are morally required to be responsive to need, this has potentially demanding implications for our individual and collective conduct.

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