Making room for options: Moral reasons, imperfect duties, and choice

Social Philosophy and Policy 27 (2):181-205 (2010)
Abstract
The notion of an “imperfect” obligation or duty, which most of us associate with Kantian ethics, affords a way of mitigating morality’s demands, while recognizing moral obligation as “binding” or inescapable, in Kant’s terms – something an agent cannot get out of just by appealing to ends or priorities of her own.2 Understood as duties of indeterminate content, imperfect duties such as the charitable duty to aid those in need leave leeway for personal choice – of whom to aid and when and how much, at any rate past a certain threshold. They therefore allow us authority to shape our own lives, balancing concern for others with our own nonmoral projects and concerns. But they interest me in the first instance in connection with practical reasons, taken as the basis of moral “ought.” On what I take to be the common account of practical reasons, they are essentially prima facie act-requirements, able to be overridden or undermined by opposing reasons, but otherwise constraining rational choice.3 If we have a reason to aid a particular famine victim, say, it is only the fact that we have just as weighty reasons to aid others instead, or to do something else with the same resources, that keeps us from being required to aid him in particular. A moral reason counts as binding on this account insofar as it outweighs competitors – the result being a moral obligation, “imperfect” where its content leaves significant room for choice. However, in a case where there happens to be some best or most effective way of fulfilling an imperfect obligation, and our reason for a certain option counts as our strongest 1 reason, what happens to our leeway for choice? I mean to be working from an objective notion of obligation and of reasons, as independent of what the agent knows or has reason to know, but in that case, when we supplement morality with rationality, there might seem to be particular victims we are required to aid, whether or not we can tell who they are. For surely we have a moral reason to aid any given victim, not just victims generally..
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