3-10-87 Like a flash from the blue, a paper topic struck me yesterday. I’ve been thinking a lot about the relation between rights and duties, and yesterday it occurred to me that there’s a better way to handle the problem of charity than the perfect-imperfect duty distinction. Rather than say that we have a duty to perform charitable actions, but that it’s imperfect (that is, has no correlative rightholder), why not just say that we have a duty to be charitable, but not a duty to perform charitable actions? The distinction makes sense of our intuitions about charity, lets us maintain the correlativity thesis about the relation between rights and duties, and avoids reliance on the troublesome distinction between perfect and imperfect duties. I scrambled around last night looking for discussions by [Immanuel] Kant and [John Stuart] Mill, and today sat down to write something up. Believe it or not, there’s a publishable paper in here. I composed a first draft at the [Kaypro II] computer this morning, then gave a copy to Bob Schopp for comments. I hope to work on the paper little by little until it’s polished. [This essay was published as “Duties, Rights, and Charity,” Journal of Social Philosophy 18 (fall 1987): 3-12. It has been reprinted at least once in an anthology.]
We’re still discussing autonomy and sovereignty in Joel Feinberg’s [Philosophy of Law] seminar. I haven’t read Harm to Self  in a couple of years, but I recall the main arguments. Tonight David Cortner and another student argued that what a person chooses is necessarily what is good for that person. This strikes me as just crazy, and I said as much in class. Let me try to clarify things. The basic question is this: What is the relation between what a person chooses and what is good for that person? The answers fall into three categories: (1) conceptual or logical; (2) factual; and (3) normative. One might say this, for instance: The good for a person just is what that person chooses, or would choose, if the situation were to arise. On this view, it is self-contradictory to say that person P chose object O, but that O was not good for P. But we say such things all the time, and they make perfectly good sense. So there is no conceptual equivalence between what a person chooses and what is good for that person. [Put differently, not everything in which one is interested is in one’s interest.]
The second claim, a factual one, can be stated in many different ways. The strongest is this: As a matter of fact, it is always the case that what a person chooses is good for that person. But this is obviously false. All it takes is one instance of choosing something that is not good to refute this claim. The same goes for a weaker version: that as a matter of fact, most choices are good for the person choosing. A still weaker claim, however, is probably true: As a matter of fact, it is sometimes the case that what a person chooses is good for that person. I suspect that David and others were making a normative claim, the third kind, when they argued this evening. This claim goes as follows: Although persons do not always choose what is good for them, they are better judges of their own good than anyone else, so we ought to permit them to do their own choosing and acting. Actually, this is my view. Government is big, clumsy, and sometimes self-defeating. If government or other people were permitted to intervene in our affairs on a regular basis, whenever it was believed that we were harming ourselves or not benefitting [sic; should be “benefiting”] ourselves, the world would be even worse than it is. So all things considered, we ought to leave people alone.
Notice the difference in these views. The first is absurd, the second is just false (at least the stronger versions), and the third is true. I suspect that David and others hold only the third, but are confused about the kind of claim they are making. I got extremely impatient this evening while listening to their arguments. Do you blame me?
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