Why cosmopolitan duties are not duties of ‘collective beneficence’
Dr Anne Schwenkenbecher (Murdoch University)

April 14, 2015, 4:00pm - 5:30pm
European Philosophy and the History of Ideas Research Group (EPHI), Deakin University

221 Burwood Hwy
Burwood 3125


Deakin University


According to several cosmopolitan authors, our obligations towards the global poor or those struck by natural disaster are collective in character, attaching to groups of people (vaguely construed), such as humanity as a whole, or at least the affluent (Garrett Cullity, Liam Murphy, Andrew Schroeder, Bill Wringe). In other words, not only do they think that obligations of beneficence are obligations of collectives, or groups of agents, under certain circumstances, but they also believe that our cosmopolitan duties towards the poor are such collective duties. While I agree with the first claim, I disagree with the second and in this paper I will show why. The notion of ‘collective obligations’ as employed by cosmopolitan authors is theoretically underdeveloped. Entities such as ‘the affluent’ do not meet the minimum conditions for moral agency. Therefore the question arises of who exactly holds obligations of collective beneficence? Can the unstructured group of affluent people hold such duties or is it rather the individuals constituting the group? What triggers such duties and how do I – an individual agent – know when I have to act upon such collective duties? Authors employing the notion of collective obligations of beneficence commonly make the following theoretical mistake: they (in my view illicitly) draw tight parallels between the duties involved in clear-cut, small-scale, collective action scenarios where someone can only be assisted if people cooperate and the duties involved in large-scale collective action cases like poverty and disaster relief. This paper questions such a strategy and aims to show how the duties triggered in the former type of cases differ from those in the latter type of cases. It will be shown that global poverty and disaster relief are not the kind of cases which trigger duties of collective beneficence. This, of course, does not mean that we have no duties to alleviate global poverty; it merely means we must have a different theoretical motivation for them.

Anne Schwenkenbecher is a Lecturer in Philosophy in the School of Arts at Murdoch University. Before joining Murdoch in June 2013, she held appointments at The University of Melbourne, the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Australian National University, and the University of Vienna. Her PhD in Philosophy (2009) is from Humboldt University of Berlin. Anne’s research focuses on a range of topics in normative and applied ethics, as well as political philosophy and action theory. These include the possibility and normative significance of collective agency, the ethics of political violence, and ethical problems arising from climate change. Her book Terrorism: A philosophical enquiry was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.

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