Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


Patricia Greenspana1

a1 Philosophy, University of Maryland, College Park


An imperfect duty such as the duty to aid those in need is supposed to leave leeway for choice as to how to satisfy it, but if our reason for a certain way of satisfying it is our strongest, that leeway would seem to be eliminated. This paper defends a conception of practical reasons designed to preserve it, without slighting the binding force of moral requirements, though it allows us to discount certain moral reasons. Only reasons that offer criticism of alternatives can yield requirements, but our reasons for particular ways of satisfying imperfect duties merely count in favor of the acts in question.

When the state is authorized to take over charitable obligations, it should not be seen as enforcing fulfillment of our imperfect duties, but rather as forcing us to help fulfill collective duties that may be substantially modified by transfer to the state, replacing imperfect duties with perfect. Besides the cost to us in freedom of choice there is a moral cost to replacing the virtuous motives of charity with those that tend to accompany paying taxes. However, a compensating feature of state involvement is the fact that its more precise demands come with limits.


Let me express my gratitude to my colleagues Samuel Kerstein and Christopher Morris, the students in my 2008 graduate seminar at the University of Maryland, an audience at the July 2008 meetings of the Australian Association for Philosophy, the other contributors to this volume, and Ellen Frankel Paul, for very helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.