Resolved: Individuals Have a Moral Obligation to Assist People in Need

This is a great topic! It is a throw back to the good ol’ days of LD Debate when arguments were not confined by the rigid constraints of the real world but were actually debated on metaphysical territory, as they should be. So, let’s take a look into the topic and see what questions arise and which ones we can begin formulating answers for. Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive analysis of this topic like you would find coming from Victory Briefs. Instead, this is an overview designed to get you thinking about the issues the topic raises.

Resolved: Individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need.

It is important to begin with a grammatical analysis of any topic to understand the parts of the sentence which are important.

Nouns: individuals, people, moral obligation

Verbs: have, assist

Adjectives: in need

As you can see, terms are defined slightly differently when it comes to debate resolutions. Moral, for example, is not an adjective which describes a type of obligation. Rather, ‘moral obligation’ is a noun, taking on a different identity of its own entirely. It is improper to delineate the two and attempt to discover how our morals lead to obligations. Instead, we should look to where our moral obligations come from on the whole. The former method of examination already presupposes that our moral obligations originate from our morals, and so we inevitably end up trying to derive sources of our morality instead of deriving sources for our moral obligations.

The second important term to examine is assist. What precisely does it mean for someone to assist someone else? Do our obligations extend as far as putting our own lives at risk to save the lives of others? How much are we obligated to sacrifice of ourselves?

The final important term is in need. Again, the two words are not separated here. Rather, they comprise an entirely new adjective which describes a type of person. So, what is a person in need? People suffering from genocide are distinct from those involved in civil war, who are distinct from impoverished people, who are distinct from orphans, etc… Granted, these categories can intersect, but is there a need to separate them? The scope and type of assistance provided to each can be radically different. What if you don’t agree with the cause of the people? Are anti-Tamil elements obligated to help Tamils in Sri Lanka?

These are the term definitions which need to be addressed. My take on the resolution essentially ignores these nuances because the implications do not change the argument. Whether a person gives their life or gives some money, the point does not change that they are obligated to give something. Also, the object of any assistance would be to create an overall positive impact, so if the self-sacrifice is absurd, the goal is not really achieved. Continually, when examining the question of someone in need, it is more proper to examine regions or populations than it is to examine specific people or nations. For example, the Middle East is in need of assistance as opposed to a solitary Palestinian being in need. This prevents the issue of supporting specific causes, and rather institutes common goals like peace and justice. Therefore, the key to avoiding squirrelly arguments and abusive definitions/counter-arguments is to universalize things. This will be more important in rebuttals than in case construction because some people will undoubtedly attempt to corner you.

With those issues out of the way, the only thing left is the issue of moral obligations. This is the crux of this resolution. In order to debate the topic, you must adopt and argue for an origin point for moral obligations. Essentially, the resolution is asking you where you think our moral obligations come from and whether that means we have a moral obligation to assist people in need or not. So let’s talk about some sources of our moral obligations and the implications they have for the resolution.

The Social Contract – Our moral framework as individuals comes from the social contract. There are several philosophers which address the social contract and how it operates. The two most common philosophers referenced in LD are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The troubling thing is that these two individuals are often mentioned synonymously though their renditions of the contract are entirely different. For Locke, individuals have claims against each other because they are morally good and seek to promote the betterment of society. So, I don’t kill somebody because I recognize that everyone should have their life protected, as should I. If this is true, this means that we indeed have a moral obligation to help others in need because we deserve to be helped when we are in need. This principle leads to the betterment of society, and so a moral obligation arises. Hobbes, on the other hand, contends that humans are self-interested evil creatures. Therefore, we sacrifice all our rights to a sovereign (government, dictator, whatever), and that sovereign decides upon a fair system of obligations and punishments that everyone abides by. The extension of this point is that the sovereign cannot institue a punishment for not being altruistic because there is no corresponding right which is surrendered to the sovereign. Therefore, no moral obligation arises.

Natural Rights – Everyone is due natural rights, so our moral system ought to be based upon doing whatever maximizes natural rights. This means that, societally speaking, we have an obligation to help other people because it promotes life, liberty, and property/pursuit of happiness. Because inidividuals comprise society, this means that these obligation falls upon the individuals. On the other hand, there is the autonomy argument on the negative side. If we force people to be altruistic, we violate their autonomy. This argument can be made, but the impact is difficult to make. So what if we violate autonomy? It isn’t absolute anyway. We don’t let people yell fire in a crowded theatre because it risks peoples’ lives. Autonomy can be limited when its exercise causes more harm than good. So why not limit it in this case to prevent harm to people and promote societal welfare and such?

Utilitarianism – In this case, our sense of morality is derived from an ethical system. So, whichever course of action promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of people is the moral option. This is easy to argue on the affirmative side. If helping people in need promotes the greatest good for the greatest number (as is entailed by the word “helping”), the we have a moral obligation to do so. On the other hand, if helping people in need is actually more harmful, then we ought not to do it. I am also not a fan of this argument at all. It ignores the actual value clash in the resolution. The resolution is not asking which side has more benefits. In fact, the resolution assumes that the affirmative has more benefits. It is asking whether or not these benefits merit making altruism an obligation. Nevertheless, it is still a defensible position; I’m just not a big fan of it.

The Categorical Imperative – In order for an action to be moral, it must meet the three maxims of Kant’s categorical imperative. This can also be run on either the affirmative or the  negative side. On the affirmative, we can argue that we could definitely will helping people in need to be a universal law, and it doesn’t treat people as a means to an end only. On the negative, we can argue that altruism can never be universally willed because of its extremes, and that it treats people as a means to the end of their own betterment (effectively claiming inferiority of their moral judgment).

Anyway, these are just a few of the basic systems of moral evaluation that can be used when arguing this resolution. What I have seen a lot of is people using Singer and Korsgaard. While these two are very intelligent and well regarded modern thinkers, they actually do not provide logical justifications for their arguments. Singer argues that one is morally obligated to help others if he/she does not have to sacrifice anything of comparable worth. Yet, he never explains why this obligation exists. He claims that one’s moral worth increases, but again, he never proves why this is the case. The same can be said for Korsgaard on the opposite side of the argument. I would admonish debaters to stay away from modern thinkers as they do not develop actually systems of moral evaluation but rather solitary arguments without much solid grounding. Instead, LD debaters should understand how moral systems operate and develop cases built around a particular moral system, as that is what the resolution is really asking of them.


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