How far are we obliged to go in doing our duty to others, either as natural men and women, or as Christians?

Think about cases where people behaved like “Bad Samaritans” because they neglected to care for others in need within immediate proximity. You might be tempted to condemn them for their neglect, but hard and fast rules are incapable of accounting for the diversity and complexity of everyday life.

Let’s say someone is drowning in a lake. A man passes by; he’s the father of three children and is the only source of income for the family. Saving the drowning man would result in his own death. Is the father obligated to help to the point of suicide because of the first man’s own imprudence? Should he neglect his prior obligation to his family?

Thomas Macaulay, a British historian and Whig politician, contends that when a doctor or soldier’s dereliction of duty results in the death of his subjects, he is surely guilty of murder. However, “it will hardly be maintained that a man should be punished as a murderer because he omitted to relieve a beggar, even though there might be the clearest proof that the death of the beggar was the effect of the omission.” In other words, Macalauy is pointing out that deontic moral discourse only discusses the minimal conditions of morality. You don’t have an obligation to help the beggar because deontic morality is closely associated with the legal and, as Macaulay argues in his discussion of the Indian Penal Code, the penal law must content itself with keeping men from doing positive harm. Deontic morality can’t convince us to do good, it can only compel.

Further, in the classical liberal understanding of liberty, rights are essentially negative. You have a right not to be murdered and not to be robbed. John Stuart Mill, in his On Liberty, is skeptical of imposing positive obligations on citizens. Both classical liberalism and deontic morality justify neglecting Macaulay’s beggar. Even Thomas would say that good Samaritanism is not good if it is outside of the Samaritan’s means and takes precedence over his prior obligations. It was not until late nineteenth century British liberalism that liberty began to imply positive rights to things like education and food.

Humanitarianism, rooted in the Stoic’s idea of universal brotherhood, would reject both Macaulay and Mill. The humanitarian would argue that our duty is to all of mankind. But duty in the abstract is impossible to achieve and difficult to understand—we can’t take care of all people, and it’s difficult to imagine what that would even look like. We’re passionate about caring for third world countries, but this usually does more harm than good. Non-governmental organizations frequently send baby formula to women in third world countries when the women lack clean water with which to mix the formula. So it end ups being fed to hogs instead.

How do we respond to Macaulay’s beggar? We need to look at the axiological dimension of morality, which is concerned with virtuous action and ethical behavior. Virtue, not duty, is able to penetrate the complexity of the moral sphere.

A father shouldn’t starve his children in order to feed the beggar. Bad Samaritanism is sometimes prudent Samaritanism.