The ‘Terrible Beauty’ of Imperfect Duties – Onora O’Neill and Amartya Sen on the Duty of Assistance

Part of the Studies in Global Justice book series (JUST, volume 13)


This chapter returns to the central question – to what extent do contemporary ethical approaches to the duty of assistance offer ways to resolve the tensions faced by those engaged in the current practice of assistance? Through an examination of the approaches offered by Onora O’Neill and Amartya Sen, it argues that both deontological and consequentialist frameworks can provide ways to resolve the tensions faced by those engaged in the practice of assistance. Both accounts are potentially disruptive in that they prompt questioning, critical reflection, and enable dynamic approaches to aid that stretch considerably beyond simple and determinate prescriptive actions. They clarify the basis of the duty of assistance as an imperfect duty that is wide in reach, and is open and unspecified in its requirements. Both approaches construct robust accounts of active situated agents engaging in a process of practical reasoning that supports agents to figure out how to specify the requirements of this duty in particular, concrete circumstances. Both accounts also point to additional considerations for those supporting such practices, and in particular, how agents might navigate issues related to harm and the matter of responsibility for the outcomes of action.


Practical Reasoning Moral Standing Moral Basis Imperfect Duty Impartial Spectator 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Barnett, M., and T. Weiss. 2008. Humanitarianism: A brief history of the present. In Humanitarianism in question, 1–48. Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Barry, B. 1991. Humanity and justice in global perspective. In Liberty and justice: Essays in political theory 2, 182–210. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Collier, P. 2007. The bottom billion. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. O’Neill, O. 1989. Constructions of reason: Explorations of Kant’s practical philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  5. O’Neill, O. 1996. Towards justice and virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. O’Neill, O. 2000. Bounds of justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. O’Neill, O. 2004a. The dark side of human rights. International Affairs 81(2): 427–439.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. O’Neill, O. 2004b. Global justice: Whose obligations? In The ethics of assistance: Morality and the distant needy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  9. O’Neill, O. 2009. Applied ethics: Naturalism, normativity, and public policy. Journal of Applied Philosophy 26(3): 219–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Rawls, J. 1971. A theory of justice. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Rawls, J. 1980. Kantian constructivism in moral theory. The Journal of Philosophy 77(9): 515–572.Google Scholar
  12. Rawls, J. 1993. Political liberalism. New York: Colombia University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Rawls, J. 1999. Law of peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F.S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T.M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C.A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P.K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R.W. Corell, V.J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. [online] URL:
  15. Sen, A. 2000a. Consequential evaluation and practical reason. The Journal of Philosophy 97(9): 477–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Sen, A. 2000b. Development as freedom. New York: Anchor Books.Google Scholar
  17. Sen, A. 2002. Justice across borders. In Global justice and transnational politics, 37–53. Cambridge, MA/London: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  18. Sen, A. 2004. Elements of a theory of human rights. Philosophy and Public Affairs 32(4): 315–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Sen, A. 2009. The idea of justice. London: Allen Lane published by the Penguin Group.Google Scholar
  20. Singer, P. 1972. Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(1): 229–243.Google Scholar
  21. Singer, P. 2004. Outsiders: Our obligations to those beyond our borders. In The ethics of assistance: Morality and the distant needy, 11–32. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Singer, P. 2009. The life you can save, 1st ed. London: Picador.Google Scholar
  23. Singer, P. 2011. Practical ethics, 3rd ed. Melbourne/New York/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Statman, D. 1996. Who needs imperfect duties. American Philosophical Quarterly 33(2): 211–224.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Natural SciencesTrinity College DublinDublin 2Ireland

Personalised recommendations