Obligations to Self and to Others

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


The obligation of the individual to act justly toward his fellowmen requires him, “as far as that is possible,” to do nothing that inflicts injury on them by depriving them of the things they need in order to make good lives for themselves. This is negative rather than positive. The positive side consists of actions that facilitate or enhance the pursuit of happiness by others, through helping them to obtain goods that they need, but that they cannot obtain wholly by their own efforts.

Does justice obligate us positively as well as negatively? Do we have a duty to take steps to benefit our fellowmen as well as to avoid injuring them? My understanding of the difference between love and justice leads me to say “No” to this question. It is love, not justice, that impels us to act benevolently toward those whom we regard as our friends.

The duties of justice relate only to the rights of others that we are obliged to respect, and this is but another way of saying that justice requires us not to injure them by depriving them of the things they need. In contrast, love, unlike justice, does not consist in rendering to others what is their due- — what they have a natural right to. It consists in giving them generously more than is their due- — in helping them, beyond respecting their rights, to achieve what they cannot achieve for themselves.

When one understands the friend or loved one as an “alter ego,” as another self, one acts positively for that other’s ultimate good as one acts for one’s own happiness. Just as one who is virtuously disposed to make a good life for himself would do nothing to injure himself, so he would do nothing to injure his friend, and beyond this he would take positive steps to advance his friend’s pursuit of happiness, even as he takes such steps to advance his own. This is the meaning of the profoundly wise observation that if all men were friends, justice would not be necessary. But even when they are members of the same community, all men are not friends, and so the restraints of justice are necessary to prevent one man from injuring another.

The obligation of the organized community, or of its government, to act justly toward its members or subjects, is both positive and negative. A just government is one that secures, as far as that is possible, the natural rights of all who are subject to it. In other words, it is under the obligation to injure no one. Beyond this, however, a just government is under the positive obligation, as a matter of justice, not of benevolence, to promote the general welfare. What does this mean?

It means, first, that it ought to preserve and enhance the common good of the community itself — the bonum commune communitatis — in which its subjects participate or share, a good that is essential to their making good lives for themselves. In addition, it means that a just government ought to help its subjects obtain the real goods that they cannot obtain wholly by their own individual efforts. As Lincoln observed, a government should do for its people what they, individually, cannot do for themselves.

This merely repeats what was said earlier about the purposes of human association, especially of the political community. The purpose of the state is to help men not only to live, but also to live well; it is, by its very nature, a means to these ends, and it serves these ends only when it promotes the general welfare by preserving peace and helping its people to obtain the things they need that they cannot obtain by their individual efforts. I would like to add only one further comment.

Since the individual is, as a matter of justice, obligated to work for the good of the community in which he lives, and since that good involves not only the peace of the community but also other aspects of the general welfare, the individual in discharging this obligation acts positively for the ultimate good of others as well as for his own ultimate good. What I said earlier about the individual’s not having an obligation, as a matter of justice, to act positively for the good of others is thus qualified.

In other words, the positive steps that he takes to help his friends or those whom he loves, he takes directly on their behalf and out of benevolence. But the positive steps he takes to help those members of the community who are not within the circle of his benevolence, he takes indirectly through discharging his obligation, in justice, to act for the good of the community, in which all its members share. Once again I must repeat that all the foregoing statements carry the qualification “under ideal conditions.” No one can be expected to do what, at the time, is impossible; failure to do the impossible is not morally culpable. This, of course, raises a crucial question of fact about what is possible or impossible.