Lincoln Douglas Topic Analysis — November

Looking for new angles on the Moral Obligation topic? We have them here! Resolved: Individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need.

The question of whether we have a moral obligation to help those in need is broad. What does “assist” mean? To what extent do you need to “assist” someone when they are in need? And most basically, how do you know when someone is “in need,” and how do you delineate between a need and a want?  These are all questions you will have to answer, especially before determining what value criterion structure you would like to use.

            There are many ways to define these things, but there are right and wrong ways to go about defining them. Most importantly, the concept of needs and how to address them is a philosophical issue. Needs cannot be adequately define by opening a dictionary. Common dictionary definitions, such as “a requirement, necessary duty, or obligation,” or “a lack of something wanted or deemed necessary,” open up more questions than they answer. Namely, when does something become “necessary”? That question can only be answered through a more in depth analysis of need, and that will only be found in philosophy.

            The most commonly used “need” theory is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, proposed in “A Theory of Human Motivation” in 1974. While this theory will be rampant during November and December, it has severe limitations that prevent its use as the only theory of needs presented in your case. The Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological theory, it is not philosophy. Because of this, it will define the issue at hand but will in no way tell you it’s implications for larger society or discuss whether individuals owe each other these needs. In other words, this philosophy will answer “what” but will not answer “why.” But defining the “what” is still important. Many other theories, as we will see, may do an inadequate job of defining what needs are, but will tell us how to respond to them. Maslow will tell us what needs are, and how different needs rank in order of importance. The purpose of the Hierarchy Maslow created was to determine the direction of “psychological motivation.” In other words, “Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of pre-potency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more pre-potent need. Man is a perpetually wanting animal. Also no need or drive can be treated as if it were isolated or discrete; every drive is related to the state of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of other drives,” says Maslow. Each need in his pyramid rests upon needs that must be achieved first, with the bottommost layer containing “basic needs” such as food, water, and homeostasis. While this theory may not dictate what individuals owe each other if there is a “moral obligation” to help, it will establish and interesting definition for “needs.”

            An important note: There are many laws on the books that deal with individuals helping other individuals. “Duty to rescue” law are popular internationally, and impose a legal obligation to help those in peril. In the United States, a few states including  California, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin have “Good Samaritan” laws on the book which do the same thing (Those laws are not to be confused with the law of the same name that protects good Samaritans who have already acted). These laws are immaterial to the debate. They are legal and impose a legal obligation. Given that we are discussing a moral obligation, these laws are irrelevant. Much of the discussion about them will also be irrelevant, given that the discussion will revolve around whether the government should have the power to impose a positive obligation onto citizens. None of that involves morality.

            We will discuss specific philosopher’s views on the obligation to help others in our discussion of the affirmative and negative. First, let’s discuss what values will most likely be used with this topic.


            The most common value for this topic will be morality because it is implied in the resolution. However, values such as societal welfare and progress make sense and will be common. With each of these values, it is necessary to define them thoroughly to attempt to preclude the negative from running morality-based kritiks (which, in this case will probably be Nietzsche-based, and most likely claim that no universal morality exists and cannot be compelled, thus any attempts to do so are harmful). Kritiks will be common, so the affirmative should prepare for them by having a solidly backed value to lean on.

            For the affirmative criterion, it would be interesting for the affirmative to run a theory. We’ll discuss these theories more in depth later, but a powerful single theory based affirmative (backed by different sources, of course), will be a good tactic. Something moderately out of the box like a value of progress paired with a criterion like “a net reduction in human suffering” would be interesting. Theoretically, if individuals were morally obligated to extend a helping hand and did so, the world would progress because less people would be suffering (I’ll go more into depth on this later). Utilitarianism and consequentialism based criteria will also be useful. Basic criteria like “maximizing altruism” and “minimizing harm” will also be common.

            For the negative, criteria that promote the benefit of the individual will be most common. “Maximizing individual rights” will be heard often, and will claim that a world in which helping others was a moral obligation would not allow individuals to prosper on their own and would shrink the concept of individual rights. Criteria such as “maximizing individual worth” and



            First, the affirmative can make arguments to back the idea that helping others is a moral obligation. Philosopher Peter Singer has written extensively about this topic, especially on the lines of helping those in poverty. He says, “The failure of people in the rich nations to make any significant sacrifices in order to assist people who are dying from poverty-related causes is ethically indefensible. It is not simply the absence of charity, let alone of moral saintliness: It is wrong, and one cannot claim to be a morally decent person unless one is doing far more than the typical comfortably-off person does.” He argues in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” that if we can prevent something bad from happening without causing something equally bad from happening, we ought to do it.
            Thomas Aquinas argues something similar. In Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 66, Article 7 he says, “Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man’s necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: “The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.”

            The affirmative can also make the consequentialist argument that helping others produces an overall good for society, and that humans inherently want to produce this good thus implying a moral obligation. This is typically best done as an altruism argument. In Catéchisme Positiviste, Auguste Comte elaborates on the theory of altruism, which establishes our obligation towards others. He says, “[The] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service…. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.”
            Altruism implies a dedication to others and an absence of self-interest. Philosophers who elaborate on altruism will be helpful for the affirmative, because they advocate societies in which the self is not the focus. Given that the self will most likely be the focus of any negative case, it is helpful to be brushed up on the theories and benefits of altruism. In “Ethical Naturalism,” philosopher James Rachels says this of morality: “Moral behavior is, at the most general level, altruistic behavior, motivated by the desire to promote not only our own welfare but the welfare of others.”



It is society’s obligation to help the individual, not the obligation of other individuals

Aid breeds dependence          

“Moral obligations” are not universal, and can’t exist as imperatives.

No man giveth but with intention of good to himself, because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts, the object is to every man his own good; of which, if men see they shall be frustrated, there will be no  beginning of benevolence or trust, nor consequently of mutual help. (Leviathan (1651), Ch. 15)

About Lauren Sabino

Lauren Sabino is the Director of Youth Programs at the National Center for Policy Analysis. She currently administrates Debate Central, the largest free online debate resource.
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