Beneficence can be significant to moral action but criteria for good beneficence is rarely discussed. Much work has focused on how extensive the demands are on agents to be beneficent and on agents’ motivations for beneficence.
There has been little direct attention to the relationship between benefactor and beneficiary. The argument here is that serious deficiencies exist in the view that benefactors should focus primarily on satisfying another’s self-chosen ends. A narrow focus on the attempt to help someone satisfy her ends misses the harmful effects that benefactors can have on a dependent beneficiary's ability to choose freely from her own values and to utilize her internal and external resources in future action.
This paper will argue that beneficence that involves a relationship of dependence between benefactor and beneficiary cannot aim only at promoting that beneficiary's good, narrowly conceived as meeting her self-chosen ends; it must also preserve the current conditions that the beneficiary depends on for her free agency. A concern for free agency in beneficence goes beyond whether one satisfies someone’s freely chosen ends and respects her internal capacity to set ends. It must also involve the beneficiary’s overall conception of her good and the resources she depends upon in realizing that conception. When a benefactor fails to understand or respect the larger set of values a beneficiary may have, fails to account for a beneficiary’s fuller conception of her own good, or disregards the wider side effects of her action, the choice of means that benefactor uses are much more likely to undermine the beneficiary’s independently controlled resources. When a beneficiary depends on these resources for future choices, these side effects can undermine her free agency in the future.
Rivera, Lisa, "Harmful Beneficence" (2013). Philosophy Faculty Publication Series. 1.