Helping Street Beggars From A Philosophical Perspective

Seeing people stand on the side of the road asking for money is a common site in Rhode Island, especially in cities such as Cranston and Providence. It’s hard to know what the moral thing would be to do in these situations. If we give money to them, are we contributing to the bigger problem if they are only going to buy drugs or alcohol? Is it wrong to not give any money if we have it?

I think that most, if not all the moral thinkers we have studied during this class would ultimately say that giving money to someone who is in need would be the right thing to do. However, I think the motivation behind their reasoning is different for all. For my essay, I have chosen to discuss the views of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant.

Aristotle believed that in order to be a good person, one must possess the ideal traits or virtues. Virtues are “a trait of character manifested in habitual action” and they include courage, generosity, compassion, thoughtfulness, and patience, etc. These virtues are not something that we are born with, but by doing them regularly we nurture them over time. For example, no one is born courageous. It is nurtured by repeatedly doing courageous things that someone would be seen as courageous. He also believed that virtues lie on a mean, meaning that it falls between excess or deficient. Someone who is not at all courageous would be considered a coward and the opposite would be rash, both of these are considered vices and thus, not virtuous.

Generosity is considered to be one of Aristotle’s virtues which leads me to believe that his opinion would be that it is virtuous to give money to a beggar. Like all virtues, generosity falls on a mean, between stinginess and extravagance. “The stingy person gives too little; the extravagant person gives too much; the generous person gives just the right amount.” He would not want us to give to every beggar that we saw on the side of the street because it would ultimately lead to us to become poor, and we may end up in the same situation. However, Aristotle would want us to give money at least sometimes and more often than not. I think that how much someone gives to make them generous depends on the person’s situation and is up for interpretation. The significance of five dollars for someone who is a millionaire is different from someone who is low or middle class. Also, what one person considers as generous, another may consider stingy. Virtue ethics is all about perception.

Aristotle would believe that it’s the moral thing to do give money to beggars sometimes, but not all the time because it’s his opinion that virtues are what make someone a good person. Being virtuous is how one should live in order to have a rich, fulfilling life.

Immanuel Kant believed that it is not what you do that makes something moral, it is why you do it. By using the categorical imperative, we can understand if an action is moral or not. We can use the example of giving money to beggars in two ways, for instance: I want to give to money to beggars. The maxim behind giving to beggars is because I want to help them. If everyone gave money to beggars, would this be a good thing? The answer is yes so it would be moral to give money to beggars. However, if the maxim of giving to beggars is because I want to feel good about myself, then that is not moral because I’m using the beggar as a means to an end. So, while in both examples the beggar is still getting money, one is moral and one is immoral because of the reason why I choose to give money. 

Kant also believes that there is a difference between acting for the sake of duty and acting in accordance of duty. If we give money to the beggar because we feel bad for them, we are, according to Kant, acting in accordance with duty. While still a good action, this would not be considered moral. If we don’t feel bad for the beggar, and we really don’t want to give them money, but we do anyway that is acting for the sake of duty and thus considered moral. 

Even though these two views seem to be opposing, I still think Kant would give money to a beggar as long as he was doing it for the right reasons and not to somehow benefit himself. He would also give money because according to the categorical imperative, it would be a moral action.

The reason why we choose to do something is just as important as what we do. In the example of giving to beggars, I have to agree with Kant in his view that something is moral because of the motivation behind it. If we choose to give to beggars solely to make ourselves feel better, while still a good deed it’s not moral because of our intention behind it. We should give to a beggar because we want to help them and nothing more. Aristotle makes no mention of the motivation behind certain actions. He only states that as long as you fall between the deficient and excessive vices, would you be considered in this example, generous and only if you repeatedly did so. As previously noted, this idea is also open to interpretation. If I gave five dollars to a beggar today, I may think that’s generous but someone may thing it’s stingy and that I should have given more. What if I only give money once a year? Does this not mean I’m generous? I’m still choosing to give money to a beggar that otherwise could have been spent on something else. While I don’t necessarily believe that Aristotle’s view is wrong, I personally believe there is too much room for interpretation while I don’t believe anyone would disagree with Kant regarding the motivation behind something being the determining factor if something is moral or not.


  • Dimmock, M., & Fisher, A. (2017). Kantian Ethics. Retrieved from
  • Fieser, J. (2017, October 1). The categorical imperative. Retrieved from
  • McKnight, L. (2012, May 10). Immanuel Kant and 'The Categorical Imperative' for Dummies. Retrieved from
  • Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2015). The Elements of Moral Philosophy (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
16 August 2021
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