on the moral status of donating blood

Yesterday, I went and gave some blood. This got me thinking about the moral status of donating blood. It’s got to be either obligatory or supererogatory. You might recall these definitions from my previous post on boycotting marriage:

  1. Obligatory: If an action is morally obligatory, that means that you must do it, from the moral point of view. Synonyms include “required” and “duty” (as in, “feeding your children is your duty”). Notice that “right” can be a synonym for both “permissible” and “obligatory.” When people say that something is “right,” their statements are ambiguous, and we have to figure out from the context whether they mean “permissible” or “obligatory.” For instance, if someone says “gay marriage is right,” they probably mean that, for any given couple, gay marriage is morally permissible, not that it is morally obligatory.
  2. Supererogatory: This word describes actions that go above and beyond what is morally required in a praiseworthy way. For instance, you probably think the  acts of charity performed by Mother Theresa were supererogatory. But not all morally permissible actions are also supererogatory. For instance, eating Lucky Charms instead of Golden Grahams for breakfast is permissible, but there’s nothing supererogatory about it.

You might be tempted to say that donating blood is a moral obligation – that you’re doing something wrong if you don’t do it. It would have to be a much weaker obligation than, say, that not to kill innocent people, but donating blood could be among your moral obligations nonetheless.

But, taking a closer look, I think that can’t be the case. Moral obligations and moral duties are closely related to rights.  If you have an obligation to do something for someone, that gives the person a right to that good or service (and/or vice versa – it’s perhaps a chicken and the egg problem to determine whether rights or obligations come logically first, but we can set that aside for now). For instance, when we say that parents have a moral obligation to feed their children, that can also be expressed by saying that children have a right to food which is enforceable against their parents.

To take the case at hand, imagine that you agree that donating blood is indeed a moral obligation. That amounts to saying that the recipients of donated blood have a right to that blood, even before you give it. But this is clearly wrong, because one person cannot have a right to a part of another person’s body. Even though healthy people are not harmed by giving blood and quickly replenish their own supply, it is risky to say that blood recipients have a right to it. How about people who need marrow transplants? Do they have a right to the marrow of all people on the Earth whose marrow is a match? How about people who need a liver transplant? Healthy people can often give a portion of their livers and, like in the blood case, their own liver regenerates. How about people who need a kidney? Do they have a right to one of yours? Healthy people need only one.

As you can see, it is both strange on its face and a slippery slope to maintain that there is a moral obligation for healthy people to give parts of their bodies to the sick. If it were a moral obligation, then the sick would literally have a right to parts of healthy people’s bodies, and could do what was necessary to enforce that right. Donating biological materials is supererogatory – going above and beyond the moral call of duty. The thing that’s interesting about blood donation, however, is that it’s a pretty quick and easy process for most healthy people, but it is literally and frequently life-saving. So, while I don’t think it’s a moral obligation, I do think you should still go do it ASAP :-)

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