Poverty: The Ethics of Global Aid
Poverty: The Ethical Debate on Obligation and Assistance
UNICEF estimates that 12 children who live in extreme poverty die every minute of every day. They died because they didn’t have access to clean water; they died because they didn’t have enough to eat. They die of malaria or intestinal worms – Something we don’t even let our pets suffer from. It’s a horrifying truth, and what may be even more horrifying is that these deaths are essentially preventable. For three dollars, a child could get a mosquito net for her bed that would protect her from malaria. To cure her of intestinal worms, a dose of medicine costs less than $0.50. As for food, you could probably feed her with the loose change in your pocket.
We have this money. I have it, and you probably do too. So why are all of these children dying? The United States is an affluent country; we have enough money to easily stop world poverty – just end it. But why should we? Why should I give any of my hard-earned money to strangers I will never meet? Thinking about world poverty and whether we have an obligation to do something to stop it really comes down to the question of obligation. Most of us don’t know anyone who is living in extreme, life-threatening poverty. The victims of that kind of poverty aren’t in our family or our friends.
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According to Ethics Care, we have no real obligation to those people. Or if we do, it’s much less than an obligation we have to those who are near and dear to us. Many people argue that we simply don’t have any obligation to help strangers in need. “We didn’t make them poor, and we never agreed to help them. So, if we do choose to help, that’s great, but such actions are super rogatory. They go above and beyond the call of moral duty,” is one side of the argument. Contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer thinks differently, however. According to an article posted by 100-Words Philosophy, “Singer’s argument depends on a straightforward moral principle: if we can prevent something very bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we are morally obligated to do so.”
Moral Dilemmas: Singer’s Call to Action vs. Hardin’s Nationalistic Stance
Most of us don’t feel the weight of obligation to help dying children we can’t see, but at the same time, we think we would have an obligation to help a dying child in front of us. Singer argues that if you see a need and you know you can help, you must, even if others can but don’t. Now, is it fair for us to bear the burden of helping while others sit idly by? No. It’s not fair at all. Fair doesn’t matter in this case. What matters is whether or not you choose to take action to prevent great harm at little cost to yourself. If everyone in America donated just one percent of their income to help people in extreme poverty, we could save so many lives.
Now, we know not everyone is going to do that, but according to Singer, each of us is responsible for our failure to help, regardless of what everyone else is doing. 20th-century American philosopher and ecologist Garrett Hardin took issue with much of Singer’s reasoning. Harden argues that “A Nation’s obligations are with its citizens. So, a nation should never risk the well-being of its citizenry to help members of another nation. The real problem, according to Hardin, is overpopulation. The hard truth is, if a nation has the most citizens, then it can support – no amount of aid will solve that problem.
So, quite counterintuitively, Harden said the most compassionate response is to do nothing. Now, there are at least two pretty immediate responses to this line of thinking. First, there are plenty of resources to go around in this world – they are just distributed extremely unevenly. Second, any argument you gave for caring about your nation over others could also be given for caring about your state over others, your city, or even your family. Morality calls fast to not draw arbitrary lines when it comes to who deserves help and who doesn’t.
- Singer, P. (1972). “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy & Public Affairs.
- Hardin, G. (1974). “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.” Psychology Today.
- Sen, A. (1981). “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.” Oxford University Press.