Today is Blog Action Day, where bloggers everywhere are discussing the issue of poverty. This is a topic that I am passionate about, though I have not yet posted anything about it here on the site (but be sure to check out my article, 5 Ways the Web Can Help Us Eliminate Poverty, on my business blog). I think poverty is a serious ethical issue, and as such we have a strong obligation to fight against this problem. Extreme poverty is not only disastrous but also solvable- God has provided the resources we need to eliminate it. Yet, in our consumerist culture, we have turned a blind eye to our neighbors and have indulged in unneeded luxury. Even the Church has fallen into this trap- spending millions on fancy church buildings. Moreover, Christians hardly stand out from the crowd when it comes to consumerism- Christians with money are just about as likely as anybody to spend that money on unneeded luxuries while children around the world literally starve to death.
I think Christ called us to a higher standard. His care and concern for the poor and marginalized comes through on every page of the Gospels. Consider Luke 12:33-
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
Whether you are a follower of Christ or not, however, the ethical consequences of extreme poverty should be clear. I wrote an article on this issue a year ago, so for my contribution to blog action day, I’d like to repost that here. Unfortunately, I was limited to 1,500 words, so I was not able to fully develop all of my arguments. I will try to offer a more comprehensive review of this argument in the Ethics section at a later date. But without further ado, here is my essay on A Poverty of Benevolence: The Moral Obligations of the Affluent:
It is a chilly Friday morning, and, running a bit late, you briskly walk to class. As you pass the university’s water fountain, you notice that something is amiss. You hear the gargled shrieks of an infant girl, who has somehow wound up in the middle of the knee-deep fountain, struggling for her life but clearly losing. In a matter of minutes she will be overcome with exhaustion and unable to stay afloat. You can save the child from a painful and needless death and, according to your watch, make it to class on time as well. Alas, it is unfortunate that you are particularly well dressed this morning, and your trek into the fountain will certainly ruin your designer pants. Clearly unacceptable- these pants cost seventy-five dollars, after all. So you briskly walk by, ignoring the child, saving your pants, and making it to class a full two minutes early.
At this point, you are probably indignant at the thought that you would behave in such a manner. As virtually all people recognize, ignoring the infant’s shrieks to save one’s pants is morally outrageous. In fact, the case of the drowning infant is a classic thought experiment used to illicit such moral disgust. This example reveals an important truth about ethics, namely, that inaction in the face of preventable evil is morally wrong. Even if you are innocent of causing harm to another person, failing to act when you can alleviate their suffering, especially at little cost to yourself, is unethical.
Suppose that many other people are rushing to class this particular Friday morning, all of whom are equally capable of rescuing the child and equally responsible for doing so. Even if none of them did anything to save the child, this would not relieve you of your moral responsibility. Indeed, the presence of many other callous individuals who fail to help when they ought to may make it psychologically easier for you to justify your inaction, but it would have no bearing on the moral status of your failure to act.
Finally, suppose that the child lived far away, or was of a different nationality. Assuming that you were capable of saving the child without significant cost to yourself or the risk of danger of any kind, would you be justified in allowing the child to die? Clearly you would not be, because distance and nationality are not morally significant factors. One of the foundational moral principles of modern society informs us that all people have equal value. The Declaration of Independence affirms that “all men are created equal,” and this basic moral truth has provided the moral bedrock for the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. We must admit, at least, that a person’s nationality and proximity to ourselves are not relevant to the moral worth of that person.
We live in a world of drowning infants. More than 26,000 children die each and every day, most of them from preventable causes. The vast majority of these children live in the developing world, where poverty, war, and disease run rampant (UNICEF 1). This includes six million children claimed by malnutrition and more than one million claimed by malaria. These sad statistics are part of the broader phenomenon of extreme poverty- the living conditions faced by over one billion people who live on less than one dollar per day (UN).
Poverty profoundly influences billions of people who inhabit this planet, but the affluent in the developed world do not really feel its effect. They do not truly know what it is like to watch their own child slowly starve to death. They do not comprehend the fear that they may one day be forced to watch their relatives and friends be brutally raped by warlords. They do not understand the psychological consequences of wondering if they can eat next week.
Yet, the poverty suffered by so many around the world affects the affluent in one very important way. It convicts nearly all of us of moral failure. As we sip five-dollar lattes, live in $100,000 homes, and buy $75 pants, thousands of people around the world are dying of preventable causes. As a whole, the affluent of society have turned their gaze from the plight of those who suffer from extreme poverty to the allure of rampant consumerism. Every time we purchase fashionable clothing, eat expensive meals, and take exotic vacations, we indicate where our moral priorities lie. Thus, while it may appear that extreme poverty has no significant effect on the lives of the wealthy, it actually changes their moral status. If it were not for the existence of such extreme poverty, spending money on luxuries would pose no problem. However, given the facts of the current situation, spending priorities have to be adjusted if the wealthy are to retain their innocence.
Quick reflection reveals that our current situation is almost exactly parallel to the case of the drowning infant. Right now, a child is dying from a preventable cause. At relatively little cost to ourselves, say, by writing a check for $75 to UNICEF, Oxfam, or any number of organizations dedicated to alleviating extreme poverty, we can provide that child with the food, medicine, or protection he or she needs to survive.
There are millions of wealthy people around us, but they are not doing enough, either individually or collectively, to save the child, because the need for aid greatly exceeds the donations provided. As we noticed in the case of the drowning infant, their insufficient action has no impact on our moral obligations. Lastly, the child is far away from us, and probably of a different nationality. However, this no longer presents any insuperable difficulties. We live in a world of instant communication, rapid travel, and global organizations. These technologies, and the infrastructure of organizations that developed around this technology, have made it possible for us to easily, efficiently, and at little cost to ourselves provide life-saving aid to fellow humans around the globe. Clearly, we cannot maintain that the physical distance between the wealthy and the poor is morally significant. Since the current situation is so closely analogous to the case of the drowning infant, how can we condemn ourselves when we walk past the dying child while excusing ourselves from donating a vast majority of our expendable wealth to those who are dying of equally needless and preventable causes?
The proposal I am offering here- that wealthy individuals are morally required to give away the vast majority of their expendable wealth- may seem so out of line with our intuitions that it is deemed absurd. However, this is far from the only historical situation in which moral ‘intuitions’ conveniently conflicted with what was morally required of us. Not very long ago in American history, slavery was deemed morally acceptable by a high proportion of (non-black) society. We now know that slavery is in fact a moral abomination. We look back at the founding fathers; men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and are gravely disappointed that they owned slaves. Of course, Jefferson and Washington, along with many individuals in the southern United States, would have suffered a significant setback in financial success and standard of living if they were to give up their slaves, as they were eventually forced to do. Nevertheless, these inconveniences do not even begin to justify the practice of slave owning. Likewise, the inconvenience of sacrificing our high standard of living does not justify our failure to act.
We look back at the slave owners of the past with a profound sense of disappointment. Even though their behavior was within the norm permitted by their society, we know that what they did was morally repugnant and, thankfully, a thing of the past. Hopefully, a couple hundred years from now, people living in a society far more just than ours will look back at us with that same sense of disappointment. They will wonder how the wealthy of society were able to ignore the suffering and death of their neighbors, while blithely enjoying unneeded luxuries. If that world is ever to come- a world where extreme poverty, starvation, and preventable diseases are largely a thing of the past- it will require a profound shift in the attitudes of the wealthy, a shift that can start with us. Our generation can be the first to truly reject the cruel disparity of wealth that causes suffering for so many. Turning our gaze away from material success, we can focus on eliminating the disgrace that is extreme poverty, leaving a legacy that we can be proud of.
UNICEF. The State of the World’s Children 2008: The Women and Children (State of the World’s Children). New York: Unicef, 2008.
“UN Millennium Project | Resources.” UN Millennium Project | Welcome to Our Historic Site. 16 Apr. 2008