"'Starving Children in Africa': Who Cares?"

Article excerpt


The current state of global poverty presents citizens in the Global North with a moral crisis: Do we care? In this essay, I examine two competing moral accounts of why those in the North should or should not give care (in the form of charity) to impoverished peoples in the Global South. Nineteen years ago feminist philosopher Nel Noddings wrote in Caring that "we are not obliged to care for starving children in Africa" (1986, p. 86). Noddings's work belongs to the arena of care ethics--the feminist philosophical view that morality is about responding to, caring for, and preventing harm to those particular people to whom one has emotional attachments. By contrast, Peter Singer's recent work, One World, advances an impartialist view of morality, which demands that we dispassionately dispense aid to the most needy (2002, p.154). Thus this question needs answering: am I obliged to give care to desperately poor strangers, and if so, which moral framework (Singer's impartialism, or feminism's care ethics) gives the best account of that obligation? I argue that as an American feminist I should care for Africans with whom I will never have a personal relationship. However, this obligation can be generated without relying on the impartialist understanding of morality.

Keywords: feminism, care ethics, global poverty


I imagine that many people would accept that volunteering time or giving funds to the less fortunate is part of moral life. Sadly, there are so many worthy causes, and so much suffering that needs to be alleviated, and (in the normal course of things) one does not have limitless resources to expend on all those who are in need of one's help. Some people might reasonably believe that we have an obligation to help those in dire need, regardless of their relationship to us. Yet others would counter that we only have obligations to give care to our own loved ones. (1) Our concern here will be a normative one. Do we have obligations to care for distant others, and if we do, which type of moral framework best accounts for this obligation? For example, do I, a white, American woman with no particular nationalistic or historical ties to Africa, have to give care to the poverty stricken, AIDS-afflicted, hungry, and politically repressed peoples who live there?

The question of when, where, and how to give to charity is particularly pressing to those from the Global North, who typically have tremendous affluence (compared with those of us who live in the South). History will judge Americans and other Northerners by how we respond to the needs of Southern peoples, just as history judges all those who dwell in plenty while others struggle to survive. I do not want to diminish or dismiss the poverty suffered by fellow Americans, or suffered by residents of other Northern countries. It would be a gross inaccuracy to say that everyone in the North is rich, and everyone in the South is poor. Yet if we do know anything about global economics, we know that the average citizen of the US, say, has more material goods and social welfare resources than the average citizen of the Sudan. The issue for the average American then becomes whether she ought to give her charity dollars to the Sudanese, rather than her fellow countrymen, just because the Africans probably need her help more than her own co-citizens do. Alternatively, one might argue that for the average American to really care for people in distant lands is impossible, because we only truly care for our loved ones.

The foci of this essay are our moral obligations to the world's Southern poor, and the moral perspectives that make sense of those obligations. Yet I must immediately offer a significant disclaimer. I will eventually argue that Westerners do have an obligation to aid those who suffer elsewhere in the world from dire poverty, but this is not to say that 'taking from the West and giving to the rest' is presented here as an ultimate solution to world poverty. …


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