Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Ending Global Poverty: Gain without Much Pain

Academic journal article Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly

Ending Global Poverty: Gain without Much Pain

Article excerpt

Most people no doubt agree that living in dire poverty is a very bad thing, and so they are disturbed to learn that 1.3 billion people in the world do. What moral claims, if any, does this situation make on the world's comfortable people? It can be disagreeable to think about the question, since if you answer it by doing little you may feel guilty, and if you answer it by doing a lot you may find yourself deprived of many things you thought you wanted, needed, or were entitled to.

Peter Singer's 1972 article "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" argued strikingly for a moral obligation to give unto others until giving more would make the donor as badly off as the recipients. Two years later, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick effectively denied any obligation to aid others. These positions set off the familiar debate among philosophers over whether and how much comfortable individuals are morally obligated to act to alleviate poverty, global or local. Despite the important contributions Singer and others have made and their influence on my own thinking, at a certain point I tired of this debate and the epicycles it induced.

One reason is that I don't believe the concepts of duty and obligation--so central in contemporary moral philosophy--are very helpful in describing or fixing our responsibilities in this realm. That's in part because of their yes/no, on/off character, suggesting a bright line where none is available. And the going moral approaches--utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, virtue ethics--are so open to interpretation as to be compatible with a very demanding morality, a pretty lax one, and everything in between. A pluralistic mix-and-match doesn't help solve the problem either.

I began to think that the familiar debate was asking the wrong question. We don't need a philosophical theory to become convinced that the current distribution of wealth is for a variety of reasons repellent and indefensible. So instead of asking how demanding morality is we should ask how to make poverty alleviation less demanding. Rather than determining precise individual duties, we should figure out how to channel human tendencies in the right direction. While some maintain that (as Samuel Scheffler puts it) Morality Demands What It Demands--and if we don't live up to its demands that just shows our deficiencies--I argue that when we have reason to think these "deficiencies" are nearly impossible to eradicate, we need to work around them. So it's not only unrealistic but unreasonable to expect too much of ordinary mortals.

One crucial part of the solution is to change the focus from individual duties to the behavior of groups. For a variety of reasons, acting together with others is less demanding on individuals psychically and materially, even if under some description each individual performs the same action.

We do and feel what others around us do and feel, and we judge our own level of well-being and deprivation by looking around us. You need a car when most others in your community drive cars, thereby undermining the public transportation system. You want shiny new gadgets because you see them and they're pretty. You feel cramped in a twobedroom apartment because you've always lived in a big house. Another central reason concerns status. Many people wrongly think only of status-seeking when considering why we do as others do--and they usually disapprove. As Adam Smith famously explained, however, concerns about status should not always be condemned as vanity: it is self-respect, not vanity, that requires that we have certain things others around us have. (1) In Smith's day the bare minimum was leather shoes and linen shirts for anyone who would be seen in public.

Deprivation, in other words, is often relative. From the significance of relative deprivation, captured in these examples, it follows that if we can induce collective change we can avoid making excessive demands on individual human will and character. …

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