Poverty and Rightful Obligation
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, one billion people are currently living in a state of chronic hunger. This means that approximately one out of every six people on earth are undernourished and unable to access enough food to produce the amount of energy needed to lead active lives. Perhaps even more disturbing is that most Americans have access to as much food as they could ever need and many die every year from obesity-related diseases. Thus, we must ask, Do those with an abundance of resources have a moral obligation to give to the less fortunate and, if so, what portion of their earnings are they morally required to give In order to properly address this question, I will first examine the contrasting views of philosophers Peter Singer and John Arthur in regard to this issue. Then, I will argue for my own position that while the affluent are morally required to give a portion of their earnings to those in absolute poverty, they are only morally required to give to the point that they do not affect their own rightful pursuit of happiness.
According to Peter Singer, ??? if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it???(Singer 2). This sounds very uncontroversial until one starts examining what it obligates one to. So, qualifying starvation as a bad thing, it becomes clear that we should do everything we can to stop absolute poverty as long as it does not cause anything comparably bad to happen to us. He goes as far as to say that we should, morally, give everything to the poverty stricken up to the line of marginal utility. Knowing this will strike many as extreme, he does offer a second view which allows for not giving to prevent absolute poverty if it requires sacrificing anything morally significant (Singer 2). Still, this view requires giving up many of the luxuries that many of us have come accustomed to as I think it might be hard to assign moral significance to a coach purse or a carton of Haagen Dazs ice cream. In his view, he does not allow for proximity making a morally relevant difference in one??™s obligation and also does not distinguish from situations in which you are the only one who can help and ones in which you are among many who have the ability to help (Singer 2). Singer also addresses the common view that if we help those in absolute poverty now, then more people will die from absolute poverty in the future due to a massive explosion in population. He does not see this as a reason not to help eliminate poverty, but only affecting what type of aid one should give (Singer 6). For instance, one might support population control methods as a means to end absolute poverty or only give financial aid to countries which have instituted population control policies.
On the other Hand, John Arthur believes that the greater moral evil principle stated in the preceding paragraph should take entitlements into account. One peculiar example that Arthur gives to illustrate entitlements is that quite possibly having sex with a person could prevent numerous rapes and untold amounts of suffering for others (Arthur 3). While this might be a completely unpleasant experience, it must be shown that the unpleasantness is more than the suffering avoided otherwise one must do it according to the greater moral evil principle. While it would be nice, according to Arthur??™s view you are entitled to not granting sexual favors in order to stop rapes. There are two kinds of entitlements: Rights and Desert. There are negative rights which are rights against interference such as property rights and the right to life; and there are positive rights which require a contract or agreement such as the right to not have a business partner back out of a venture or the right for a baby to be fed and clothed when taken home from the hospital by its parents instead of being put up for adoption. The second type of entitlement is a desert which simply means that one has the right to keep what one earns (Arthur 3)While Arthur does not purport these entitlements to reign supreme over any obligation to help those in poverty, he does think that they should be weighed when gauging how much if anything one owes someone else. The ideal moral code, in Arthur??™s view, would combine entitlements and the greater moral principle minus the word ??? comparable??? in it (Arthur 4).
While I do not believe that one is off the moral hook simply because of any types of entitlements, I do think that one in not morally obligated to give until the line of marginal utility. One is obligated to give until the point that giving more would infringe upon one??™s own happiness. According to Aristotle a.k.a. ???the Man???, ???We may safely then define a happy man as one who is active in accord with perfect virtue and adequately furnished with external goods??¦???(Aristotle 54). As an example, I myself am a hobbyist woodworker and wood turner. Buying woodworking equipment and lumber might be seen as a luxury by Mr. Singer, but I contend that this contributes to the final end of happiness as an activity to be virtuous at. Also through this activity, I gain virtuous traits such as understanding and wisdom, especially in regard to patience. In addition, it is an activity which I can pass on to my son in his quest for the virtuous state. While I do think it ridiculous to try and make the case that my pleasure from woodworking outweighs the suffering of someone starving, all people have the right to pursue the final end of happiness. Which brings me to my second point. Mr. Arthur defends entitlements as protecting fundamental values such as fairness, justice, and respect, but what is fair about being born into absolute poverty What justice is their in not even having the illusion of being able to achieve sufficient wealth So as we have the right to pursue true happiness, we also have a rightful obligation to help others obtain the bare essentials to attempt the same up until the point we are affecting our own happiness. The major majority of people in poverty stricken areas work hard, but due to situations outside of their control they do not achieve the same wealth as many. So, when Arthur speaks of deserts or deserving what one earns, remember that the overwhelming majority in absolute poverty deserve to earn the equivalent of what hard work in other geographical areas would afford them.
We must also evaluate rightful obligations in practical terms. If I always give half of my income, then I might myself become economically stagnate. Thus, it might be necessary to give somewhat less when trying to build upon economic independence. For instance, one could give 25% of a $20,000 salary every year or one could give only 5% saving the rest to start a business which will have a manufacturing base in an extremely poverty stricken area. This allows for the propagation of wealth and a long term solution to absolute poverty. It is important to note that once one reaches a point of non-upward movement, meaning no longer actively expanding an economic base to help others, it is essential to return to the rightful obligation principle. Another practical point, is that aid should be focused on providing food needed now, but also on promoting education and independent economic prosperity. This strategy is two-fold: it will lead to population control through a lower birth rate and self-sustainability in economic terms.
Obviously this is a very long-term solution, but absolute poverty has been a long-term problem which we all must face. Everyone has the right to pursue Aristotle??™s final end, and all people should have the ability to do so. If even a decent percentage of people could fulfill their rightful obligation of giving to those in absolute poverty up until the point of infringing on their own happiness, then absolute poverty could be all but conquered. The most important thing to note is that no one is doing all they should and we all need to start doing more to end this unnecessary and unthinkable suffering.