Is There a Moral Obligation to Help the Poor?

By: A.J. Privitt

I.     Introduction

The United States is one of the largest, wealthiest countries in the world[1]. In the United States, the average person spends $1,641 per year on their pets[2], $795 per year on coffee[3], and $2,827 per year on entertainment.[4] In contrast, around the world 40,000 children die every day due to starvation.[5] These children could be fed for just $160 per year.[6] These numbers raise the question: do those from rich countries have a moral obligation to help human suffering in poor countries?

II.     The Argument Against a Moral Obligation to Help the Poor

On one hand, some argue that rich countries have no moral obligation to help poor countries. For example, philosopher Garrett Hardin argues that while aiding poorer nations might make people from richer countries feel better about themselves, it would actually cause suffering to increase in the long run.[7] Hardin believed that poverty is caused by systematic issues, and aiding poorer countries prolongs suffering in countries that do not have the infrastructure to maintain the wellbeing of their citizens.[8] The real issue, to Hardin, is overpopulation, and infrastructure that is too weak to support it. Thus, you can help a starving child today, but you will only be feeding the problem and prolonging their suffering.

Hardin illustrates his point further through what philosophers refer to as the lifeboat analogy.[9] Imagine a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean surrounded by people flailing in the water. The lifeboat is already full of people, so if the passengers tried to help anyone in the water, the lifeboat would capsize, and everybody would drown. Hardin argues that just like space on a lifeboat is scarce, resources are similarly scarce.[10] If rich countries use their resources on others, then they would be giving away their resources that they could use for themselves and possibly creating more suffering by not being able to sustain their own population. Furthermore, some ethicists also argue that if poorer countries get assistance from rich countries, then they will become aid dependent.[11]

III.     The Argument For a Moral Obligation to Help the Poor

On the other hand, philosopher Peter Singer argues that rich nations have an ethical obligation to help poor nations.[12] Peter Singer created an analogy to illustrate whys this ethical duty exists. Imagine that you were dressed in expensive clothes as you walked to class. All of the sudden, you notice that a young child appeared to be drowning in a nearby pond.[13] Unfortunately, you realize that you won’t have enough time to change your clothes before the child drowns. Most people would agree that there is a moral obligation to jump in the water and rescue the child regardless of how expensive your shoes cost, because shoes are replaceable, but a human life is not. Just as you would admit that a moral obligation exists to save that child in the pond example, Singer would insist that there is a moral obligation to save starving children in a poor country. [14]

IV.     Conclusion

Whether it is on an international level between countries with foreign aid, or on an individual level in your city, poverty is more than just a philosophical problem. How you decide to address it can have a major impact on the world. Although there are two very different approaches to poverty, perhaps they can be harmonized. Going back to Hardin’s lifeboat illustration: if the goal is to help as many people as possible, would it change the equation if instead of thinking of rich nations as boats, we thought of humankind as one big lifeboat?

[1] Grant Suneson, These are the 25 richest countries in the world, USA Today (July 7, 2019, 10:00 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/07/07/richest-countries-in-the-world/39630693/.

[2] Michal Addady, This Is How Much Americans Spend on Their Dogs, Fortune (Aug. 26, 2016), https://fortune.com/2016/08/26/pet-industry/.

[3] Helaine Olen, Why do we believe Americans spend too much money on coffee and avocado toast?, The Washington Post, (April 8, 2019, 11:34 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/04/08/why-do-we-believe-americans-spend-too-much-money-coffee-avocado-toast/.

[4] Consumer Expenditures, Bureau of Labor Statistics, (Sept. 10, 2019, 10:00 AM), https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cesan.nr0.htm

[5] Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez, World Hunger: A Moral Response, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, (Nov. 13, 2015), https://www.scu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/more/resources/world-hunger-a-moral-response/.

[6] Joseph D’Urso, How much would it cost to end hunger?, World Economic Forum, (July 2015), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/07/how-much-would-it-cost-to-end-hunger/.

[7] Garrett Hardin, Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor, Psychology Today, (Sept. 1974), https://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_lifeboat_ethics_case_against_helping_poor.html.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Andre, supra note 5.

[12] Peter Singer, The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle, New Internationalist, (April 1997), https://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/199704–.htm

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

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