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Posted by on Mar 12, 2014 in Regions |

The Ethical Dilemma of Property and Aid

The Ethical Dilemma of Property and Aid

L33roy100 via Flickr

L33roy100 via Flickr

David Miller, an academic who graduated with a PhD from the University of Oxford, critiques the view that global justice should be viewed as global equality. In his article Against Global Egalitarianism, to prove that global equality should not be sought, he argues that one has more of an obligation to their respective co-nationals than people across the world. To prove this, he outlines an example of a child that goes missing. Everyone can accept that this is not a good thing – it would be hard to provide an argument why you would want the child to go missing. Consequently, people fear for the safety of the child. Some agents, like the police, devote equal resources to finding the child. This is because is it their job to do so – they have a direct obligation.

The action of other agents, Miller argues, are dependent on the relationship to the child.  He argues that the parents of the child would have overwhelming reason to help find the child whereas somebody who does not even know the child would not have such a reason to help find the child. Further, even somebody from the same village or community would have more of a reason to help find the child than somebody from a different community. In effect, Miller uses this example to prove that one has a prima facie duty to one’s own child. Miller believes this to be analogous to the international system, and thus he holds that people have more of an obligation to their co-nationals than to other people across the world.

This, though, is not the case. We do, in fact, have an obligation to help impoverished individuals – even if they live on the other side of the world. Peter Singer helps outlines how physical and geographic distance is morally irrelevant. Although one may be more psychologically salient when the person who is suffering is somebody one knows, this is not a reason to say that one do not have a moral duty to help just because they do not know him or her. Singer brings up an example of a man who walks by a shallow pond to see a child drowning. Whether the man knows the child or not does not matter, there still arises a moral obligation to help – “[he] ought to act” either way.[i] Just the same as if there were multiple agents watching the child drown, this does not relinquish the man from his moral obligation to help. In terms of morality, distance does not matter. Singer’s argument relies on this principle and he holds that “we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us.”[ii] Thus there is no possible justification for the discrimination on geographical grounds.[iii]

Consequently, using primarily his pond example, Singer offers a very good explanation of how a moral positive obligation to help arises.  However, the issue lies in Singer’s argument that there is no coercive mechanism to make sure that everybody does the morally right thing.  One can accept that it is moral to help someone, but it is not always the case that they will, in fact, help out of free will [iv]. Following Singer’s argument that requires rich nations to offer help to impoverished nations, if the government coerced its citizens to donate, say 20% of their pre-tax income, people would revolt. One might ask oneself why they should bother to give up their own money to help other people who are suffering for something they did not cause? Already, people find issue in the redistribution of wealth at the domestic level, let alone trans-national redistribution. Singer would justify this redistribution on the basis of it being morally right. But this justification would hardly be acknowledged as universal, especially if it is taking something away from people. Thus this justification does not carry enough legitimate weight.

So, Singer is correct in the sense that we have a duty to help impoverished nations, but his reasoning does not provide enough justification to take things away from the citizens of a country. Thomas Pogge, an academic from Harvard University, provides an extension of Singer’s argument by filling in the holes that Singer neglected. Pogge’s extension holds that our sense of duty to help lies in our duty not to harm the impoverished nations. He sets out to show that the Western nations have inflicted an ongoing harm upon the poor. Therefore to set out an obligation to help – in the sense of ceasing to harm – Pogge outlines a causal relationship between rich countries and the poor countries. The obligation to help is contingent on the fact that we presently harm them and have contributed to their status of being impoverished through colonialism and international economic structures. This provides legitimate justification in taking away a citizen’s assets to help another (i.e redistribution) because it provides both fault, and consequently responsibility – on behalf of the citizen and the government that they have democratically elected.

alasdair massie via Flickr

alasdair massie via Flickr

Take, for example Singer’s own scenario of a man who walks by a drowning child. If I am the man that walks by the child, I may be morally obligated to help – Singer would acknowledge this much. There remains a chance, however, that I do not help since there is no coercive mechanism forcing me to help the child and sacrifice my time. What I want to demonstrate though, is that there arises a more pre-eminent obligation to save the drowning child – despite there existing no coercive mechanism – if it is my fault that the child is drowning. Of course, if I purposely drown the child that is murder, but if I had spilled a slippery lubricant on the ground earlier, and consequently, the child slipped on it and began to drown, this is my fault and therefore there arises an obligation that is more pre-eminent than merely a moral obligation. I do not want to be held accountable for the child’s drowning – whether it is because I do not want to be incriminated or I do not want to deal with the guilt. Therefore I am more likely to help the drowning child if it is my own fault.

Thus Pogge’s argument is not as extreme as Singer – who believes we ought to help out of moral obligation. Pogge places the burden of proof on rich nations to show why they are morally entitled to so much when other nations, such as sub-Saharan African countries, have so little in terms of wealth. To show how rich countries are not, in fact, morally entitled to their riches, Pogge demonstrates that they are directly harming impoverished nations – thereby causing obligation to help – by pointing to namely three examples: asymmetrical institutional arrangements, intellectual property rights, and resources. In short, we are harming the poor insofar as we collaborate in imposing an unjust global institutional order upon them. Pogge uses protectionist barriers such as tariffs, quotas, dumping duties, export credits, and subsidies to domestic producers, as examples of how rich countries are negatively impacting the poorer ones. Secondly, he points to the expanding scope and duration of intellectual property rights. If scrapped, Pogge holds, millions could be saved from diseases and death because generic producers would be able to freely manufacture lifesaving drugs in the poor countries. Thirdly, he points to the arms privileges that rich countries extend to impoverished countries in exchange for their rich natural resources. This is advantageous to the ruler and helps them stay in power, “often with great brutality and negligible popular support.”[v] In effect, rich countries allow corrupt rulers to oppress its people and exclude them from the benefits of the countries rich natural resources, in turn causing a vicious cycle of poverty – ultimately propagated by the rich countries.[vi]

Using these three examples, Pogge is able to show that we do, in fact, have a direct relationship with the impoverished nations. Once this scheme of perverse exploitation is distinguished, it can generate an obligation that people will abide by. This analysis is more alive and sensitive to the institutional complexities and causal relations that link rich nations to the poorer ones as the root of the problem.[vii] Therefore, although it would be nice, we cannot merely take prescriptive measures in the sense of donating money to impoverished nations. Something preventative has to be done in order to make a legitimate difference. Thus, the solution to global injustice lies in a systemic approach. In effect, rewriting treaties, or intellectual property laws are steps in the right direction to ensuring global justice. Ultimately, I have not only provided an extension to Singer’s positive moral obligation to help, but I have also undermined David Miller by providing a causal relationship that demonstrates that it is the rich countries direct responsibility to help the poorer ones – despite distance – because it is the privileged nations that are the root of the problem. Thus, if we are the problem, then the onus is on us to provide a solution. This is the correct conception of global justice.


[i] Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, in Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (1971), pp. 229 – 243.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Daniel Weinstock. (Phil 240. Lecture. McGill University. Fall 2012)

[v] Thomas Pogge, “World Poverty and Human Rights”, in Ethics and International Affairs, vol. 19, no. 1 (2005), pp. 1 – 9.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Weinstock.

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