Floods, Foreign Aid and Moral Distance

The Daily Mail has caused something of a furore by posting an online petition calling for the UK government to use foreign aid money to help British people whose homes have been devastated by the recent floods. Whilst 143’000 have signed the petition, charities such as Action Aid have condemned the motion.

There are a number of reasons why one might sign the petition. For instance, if one believed that foreign aid was ineffective or even counter-productive, one might then believe that it would be justifiable to divert some of that money to solve a problem in the UK. Alternatively, one might believe that diverting foreign aid money to the UK is a question of desert; the thought here might be that UK tax-payers ought to be the first to benefit from the UK government’s spending. In contrast, opponents might respond by pointing out that foreign aid is effective, and arguing that we need not choose between providing foreign aid and offering financial relief to those suffering in the UK

I shall not discuss the merits or flaws with these arguments here. Instead, I shall focus on a moral claim that seems to be underlying a number of arguments in support of the view advocated by the petition. The moral claim pertains to the concept of what has been called ‘moral distance’, namely the idea that that we do not have a strong moral reason to benefit those who are ‘morally distant’ from us in some way, or who we lack an ‘emotional closeness’ to. It seems plausible that this concept is being invoked by at least some of those who support the petition. After all, whilst we clearly have pro tanto moral reasons to help those whose homes and businesses have been devastated by the UK floods, if we consider some of the problems that foreign aid money is used to address in themselves (that is, without respect to our emotional closeness to those suffering), then it seems clear that they provide us with moral reasons to provide aid that are at least as equally strong as those generated by the devastation wrought by the UK flood.

Accordingly, the key question is whether moral distance should matter. I cannot answer this here. However, in the remainder of this post, I shall briefly map the moral terrain, and allow you to make your own mind up.

Although there are obvious evolutionary explanations for why we might feel the intuitive pull of the idea of moral distance, this is not an adequate basis for the conclusion that we are justified in invoking this concept in moral debate. To do so would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

Some philosophers, notably Peter Singer and Jonathan Glover have argued that we ought to reject the concept of moral distance. Glover claims that the concept is a merely ‘defence mechanism’ against psychological discomfort (albeit a useful one).[1] Similarly, Singer rejects the validity of the principle in his influential article Famine Affluence and Morality.[2]

However, the rejection of moral distance is by no means universal amongst philosophers. Whilst the concept is often anathema to impartial consequentialist moralists, other philosophers such as Abelson have argued that we can have stronger moral obligations to those who are emotionally close to us by arguing that we ought to reject the idea that morality should demand complete impartiality. For instance Abelson argues that the concept of moral distance should not be regarded as an irrational prejudice, but rather as being grounded in our fundamental commitments. He suggests that since we engender certain expectations in those who are emotionally close to us that lead them to believe that we will place their needs first, it would be wrong to violate those expectations.[3]

In a similar vein, Bernard Williams argues against the impartial view of ethics that seems to undergird the concept of moral distance by claiming that to endorse complete impartiality is to abandon one’s own position in the universe, undermining one’s own agency.[4] Finally, supporters of the concept of moral distance might claim that if we abandon the concept then morality starts to become very demanding, since helping those who are most needy form an impartial perspective will often require us to ignore our emotional responses to those who are emotionally close to us and also in need, albeit to a lesser extent.

Accordingly, there is no general consensus on the validity of the concept of moral distance; perhaps the best way to make your mind up is to consider our obligations in cases such as the one that I am considering here . . .


[1]Jonathan Glover, Causing Death and Saving Lives (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), pp. 290 -292.

[2] Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 3 (1972), particularly pp. 232-233.

[3] Raziel Abelson, “MORAL DISTANCE: WHAT DO WE OWE TO UNKNOWN STRANGERS?,” Philosophical Forum 36, no. 1 (2005), doi:10.1111/j.1467-9191.2005.00187.x.

[4] Williams in JJC Smart’s Utilitarianism : For and against (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

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One Response to Floods, Foreign Aid and Moral Distance

  • Dave Frame says:

    Thanks very much for this post, Jonny. Personally I think that the issue of moral distance is really relevant to a whole bunch of issues arising out of globalisation/development, such as trade policy, environmental policy, and security policy, so I’m looking forward to the readings you provide.

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