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Guest Post: Why Don’t We Do More to Help the Global Poor?

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Simon Keller, Victoria University of Wellington
Read more in the current issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics

There is good reason to believe that people living comfortable lives in affluent countries should do more to help impoverished people in other parts of the world. Billions of people lack the nutrition, medicines, shelter, and safety that the better-off take for granted, and there exist organizations that do a pretty good job of taking money donated by the relatively rich and directing it towards those who need it most. If I can address myself to others who count among the global rich: we could do more to help the global poor, but we don’t.

It is not just that we do not do much to help the global poor; it is also that our patterns of helping do not respond to the most morally significant aspects of global poverty. We will give more in response to a disaster, like a hurricane or a tsunami, than to ongoing systemic poverty. We are more likely to give when confronted with a photograph of a starving family, or when we take ourselves to be sponsoring a particular child, than when faced with truths about how many people are suffering and how much they need our help.

In a recent article in Journal of Practical Ethics, I try to say something about what explains our patterns of helping behavior, as directed towards the global poor. Part of the explanation, of course, is our selfishness, laziness, and willful ignorance; and part of it is the power of personal stories and photographs to engage our emotions while statistics and geopolitical truths leave us numb. But a further part of the explanation, I think, is that while we know we have good reasons to help the global poor, we do not know what those reasons are.

Suppose that your doctor tells you to eat kale twice a day, but doesn’t tell you why. You are left knowing that you have a good reason to eat kale twice a day, but not knowing what that reason is. Not knowing why you should eat kale, you are likely to have extra trouble in motivating yourself eat it. As a generalization, it is harder to do something unpleasant when you do not know what reason you have for doing it, even if you know you have some reason or other. If you knew exactly why you should eat kale twice a day, to the point of being able vividly to imagine the good it does for your body and the bad things that may follow if you go without it, then you would have an extra motivational weapon at your disposal in your quest to eat more kale.

What do you know about the world’s poorest people? You know that there are many of them and that their poverty causes them great suffering and diminishes their autonomy. In one sense, though, you do not know who those people are. They are strangers; you are not acquainted with them; you do not know them as individuals.

Whether you know enough to know what reason you have to help world’s poorest people depends on the deeper nature of that reason. If your reason to help the global poor is ultimately a reason to reduce suffering or help secure the conditions for autonomy, or something like that, then you know all about your reason. You know about the values at stake.

On another story about reasons to help other people, however, such reasons are grounded in the self-standing value of individuals themselves. Instead of saying that you should help people because people are the sites of values like happiness and autonomy, this story says first that each person has value, and only subsequently that the way to respond to a person’s value is – say – to promote her happiness or help secure the conditions of her autonomy.

This distinction between “values-based” and “individuals-based” stories about reasons to help others is fiddly, but it is important. The individuals-based approach can help explain why we have special reasons within special relationships: why becoming intimately acquainted with a friend or loved one can give you moral obligations toward her that you do not have towards others. Whether a theory grounds reasons in values or individuals determines whether it is susceptible to Rawls’s famous complaint that utilitarianism fails to take account of the distinction between persons. (I think that an individuals-based version of utilitarianism can avoid Rawls’s objection.)

An individuals-based story about our reasons to help others can also help explain the structure of our moral motivation to help impoverished strangers in other parts of the world. We know we have reason to help them, but because we do not know who they are, we are closed off from knowledge of that reason’s deep nature. That is part of the explanation why we do not do much to help, and why when we do help, we do so in response to identifiable events and particular details: where we can imagine more vividly the individuals who need our help, we come that much closer to encountering their value as individuals, and hence to true awareness of reasons for helping them.

That is not an excuse for failing to do more to help the global poor, but it is an explanation. It is an explanation that calls not upon our laziness or selfishness, but upon the general truth that if you do not know why you are doing something – even if you know that for some reason or other you should – it is harder to get motivated to do it.

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17 Comment on this post

  1. One problem is reproduction. Poor people, given more resources, can always make even more poor people. The demographic transition may be a stochastical reality in many known cultures, but this doesn’t mean there won’t eventually be a defector demographic which reproduces exponentially no matter what. I have a high aversion to funding a bottomless pit of misery.

    Other issues are corruption and fraud. The process of charity requires more trust than I have for chains of interacting strangers.

    1. Regarding charity, why not look at the recommendations of charity evaluators such as GiveWell and Giving What We Can?

      1. Because they are also part of the chain of interacting strangers. I cannot verify the integrity and competence of their evaluations, so their existence adds nothing to solve the problem of trust.

        As you can imagine, I also don’t buy complex financial products that I don’t understand. Many people did before 2008, and look where it got them.

          1. Yes, I do my own research. Then I take only medicine that gives me direct feedback in the form of effects and side-effects that I personally experience.

            Any medical treatment that does not fulfill this criterion will not have my consent.

                1. Well, to an extent. I’ll choose amongst pre-developed medicines and if something doesn’t work, then I’ll switch.

                  What I’m trying to get at is whether you rely at all on any pre-developed biomedical knowledge or medicine, or whether you are literally trying to discover everything for yourself.

                  My suspicion is that at the very least you willingly try out medicine that other people have recommended, and that you have some plausible biomedical explanation as to why such medicine might work.

                  If this is the case, then you’re willing to trust some pretty large chains of interacting strangers that have accumulated this knowledge and developed these products.

  2. Your argument undermines or discounts faith. Often those who act in faith, don’t know the complete reasoning, have stronger motivation then those with explicit reason.

  3. Your argument undermines or discounts faith. Often those who act in faith, don’t know the complete reasoning, still have stronger motivation then those with explicit reason.

  4. This sounds a bit like a Chinese argument. Relationships are the fundamental building blocks of ethical theory in Confucianism. I’m not sure you’re open to this kind of idea, though: you talk about “stories” and “moral motivations”. But I wonder if you might take seriously the possibility that relationships are in fact moral reasons – not just stories or motivators, but genuine moral reasons.

    1. Yes, definitely: I think we have genuine moral reasons that arise from our special relationships. But I don’t think they’re the only reasons we have: we have strong reasons to help strangers too. In both cases I think the reasons are grounded in the self-standing value of individuals. The moral power of relationships comes from the ways in which they put us into contact with the value of particular individuals. If this doesn’t sound very plausible – well, I have a book about it!

  5. comfortably anonymous

    There is no reason to support a global social contract because nations are mostly self-contained economically. I’m not a dogmatic universalist; I don’t see why the first world should be helping the global poor more than it already is.

    Of course, there is no way I would state this openly. It makes you look mean; if she knew, my girlfriend might get upset. Plus, my political tribe cares about this, and I might alienate them.

    So there is a reason to pretend there is a reason, or at least not contradict anyone who says so.

    1. comfortably anonymous wrote: “nations are mostly self-contained economically”

      Yeah, but not really. The countries of the EU are highly integrated – the trade/GDP ratios of the UK, France, Germany and Canada are all in excess of 30%. They trade $3 for every $10 they earn. That’s pretty integrated. (The Netherlands, Hungary, etc are over 80%. That’s a long way from “self-contained”.) So if trading is a measure of the strength of your relationship, then these countries (at least) seem to have strong relationships… at least with other developed countries.

      Reasons from self-interest to care about poor countries include weakest-link public goods, like (1) disease eradication/containment, (2) terror risk; (3) environmental externalities arising from pollution. In some cases, those can be reasonably strong reasons.

      1. comfortably anonymous

        Re the second paragraph, okay, but why do those reasons justify more interest in these countries than exists now?

        1. “why do those reasons justify more interest in these countries than exists now?”

          Because we don’t do a great job at solving those weakest-link public goods problems. Terror risk seems to be growing; much transboundary pollution (and most of climate change) is caused by developing countries; epidemic management requires interventions early containment if they’re to be as cheap as possible. Those are self-interested reasons to be more interested than we currently are in developing countries. (Personally, I’m not a fan of universalism, either. But I do think prudence dictates some effort to help/care about others.)

          1. comfortably anonymous

            I still don’t see how this adds up. Terror risk is insignificant in terms of lives lost, unless it’s nuclear terrorism, which these countries wouldn’t do. Ditto for pandemics; there’s lots of noise in the media, but I don’t see many folks in developed countries actually dying, so I don’t see the evidence pandemics are a big threat. Sure developing countries contribute to climate change but the big one I think of is China, which is not a really poor country.

            Even if you’re right, maybe we could also address all those things with the less conventional method of shrinking populations by paying folks not to have kids. If your rationale for intervention is self-interested I don’t see why we should rule that out.

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