Thursday, November 17, 2011

Poverty as a moral dilemma


Poverty is a condition that a vast majority of people in the world suffers from. Today, poverty exists amidst a world of plenty.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and like movements around the world have focused on this condition as 99 per cent of society struggles to survive while its 1 per cent luxuriates in wealth accumulation. This is what makes the protesters angry, the fact that poverty co-exists with affluence. The OWS protests are also furious that the larger socio-economic system is greatly responsible for this general malaise and the rich are not doing their share in resolving this issue.
Occupy Wall Street, New York City. Photo courtesy of Paul Stein, Click link to view  "Naomi Klein
 Interview  at Occupy Wall Street ."
The issue of extreme inequality has been recast as a moral problem. Morality in politics is no longer simply about sexual preferences, reproductive choices, or the sex scandals involving elected leaders. Now, the burning issue of the day seems to be the morality of contemporary financial capitalism.

Whether measured in terms of private consumption, income or wealth, the gap between the affluent and the global poor has continued to grow at an alarming pace in the last few decades. At least one billion people in the developing world lack minimally adequate nutrition, health care, housing, and educational opportunities.

Poverty creates massive human suffering and misery, especially for children. Every year, ten million children under the age of five in the Third World die from preventable diseases. Millions of these children grow cognitively or physically severely underdeveloped. On the other hand, people living in the wealthy industrial societies of the North have more than enough income to routinely discard many still serviceable goods.

That severe poverty in a world of abundance would be insufficient to create a moral challenge for the affluent is beguiling. It is a fact that seems hardly a serious ethical concern.
Almost half the world, over three billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day. From Poverty
 Facts and Stats by Anup Shah. Click link to view "Dr. Jeffrey Sachs - Giving What We Can"
Why is it that there’s very little success in convincing affluent citizens that global poverty should be a high moral priority for them?

Dr. Rüdiger Bittner, a philosophy professor at Universität Bielefeld in Germany, has offered three explanations why affluent people have not accepted as their moral duty to help alleviate world hunger and poverty.

First, Bittner explains that people are immoral and do not care much about the suffering caused by global poverty. Second, he believes that people in affluent societies are simply slow in understanding that global poverty is a moral issue. And Bittner’s final explanation is that affluent citizens are not morally persuaded by global poverty because it is not a real problem setting or task or duty for them.

Christian believers, perhaps followers of others faiths too, would be quick to dismiss Bittner’s suggestion that people simply don’t care about the sufferings of others. There are those who would argue that poverty and morality are connected based on their understanding of the Bible. In Deuteronomy, for instance, the Bible speaks of a future time where there will be no poor because God will bless everyone in the land He has given them. However, to arrive at this kind of bountiful society, it would be through God’s blessings and not through policies aimed at confiscating wealth from its creators, which sounds like the core of Republican Party belief. Most Republicans believe that the war on poverty started by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 was a dismal failure, that small government and economic freedom are the best answers to poverty. As Hadley Heath of the Independent Women’s forum explained, the various income redistribution schemes imposed by the federal government were bad for taxpayers—and bad for poor people.

People being immoral and impassive to the sufferings of others—this is the kind of argument that reduces our humanity. Call it idealism but it is still possible to appeal to the better angels of our nature.

Bittner’s second explanation that affluent people are quite slow in grasping the moral dimension of the problem of global poverty seems a more realistic argument. But this is so only insofar as Bittner maintains that world hunger is not a moral problem for the affluent because it is not “imputable,” i.e., it cannot be credited or charged, to one or more specific agents.

According to Bittner, moral discourse is only appropriate with regard to states or events that can be “imputed,” i.e., credited or charged, to one or more specific agents. Bittner writes: “World hunger is non-imputable because “we do not have a clear understanding of who brought it about, or who is bringing it about.”

Bittner goes on to explain that morally sensitive persons should not morally evaluate their actions because any decisions they make on world hunger are obscure and ridiculously small. Their decisions would not make a difference, and since nobody is clearly responsible, Bittner says that moral assessment won’t thrive on such ground.

But Bittner seems to exaggerate the extent to which we lack an understanding of the causes of world hunger and poverty. To hold that sharing responsibility means that there is no personal responsibility is empirically wrong. Take the case of apartheid in South Africa and the role of white citizens in sustaining this unjust system. Their contribution may be small but it does not mean that they lacked responsibility for apartheid. At the minimum, it is their responsibility to seek to change the system, as the affluent have a duty to change their system of economic privilege. This they can do by advocating political change and by supporting nongovernmental organizations that aim to assist the poor.

Bittner’s third explanation seems to suggest that global poverty is a political issue, not a moral one. It is related to and an extension of his second argument.

According to Bittner, global poverty is not a moral problem because it fails to satisfy two necessary conditions: that those be in some way close to the agent upon whom that agent is doing something that is to be morally assessed, and that the relevant good or bad states or events can be clearly credited to some particular agent or agents. Neither condition is fulfilled, so it lacks morality’s endorsement. Yet, the abolition of global poverty may still be a political goal.

Bittner argues that the aim of moral actions is to improve the lives of people who are close to us. The global poor are not close to the affluent people in the North, so they are outside the scope of their moral compass.

To Bittner, the duty to assist others in great need is limited to people who are part of their political community. American citizens, for instance, privately donate less than $15 per capita to foreign countries, but their total private charitable contributions are around $700 per capita. This suggests that people feel compassion for good causes, but primarily for those of their fellow citizens.

There is nothing obviously wrong with this type of prioritizing, but it doesn’t fully explain why global poverty is not a moral task for the affluent. The duty to aid may be a duty of justice since the affluent are at least partly responsible for the existence of global poverty. This is central to the recent work of Dr. Thomas W. Pogge, director of the Global Justice Program at Yale University, in a stark contrast with Bittner’s arguments on the lack of a moral duty of the affluent to alleviate global poverty.

In World of Poverty and Human Rights, one of the most prominent and controversial books in contemporary political philosophy, Pogge argues that wealthy Western liberal democracies are currently harming the world’s poor. This is very evident in the resource and borrowing privileges that international society extends to oppressive rulers of impoverished states, which play a crucial role in perpetuating absolute poverty.

Pogge maintains that these resource and borrowing privileges persist because they are in the interest of wealthy states. The resource privilege guarantees a reliable supply of raw materials for the goods enjoyed by the members of wealthy states, and the borrowing privilege allows the financial institutions of wealthy states to issue lucrative loans. It may seem that such loans are good for developing states too, but Pogge argues that, in practice, they typically work quite to the contrary. Consider the foreign loans granted to the Marcos government during the 1970s or the much more recent Arroyo administration, and take stock of whether they helped alleviate poverty in the Philippines. Pogge urges us to recognize the ways in which international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF facilitate and exacerbate the corruption perpetuated by national institutions.

Without denying the culpability of local leaders, Pogge argues that the world’s poor are not merely suffering because we are doing too little to help. Moreover, they are being actively and wrongly harmed by a system of global political and economic arrangements that is disproportionately shaped by and for wealthy Western societies.

Pogge contends that the affluent have a duty of justice to aid the global poor because they are the beneficiaries of an unjust history of colonialism and because they use most of the world’s diminishing natural resources without compensating the global poor who use them hardly at all. Whether these links of responsibility are too weak or so diffuse to impose a moral duty on the affluent brings us back full circle to the protestations of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Occupy Wall Street, New York City. Photo courtesy of The Whistling Monkey.
Click link  to view "Occupy Wall Street Through the Eyes of the World,"
Occupy Wall Street and like movements around the world may soon be dispersed and ultimately disbanded. But the issue of inequality, which is one issue the Occupiers are angry about, will continue to resonate no matter what happens to their movement in the short term.

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