poverty & the duty of assistance
4th quarter 2006
Is poverty our problem?
Alex Voorhoeve introduces our forum on global poverty and the duty of assistance
Shortly after the appearance of his early masterpiece Political Argument in the late 1960s, Brian Barry was asked why, in a book which discussed a wide range of questions facing contemporary society, from the justifi cation of the state’s coercive power to the fair distribution of income, he did not discuss the major moral issue of the day, namely, whether the use of nuclear weapons in all-out war could ever be justifi ed. Barry responded “when the moral facts are obvious, there is no need for philosophy.” The moral facts about global poverty may seem equally beyond dispute. Most inhabitants of rich nations encounter the moral issues that stem from global poverty in two ways. First, if we regard as even roughly accurate the estimates of aid agencies of the cost of permanently alleviating or preventing one individual’s poverty-related suffering, then we recognise that each of us is in a position to be able to meet the grave needs of distant strangers at moderate personal cost. Second, we recognise that by partaking
Alex Voorhoeve lectures in philosophy at the London School of Economics
in the ordinary life of our societies, we are participants in a global political and economic system with a decidedly mixed record on poverty alleviation. In recent decades, this system has generated the knowledge, wealth and economic opportunities that have played a central role in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. At the same time, it has left unfulfi lled the basic needs of those with insuffi cient purchasing power, has maintained conditions conducive to the exploitation and oppression of many, and has led to serious environmental degradation. In both cases morality’s demands on us appear to be straightforward. Insofar as each one of us in a position through acts of benefi cence to significantly alleviate suffering without having to sacrifi ce anything of comparable moral importance, each of us should do so. Furthermore, in our daily roles as consumers and producers, each of us should ensure that he or she does not become party – however indirectly and unintentionally – to oppression or exploitation. Nor should we participate in transactions that generate unreasonable risks of harm to others. Finally, as citizens, we should support improvements in the global political and economic system.