Should We Stop Thinking About Poverty in Terms of Helping the Poor? [Excerpt]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 19.1 (Spring 2005)

March 30, 2005

It would be rather unusual for someone to argue publicly that the world's rich have no obligations at all with respect to the global poor. Many, however, claim that the obligations of the affluent countries are both fairly weak and minimal. This claim is typically arrived at via two premises: one is normative, the other factual. The normative premise asserts that while we are under a strict obligation not to harm others, the obligation to benefit people who we have not harmed is rather weak (and is, for instance, best left to private charitable efforts rather than government action or institutional reform). The factual premise is that the affluent are not, individually or collectively, harming the world's poor by causing their poverty (p. 12). Following Thomas Pogge, I will sometimes refer to this view simply as "libertarianism." According to a second view, which I shall call the "need-based" view, we have a very strong and extensive set of duties to come to the assistance of the global poor: duties that are grounded in the neediness of the poor. In its most pure form, this view rejects altogether the ethical significance of the distinction between harming and failing to help. On a morally demanding version of the need-based view we have duties of assistance to anyone who is worse off than us, not merely those who are severely in need. . .


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