The obligation to assist the distant needy

IT is a well-known fact that there are massive differences in levels of human well-being between the developed and the developing nations of the world, between the so-called "global North" and the "global South'.

S. Subramanian

IT is a well-known fact that there are massive differences in levels of human well-being between the developed and the developing nations of the world, between the so-called "global North" and the "global South'. This is evident from international statistics on certain very elementary indicators of well-being, such as those relating to the distribution of income, mortality, and disease across the world. The problem is not only one of relative disparity between the "rich" and the "poor", but of the acute levels of absolute deprivation to which the "poor" are subjected. These are matters of largely common knowledge, though the magnitudes of the global disparities and deprivations that obtain are frequently hugely larger than are generally suspected to be the case. 

Indeed, the issue has been explored earlier in this author's column. Given these background facts of international inequality and poverty, an interesting ethical question that arises is: "Do the citizens of the affluent North have an obligation to assistant the distant needy citizens of the impoverished South?" Or, more generally, do we have a moral onus to help those in need of material assistance to relieve the burden of their poverty?

Moral philosophers (and economists, to a lesser extent) have addressed this question, which has been answered in a variety of ways.  A popular position that has been adopted in the literature is one which rejects the idea of any moral obligation for affluent citizens of affluent countries to assist anonymous deprived citizens in deprived countries. The work of libertarian thinkers such as the Canada-based philosopher Jan Narveson exemplifies this point of view. A common argument is that all rights imply correlative duties (on some person or agency to secure these rights), and since the poor of the global South have no general right to assistance, there is no general duty to assist which is binding on anyone else. In response to this, philosophers such as Jens Timmerman (who teaches in Scotland) have pointed out that while rights imply duties, duties do not necessarily imply correlative rights. So, does the affluent North indeed have a duty to assist the impoverished South?

Two very influential responses in the affirmative have been provided in the work of two moral philosophers — Peter Singer, who teaches at Princeton University, and Thomas Pogge, who teaches at Yale University, both in the USA. Each of them has written at least one enormously accessible book on the subject: the interested reader is referred to Singer's The Life You Can Save (first published in 2009) and to Pogge's Politics as Usual (2010). I consider Singer's argument first. Singer notes that a possible argument against the existence of an obligation to assist might be located in the notion that it is against human nature to give, that providing assistance is not an action that is psychologically plausible. This is reflected in such factors as the distance from us of "statistical lives" as opposed to "identifiable victims"; parochialism (the tendency to favour "one's own" over "far-removed others"); futility ("what's the use of my meagre, isolated contribution?"); diffusion of responsibility ("why me when others could help?"); sense of fairness ("what about richer individuals than myself who refuse to give?"); libertarianism ("It's my business and my right to do as I wish with my resources"); and the hold of the norm of self-interest. Having noted this, Singer also points out that moral judgements must ultimately be based on moral reasoning, not on the intuitions triggered by psychological dispositions. 

Is there, then, a moral line of reasoning that would point in the direction of an obligation to assist? For Singer, there is a line of reasoning that affirms the existence of a positive duty to assist, while for Pogge, there is one that affirms the case for obligation that is based on the negative duty to desist from harming others. Each can be considered in turn.

Singer's assertion of positive duty is based on the analogy of "the drowning child". If you are walking on your way to work and find that a child unknown to you is drowning in a shallow pond, with no one around to help, and all you have to do is to wade into the water at the risk of no more than wetting your suit and spoiling your shoes and being a little late for work, wouldn't it be monstrous on your part to refuse to save the child's life? The moral from the example can be generalised. If one can assist a person in dire straits at some marginal cost to oneself, does one not have a positive obligation to assist? Singer goes on to demonstrate that poor human lives that are routinely lost to conditions such as diarrhoea in developing countries can indeed be saved by a rich person in an affluent country by foregoing just the occasional soda-pop, or equivalent thereof.

Pogge's assertion of negative duty is the eminently reasonable one that no person may wilfully and unprovokedly harm another. If such harm is indeed visited by one person upon another, then moral behaviour clearly dictates that the former must compensate the latter for the harm done. That the North has played a major role in the immiserisation of the South can be denied only by denying the historical facts of colonialism, unfair international trade practices, the depredations of multinational corporations, the burdens of international debt, and the ravages of war. It would require a similar obtuseness to the unsavoury practices of supra-national institutions — practices including conditional lending, structural adjustment, macro-economic stabilisation, power-based trade dispute mechanisms, and the terms of international patent laws — to fail to see that the allegation of harm must stick. And if there is a violation of the injunction not to harm, then the just claims of restitution will impose an obligation on the affluent rich to  assistthe harmed poor. Indeed, Pogge goes so far as to suggest that world poverty is a crime fully comparable in scale to the crimes committed by the Nazis in Hitler's Germany. Pogge's formulation, we may note, is both less and more demanding than Singer's formulation. Less demanding, because Pogge will insist only on the negative duty of refraining from harming others and profiting from so doing; and more demanding, because Pogge asserts that global deprivation and disparity can be directly attributed to the harm done to the poor by the rich, through — among other mechanisms — the subversion of global institutions and the global order for the sake of private or geo-political profit and advantage.

Ordinary sensitivity to simple moral reasoning would therefore seem to demand that there does exist an obligation on the part of the richer nations of the world to assist the poorer, even if distant, nations. How much more urgent must that moral imperative be when we speak of our own rich and our own poor! And yet, how callously little of this sensitivity is on evidence when we contemplate the depth of deprivation and the width of inequality in our country! Is it this fact of insensitivity, or, instead, the acknowledgement of it, which is anti-national?

The writer is an economist


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