Friday, April 16, 2010

Poverty - and a moral dilemma.

Steve at Bloggertropolis wrote an excellent post, highlighting how uncomfortable it is to be closely confronted with poverty. He describes an encounter with a street beggar, and his sudden realisation that this 'drunken drop-out' was also a human being; a thinking, feeling, hurting person like himself - but caught in a circle of homelessness, alienation and the temporary respite of alcohol.

In the UK we are insulated from absolute poverty, certainly compared to say Africa or parts of Asia. Indeed,  absolute poverty, of the type widely experienced in the Third World, is extremely rare in Western democracies. If we debate poverty at all, we are usually concerned with the relative poverty of our own underprivileged communities and social groups. But whilst absolute poverty may be 'out of sight - out of mind' the moral issues remain, and if we examine them carefully it is just as uncomfortable as getting up close and personal.

Some years ago I read a 'thought experiment' that tests our moral obligations to others. See how you get on with this...

Imagine you have just retired. You have a small pension that meets your basic needs but no spare cash - you are comfortable but only just. Then one day you win a few thousand pounds on the lottery, enough to buy the small car you have always dreamed of.

You buy the car locally but forget to arrange the insurance (senior moment!). Nonetheless you decide to drive it home, after all it is only a couple of miles. Unfortunately you stall the car on a level crossing and can't restart it. You get out and see there is is train approaching.  Oh no, your one chance to own a car is about to be obliterated....

As the train approaches you notice there is a set of points by the side of the track. You reason that by pulling them you will send the train safely into a siding. So you run over as quick as you can and are about to pull the points when it becomes clear that it is actually your car which is on the siding. Phew, there is no danger from the train and everything is going to be okay....

Except at that same moment you also notice a young child has walked onto the main line!!!!

The situation is instantly clear. If you pull the points your car will be obliterated. But if you do not the child will surely be killed. You call to the child but she does not hear... you must act quickly... you have seconds to decide.

What a terrible choice. Do you save the child at the cost of your most prized possession; something you will never afford to replace? Or do you leave the points alone in the knowledge that almost certainly the child would be killed?

What would you do?

Would you leave the points alone? After all it wasn't your fault the child walked onto the line. You could say you had not seen anything...  you could close your eyes and not watch the impact ... you have no legal 'obligation' to pull the points....

I think most people would argue that saving the child is the right thing to do. They would say we have a moral obligation to do so in preference to a car. I certainly hope I would pull the points no matter how precious my car was to me.

And yet... last year I spent well over a thousand pounds on computer equipment that caught my eye; I spent three times that on a holiday to France; and I could easily make a long list of expensive non-essentials I purchased in 2009. What is more, I spent this money when deep down I know there are millions of people who, through no fault of their own, are dying for lack of funds and resources. I am not alone in doing this. You probably did something similar.

The question posed by the thought experiment is whether there any substantive difference between my choice to buy luxuries and making the decision 'not to pull the points'? And my honest conclusion is that there is not a lot between the two. I might rationalise that there is little I can personally do about Third World poverty, that foreign dictatorships and wars make much aid worthless.. etc etc. But frankly, it is almost undeniable that had I given even half of my non essential expenditure to medecines sans frontier it would have saved some lives.

The difference is that the death on the railway line would be more immediate and more directly in my control.  But is it really possible to claim we have less responsibility to avert evils just because they are out of sight? I find it hard to give ethical weight to the idea that child starvation is not our responsibility because it resides abroad.

The philosopher Peter Singer agrees; in his book, One World, he argues that as we become globally interdependent, our moral obligations to a greater humanity are stronger than ever. The alternative view -  supported by John Rawls - is that States are ultimately selfish institutions and we are not obliged to help other nations. In practice, most modern democracies take a middle line - in the case of the UK that amounts to spending a meagre 0.7% of GDP on aid to the developing world.

In the West we enjoy societies that are freer and more affluent than ever before; that is a wonderful achievement - but at times that very security can leave me feeling uneasy. If political atrocities such as the holocaust were the moral outrage of the last century, it is at least arguable that history will take a similar view of our response to absolute poverty.

To return to the thought experiment, I could pick fault with the example; I could show how it is not a fair reflection of the real world; I could argue technical points of ethics. But no matter how I rationalise it away, the general point would remain - and I find its implications deeply disturbing.


  1. I've muted my background music so I can concentrate a bit better. Yes. that is how much you got me thinking. This philosophical lark isn't very well suited to the sort of brain I have but I did understand the points you were making. The thing is that it is a very uncomfortable thing to think about. So, like most 'privileged' people, I just don't think about it. I get out my cheque book (don't let them ban cheques please) a few times a year, send money to hopefully good causes, get on with my over-indulged life and shut off my sensibilites to the starving and maimed 'under-privileged'.

    It's too painful to really deal with. The best work is not done by cheques - it's done by hands-on volunteers and there are never enough. I've never done things like this but I know a fair few who have. It changes them completely. Do I want to be changed like that? If I'm honest - no.

  2. It is disturbing. Is it feasible for each individual to take on a moral responsibility for everybody else or just those in their immediate circle that they can directly influence? Ideally, if we all did the former of course we'd all of us - in theory - be well looked after. Though this is simplifying immediately. Sadly poverty often cannot be solved by throwing money at it - there are complex social and political stresses and causes at work. And also, occasionally, the personal choices and responsibility of those that have found themselves in dire straits. Though I am aware that in terms of absolute poverty this is never the fault of the individual but of states, countries and the workings of the global community at large. I don't know what the answer is. None of us can change the world, but we can change our own little spheres within that world. Perhaps if we all did that, gradually things would improve for everybody...?

  3. Food for thought indeed. I wasn't sure where you were going with this, but then I'm not always the sharpest knife in the drawer. I agree with Steve's last paragraph, and not just because it saves me thinking for myself, (though it does) but he said it better than I could. Education and awareness is the key as well. It's surprising how many people are ignorant of those who are in their own community who suffer through no fault of their own. If we think of it that way then it can surely spread. Also if we realize that we are now more than ever, in a global village, not just in our own individual countries with our own unique problems then this helps too.

    Great post. :-)

  4. The examples given of the shock of meeting with poverty were those of urban life - the obvious drunk, the beggar with a dog.
    Rural poverty has always been the hidden face of deprivation and the last to be tackled, thus the migrant rush to the shanty towns in search of something marginally better than starvation in the service of what might be described as feudal overlords.
    The interplay of politicial and social interests in the make up of individual States, the nocive doctrine that all sovereign states must be treated with respect are a poor outlook for tackling poverty at its' roots.
    The depressing fact that what we contribute in aid goes through and sticks to so many hands on its' way, the dreadful beaurocratic structures which limit the ability of individuals and groups, un- or under-educated to tap the source of aid directly are matters which no one with the power to do so seems willing to reform.
    Aid is another industry.
    Those with the luxury of a full belly who defend 'cultural' practices which make women old before their time, worn out in childbirth, deprive these women of the chance to make their own lives and that of their children better.

    I give money to beggars - the change I have available.
    If I can buy a book, then I'm damn sure they can buy beer.
    I do try to find small hands-on charities to support.
    I so strongly disapprove of the waste and misdirection of aid, but I don't have any voice to work for change.

  5. I'm going to have to have a think about this post before I respond to you know I worked with people in total poverty when I lived in Thailand...

    C x

  6. To all -

    Not sure I intended to stir up so much thought - I've had quite few private emails as well as comments.

    The real point of the post was the 'thought experiment' - the car represents everything we have over and above our basic comforts, but if we are prepared to sacrifice it to save a single innocent child (indeed, most people say we have a moral 'obligation' to do so), why don't we do the same when we know we could make a difference elsewhere in the world?

    The thought experiment has been criticised and I should perhaps blog about why that is, but the reasons are complex and technical - and in any case, I suppose I think it is broadly valid.

    My own position is that we should do (in practice that often means 'give') at least as much as we would have society do / give in general. I think our government's commitment to foreign aid is shameful, and I think many of our so called 'concerns' are so trivial it is almost as though we have forgotten what to worry and care about.

  7. Just popped over to let you know that there is an award for you over at mine :-)

    C x

  8. The problem is that with the thought experiment, the decisions and results lie in our own hands.
    Attacking poverty has largely been taken out of our hands.

  9. I dropped over from French Fancy's blog, and was fascinated by this.

    A couple of things about me. I'm the kind of person you describe, in that we live on a very "tight" income. But if I won a few thousand pounds, the LAST thing I would do is buy a car. There are lots of other people who could use that money to make a difference in their lives. People with extremely limited incomes (i.e., poor people) a few blocks away; medecines sans frontier, etc.

    I would probably think differently, except that
    1. I'm a career journalist,
    2. My post-graduate training is in ethics, and
    3. I'm a reflective Christian.

    And while "attacking poverty has largely been taken out of our hands," there are things we can do in our own neighbourhood, in our own city or county, in our own nation and in our world. If we choose to do them.

  10. Hi Mark - well, it's an interesting one isn't it? I would of course have saved the child without anything else crossing my mind. It would just be an instinctive reaction.

    We come into this world with nothing and we may as well leave it with relatively nothing. Far more important is the wealth of wisdom that we acquire as we live our days out on this planet - it is that we should be handing on to our families and friends and future generations rather than a house or a car. And for that to happen we have to have an open mind and be receptive to learning from our experiences.

    Practically speaking, of course, all levels of poverty are relative and absolute poverty is something that we in the western world hardly know. Even the down and outs have probably had chances in their lives to make something of them even against the odds that life has thrown them: we have state aid, state education, state funded counselling etc etc etc. Africa and Asia is a whole different ball game as a lot of the political and educational infrastructures in the deepest corners or these vast continents simply are not in place - or if they are they are deeply corrupt. All the aid in the world does not seem to be changing that greatly because it has to change from WITHIN - and for that to happen there has to be a DESIRE to change.

    I would also say, like Clippy Art, (and it is one of my personal mantras) that, in the end, it all goes back to education. If we could channel all our aid efforts into providing quality teaching to all, only then would the world be a better place.

    My final thoughts are this though: I am not a practising Christian in terms of being a regular attendee at Church, but there is one thing which I take away from the learning and exposure to it that I have been given (and I try to lead my life mindful of others at all times): you cannot give your best to others if your own house is not in order. Hence the commandment to 'Love thyself' - this is not narcissistic love, it is about self-love in terms of self-respect and self-esteem. As Steve suggests, if we get the micro level right, we can move up slowly through the varying macro levels, sorting them out one at a time - and if this was happening all over the world then I think it would be a much happier place without the need for massive amounts of international aid and interference.

    The trouble is, as Chaucer allegorized in 'The Pardoner's Tale: Radix Malorum est Cupiditas (Avarice is the root of all Evil). It is yet another phrase I find myself spouting constantly as I observe the world. And I'm really not sure what we can do about is at the very heart of the human condition.

    My oh my, thank you Mark for making me think on this fair Saturday morning!! I think I shall have to go and have a little lie down now...!

  11. I like the thought experiment and feel it made enough of a metaphorical point to effectively make one stop and think - as it clearly did several people here. It simply puts the choice in your hands - to illustrate that if the choice were in your hands - you would make the right decision and therefore possibly evoke you to do more - in your own little way - to combat poverty. Rarely are metaphors watertight! If everyone in the world did the thought might have an impact!!!!

    As I know you know (!) poverty is a hugely complex issue (I drew a diagrammatic representation of causes and how they relate to each other) (I do get out sometimes). But - I suspect - we could all do a bit more...even from our ivory towers.

    I remember a friend of mine puzzling over the fact that money given to some beggars goes straight to alcohol...and is this a good thing? He approaches most things by asking himself, 'what would love do?' (proper hippy) and he's concluded that talking and listening to beggars might be initially a better thing to do....and then he always gives.

    My conclusion from exploring the issue of combating others it is about ultimately helping people to help themselves. Education plays a huge role in this of course. I have a friend that works in several African countries for a Widows and Orphans charity. Her organisation has very little funds but she shows people how to pool their resources and help each other...her work is amazing......