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"The Bread Which You Withhold Belongs to the Hungry": Attitudes to Poverty

Peter Singer

… whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry: the clothing you shut away, to the naked: and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless."

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q 66 A 7.


1. Rich and Poor

In the world today there are many people who "have in superabundance". By that I mean that, after satisfying all their needs – for food, shelter, warmth, clothing, health care, and education, for themselves and their children, and some provision for those needs to be met in the future as well - have money left over for items that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, needs. If you have money to spare for good restaurants, concerts, vacation travel, books, CD's, and keeping your clothing in fashion, you are, in a word, rich. Aquinas could never have envisaged the kind of wealth many people have today - think only of such luxuries as central heating and air-conditioning, exotic fresh fruits from both temperate and tropical lands delivered to your door, being able to visit all the wonders of the world. If Aquinas could be transported to our time he would have thought most middle-class Europeans and Americans today to be unimaginably rich, and the same goes for those able to live a comparable lifestyle in other countries.

If the rich are far richer than anyone in the thirteenth century could have imagined, however, the essential ingredients of poverty are the same. As in earlier times, the poor are those who do not have sufficient means to meet even the most basic of these needs, for example for food, shelter, and clothing. Today we would add that they also lack the resources to obtain even minimal health care, or to provide education for their children? There are today more than a billion of these "absolutely poor" people, living on no more than $US1 per day. These are the people who are absolutely poor - that is, poor not only relative to others with whom they may compare themselves; they by an absolute, timeless standard related to the most basic human needs.

What attitude should the rich have towards the poor? What, if anything, should they see themselves as obliged to do? I shall argue that our current attitudes draw distinctions that are not defensible, and that they ought to change. To do this I shall first present an argument that I have put before, in an article in the New York Times, and then consider some objections that have been raised to this argument.

2. A Child’s Life or a New TV?

In the Brazilian film Central Station, Dora is a retired schoolteacher who makes a modest living sitting at the station writing letters for illiterate people. Suddenly she has an opportunity to earn $1000. All she has to do is persuade a homeless nine-year old boy to follow her to an address she has been given. (She is told that he will be adopted by wealthy foreigners.) She delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some of it on a television set, and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition. Her neighbor spoils her good mood, however, by telling her that the boy is too old to be adopted – she says that he will be killed and his organs sold for transplantation. Perhaps Dora was aware of this possibility all along, but was able to block it out of her mind. After her neighbor's plain speaking, however, she is unable to sleep. In the morning she sets out to take the boy back.

Imagine that, instead of trying to save the child from his fate, Dora had told her neighbor that it's a tough world, that she wants a TV, and if selling the kid is the only way she can get one, well, he was only a street kid, and who knows, maybe he will be adopted after all. She would then have become, in the eyes of the audience, a callous, selfish person, lacking all conscience and moral sense. She redeems herself only by being prepared to bear considerable risks to save the boy.

At the end of the movie, in cinemas all over the affluent nations of the world, people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not gone back to rescue the boy go home to places far more comfortable than her apartment. These people are, by the standard I described a few moments ago, rich. The average family in the United States spends around one-third of their income on things that are no more necessary to them than Dora's new TV was to her. But it is also true that Brazil, and in other Latin American countries that have very many people who are absolutely poor, there are also many others who are absolutely rich. The money that the rich spend on luxuries could, if donated to one of a number of voluntary agencies, mean the difference between life and death for children in need.

All of this raises a question: in the end, what is the difference between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to people who might be organ peddlers and one who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one - knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of street kids in Brazil?

Some differences will immediately come to mind. For one thing, to be able to consign a child to people who might kill him when the child is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness. It is much easier to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet. Yet if the upshot of the rich person's failure to donate the money is that one more kid dies on the streets of a Brazilian city, then it is, in some sense, just as bad as selling the kid to the organ-peddlers. At the very least, there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the child to people who may be organ-peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the rich person's behavior as raising a serious moral issue.

3. Is Our Situation Different?

Let me consider some possible differences between our situation and that of Dora.

1. Rich people who do not contribute to helping the poor are not actively bringing about their deaths. Dora, on the other hand, by bringing the boy to those who may kill him, has made an active contribution.

Our sense that enjoying all the luxury our wealth can buy is an acceptable way to live is based very largely on the idea that while it is very wrong to kill, we are under no obligation to try to save people whose lives are in danger. But is this right? In his book Living High and Letting Die, the American philosopher Peter Unger presents an ingenious series of imaginary examples designed to show that we often do think people to be grievously at fault if they knowingly allow someone to die, even if this is by an omission rather than by an act. Here's my paraphrase of one of these examples:

Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in

a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to

insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he

gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market

value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably

after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti

near the end of a disused railway siding and goes for a walk up the track.

As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no-one aboard, is running

down the railway track. Looking further down the track he sees the small

figure of a child playing in a tunnel and very likely to be killed by the

runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to

warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train

down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed-

but since the barrier at the end of the siding is in disrepair, the train

will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car, and the

financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The

child is killed. But for many years to come Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti

and the financial security it represents.

Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. I agree; but is it possible to think that it was very wrong of Bob not to throw the switch that would have diverted the train and saved the child's life, but not wrong for rich people to decide not to help people in desperate poverty? By sending money to an organization working against poverty, it is possible for us to save a human life by making a sacrifice much smaller than that required of Bob in the example just given. In fact Unger calculates that a donation of $US200 is enough to save a child’s life.

2. If we give to an agency that helps the world's poorest people, we cannot be certain whether aid will really reach the people who need it.

Nobody who knows the world of overseas aid can doubt that such uncertainties exist. But Unger's figure of $200 to save a child's life was reached after he had made conservative assumptions about the proportion of the money donated that will actually reach its target. In any case, there is uncertainty in the situations of Bob and Dora too. In Bob's case, if he throws the switch he will certainly destroy his Bugatti, but if he does nothing the child might be quick and alert enough to flatten herself against the side of the tunnel, and save herself. Dora was not completely certain that the child would be killed for his organs, rather than be adopted. So in none of these cases is there any certainty that giving the money, or sacrificing the car or the TV, will have any good outcome.

3. Dora and Bob are each faced with a dilemma concerning just one child. That is not our situation. If we give $200 now to save a child, there will still be other children who need saving. The argument can be repeated, over and over again, until we are ourselves at the poverty line. This makes our situation different from Dora’s and Bob's.

In the real world, there are millions of children, and adults too, who need our help, so it is right to say that giving $200 will not be the end of our obligations. But think how much Bob stands to loose, as he contemplates throwing the switch. The car is his pride and joy, and represents virtually all his savings. Even if we were to say that no-one has an obligation to make a cumulative sacrifice as great as the loss of the car is to Bob, that is quite compatible with people who are comfortably off having an obligation to give much, much more than $200. Dora's more modest sacrifice is, relative to her level, more significant than a donation of $200 or even $1000 would be to someone who is comfortably off and living in an affluent community.

4. To set too high a standard is utopian, and perhaps even counter-productive. We run the risk that people will shrug their shoulders and say that morality, so conceived, is fine for saints, but not for them.

We are unlikely to see, in the near or even medium-term future, a world in which

it is normal for rich people to give most of their wealth to help strangers. When it comes to praising or blaming people for what they do, we tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior. In most communities, rich people who give, say, 10 percent of their income to help the poor are so far ahead of virtually all their equally rich counterparts that I wouldn't go out of my way to blame them for not doing more. Nevertheless, they are in no position to criticize Bob for failing to make the much greater sacrifice of his Bugatti, or Dora for selling the child, and this suggests that, in some sense, they really should be doing more.

5. If every citizen living in the affluent nations contributed his or her share no-one would have to make such a drastic sacrifice, because long before such levels were reached, the resources would have been there to save the lives of all those children dying from lack of food or medical care. So why should anyone be obliged to give more than their fair share?

The question of how much we ought to give is a matter to be decided in the real world - and that, sadly, is a world in which we know that most people do not, and in the immediate future will not, give substantial amounts to overseas aid agencies. Thus, we know that the money we can give beyond that theoretical "fair share" is still going to save lives that would not otherwise be saved. While the idea that no-one need do more than his or her fair share is a powerful one, should it prevail if we know that others are not doing their fair share, and that children will die preventable deaths unless we do more than our fair share? That would be taking fairness too far - and Aquinas, Ambrose and Gratian apparently agree, since they say that you should give what you have in superabundance, not just some hypothetical fair share that would be enough if others also gave.

It would certainly be better if governments were to increase their foreign aid allocations, since that would spread the burden more equitably across all tax-payers. Unfortunately, over the past twenty years, the amount that the governments of the economically developed nations have given to foreign aid has fallen, and most countries are further than ever from meeting the United Nations target of 0.7% of Gross National Product. The amount of foreign aid given by the United States, in particular, is a disgrace – only 0.1% of GNP, the lowest proportion of all the OECD countries, and less in absolute dollar terms than the amount given by Japan, although the United States economy is far larger than the Japanese. Moreover even within that miserly amount, the largest recipient is not one of the world’s poorest countries, but Israel, a country that has an average income that places it within the richest 20 nations in the world.

6. If everyone gives away substantial amounts of their income, rather than spending it on consumer goods, there will be fewer jobs and the economy will suffer. Thus the poor will be worse off, rather than better off.

As my response to the previous objection indicates, if everyone really were giving away substantial amounts of money, the amount that we would need to give would be much less. To end absolute poverty would not require enormous sacrifices, if all or even most of the rich played their part. As Thomas Pogge has argued, we think that this will require an enormous amount of money, because we know that there are so many very poor people - about a quarter of the world's population, or 1.5 billion people. But we forget just how unimaginably acute the difference in income between the rich and the poor is:

The aggegate income of the poorest quartile is less than 0.7% of the global social product, less than $210 billion out of nearly $30 trillion. A shift in global income distribution that would double (or triple) their incomes entirely at our expense would still be quite minor. It would reduce the top tenth of incomes by a mere 1 or 2 percent - hardly a serious threat to our culture and lifestyle.

Quite apart from this, any adverse impact on the economy would be balanced by the fact that most of the people who have been lifted out of absolute poverty will, with better education and training, become self-supporting and eventually will enter the global market as consumers themselves.

7. Giving aid to the poor does not help, because it produces a dependent relationship, removes their incentive to work, and in countries that are already overpopulated, will only exacerbate the population problem.

This is a practical objection that will apply to some kinds of assistance, but not too others. Certainly giving food aid is a last resort, only to be used in dire emergency. But assisting people to become small-scale entrepreneurs, or providing villages with clean water, a school, and basic health care, is a different matter. It provides them with the ability to become self-sufficient, to work to better themselves. As for the population question, it is a mistake to think that the only way to reduce fertility is to let people starve. On the contrary, the single factor that has been shown, in many different studies, to correlate best with a reduction in fertility, is an improvement in the level of education, and particularly the education of women.

4. The Need for a New (or Old) Attitude to Poverty

The examples of Dora and Bob show that our current ideas on what the rich ought to do for the poor are not in harmony with our other ideas on what we are required to do to save a child's life. None of the objections that I have considered convincingly indicates a difference between Dora’s or Bob’s situation and our own that is sufficient to prevent us drawing the conclusion that it is wrong for us to spend our money on luxuries when others are starving. Our attitudes to poverty need to change - not to something entirely new, but to something more like the attitudes I quoted when I began, the attitudes of Ambrose, Gratian and Aquinas. Though I do not accept the religious and Aristotelian foundations on which Aquinas drew, I accept his conclusion that "whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance", because on the utilitarian ethic that I hold, needs take priority over the desire for luxury. This makes me, oddly, on this vital topic a better Christian than many bishops and cardinals. They rush to condemn abortion - a moral dilemma that none of them will ever face - but openly violate, in the luxurious way in which they live their everyday lives, the teachings of their own saints on what the rich owe to the poor. They argue that it is wrong to kill an "unborn child" no matter what reasons its mother may have for not wanting her pregnancy to continue, but they are themselves allowing actual children, loved and wanted by their parents, to die when they could prevent those deaths.

In some circles, there are signs of a change in these attitudes. At the United Nations Millennium Summit, held in New York in September 2000, South African President Thabo Mbeki gave a powerful speech in which he said that "the poor of the world stand at the gates of the comfortable mansions and palaces occupied by each and every king and queen, president and prime minister privileged to attend this unique meeting." There were no reports of leaders inviting the homeless to take over their vacant guest rooms, but the General Assembly passed a Declaration setting a series of ambitious but specific targets for the year 2015. The most important was to halve the proportion of the world's population who suffer from hunger and lack safe drinking water.

Others who have spoken with new vision have been the leaders of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In Prague, World Bank president James Wolfensohn said:

Today you have 20 percent of the world controlling 80 percent of the gross domestic product. You've got a $30 trillion economy and $24 trillion of it in the developed countries. The income of the top 20 is 37 times the income of the bottom 20, and it has doubled in the last decade. These inequities cannot exist.

Regrettably, these inequities can and do exist. The question is what can be done about them. Institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have recently made tackling inequity a higher priority than it was in the past. That is surely the right strategy, from an ethical point of view. It is vitally important for such organizations to ensure that what they are doing makes a difference to the world’s poorest people. In the past, large schemes have often benefited, not the poorest, but those who are part of the problem. It is more difficult and more labor-intensive to ensure that assistance really does benefit those who most need it. Just as Dora was, at first, able to avoid thinking too much about what was going to happen to the boy, so it is always possible to persuade oneself that the things that are in one’s interest are also the best for everyone. But that is often not the case. Dora stands as a warning figure to those prone to take the easy path of self-deception. Every major development agency needs a friend like Dora’s neighbor – one who will force them to take a hard, self-critical look at the real impact that its work is having on the people who most need its help. Otherwise a development agency can, like Dora, become an accomplice in something that is unjust and exploitative.

5. A Last Word: The Political and the Personal.

Horst Köhler, the new managing director of the IMF, said recently: "We have to tackle the selfishness of wealthy countries. This is a question of morals."

Köhler is right - this is a question of morals. But morals is not only a matter for nations and it is not only the selfishness of wealthy nations that must be combatted. The new ethic must be felt at all levels, from international financial institutions to nations to individuals. Those who decide the fate of millions of people who live in absolute poverty should show their attitude to inequity and selfish in their own lives. They should make it clear that they find it repugnant that some should live in luxury while others are in dire poverty. Of course, leaders cannot wear rags and live in shantytowns. They must be able to do their work, receive visitors, communicate rapidly, ensure their personal safety, and represent their country in public. They need the equipment and surroundings that will permit them to do this as efficiently as possible. None of that is superabundance. But they do not need caviar at receptions, limousines to drive around in, or palaces in which to live. If they share their superabundance with the hungry, their stated wish to end poverty will at last become credible. Once that happens, anything is possible.



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