Morality and our role in the world

Morality and our role in the world

Thus far in the reading group, we’ve discussed the fact that many millions of people alive today live under extreme poverty, and suffer from entirely preventable and treatable illnesses. While these conditions have been gradually improving globally, they still attract relatively little political or social attention, and their rate of improvement is slowing down.

Meanwhile, most people in high-income countries live in relative affluence, with their basic needs met and a government-funded safety net. What is our moral obligation in this situation? We may believe we’ve worked hard throughout our lives to get to where we are, or that our parents have worked hard in order to provide us with the privilege we currently bestow. These things may well be true. But does that mean it is morally permissible for us to continue to enjoy our privileges, while knowing about the suffering that continues to occur throughout the world?

Some argue that our moral obligations (or most of our moral obligations) are to those within our geographic or familial circle, and therefore we aren’t morally obliged to help people we don’t know in low-income countries. Others argue that what is important morally is what we do, as opposed to what we allow to happen, and that believing in and acting on the obligation to reduce global poverty and suffering is excessively demanding. Meanwhile, some philosophers believe we are morally obliged to help people who live in different countries, even if our daily actions do not directly cause their suffering.

In this session, we will be evaluating our obligations towards those in extreme poverty around the world, from a philosophical perspective.

Core Reading (150 minutes)

Read any three of the texts in favour and two against our obligations to help those in need, and don’t just choose the shorter ones!

The case in favour

Famine, Affluence, and Morality - Peter Singer (1972) (35 mins)
Poverty and Human Rights - Thomas Pogge (2007) (10 mins)
Responsibility for Violations of the Human Right to Subsistence - Elizabeth Ashford (2014) (Chapter 4, p95-118 [p107-130 on the Drive] of Poverty, Agency, and Human Rights) (45 mins)

The case against

The callousness objection - Andreas Mogensen (2019) (40 minutes)
The Principle of Beneficence in Applied Ethics - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (15 minutes)
  • Beneficence: the doing of active goodness, kindness, or charity, including all actions intended to benefit others.
  • Read the following sections
    • 3: Is Beneficent Action Obligatory or Merely a Moral Ideal?
    • 4: The Problem of Over-Demanding Beneficence

Other reading

Cheerfully - Giving Gladly - Julia Wise (5 minutes)
  • This blog post discusses the process of evaluating how much you’re willing to give up to help others, and the importance of being cheerful while being altruistic.

Further Reading

Philosophy Thought Experiment (10 mins) & The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle - Peter Singer (1997) (10 mins)
On Satisfying Duties to Assist - Christian Barry & Holly Lawford-Smith
  • Does there come a point at which one is no longer morally obliged to do further good, even at very low cost to oneself?
Supererogation - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Supererogation: the class of actions that go “beyond the call of duty.”
Whether and Where to Give - Theron Pummer (2016)
  • Main claim: in many cases it would be wrong of you to give a sum of money to charities that do less good than others you could have given to instead, even if it would not have been wrong of you not to give the money to any charity at all.
Nationalism - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Nationalism:
    • the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and
    • the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination
International Distributive Justice - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Read section 3: Varieties of Institutionalism


Questions to think about when reading and reflecting upon this literature

  • How can we find balance between wanting to help others and fulfilling our other goals?
  • Are we faced with a great opportunity to improve the world, or a terrible tragedy that the world contains so much suffering?

Next in the Global Health and Poverty curriculum