Poverty Research Paper

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This research paper focuses on the poor or indigent, that is, those persons living in highly adverse conditions who cannot meet their basic needs. It considers our fellow citizens, as well as those living in remote countries.

This research paper examines what the obligations toward poor persons are. Should persons be beneficent toward them or do they face a stronger duty? If such a duty exists, what kind is it? To this end, this research paper will present the main ideas that libertarians like Jan Narveson defend. Then, it will analyze Peter Singer’s and Larry Temkin’s positions regarding individual obligations. A related issue is the proximity to and kind of relationship people have with resource-poor persons: Is it morally relevant that these persons be neighbors or fellow citizens, or people from remote countries? The latter discussion analyzes the difference between domestic poverty and global poverty when considering the redistribution of resources. For this local versus global discussion, this research paper will outline some of Rawls’s main ideas about domestic and international justice and conclude with Thomas Pogge’s strong defense of global redistribution.


In the United Nations (UN) Millennium Declaration of 2000, 191 member states committed to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. Although it could be questioned whether the UN’s objectives suffice given the magnitude and urgency of the situation, what the implicit values are in the measurement proposed, or whether the kind of solution offered is empirically viable, it should be first considered if something like a duty to aid the neediest in the world exists.

This research paper focuses on the poor or indigent, that is, those persons living in highly adverse conditions who cannot meet their basic needs. It considers our fellow citizens, as well as those living in remote countries.

Although the data and poverty conditions around the world are not recent phenomena, their philosophical treatment is relatively new. However, the philosophical discussion of poverty has become so rich and complex that it is no longer possible to discuss all of its various threads in one research paper. This research paper will focus on only some of them. It will distinguish related dimensions in the analysis of poverty. First, it will examine which are the obligations toward poor persons. Should other persons be beneficent toward them or do they face a stronger duty? If such a duty exists, what kind is it? To this end, this research paper will present the main ideas that libertarians like Jan Narveson defend. Then, it will analyze Peter Singer’s and Larry Temkin’s positions regarding individual obligations. A related issue is the proximity to and kind of relationship people have with resource-poor persons: Is it morally relevant that these persons be neighbors or fellow citizens, or people from remote countries? The latter discussion analyzes the difference between domestic poverty and global poverty when considering the redistribution of resources. For this local versus global discussion, this research paper will outline some of Rawls’s main ideas about domestic and international justice and conclude with Thomas Pogge’s strong defense of global redistribution.

There Is No Duty: The Charity Model

Even if traditional views have analyzed this problem from an ethical stance through the lenses of beneficence and charity, this research paper will focus on the contemporary approach to the debate. The current analysis upholds some of the traditional arguments and adds new elements and distinctions.

In light of the question of duties to the global poor and indigent by those that can meet their own needs and those of their families (while enjoying a degree of comfort), one model sustains that no such duty exists. The so-called libertaransi propose the charity model, disregarding the strategies based on claims for justice. For example, Jan Narveson says, “I think it quite clear, indeed, that generally speaking we do not owe the world’s poor, as a class, anything special. Many (but far from all) members of that class are people who might benefit from our own charitable concerns, but I really do think that charity is a different department from justice” (Narveson 2004). According to Narveson, it should be accepted that this may be an unfortunate situation though it is not unjust. This distinction is crucial because an injustice imposes a rectification but an unfortunate situation does not. The author points out, “That persons with very low incomes may merit our sympathy is accepted, but sympathy leads to charity” (Narveson 2004). Hence, it would be nice to benefit the needy, but that is a matter of charity and of the heart. This kind of approach leaves the decision of aiding or eradicating this situation up to the private sphere and up to the particular sympathy of each individual; as such, it does not generate any duty.

This position is based on the “traditional” difference between positive and negative duties according to which negative duties are stricter and must be respected, while positive ones are less stringent. The libertarian proposal claims that people are free to act as they wish so long as they do not violate the right of people not to be attacked. From this perspective, people have the right not to be attacked, but they have no right to be aided. Therefore, no unjust act or wrong would be done if people fail to aid the needy (Narveson 2004). Moreover, and this is another crucial point: while people have a strong negative right not to be attacked, they do not have the positive right to be aided. Thus, no one’s rights have been violated and no one has been treated unjustly if the needy are not aided.

The charity model allows individuals to act with complete indifference. As was mentioned, the libertarian claims there is no duty or violation of any negative right: aiding depends on the goodwill and heart of persons. As Thomas Pogge signals, “The common assumption, however, is that reducing severe poverty abroad at the expense of our own affluence would be generous on our part, not something we owe, and that our failure to do this is thus at most a lack of generosity that does not make us morally responsible for the continued deprivation of the poor” (Pogge 2005). According to this proposal, persons are mere “innocent passersby” and have no responsibility whatsoever for what happens to people experiencing severe poverty. The libertarian also agrees with the traditional view that has linked the satisfaction of economic, social, and cultural rights to the existence of positive duties, denying them the importance that civil and political rights do have. For critics of this position, the charity model accepts the existing “status quo” and offers a justification that invites self-indulgence.

Individual Obligations: Positive Duties

The proposal that defends the existence of positive duties toward the neediest takes an opposite stance. This section presents an “individual” strategy centering on the obligations and moral duties of individuals.

In his seminal article, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Peter Singer argues for a positive duty to aid. He claims that our duties and obligations go far beyond our respect for people’s negative rights (Singer 1972). Singer says, “The way people in relatively affluent countries react to a situation like that in Bengal cannot be justified; indeed, the whole way we look at moral issues–our moral conceptual scheme–needs to be altered.” He affirms that absolute poverty is bad (suffering from the lack of food, shelter, and medical care) and presents the following principle: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it” (Singer 1972). “It requires us only to prevent what is bad, and not to promote what is good, and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important.” However, he later states that “we ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one’s dependents – perhaps to the point of marginal utility.” Singer holds that this principle is the correct one although he also argues in favor of a weaker or more moderate principle in the same article. “If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” With respect to how much persons ought to give if they follow this second moderate principle, Singer states that they would have to give away enough to ensure that the consumer society slows down and perhaps disappear entirely.

Singer explains that these principles have two characteristic features: the first has to do with the second dimension to be considered below: he argues that persons should not consider proximity or distance (it makes no difference whether someone saves a neighbor’s son or a Bengali child). The second feature is that it is not important whether someone is the only person that can save him or one among a million. Yet, this second proposal is related to a powerful objection concerning the levels of demand that these principles imply.

Some years later, in the chapter “Rich and Poor” in his book Practical Ethics, (Singer 1984) Singer reduces the levels of demand and suggests donating 10 % of a person’s income. He devotes a section in the chapter to the objection of whether it is acceptable to support a position that is so demanding that it is almost impossible to put into practice. He wonders whether it would be counterproductive to set such a high standard that only saints would be able to comply. Singer answers, “What would follow from the objection is that public advocacy of this standard of giving is undesirable. It would mean that in order to do the maximum to reduce absolute poverty, we should advocate a standard lower than the amount we really think people ought to give. Of course, we ourselves – those of us that accept the original argument, with its higher standard – would know that we ought to do more than we publicly propose people ought to do [.. .]. There is no inconsistency here, since in both our private and our public behavior we are trying to do what will most reduce absolute poverty” (Singer 1984). Thus, this position significantly reduces the donation to 10 %. Singer argues that this is the minimum and persons do wrong by giving less. However, this discussion did not end there. Years later, Singer lowered the demands even further and proposed donating 1 % (Singer 2003). As was mentioned above, these proposals are linked to the discussion that analyzes to what extent ethics demands can go. It is undoubtedly true that behaving ethically is not easy and that these kinds of duties must take this problem on board. Yet, the issue of moral demand gives rise to an extensive debate that goes beyond this research paper.

Some of Singer’s innovative proposals have recently been taken up again and complemented. For example, Larry Temkin considers that people can and often behave wrongly even though they do not behave unjustly (Temkin 2004). He offers several arguments to support this affirmation. This research paper will focus on only one of them based on the distinction between positive and negative duties.

In response to libertarian affirmations, Temkin shows that some positive duties are not trivial. Temkin highlights that some libertarians mix the category of positive duties with the category of supererogatory acts (those acts that go beyond duty).

He examines Singer’s famous example of the duty to save a drowning child: “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing” (Singer 1972). Temkin asks the reader to assume that John is one of twenty people that are walking along the pond in which a child is drowning. If John can save the child, he has the positive duty to do so; even if it is accepted that the child has no claim to be saved. If one of the other passersby wades in and saves the child, he relieves John of his responsibility to do so. But if nobody else acts, John must do so. Thus, when John lets the child drown to preserve his suit, he is acting wrongly; even if he accepts that he would not be violating the child’s rights and, therefore, he would not be acting unjustly.

Temkin uses Singer’s case to argue that there are positive duties and these can also be strong. In contrast, he presents the following case: suppose Tom and Tim have been given a box of candy to share. Tom takes one extra piece. He is not just being thoughtless. He knows full well that the piece belongs to Tim, and he greedily does it anyway. Tom is, in essence, consciously violating a negative duty against stealing. Temkin then goes on to say while Tom has consciously violated a negative duty against stealing, and John has “merely” violated a positive duty, John’s failure to save the drowning child is morally much worse and open to much more serious moral criticism, than Tom’s stealing of Tim’s candy (Temkin 2004).

Temkin writes, “So-called ‘positive’ duties to aid others are often regarded as weak, broad, imperfect, and meritorious while “negative” duties are regarded as strict, narrow, perfect, and unexceptionable. But these divisions are deeply misleading. Positive duties are still duties and people acts wrongly if they fail to fulfill them. Moreover, a positive duty can be as strict or compelling as a negative duty. Likewise, failing to fulfill a positive duty can be significantly more open to moral criticism than failing to fulfill a negative duty, even if the latter involves a rights obligation, and hence an injustice, while the former does not” (Temkin 2004).

Temkin seeks to escape the rigid classification of positive and negative duties. He proposes taking into account circumstances in specific situations, in order to evaluate the moral weight of their fulfillment or failure. Temkin’s position reflects the moral intuition of the obligation to aid when the gravity of the situation is relevant. This appears to be an acceptable strategy when no contradictions exist between following negative or positive duties or even when the negative duties are trivial. Temkin adds another argument that further strengthens Singer’s premise. Extreme poverty is bad and there is something wrong in its persistence in a rich world; even though people are not blameworthy, they cannot remain indifferent if they can help.

Institutional Obligations: Domestic Versus Global

Another strategy introduces another sphere in the discussion of poverty. Unlike the proposals in the previous section, this strategy is not based on individual duties but on institutions. Institutions must be just. Since institutions may vary, another dimension appears; they may be local or global. This discussion centers on the kind of relation or proximity persons have toward those without resources and the role institutions play toward them.

For John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971) or Thomas Nagel in “The Problem of Global Justice” (Nagel 2005), local institutions are responsible for the distribution of justice. In this line, the foundational work of John Rawls can be read as taking care of local poverty. A full analysis of Rawls’s work goes beyond this research paper, so this research paper will merely sketch some of the main points that are relevant to it. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls (1971) argues that his theory is only to be applied to the basic structure of society which is understood as the major social institutions and the ways they structure the rules of association and allocate the advantages of cooperation (Rawls 1971). This research paper will outline Rawls’s idea of two principles of justice, which he argues represent the principles of justice persons would accept as governing the “basic structure” of our society. These principles deal with political justice and with what fairness would demand of the rules allocating persons to positions within the basic structure but they also constrain inequality. For the so-called difference principle, the only inequalities of primary goods that can be justified are those shown to benefit the least advantaged. This principle constrains the types and degrees of justifiable inequalities. But these principles only apply within the context of the domestic state.

There is broad agreement that when Rawls deals with the issue of international justice, it is in a manner markedly less reformist than when he approaches domestic justice. This difference in his treatment of international justice and local justice was contested by many philosophers. For these interpreters Rawls defends a weak cosmopolitanism.

In The Law of Peoples (Rawls 1999) Rawls considers the international situation. He argues that a just international regime would involve states agreeing to treat one another fairly in their mutual interaction but this does not entail any sort of distributive consideration or economic justice.

In this reading, Rawls’s approach is international and not global. Rawls explicitly seeks principles that will regulate the interactions among territorially defined political, corporate agents with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, called “peoples” (Rawls 1999). He does not attempt to derive complete principles of global justice.

Rawls presents eight principles peoples could reasonably endorse. For example, the first one says: “Peoples are free and independent, and their freedom and independence are to be respected by other peoples”; the second principle says “Peoples are to observe treaties and undertakings,” and so on. The eighth principle is the one that concerns this discussion: “Peoples have a duty to assist other peoples living under unfavorable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent political and social regime” (Rawls 1999). In Rawls’s proposal, nations will not demand that inequalities among them be justified by improving the lives of the least well-off persons or groups. In the ideal case where international society is fully composed by well-ordered states, there are no distributive requirements at all. And this is so even if some peoples may be very rich and others quite poor (Blake and Taylor Smith 2013). However, there are some distributive elements. For example, as these authors also point out, if deep material inequality among peoples undermines their ability to be considered equals in the negotiation of treaties or tempts peoples to inappropriately intervene in the domestic affairs of other peoples, there will be a reason to eliminate that inequality. But for Rawls, the most important determinant of wealth is the political culture and institutions of peoples. Rawls believes that the causes and sources of wealth of peoples lie in their political culture and in their religious, philosophical, and moral traditions as well as in the laboriousness and corporate talent and he gives the examples of Japan (which with very few resources can organize itself quite well), and Argentina (a country with abundant resources can confront great difficulties) (Rawls 1999). Nonetheless, Blake and Taylor Smith also assert as a distributive element that all members of the Society of Peoples must respect human rights and that guarantees to every person a minimum level of material prosperity and physical security (Rawls 1999).

In order to understand why interpreters of Rawls consider him a weak cosmopolitan, the dissimilarities between the difference principle and the duty of assistance to burdened societies can be evaluated. While the difference principle is meant to continuously apply through the basic structure of society to the flow of social and economic interactions, the duty of assistance has a target and cutoff point: when the society is well ordered. In addition, while the difference principle is about the distribution of primary goods, the duty of assistance might have very little to do with the distribution of wealth (for example, well-ordered peoples will have to provide more technical support, information, institutional assistance than financial support). Hence, Blake and Taylor Smith claim that Rawls argues for a two-tiered theory of distributive justice: the domestic context demands an egalitarian redistribution of primary goods, but equality in the international context requires that each person finds herself in a well-ordered society. This interpretation of The Laws of Peoples includes some redistributive elements though absent from this is the difference principle or anything like it. Thus, local poverty seems to be addressed but not the global one.

Another reading of Rawls is the one pointed out by Samuel Freeman as a stronger cosmopolitan. He considers Rawls’s position regarding the saving principle and says: “Given the strong parallel that Rawls draws with the just saving principle, it appears that the duty of assistance to burdened peoples to meet basic needs must be satisfied (like the just savings principle). The duty of assistance to burdened peoples then should have priority over the difference principle and duties of distributive justice to the members of one’s own society.” Freeman goes on to say that Rawls is then giving a kind of importance to meeting basic human needs worldwide. And he finishes claiming: “In this regard, and also given the potentially exacting demands that the duty of assistance can place on advantaged peoples, Rawls’s ‘weak’ cosmopolitanism would seem to be stronger than his cosmopolitan critics allow” (Freeman 2007).

Even if Rawls’s foundational and groundbreaking work on justice should be acknowledged, it seems fair to recognize that one is the position expressed by Rawls of A Theory of Justice and his original justification of local justice; and quite another is Rawls of The Laws of Peoples where he seems to fall to the international status quo. Even Rawls himself states that there is a strong contrast between the rights of peoples and the cosmopolitan perspective (Rawls 1999).

Negative Duties

Thomas Pogge challenges the above mentioned positions. He is a disciple of Rawls. However, he considers Rawls a weak cosmopolitan and questions Rawls’s international views. For Pogge, domestic justice is not enough. On the one hand, Pogge considers Rawls a defender of the thesis of the “purely domestic causation of poverty” which holds that the causes of poverty in poor countries are internal and that, therefore, the eradication of poverty depends on the modification of internal factors. Pogge accepts that there might be internal factors of poverty, but he argues that these factors are frequently caused, modeled, and supported by external factors which cannot be denied (such as the international economic order) (Pogge 2005). Thus, there should be an adequate answer toward the global poor situation. On the other hand, regarding the first discussion, Pogge goes a step further than Singer and Temkin. He does not challenge the distinction between positive and negative duties. He concedes that point to the libertarian. He accepts the importance and force of negative rights as libertarians do. But unlike libertarians, he argues that there is a negative right to compensate the poor. In contrast to Singer and Temkin, who assume that those who have the duty of assistance could be mere innocent bystanders, Pogge claims that they are responsible, that people from industrialized countries are responsible for the global institutional arrangements of their governments. Also responsible are the elites of poor countries with economic resources who often produce the poverty conditions of their fellow citizens. Thus, to persuade the world’s “affluent” to help the poor, Pogge bases his strategy on the previous fact that they have harmed the poor. They have given rise to the situation that the needy confront and, hence, a compensation and rectification duty exists.

Pogge’s bases are supported by three independent arguments. The first invokes the common and violent history through which existing radical inequality has developed. That is, it targets colonial history, genocides, and past abuses.

The second argument considers that in the state of nature people are entitled to a proportional share of the world’s natural resources (Pogge 2002, 2005) and he contends that the existing distribution is unacceptably unjust. Even if Pogge recognizes that the baseline for establishing what would be a just distribution is imprecise, he notes that it cannot be realistically conceived as involving the scale of suffering and deaths that exists today.

The third states that the unjust global economic order is preserved even if there is a massive incidence of avoidable severe poverty. Pogge criticizes the international organizations that allow wealthy countries to establish arrangements with asymmetric rules through tariffs, quotas, subsidies, and so on. He objects to the imposition of absolute property rights on drug patents or the “indirect” support of de facto governments, enabling what Pogge denominates international borrowing privileges, resource privilege, and so on. Pogge argues that this implies that global institutional arrangements are causally implicated in the creation and reproduction of severe poverty, and that the citizens of the most powerful countries are responsible for the global arrangements that their governments have negotiated in their names. If it is possible to show that such harm and responsibility exists (which some philosophers question (Risse 2005)), then Pogge’s proposal is undoubtedly very powerful.

Pogge centers his attacks on the failure of the international community and its global organizations, while bearing in mind the value of Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized. In a very original way, Pogge not only takes up the moral notion of human rights but also links these to global institutions. He offers an institutional interpretation of human rights but only demands negative rights.

For Pogge, then, people in industrialized countries are responsible for the global arrangements that their governments have made in their international negotiations (as are the elites in countries without resources) and he focuses on those global institutions, their functioning, and their responsibility in the face of global poverty. So, to persuade the world’s “affluent” to aid the poor, Pogge bases his strategy on the fact that harm has been done to persons without resources by their governments and the global institutional order that maintain them. They have created the situation in which the poor exist. There is a harm and a positive duty (unlike Singer’s and Temkin’s proposals) and, hence, there is a duty to compensate and rectify.

According to Pogge, the individuals of affluent countries, the elite of countries without resources, and global institutions are morally responsible for the extreme conditions under which the global poor live. In this sense, his proposal offers a theoretical justification for the international vision of human rights and broadens the scope of agents of justice in that it not only points to national States but also the international community as a whole.


There are different philosophical positions on the plight of the poor and obligations due to them. These, however, embed some weaknesses. Singer could be criticized for his continued reduction in aid to the point that the percentage appears to be arbitrary. Temkin could be questioned when he says that strict or compelling positive duties exist since he seems to “qualify” duties. Not all positive duties are trivial; nor are all negative duties relevant. But what is the criterion to qualify duties as compelling? Must it be an urgent or desperate situation? Likewise, Rawls’s response to domestic and global poverty could be objected and some inconsistencies be indicated. As well as the historic reading that Pogge formulates could also be criticized or the degree of responsibility that supposedly everybody would have.

However, if it is believed that this world is very unjust and that the chance of being born in one country or another, or into one family or another, cannot definitively seal a person’s destiny, and that every person ought to do something, these proposed types of responses present interesting lines of argument. Thomas Pogge offers a lucid critique of the current functioning of global institutions, as well as an interesting acknowledgement of human rights from an international stance. Pogge’s proposal helps explain strong, negative duties, those for which persons are causally responsible and links them to human rights. This double strategy proves to be most interesting when it comes down to addressing the problem of global poverty.

And yet, does this proposal suffice? In light of the difficulty of implementing these rights in a strongly skeptical and indifferent society, it is worth considering a possible complement. In this sense, even if it cannot be established as the only answer, the proposal based on an individual strategy is redeemable: broadening personal duties à la Singer. Pogge himself would not reject the idea though it is not part of his main concerns (Pogge 2005). According to the above, when it comes to alleviating global poverty, the availability of different tools can prove very fruitful.

Bibliography :

  1. Blake, M., & Taylor Smith, P. (2013). International distributive justice. In Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/international-jus tice/.
  2. Freeman, S. (2007). Rawls. London: Routledge.
  3. Manterola, J. (2011). Rompecabezas Pogge: derechos humanos. Deberes y contribuciones. Perspectivas Bioéticas, 16(31), 126–138.
  4. Nagel, T. (2005). The problem of global justice. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 22(4), 267–292.
  5. Narveson, J. (2004). Is world poverty a moral problem for the wealthy? The Journal of Ethics, 8, 397–408.
  6. Pogge, T. (2002). World poverty and human rights. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.
  7. Pogge, T. (2005). Severe poverty as a violation of negative duties. Ethics and International Affairs, 19(1), 55–84.
  8. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  9. Rawls, J. (1999). The laws of peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  10. Risse, M. (2005). Do we owe the global poor assistance or rectification? Ethics and International Affairs, 19(1), 317–327.
  11. Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (3), 229–243.
  12. Singer, P. (1984). Ética práctica. Barcelona: Editorial Ariel.
  13. Singer, P. (2003). Un solo mundo. La ética de la globalización. Buenos Aires: Paidos.
  14. Temkin, L. (2004). Thinking about the needy, justice and international organizations. The Journal of Ethics, 8, 349–395.
  15. Pogge, T. (2002). World poverty and human rights. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.
  16. Rawls, J. (1999). The laws of peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  17. Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3), 229–243.

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