Why We Should Not Help The Poor

I don’t work and save money to give it to poor people. My objective is rarely so generous. As I scan over my packing list on the eve of volunteering in a rural clinic, I consider abandoning such a well-accepted idea as charity and see where it takes me. I found a muse in the words of Garrett Hardin, an American ecologist, in his essay Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor, where he writes:

“If we divide the world crudely into rich nations and poor nations, two thirds of them are desperately poor, and only one third comparatively rich, with the United States the wealthiest of all. Metaphorically each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth. What should the lifeboat passengers do?”

Spinning off this scenario Hardin explains how everyone on earth does not have an equal right to an equal share of its resources. In a world of private property those who own things recognize their responsibility to take care of them, and without such controls we devolve into the train wreck famously known as the tragedy of the commons. Giving blindly to please the elusive ideal of universal justice and equivalency won’t work when we all sink in the same boat. I ask myself if I’m serving to help or hurt volunteering here in Peru while I scrutinize each of Hardin’s lines.Why Not

He has a good point. Aiding the poor does not bring them immediately up to a status of wealth and security. If we constantly prop up a population of the perpetually destitute it does nothing but drag on the environment as a whole and put a permanent damper on what could be a flourishing human condition. Selling artisan products door to door for La Ceiba I have often heard the words, “No thank you, I already gave to charity X this year” before the door clacks shut in front of me. We don’t have to help the poor; we do so out of a social norm coated in obligation. There is safety and surplus in our earnings and we have more right than any to hold onto them. We only consider giving more when we are face to face with those in need of our respective resources. Or when we observe passionate humanitarians willing to uproot and sell their own homes for the cause, folks Hardin would call misguided and maybe appropriately so.

But if you’re like me, you also get the feeling Hardin uses his own interpreted concept of human rights to puppet his argument and make it dance around a key point: Maybe the poor of the world have no negative right and can, in fact, be denied aid when it threatens everyone’s welfare, but I believe they have the positive right to the provision of justice innately embedded within each living thing. A man or woman has the right to fight to the fringes of their ability for that which is most precious; life. By the same token they ought to be eligible for an equally provided right, when their abilities have slipped through the drain of an empty bank account. Keeping his argument in mind I disagree with him that just because it weighs on us all to help others doesn’t mean we are better off when we don’t. I believe people are better off holistically when they help each other. It’s Saturday, though, and I’d rather relax and think of my own situation. Tomorrow is Sunday and I expect the next post will reflect an opposite opinion.




  1. Dylan Warburg · · Reply

    Cool stuff dude, good for you for reflecting and thinking critically about your own work. The only thing I would add is that there is social capital that exists separate from financial capital. Aren’t the poorest people in the world those who only have their money and nobody to confide in or rely on? Money is just a tool necessary to get our basic needs in the current global norm.

  2. Richard Paddock · · Reply

    Good stuff. I like that you’ll pick up the discussion again. In doing so I hope you explain further the line: “By the same token they ought to be eligible for an equally provided right, when their abilities have slipped through the drain of an empty bank account.”

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