Why We Should Help The Poor

No one blames us for not donating to the poor, yet a vacant sense of culpability can still leave us feeling a little guilty when we don’t. I made my way back from the city market today and passed a lonely child selling candies on the street. For one reason or another he wore a pained expression on his face and I was unexpectedly moved as it pulled at each one of my heartstrings. It goes to show we seem to have this involuntary impulse to do something for people who need aid. I couldn’t help but grimace as I kept walking and thought about what my last paycheck would have meant to him. We know that by transferring our wealth in riches to those in poverty we can alleviate their troubles, but being selfless is rarely our sole motivation. Sometimes we need someone to remind us why it is we should do it.

Currently I am searching for those wise words on my last day in Cuzco before leaving for the week. This is what I find:

“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.”

Peter Singer, an Australian philosophy professor, writes that we mistake helping the poor to be an act of generosity when it is, in fact, mandatory. As human beings subject to ethical standards we have a duty to prevent bad things from happening to other people when it is in our excess power to do so. Poverty is bad, and we are capable of doing something about it without substantial sacrifice; therefore we ought to help the poor. He even goes so far as to equate the inaction of anyone with more than they need to the active causing of harm upon those in abject poverty. The argument is a simple one and rings true with those who believe in the responsibility of haves to give to the have-nots.

Even so I retain some doubts. Especially after hearing others profess the dangers of facilitating a society of the destitute, which will tread water and suck on our economy. It is true that global production of food is more than enough if it were distributed evenly, but for Singer the entire point is almost completely null. We have a right to our own property and the poor have a right to receive aid. The over arching principle is not about racial affinity, triage, or who has a right to what. It is about what we ought to do regardless of financial or material repercussions.

Singer frames his argument between the worlds of absolute poverty and absolute wealth. While I don’t agree with him that my buying a TV is akin to condemning an African child to die by starvation, I do like what he’s saying. I closed his essay and placed it on the counter. I thought back to the child on the street. If I ever have children I would like to see them well cared for and never truly wanting, but I think I would agree with Singer in affording them one less game station and sending the money to the poor instead, because its something I invariably should do. On a beautiful Sunday like today, I’d rather have them play outside anyway.  DSC_0497



  1. Jeff, this is an interesting walk down yet another road. I’m still a little fuzzy on what you think the most compelling arguments are for and/or against aid. I personally don’t believe that all aid is equal, nor is all need. I believe that each act of needing and giving is judged worthy in the end by the motivations on each side. This is a very difficult philosophy to codify into policies and fair practices, so I don’t think the debate stops there by any means, but I still believe that when we hold love and caring in our heart for the best outcome, oddly things have a way of working towards that best outcome regardless of the individual actions taken along the way. I do not know the answers, only the questions – but in the questions lie movement towards a better outcome for those who follow them. Thanks for posting the questions we all need to follow.

  2. Meredyth · · Reply

    Hey Jeff,
    I’ve read a bit of Singer, but I’ve also read some of Hardin’s lifeboat ethics as a counterpoint. I don’t really agree with either of them, personally, I think the issue is way more complicated. Ideally, we’d care for everyone, at least to some, arbitrary point where everyone’s basic needs are met. Unfortunately simply giving people aid – in the form of money, food, technology, or even expertise – isn’t going to help them in the long term. Simply giving these things away for free robs people of the ability and desire to develop or provide these things for themselves. We’re essentially saying we don’t believe that they’re capable of helping themselves without the wealthy first “empowering” them. That being said, it hardly seems right to let people starve. Basically it’s a pretty sticky issue.

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