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Poverty has long been a plague to humanity, dating all the way back to the dawn of human civilization. Two men, in more recent times, named Jan Narveson and Peter Singer have claimed to have the answer to the seemingly impossible question of world poverty. However, these view run contradictory to one another, with Singer stating that all people have a moral obligation to help the impoverished around us. While Narveson argues that providing help is merely an option and is not to be considered morally obligatory, I believe in Narveson’s position, that we are not under a moral obligation to give charity because if it is a necessity, then by definition, it is not charity; in addition to further problems being caused because of the forced “charity.
Singer is a utilitarian. Singer sees providing for the impoverished in other countries as a moral obligation, and necessity. Singer’s basic argument in The Singer Solution to World Poverty is that it is inherently immoral for someone, or anyone, to spend money on excess material things or services, in other words, things which are not necessary for survival.
Singer holds to the believe that money spent on items or services which are; “not essential to preserving our lives or health” would be better donated to organizations and efforts to save a child’s life.
Singer’s side of the argument places a focus on the basis that to spend money on ourselves, beyond what is necessary, is both immoral, and also a conscience decision a person makes that lets another innocent, impoverished person die.
Essentially, Singer uses this logic to make it seem that we are killers if we are wasteful and use excess money for ourselves. Economically opposing capitalistic views.
So much money, especially in the United States is spent on things that are in no way necessary. Singer illustrates his position by citing a movie called “Central Station”. In the movie, a retired teacher named Dora lives paycheck to paycheck. She makes money writing letters for people who are incapable of writing letters themselves. One day she is given the opportunity to make $1,000 dollars, all she has to do is bring a young boy to a specific address, where he is promised he will be adopted by wealthy parents. After taking the boy to the address, she learns from a neighbor that the boy is too old to be adopted. Instead, he will be killed, and his “adoptive family” will sell his organs. In the end, after a sleepless night, Dora makes the decision to rescue the boy instead of keeping the money she was given.
Singer then commentates on the decision making in the movie and the reaction of the audience. He makes the observation that had Dora kept the money and let the boy alone, the affluent audience would quickly express condemnation for Dora’s actions. The problem is, in Singer’s opinion, that these people who just spent money on viewing a movie are going to be returning home to houses and apartments worth much more than the place Dora was living in during the movie
Narveson, by definition is a libertarian, a philosophical position that opposes Singer’s utilitarianism. He first distinguishes between two principles, justice and charity, and states that justice outweighs charity. In “Feeding the Hungry”, he arrives at the conclusion that we do not have a moral obligation to take care of the impoverished around us. Instead, he declares that it is simply a moral “option”. In the “Don’t Feed the Hungry” argument that Narveson makes, he suggests that if we all fed the hungry and set out to save starving people, in the next generation, we would have even more hungry/starving people. Eventually, this trend would make it impossible for the affluent to continue to provide for the needy, in the end, according to Narveson, there is widespread poverty and misery. However, Narveson does not deny that being charitable is good, to an extent, his point is just that we do not have the obligation to be charitable. Because Narveson does not see providing for the impoverished as a moral necessity, he believes that the choice we make about providing or not providing, is not a choice which reflects on whether we are moral or immoral beings.
A more in-depth look into Narveson’s reasoning for his position uncovers a few main points that create his argument. If we are charitable to those in need, specifically the starving, then those who we help survive will live on, reproduce, and future generations will be larger. This would mean that in the next generation, there would be more people in need, and it would be harder for the affluent to help each future generation causing future waves of starvation. Because of this, future waves of starvation would be bigger, and eventually the affluent would be unable to save those who are impoverished because of the growing number, which leads to, in the end more misery and starvation because we provided for the impoverished. From all that, Narveson arrives at the conclusion that helping the impoverished should not be a moral obligation.
In addition, it is important to note that Narveson is not against giving completely. He does see it as a necessity to give if we are the ones who put a person in an adverse circumstance. According to him, justice gives us our moral duties, anything we do beyond that is simply optional. He does not believe that we can be the cause of something that would have still occurred if we had never been born.
As I have mentioned previously, my beliefs align more towards those of Narveson. Admittedly, however, I do not match up with him completely in my belief system. The basis of our philosophical alignment goes back to his definitions of charity and justice. Charity is given from the heart, justice is required. Through Narveson’s perspective, charity by definition, cannot be forced or it is not charity. Instead, it would be justice. So Narveson contends that if we are morally obligated to give to the impoverished in other countries, we are not doing it from our hearts and it is not charity. In his, and my mind, this effectively negates the main idea in Singer’s argument.
Narveson’s key points; that generations will get larger, causes of poverty will remain, and an increase in impoverished persons, lead me to believe, as Narveson does, that we may be causing an increase in starvation and misery if we do provide for the impoverished around the world.
As a Libertarian, Narveson holds to some policies which today are generally accepted, these policies/positions influence and helped to create his position on poverty and assisting the impoverished around the world. These supportive positions include, first, that a person does not associate value with all of the same things that another person would. Second, no matter the differences we have with people, we should respect others and respect the values that they hold to. Because of these first two principles, it is absolutely necessary that we do not force any one set of values upon everyone, too many people will not hold to it. The final position is semi-commonly referred to as The Libertarian Principle. This principle, in short is that we can best respect others when we let every person live as that person wishes, according to their own values. This principle covers everything insofar as our values and wishes do not impede others from doing the same for themselves. The consequence of this belief to which Narveson holds is that obligation can only be created when it is necessary to punish or prevent a use of force, for example a theft.
The Libertarian Principle is a policy to which I associate both my political and philosophical ideologies with. I believe that enforcing beliefs and values upon others with different social and religious backgrounds as my own is not beneficial and in many cases can harm societies. I strongly believe in Narveson’s conclusion that the only obligations that are enforceable upon others are those that are demanded by justice. We are only obligated to provide for the impoverished around the world if we are responsible for their impoverishment because of our actions.
However, just because we are not obligated does not mean we should completely eliminate charity. I believe that through Narveson’s beliefs charity thrives in the way it was meant to. In my opinion, charity is not meant to be forced, it is a virtue that we are supposed to choose without being obligated to do so. The beauty of providing for the impoverished and feeding the hungry is that we choose to do so. In my opinion, much of that beauty is lost when we are deprived of that ability to choose.
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