For the past few weeks or so, I’ve been thinking about and working through an issue that I’ve had in my head. When on the bus, or when walking to and from class, I kind of stare off into the distance, contemplating this issue. It’s likely not one that most people pay too much attention to. But it’s something I think is important to resolve. It’s the issue of moral obligations – what are our duties as moral beings? And specifically, what are our moral obligations to the poor?
Now, let me be the first one to declare that I think helping the poor is a great thing. It’s an important thing, and I see it as a morally praiseworthy thing to do. However, I’m not trying to determine the morality of helping the poor; I’m trying to determine whether people are morally obligated to help the poor. Roughly speaking, there are three categories of actions: morally prohibited, morally permissible, and morally obligatory. Some people break these down in different ways, but this framework is good enough for me. Essentially, in the first category are things that are immoral and that you should not do. In the second category are things that are allowed but not required – they’re good for people to do, and praiseworthy, but not expected of people. In this category also falls actions that are morally neutral, not good or bad; say, for instance, choosing to wear a blue shirt instead of a red shirt. In most cases, that’s not a big deal. Within the third category, however, are actions that are expected of people to do. They are actions that any decent human being should do. If you are capable of having knowledge about morality, these are things that are required of you.
So my question is, where does the act of helping the poor fall? Is it something that is morally permissible and praiseworthy, or is it something that is morally obligatory? This is the question I’ve been wrestling with. I first thought about wealth distribution. Should wealth be evenly distributed amongst the population? Should the government take money from the rich and give it to the poor until they are equal? I don’t think so. For one thing, it seems as though there will always be rich and poor, no matter what. If people make the same amount no matter what, then they have no incentive to work hard; this differential of wealth, then, is important. Certainly the rich are allowed to give money to others if they so choose, but there doesn’t seem to be any obligation on their part to do so. I’d still say it’s something they should do, but not something they’re required to do. However, it’s also important to remember that the money we make – whether we are in the upper, middle, or lower class – is always made at the expense of others. For example, there are plenty of unemployed people in North America. Not all of these have the skills and expertise, but some of them likely do. For every person employed, there are several turned away. Add this to the number of people worldwide who have no access to the job, and who have no access to the education necessary to develop the required skills for the job. Our money, our jobs, are always bought at the expense of others.
So it seems to me that while equality of wealth is not something that is obligatory or necessarily even desirable, equality of opportunity is a very different matter. People should not all receive the same amount of money, but they should all be able to have the opportunity to make money if they put in time and effort. Let’s face it, North American society does not operate this way. A black woman in the lower class with no college education is going to find it much more difficult to find a job than a white man in the middle class with a Master’s degree. We like to think that we are “equal opportunity employers”, and certainly there has been much progress made in this area, but we are not there yet. Providing equality of opportunity involves breaking down racist and sexist attitudes, allowing greater social mobility between social classes, and increasing access to affordable education, among other things. This type of equality is important, because many individuals who grow up in the poor areas of, say, the Bronx, find it difficult to escape the cycle of poverty. They rely on government assistance to live in substandard housing, and they cannot break out because they lack the money required to develop the necessary skills to achieve a higher-paying job. Without money, they cannot get a better job, but without a better job, they cannot make more money. Much of this is only amplified by issues of racism and sexism, not to mention that schools in the area find it hard to get high-quality teachers (since they don’t want to move into the neighbourhood), so the next generation growing up has subpar education. The cyle continues.
This, I feel, is where our obligations lie. We need to do everything possible to create conditions that will allow for equality of opportunity. This needs to be done not only on a national scale, but on a global scale. How does a little girl in Ethiopia ever break out of the cycle of poverty? She has no access to education, and she might find it hard to just hop on an airplane and fly to the US for school. Certainly this is a complex issue, but it seems that we have an obligation to deal with it as best we can. As I thought about this, though, it was difficult to know just how an individual would have such an obligation. I am not in government; I don’t own a business; I can’t influence international policy. But there are several ways. I can first of all change my own attitude. Attitudes and beliefs are contagious. If I live consciously with equality of opportunity on my mind, it can influence others. This is a simple way. Second, I can speak out. Sort of like I’m doing right now. The Internet offers a huge opportunity to spread one’s words, with little cost at all. That is one small way to use my words to effect change. Third, I can act. I can support governments who lower trade barriers and support free trade. I can vote for politicians who advocate the eradication of racism and sexism, who fight for accessible and affordable education, and who enact policies that provide more opportunities for the poor. If I own a business or am a manager in charge of hiring, I can make sure that my hiring policies are fair and equitable, and I can resist the urge to stereotype.
Most importantly, I think it is necessary to rethink where our money goes. Numerous charities exist, but not all of them try to effect change in the same way. Some organizations will raise money, and then provide food for the poor. That is a good thing, but I do not think it is the best way to approach the problem. I am reminded of the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” I think it is crucial that we move ourselves away from simple “handouts” and move towards empowering the poor and the destitute to become self-sufficient. This is especially crucial in developing nations. We can continue to ship food and clean water and medical supplies over to Africa forever, or we can help them to develop these things on their own. We can help them to grow crops and teach them modern farming techniques to increase their yield. We can help to dig wells that will provide clean, drinkable water for them. We can educate them in medical advances (and other areas) so that they can start to combat disease on their own. Instead of simply throwing money at the problem, we need to solve the problem. It is not that helping individuals is not important. Providing food aid is not a bad thing. It’s just not the best thing. We can work on helping individuals, in some never-ending lineup for assistance, or we can work at changing the system. It’s like medication – we can either try to reduce the symptoms, or we can attack the disease causing them. So with that said, I think it is crucial that we are more selective in our charitable giving – not that we should give less, but that we should give to charities that will actually help solve the problem. We need to find charities that are not content to simply work within the system, but will try to enact change in the system itself.
So this is the result of my pondering on morality. I have not completely resolved the problem. I know I started off saying that I had no obligation to give my money away, but then I ended by saying that I have an obligation to give money to charities that combat the problem of inequality of opportunity. I don’t see this as a necessary contradiction, but I still need to work out what I should be doing with my money. Unfortunately, the problem seems to be more complicated than just “give to the poor.” I hope I’ve been able to show the complexity, at least. But hopefully this provides stimulation for others to think about what their moral obligations are, and what strategies they can use to solve the “big problems” in our world. If I was able to do at least that, then I’d say that’s a pretty good start.