Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Are We Doing Enough? A Discussion on the Ethics of Helping the Poor

By Ryan Fitzsimmons

An ever present problem in today’s world is poverty, which affects not only millions of people abroad, but also a growing number of people in the United States. While very few people would shrug a responsibility to help those who suffer from poverty and its related ailments, a question commonly arises. How much is enough and is it wrong to give less than I currently am?

Kristine Falkowski and Kaitlin Blumberg, two students of philosophy at St. Thomas Aquinas College, recently spoke on society’s ethical duty to help the impoverished and whether or not the amount currently being given is morally acceptable. “People must perform their duties,” says Blumberg, “but there is a great debate over what those duties are.”

First, the speakers defined what helping the poor entails. Among the needs of those less fortunate are shelters, clothing and healthcare, all which would improve their quality of living. “10,000,000 children die every day from poverty related causes,” says Blumberg, “which include preventable illness and hunger.” Because so many people perish from things that more affluent people can prevent with a little money, the question how much should people give and how much should a person lower his or her standard of living for another becomes problematic. Over the past few centuries, as Falkowski and Blumberg note, many different philosophers have tackled this issue.

The two speakers begin by noting different viewpoints on welfare from modern philosophers. “According to Robert Nozick,” says Falkowski, “people only have rights to what they have earned.” Blumberg fires back, mentioning John Rawls’ writings in saying “government should insure impoverished receive welfare.” These perspectives are then supported by older philosophical theories, including Aristotelian and utilitarian thought.
“Aristotle said that generosity is a happy medium between giving too much to help others and too little,” says Falkowski. Providing an ancient view on supporting others, Falkowski notes that Aristotle takes personal welfare into account. Although caring for the poor is an important task, it is equally important to care about oneself and not to rob yourself to give to others.

Blumberg, once again giving and opposing view, comments on utilitarianism, a 19th century philosophy. “Since utilitarians believe that no one person is more important than another, and that happiness is the ultimate goal in life, giving to the poor is a necessity,” says Blumberg. She goes on to mention how some utilitarians, most notably Peter Singer, give away all money they don’t need to survive to those less fortunate in hopes of creating a better world. Although Singer sets a good example, both Blumberg and Falkowski note how cases like his are extreme and are unrealistic to expect all people to follow.

Finally, both Blumberg and Falkowski come to a theory that they both accept as practical, the social contract theory. Developed by Thomas Hobbes, social contract theory states that all members of society follow rules because it is in their best interest to keep society strong. In relationship to the poor, both speakers mention how impoverished people are under the social contract, and that helping ease their poverty would assist the upholding of society.

By giving their views on the different ethical theories of charity, Falkowski and Blumberg offer different perspectives on how to help the poor and why it is in society’s best interest to do more.

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