Our responsibility

Every one of you knows, that there is an astonishing amount of severe poor and malnourished people in our world. You may get a short moment of bad conscience if I tell you that worldwide 38.000 children under the age of 5 die every day because they are underfed, don’t have clean water or no medicaments (in fact, every 5th newborn has the fate of an early childhood death) but alas, this moment won’t (presumably) last long: It’s easier to feel sympathy for your neighbors than for somebody on the other side of the world.

You may think something along the lines, ‘well, it’s not my fault that they live in such severe circumstances so I don’t have to help them’, which isn’t very nice but people should accept your stance, since you have enough problems yourself, not enough money, etc…

Is that right? There are lots of philosophers who’d ask you if there really is a difference between a boy drowning in a pond next to you (you didn’t throw him in) and another dying of hunger in Burkina Faso (you didn’t steal his food). Nobody would challenge that you have the positive duty to help the boy in the pond if that doesn’t endangers your own life.

Now what about the other boy? In our networked world distance shouldn’t have much importance concerning moral questions. It’s really easy to send some money or other kinds of help to the poor, so if in both cases it is possible to help those in need with little cost to themselves – where is the difference? You may say that you can’t help all the undernourished children, whereas you can help that one drowning boy but that really is a bad excuse. I mean, you aren’t helping anyone because you can’t help everybody? If that’s a common approach our world is doomed. We had two world wars and a great many of other wars in the 20th century, but the deaths caused by poverty in the years between 1990 and 2005 (15 years) are more than the deaths of all the wars from that century together. And it’s not getting better.

There may be valid reasons for not fulfilling our positive duties towards the world poor, but I’m skipping this discussion to come to the main, and more obliging, point I wanted to talk about. This point are our negative duties towards them. Negative duties? Many of you might have heard about the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”, also known as ethic of reciprocity or, slightly alternated, Kant’s categorical imperative. You can find it in nearly every religious book, if that means something to you.

The negative duties are more about the silver rule: “Do not do to others as you would not have them do to you.” Now Thomas Pogge, one of the most important philosophers concerning global justice is convincingly stating in his book “World poverty and human rights” that we all, living in western cultures, are violating the silver rule towards the global poor. Which means that our lifestyle is harming them and brings actively pain and death to them.

If that’s true, we all are committing crimes against humanity and the human rights.

Yep, that’s close to the knuckle. And a very discomforting thought if true. But is it true? How does Pogge arrive at this conclusion? One thing beforehand: I can’t go deeply into his argumentation in the borders of this blog, so if I fail to convince you or you are really interested, I can wholeheartedly recommend the above mentioned book.

Thomas Pogge: World Poverty and Human rights

Thomas Pogge: World Poverty and Human rights

Another thing I want to put clear: I don’t want this article to be an accusing forefinger: You aren’t only letting people starve, you even participate in starving them! This wouldn’t lead to anything. I know how inconvenient a truth like that is and that most people would react with indignation and/or hostility to it – which stops them from thinking it through. Okay, back to the subject.

Can a world order, in which the top seventh has 180 times more of the global product than the bottom half be just? Of course not.

Well, the unjust world order we actually have has its origins in the fifteenth century and the conquest and colonialism. That’s not our fault, of course, and we can’t be hold responsible for stuff some long dead ancestors did. But we CAN be hold responsible for still imposing this unjust design on the world poor and foreseeable subjecting them to avoidable poverty while enjoying the good life this global institutional order enables us to have.

I’m not talking about substantially lowering our own standards. It would be enough if the richest seventh (yes, you most likely belong to it, even if you don’t feel like you did) “only” takes 80% of the global product instead of 81%.

It’s more or less habit that we debrief them this necessary one percent and we don’t think much about it, because as far as we are concerned, it was always like that.

You can say that there are two “groups” which harm the poor: The affluent countries with their privileged world order (including a WTO which treats them superior and gives them exemptions and privileges, the poor countries don’t get) and the elites in the poor countries, who finances their excessive lifestyle and their wars (inter alia) with the poor countries resources. International Arms trade (located in our countries of course), for example, sold in the years 1996-2003 weapons for 167 billion dollars to the developing world [If you haven’t seen it already, I recommend the Movie Lord of War with Nicolas Cage to you].

There are endless examples of how the current institutional world order harms the poor while we profit from it. The above mentioned arms trade, the protectionism, the low wages and child labor in developing countries, the present global rules for incentivizing pharmaceutical research, the actual dispensation of development aid – only mentioning a few – they all help our economies and allows us to maintain our standard of living.

Let’s look deeper into one of those facts: At the moment, the inventors of new drugs get a 20-year monopoly, so even lifesaving drugs have high (monopoly) prizes the poor can’t afford, because other producers aren’t allowed to produce and sell them cheaply. Another consequence is, that the pharmaceutical concerns put their research to the place, where the money is. Pogge states, that “90 percent of the global disease burden receive only 10 percent of all medical research worldwide. Of the 1,393 new drugs approved between 1975 and 1999, only 13 were specifically indicated for tropical diseases, and 5 out of these 13 actually emerged from veterinary research” (Pogge, Thomas (2005), in: Ethics & International Affairs. 19 (1) 2005, 77) . His reform proposal, called the Health Impact Fund, would reward research according to its impact on the global disease burden. You can read more about it on their homepage: http://www.healthimpactfund.org/ a short summary can be found here: http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/igh/files/HIFshort.pdf.

There are incredible amounts of unnecessary and avoidable suffering and agony in our world, so, what to do?

Alas, I‘m not idealist enough to say that we live in democratic countries and politicians do what we ask them for. But if enough of us stresses these issues and put them on the political agenda, we may achieve something. I can’t promise that our efforts have any effects, but we should nevertheless do something.

In 1789 11,000 people from Manchester signed a petition against slavery. Their own poverty, powerlessness and the low odds of success didn’t stop them. They would’ve had more excuses than we have, but they didn’t want to be counted out. They knew and thus had to make an attempt for a better world to live in.

Pogge says: “I am not writing against you, to make you feel guilty or to present you with an itemized bill for wrongful damages done. I am writing for you, to suggest that we can lead much better, happier lives in a much better country if we are willing to do without that bit of extra affluence now purchased for us with rivers of blood, sweat, and tears of the global poor” (ibid.).

So I’m concluding this essay (which got longer than intended, sorry for that) with a quote from the late cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


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