Narveson makes a distinction between justice and charity. According to his distinction, the demands of justice our enforceable, but charity is not. In other words, it is at least sometimes morally permissiblre to force someone to act justly, but it is never morally permissible to force someone to be charitable. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to force others to act charitably. Thus, for Narveson, it is very important to establish whether feeding the hungry is a matter of justice, or merely a matter of charity.

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In the contemporary world, television and other mass media enable all of us in the better-off areas to hear about starvation in even the most remote places. What, if any, are our obligations toward the victims of such a terrible situation?

This can be a rather complex subject, for different cases differ significantly. We must begin, then, by distinguishing the main ones. In the latter case, starvation is a form of killing, and of course comes under the same strictures that any other method of killing is liable to. But when the problem is plague, crop-failure due to drought, or sheer lack of know-how, there is no obviously guilty party.

Then the question is whether we, the amply fed, are guilty parties if we fail to come to the rescue of those unfortunate people. If group A burns the crops of group B, it has slaughtered the Bs.

There is no genuine issue about such cases. It is wrong to kill innocent people, and one way of killing them is as eligible for condemnation by this principle as any other, so far as killing goes. Such cases are happily unusual, and we need say no more about them here other than to note, as I will, that the most substantial recent cases could readily be regarded as cases of something amounting to murder, rather than the other kind.

Our interest, then, is in the cases where murder is not the relevant category, or at least not obviously so. Is this so? Most people do not think so; it takes a subtle philosophical argument to persuade them of this. The difference between a bad thing which I intentionally or at least forseeably brought about, and one which just happened, through no fault of my own, matters to most of us in practice.

Is our view sustainable in principle, too? Suppose the case is one I could do something about, as when you are starving and my granary is burgeoning. Does that make a difference? Duties of Justice and Duties of Charity Another important question, which has cropped up in some of our other cases too but is nowhere more clearly relevant than here, is the distinction between justice and charity.

We should note a special point about this. Is this true? In one clear sense, it is. For in this sense, charity consists only of benefits motivated by love or concern. If instead you regard an act as one that we may forcibly compel people to do, then you are taking that act to be a case of justice.

Can it at the same time be charity? It can if we detach the motive from the act, and define charity simply as doing good for others. But the claim that charity in this second sense cannot be compelled is definitely not true by definition - and is in fact false.

For people are frequently compelled to do good for others, especially by our governments, which tax us in order to benefit the poor, educate the uneducated, and so on. Whether they should be thus compelled is a genuine moral question, however, and must not be evaded by recourse to semantics. Whether those programs produce benefits that outweigh their costs is a very complex question; but that they do often produce some benefits, at whatever cost, is scarcely deniable.

On which side of the moral divide, then, shall we place feeding the hungry? Is it to be regarded as unenforceable charity, to be left to individual consciences, or enforceable justice, perhaps to be handled by governments?

This is a genuine moral issue, and an important one. We are asking whether feeding the hungry is not only something we ought to do but also something we must do, as a matter of justice. It is especially this latter that concerns us in the present chapter. We should note also the logical possibility that someone might differ so strongly with most of us on this matter as to think it positively wrong to feed the hungry.

That is an extreme view, but it looks rather like the view that some writers, such as Garrett Hardin [2] , defend. However, it is misleading to characterize their view in this way. For Hardin thinks that feeding the hungry is an exercise in misguided charity, not real charity.

Thus we actually cause more starvation by feeding people now than we do by not feeding them, hard though that may sound. Hardin, then, is not favouring cruelty toward the weak. The truly charitable, he believes should be against feeding the hungry, at least in some types of cases.

Being in favour of feeding the hungry in principle may or may not imply that we should feed the particular persons involved in this or that particular case. For that may depend on further facts about those cases. If the price of feeding them is that you must go to war, then it may not be the best thing to do.

If enormous starvation faces a group in the farther future if the starving among them now are fed now, then a policy of feeding them now may not be recommended by a principle of humanity.

And so on. Principles are relatively abstract and may be considered just by considering possibilities; but when it comes to policy pursued in the real world, facts cannot be ignored.

The basic question then breaks down into these two: First, is there a basic duty of justice to feed the starving? Is it unjust to let others starve to death? We must distinguish two very different ways in which someone might try to argue for this.

First, there are those who, like Rachels, argue that there is no fundamental distinction between killing and letting die. If that is right, then the duty not to kill is all we need to support the conclusion that there is a duty of justice not to let people starve, and the duty not to kill innocent people is uncontroversial. They therefore need a different argument, in support of a positive right to be fed.

The two different views call for very different discussions. Are they the same, as some insist? In our discussion of euthanasia, we saw the need for a crucial distinction here: between the view that they are literally indistinguishable, and the view that even though they are logically distinguishable, they are nevertheless morally equivalent.

As to the first, the argument for nonidentity of the two is straightforward. When you kill someone, you do an act, x, which brings it about that the person is dead when he would otherwise still be alive. You induce a change for the worse in his condition. But when you let someone die, this is not so, for she would have died even if you had, say, been in Australia at the time. To be sure, we do often attribute causality to human inaction.

But the clear cases of such attribution are those where the agent in question had an antecedent responsibility to do the thing in question. The geraniums may die because you fail to water them, but to say that you thus caused them to die is to imply that you were supposed to do so.

If the argument presupposes that very responsibility, it plainly begs the question rather than giving us a good answer to it. Here again, there is a danger of begging the question. Those who think we do not have fundamental duties to take care of each other, but only duties to refrain from killing and the like will deny that they are morally equivalent.

The liberty proponent will thus insist that when Beethoven wrote symphonies instead of using his talents to grow food for the starving, like the peasants he depicted in his Pastorale symphony, he was doing what he had a perfect right to do.

A connoisseur of music might go further and hold that he was also doing the right thing: that someone with the talents of a Beethoven does more for people by composing great music than by trying to save lives, even if he would have been successful in saving those lives - which is not very likely anyway.

How do we settle this issue? If we were all connoisseurs, it would be easy: if you know and love great music, you will find it easy to believe that a symphony by Beethoven or Mahler is worth more than prolonging the lives of a few hundred starvelings for another few miserable years. If you are one of those starving persons, your view might well be different. But it might not. Consider the starving artist in his garret, famed in Romantic novels and operas: they lived voluntarily in squalor, believing that what they were doing was worth the sacrifice.

We are not all connoisseurs, nor are most of us starving. There are all kinds of points of view, diverse and to a large extent incommensurable. Uniting them is not as simple as the welfarist or utilitarian may think. The most plausible answer, I think, is the point of view that allows different people to live their various lives, by forbidding interference with the lives of others.

To do this, we need to draw a sort of line around each person, and insist that others not cross that line without the permission of the occupant. The rule will be not to forcibly intervene in the lives of others, thus requiring that our relations be mutually agreeable.

Enforced feeding of the starving, however, does cross the line, invading the farmer or the merchant, forcing him to part with some of his hard-earned produce and give it without compensation to others. That, says the advocate of liberty, is theft, not charity. So if someone is starving, we may pity him or we may be indifferent, but the question so far as our obligations are concerned is this: how did he get that way? If it was not the result of my previous activities, then I have no obligation to him, and may help him out or not, as I choose.

If it was such a result, then of course I must do something. If you live and have long lived downstream from me, and I decide to dam up the river and divert the water elsewhere, then I have deprived you of your water and must compensate you, by supplying you with the equivalent, or else desist.

But if you live in in the middle of a parched desert and it does not rain, so that you are faced with death from thirst, that is not my doing and I have no compensating to do. This liberty-respecting idea avoids, by and large, the need to make the sort of utility comparisons essential to the utility or welfare view.

Being free to pursue our own projects, we will evaluate our results as best we may, each in our own way. There is no need to keep a constant check on others to see whether we ought to be doing more for them and less for ourselves.

If I can create a little more pleasure for some stranger by spending my dollar on him than if I would create for myself by spending it on an ice cream cone, I then have a putative obligation to spend it on him. Thus I am to continually defer to others in the organization of my activities, and shall be assailed by guilt whenever I am not bending my energies to the relief of those allegedly less fortunate than I.

How should we react to this idea? Negatively, I suggest. Surely a rule of conduct that permits people to be themselves and to try to live the best and most interesting lives they can is better than one which makes us all, in effect, functionaries in a welfare state? The rule that neither the rich nor the poor ought to be enslaved by the others is surely the better rule. Such is the Marxist view, for instance. It is also wrong.

Legally and morally, both are held to the same strict requirement, to refrain from inflicting evils on anyone, rich or poor.


Jan Narveson Feeding the Hungry

By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Cookie Policy , Privacy Policy , and our Terms of Service. Philosophy Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for those interested in the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. It only takes a minute to sign up. He also states: "If the fact that others are starving is not our fault, then we do not need to provide for them as a duty of justice". A positive duty is an obligation to do something. A negative duty is an obligation to refrain from doing something link.


Jan Narveson: Feeding the Hungry



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