Global Poverty and our Obligations as Middle-class Aussies
Part of the Philosophy Papers series
Middle-class Australians are morally required to collectively distribute surplus property to alleviate global poverty. However, the practical applications of this moral requirement must also consider the other moral principles that will place a greater obligation on some to alleviate global poverty than others. I will give three reasons for this argument. The first will explain the requirement of distributing surplus property to alleviate poverty. The second will consider the other moral principles that need to be considered about degrees of obligation. The third will consider the distinction between a requirement and a recommendation and to what degree they apply to middle-class Australians alleviating global poverty.
To begin, I want to define what I mean by property. Property is anything that can be possessed for some good, whether directly, or indirectly. Some examples of property used for some direct good would be food, shelter, water, clothing, and medicine. Examples of property used for some indirect good are money, land, technology, and vehicles. Direct goods are those which are used for human subsistence, whereas indirect goods are used either to obtain direct goods or for ease of living. Now the earth is not owned by any single individual but by all of humanity; therefore, it is in a sense common property. Pope Paul VI talks about how this common property is for the welfare of all humanity and that it is reasonable to conclude that every individual has the right to take what they need from the earth (1967). I agree with Paul VI and would add that property used for direct goods cannot be possessed by one individual to the exclusion of others, as the goods of the earth are primarily for the welfare of all humanity and not any one person. This is the primary purpose of property and has been named as the doctrine of the universal destination of goods ("Catechism of the Catholic Church," 1997).
The second purpose of property is for private utilisation. Pope Leo XIII summarises this purpose as being conducive to "the peace and tranquillity of human existence" (1942). The reason why this purpose leads to peace is threefold: People are more incentivised to work for something they can personally own rather than something owned collectively; there is greater civility in a community when each person is responsible for specific things; and people are more content when something can safely be called theirs (Aquinas, 2012). Now knowing this, we can understand the moral requirement of distributing property. If there are people who need property for a direct good, then there lies an obligation on those who have surplus property to give to those needy people that will ensure their subsistence. This obligation comes from the primary purpose of property taking priority over the secondary purpose. Any individual who genuinely needs something for subsisting is owed that thing under justice and this includes anyone suffering from poverty. Therefore, those who have surplus property, like middle-class Australians, are required by justice to give whatever will allow those in poverty to subsist.
However, Murray Rothbard would object to this conclusion. He argues that "there are no rights but property rights" (2009, p. 1337). Since individuals are owners of their own bodies, then this proprietorship of the body would also extend to material goods that the individual produces. Individuals are not required to forfeit their property involuntarily. In fact, the only real obligation is to recognise these property rights and not infringe upon them in any way.
Rothbard makes a good point about the right to private property. However, I believe St. Thomas Aquinas makes an important distinction between private property as a matter of positive law and the universal destination of goods as a matter of natural law (2012). By positive law, I mean rights granted through private or public agreements (Aquinas, 2012) , which is what Rothbard is referring to when he speaks of property rights (2009, p. 91). However, positive law is only supplementary to natural law, which are rights to ensure equality among individuals. Without a fundamental basis of equality in justice, there can be no fair agreements among different parties.
However, this moral requirement to help alleviate poverty must also consider other moral principles that will impact how obligated middle-class Australians are to contribute. These include the principle of subsidiarity and the principle of immediacy. The principle of subsidiarity argues that problems should be resolved at the most local level if possible and that local authorities should not be usurped by higher authorities if a problem is within the local authority's ability to resolve (Pius XI, 1949). The principle of immediacy argues that the more immediate an individual is to a problem, the greater their ability to resolve it. This does not specifically mean physical proximity, but that there are fewer intermediaries between an individual and the problem. These principles are important in considering who should ultimately solve the problem of global poverty. The principle of subsidiarity indicates that poverty should first be resolved at the local level if possible. If it is not possible, then it should be referred to a higher authority to help resolve. It is clear that in many if not most cases, the causes of poverty are completely outside the control of local and even state authorities (Fisman & Miguel, 2010, pp. 68-80). This then requires an international authority to attempt to resolve these issues of poverty, which is well out of the jurisdiction of any one middle-class Australian. The principle of immediacy is also important because it suggests that efforts made by middle-class Australians to alleviate global poverty will not be as effective as alleviating local poverty due to the number of intermediaries required for each effort. So, while middle-class Australians are morally required to alleviate global poverty, they may not be as obligated as others to do so.
An objection to the need for these additional principles may come from Peter Singer. Peter Singer argues that physical proximity or distance does not lower the obligation one has "to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance" (1972, p. 231). He argues that it isn't justifiable to discriminate against someone based on geographical reasons. As we have become a more globalised world, there is a greater ability to help anyone around the world. Therefore, since we are able to help alleviate poverty without sacrificing much, we are morally obligated to do it.
I agree with Singer to a point. There is a level of obligation on all humanity to alleviate global poverty. However, I do not believe all are equally obligated. There are degrees of obligation that can be applied to different people. Let us take the drowning child analogy that Singer uses. If a child is drowning in a shallow pond, then there is a sense that all of humanity is obligated to save that child. However, only a few have the power to actually save the child by going into the pond and dragging the child out. The principle of immediacy would argue that if the child was drowning in Bengal, then my ability to save that child is greatly diminished by being in Australia. There are just too many obstacles between the child and me to stop them from drowning. The principle of subsidiarity would also say that the problem should be resolved at the most local level and if we are to agree with these principles, then that puts a greater obligation on those at that local level to resolve it. Therefore, everyone is not equally obligated to help alleviate global poverty.
Since middle-class Australians may not have the same obligations as others to help alleviate global poverty, what are they nevertheless required to do? This is where I think the distinction between requirement and recommendation should be introduced. A requirement is what one is bound to do under justice. A recommendation is what someone should be encouraged to do. Now, in my first argument, I explained that whoever has surplus property is obligated under justice to give to those who need it to subsist. My second argument explained that some have a greater obligation than others to resolve this problem and that for many cases, it would need to be resolved by an international effort. Therefore, what is required from middle-class Australians is to contribute to this international effort. This can be done through the United Nations creating an agreement that specific contributions of money from each nation will go towards this effort. If this becomes the case, then middle-class Australians will be morally required to collectively contribute to this amount. However, if an international effort is not made, then the principle of subsidiarity and the principle of immediacy would indicate that middle-class Australians are required to help alleviate local poverty as this can be done at a local level and requires fewer intermediaries.
However, middle-class Australians should be encouraged to do more. Merely doing what is just is not indicative of a virtuous individual and waiting for others to initiate these efforts does nothing for those who are struggling to subsist. Many charities are not always effective and, in some cases, can make things worse (Yao et al., 2020). Therefore, we should encourage middle-class Australians to assist directly with the local efforts in poverty-stricken areas. This would involve coordinating with the local authorities to understand and assist with their plans on resolving poverty in their area. This is what should be recommended for middle-class Australians to do as it allows the problem to be resolved at the local level and reduces the number of intermediaries between middle-class Australians and alleviating global poverty.
In conclusion, middle-class Australians are morally required to assist in all international efforts in alleviating global poverty by collectively distributing surplus property, and if such efforts do not exist, they are at least required to assist in alleviating local poverty. These efforts must also respect individual property rights as they still serve a purpose in the use of property. It should also be encouraged that middle-class Australians do more to alleviate poverty that adheres to the principles of subsidiarity and immediacy by trying to assist at the most local level.
Aquinas, T. (2012). Summa Theolgiae (L. Shapcote, Trans.; J. Mortensen & E. Alarcón, Eds.). Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (1997). In (2nd ed.). Vatican City: Vatican Press.
Fisman, R., & Miguel, E. (2010). Economic gangsters corruption, violence, and the poverty of nations (With a New postscript by the authors ed.). Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400834792
Leo XIII, P. (1942). Encyclical letter of His Holiness Pope Leo XIII on the condition of the working classes - Rerum novarum. Daughters of St. Paul.
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Singer, P. (1972). Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1(3), 229-243. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2265052
Yao, P., Flynn, J., & Flynn, D. (2020). Annual Letter from Thankyou Trustees https://thankyou.co/blog/2020/09/annual-letter-from-thankyou-trustees