Do we have a positive duty to assist the world's poor?

I was assigned this question for a debate in my PHI107-Ethics class last Spring. My side won the debate, but it was disappointing since the other side didn’t provide a very good argument.

By “positive duty,” I mean “moral requirement.” By “world’s poor,” I mean the third world. By “we,” I mean “those who live in the developed nations of the world.” The rest of the question depends on what your definition of the word “is” is.

So, convince me one way or the other:

Do we have a positive duty to assist the world’s poor?

Well, the answer totally depends on your ethical system. For me as a practicing Christian, the answer is “yes” based on the second great commandment – for others different criteria may prevail.

Let me note further that not every citizen of a third world nation is “poor” even by American standards, and that not every citizen of a developed nation is not poor. Nor is there a mandate for a political duty for “us” as “developed nations” to help “them” – it’s an individual mandate, and it was Libertarian who persuaded me that there is a major difference between what he or I may conceive of as our moral duty and what we can legitimately expect others to comply with.

Yes. We do indeed.

That is one of my most strongly held beliefs.

To me, those Haves have a moral duty towards the Have-Nots.*

Like Polycarp said, that’s what Christianity is about-at least to me. You don’t ignore the beggar, or simply throw him a few crumbs. You seek him out and help him-because it could just as easily be you.

And it makes SENSE to help out the poor-an economy cannot survive with a huge class of Have Nots and a tiny class of Haves.

*Please don’t read into my use of the terms “haves” and “have-nots.” I was just using them for simplification. Most people are in the middle, between them. I was using black and white terms just to be brief. I’m not talking about class warfare or the rise of the proletariat, or whatever.

No, their misfortune does not give them any claim to the fruits of someone elses labor.


Marc, as suggested in the OP, we were not speaking of what they (the poor) have in terms of claims or rights, but of what we have, in terms of responsibility or duty.

Would I be accurate in rephrasing your statement as:

“I have no moral responsibility or duty to assist those in misfortune with the fruits of my own labor or that which has been given or bequeathed to me.” ?

If this is not your stance, it might prove interesting for you to distinguish between your statement and my inversion of it as an assertion about your own role.

But a lot of the western world has been raking it in from their labour and natural recourses for a long time now.

I would say YES without question we are obligated to help and while events like “Live Aid” in the 80’s raised a lot of money and saved a lot of people from starvation what we truly need is Government support for 3rd world countries. The “Drop the Debt” campaign is a good start but there are much more things the west should do this is a good start.

Why I feel this way is more personal that anything else. While not being religious in any way shape or form I still believe that we have a duty to people who are less fortunate than ourselves. I regard some of the quotes attributed to Christ as being fundamental to how a human should think/behave.

The majority of the problems facing the 3rd world are human made and have human solutions. If the west can provide support then I feel we should. Obviously the countries in question should provide the great majority of the work but the west has knowledge, experience and funds that would be invaluable.

There are also economic reasons why we should help. There are vast populations in the world that have almost been untouched by the consumer world. These markets if opened up could be invaluable to business.
We are better than this and hopefully one day we will work out a way to get to that Star Trek utopia that I know we want :stuck_out_tongue:

Beam me up.

That should be resources in the first sentence.

As a Christian, yes, and it sickens me that we (and I) don’t do more.

Even excluding moral assumptions, yes, because billions and billions of people exposed to our lifestyle through our media, with no hope of even approaching that level of prosperity is a huge national-security issue, and it frightens me that few national leaders see that.

To put it crudely, there simply aren’t enough bullets to hold back five billion angry, hungry people.

Mgibson, you make a pretty strong statement without any follow through. Are you stating that the current prosperity enjoyed by the United States is notthe result of exploitive labor practices? If that is the case, I will respectfully disagree.

My own opinion is that we have a moral obligation to play fair with the worlds poor. I suspect that if we did this that things would equal out quite a bit. On the other hand, if the playing filed were even I may have to think about it.

If we expect the world’s poor to refrain from rising up against us in every manner that they can, we do.


I understood the question. You speak of responsibility and duty but I ask who do I have a duty towards and who am I responsible for? If those who are poor have no claim to what I have then I have no duty or responsiblitiy towards them.

To those who believe you have a duty and responsibility towards those who are less fortunate I ask this. What are you doing sitting comfortably at home or work instead of going out there and fulfilling your duties and responsibility towards the less fortunate?

Don’t take this to mean that I’m against charity work or simple goodwill towards my fellow human beings. I just reject the idea that I have a moral imperative to help those who aren’t as well off as I.


I support MGibson on this one. If you feel morally obligated to give, that’s fine, but my morality does not supercede anyone else’s. I do not impose my morals and values on others.

By the way, what is the exploitation we have committed? I agree that the slavery we committed several hundred years back was exploitative, but if you’re referring to $1.00 an hour wages some clothing makers in third world countries pay I think you need to be reminded that $1.00 may be peanuts in this country, but in others it is very generous. There are cases where $1.00 a DAY is the standard of living. Just because it doesn’t meet our standards does not mean that it is exploitation.

The question you need to ask is how many people would you sacrifice in order to meet your minimum standards? You say $1.00 is exploitative? Fine. If, for the sake of argument, $5.00 an hour is ok then you’ve just put four people out of work for the well being of one. Is that the economic justice you seek?

Let me ask you this then-if you see someone in mortal danger-and you are simply walking by-do you have a duty to asist them?

Completely depends on the circumstances Guin. Say two people are on the ground wrestling. One pulls a knife. Who do you save? The guy with the knife (who may in fact be defending himself from the original attacker?) or the other guy?

This type of hypothesizing is incredibly bias and inherently unfair because the person asking the question has more information.

But let’s suppose that you have two people. Both are homeless. One man has no skills and cannot even feed himself. The other is an unemployed, but skilled, worker. You only have enough (money, food, shelter, whatever) to save one. Which do you save?

If one’s motivation is to prevent a wide-scale revolt, then I daresay that one is acting out of pragmatism rather than morality.

As to the OP, my answer is “YES!”

Really? Would you feel the same way if somebody stole your stereo system? After all, his morality may dictate that this is perfectly fine, even if yours doesn’t.

Or what if someone were to rape an innocent child? Would you object to this misdeed, or would you say “Oops. Can’t impose my morality on him.”

Like it or not, we ALL have ideas about what other people should or shouldn’t do. We all have notions of morality that we feel must be imposed on society at large.

BTW, JThunder is absolutely correct. Fear does not equal morality. If you fear something and go to any lengths to prevent it from happening, then it can be argued that you are acting immorally, that is you are acting against your very nature. If it takes fear to motivate you then you are not acting naturally. Which means your acting unnaturally which suggests that you really aren’t acting morally, just as JThunder suggests you are acting pragmatically or worse (in terms of this debate it is worse) you are acting on an instinct of self perservation.

Excellent counter point! I’ll clarify a bit, now that you’ve caught me. Let’s separate things up. There are two issues at play, societal norms (which lead to laws and justice) and personal morality. If we agree that societal norms take up broad issues of morality (rape, murder, theft) then we’re left with the “smaller” (for lack of a better word) issues such as public support of the unfortunate (or however you want to define them.) The “smaller” grouping is much more difficult to define.

You may indeed feel that it’s moral to support those who have less then you. But I need to look at bigger issues. Why do they have less? Is it simply because they were born into a poor family (my definition of poor means they cannot put food on the table) or because they live under a government which doesn’t allow its people to make a living (such as by outlawing private property or by devaluing its currency every two days)?

In most circumstances people are poor because of external issues. When I contribute cash or food I do not bring a resolution to those issues. I, in fact, contribute to prolonging the problem. So the morality question comes to this then:

Is it moral to sustain a system of government which oppresses its people?

Also my ealier post still stands unanswered.

I knew I shouldn’t have dropped in. I should be using this time to be writing, but…

I don’t think it’s so clear an issue. I am personally for donating to charities that help the poor in third world countries, but it gets very depressing. I’ve been to Tijuana once, and although not all of Mexico is as bad off, I can’t help but wonder if Mexico will EVER be able to get their act together.

Contrary to Yojimbo, I am against too much Government foreign aid. It seems to me, that too many taxes of hard working people are going to benefit the rich people of “poor” countries.

Also the term ‘poor’ is getting hazier and hazier. Saudi Arabia is resource rich, but the per capita income is now around $7,000USD/year. Are they deserving of our aid? Argentina is having really bad financial problems right now, but they’re another country that is resource rich. It seems that they had very bad fiscal policies. Things like a public health system that paid for cosmetic surgery. What obligation do we have to them?

While I think that helping those less well-off is a good thing, I don’t think it’s an ‘imperative’ like the OP apparently does. Helping someone get over a tough time, or someone who really cannot help themself is one thing, but simply giving handouts to those who don’t have any desire to do any work of their own is bad, as it prompts them to simply ask for more instead of bettering themselves.

Third-world countries are generally looking for handouts in this day and age; the governments of said countries routinely take aid money and supplies, use them for themselves and not ‘the poor’ in their country, and then point to the people they kept aid from or the lack of infrastructure (from spending loans on building palaces instead of said infrastructure) as a basis for getting more money or loans forgiven. The overall effect of the ‘aid’ is to let the people in charge ignore the consequences of their actions and motivate them to maintain the status quo instead of moving their country into the 20th (much less the 21st) century.

If the ‘moral imperative’ types REALLY wanted to help the poor in 3rd world countries they’d support funding either revolutions or conquest of said contries, followed by a ‘Marshall Plan’ to build some basic infrastructure and education into the countries. Since they won’t support that, I can’t see any basis for what is effectively funding oppressive governments and would say that we have a moral imperative not to send any ‘aid’ their way.

There are a variety of countries which have managed to massively improve their living conditions, but as long as a given country has virtually no education and a very poor system of law, it is simply not going to become wealthy, and tossing a little food at such countries will only ensure that you have to continue tossing that food at future generations.