Poverty, Distance and Two Dimensions of Ethics

In the rich countries, we are all vaguely aware that there is an appalling degree of poverty in the developing world. But, perhaps through wanting to avoid psychological discomfort, we usually manage to minimize the scale of its human devastation. In sub-Saharan Africa, the median age at death is less than five years. Amartya Sen, who quotes this figure from the 1993 World Development Report of the World Bank, understandably feels it necessary to point out that this astounding figure is not a typographical error. (1) He goes on to say the figure has got worse since the AIDS epidemic hit hard.

We know that the poverty, the shortages of water, and the lack of available medical care are not just natural phenomena. They come about through the interaction of the natural and the social. They are, at least partly, remediable by human action. So what moral claims do babies born in Africa with such a horrifyingly but avoidably low life expectancy have on us?

Oxfam at one time used a poster with a picture of a starving African child and a slogan that said something like “If he was here in front of you, you would buy him a meal. Is it really different because he is far away?”

The answer to that question has all sorts of qualifications about the effectiveness of acting at a distance, but on the central issue the suggestion on the poster is right. If we can act effectively to help people, whether they are near or far changes neither their needs nor their moral claims on us. The poster is also right in the implied comment on our psychology. Even if the moral claim is just as strong, we are much less stirred to act when the person needing help is far away rather than in front of us.

I will start by looking at our psychology. We all know that huge numbers of people have lives that are blighted and shortened by lack of food, lack of clean water and lack of medical care. Most of us know that this matters morally and that some of our wealth could make a great difference. Why do we help so much less than we could?

Then I will talk about the kinds of moral claims that poor people have on rich people. Are their claims based on appealing to our compassion and charity, or is what we owe them a matter of justice?

Finally I will ask how much is required of us. How do the claims of poor people compare to other moral claims on us? How should we weigh these moral claims against our own inclination to prefer things that contribute to our enjoyment of our own lives?


According to one recent estimate, starvation and preventable diseases kill 30,000 children every day. They cause a child’s death roughly every three seconds, round the clock every day of the year. Suppose these deaths were not mainly far away from us, located in many different places. Suppose they all happened in one place. If any of us had to be in that place, we would be overwhelmed by the horror and sadness of it all, and overwhelmed by the moral urgency of putting a stop to these preventable deaths of children. But, not having had that experience, we are not in that way overwhelmed by the urgency. What is it about our psychology that protects us from this urgency? What are the sources of our moral paralysis on this matter?

We are influenced by influenced by distance. We are also inclined to paralysis by the vastness of the problem. This vastness sometimes makes it seem insoluble. It often prompts at least the thought that the problem is to big for me to make a significant difference to it. Some of these responses have a grain of reasonableness. But for the most part they rest on cognitive illusions.


It is a platitude that physical distance makes a great difference to our responses. The crime figures do not horrify us in the way that seeing someone being attacked or killed does. In war it is easier to kill people from a distance, by dropping bombs or firing missiles rather than with bayonets. This often holds for other atrocities. The Nazis did not murder millions of German Jews in Germany, but first sent them away to “the East”, so that other Germans would be less acutely aware of what was being done. In Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience, where people thought they were administering electric shocks to other people, it was easier to carry out the orders if the supposed victim could not be seen.

This same psychology makes us care less about a starving child who is in the Sudan or Bangla Desh than one we could see. The fact that this psychology is so natural to us does not generate any very impressive moral justification or excuse for our inactivity. We would not be particularly won over if someone explained his lack of resistance in the Third Reich by saying, “but they were not killed here: all that took place a long way away”. When our descendents ask how we could have acquiesced in the preventable deaths of 30,000 children each day, the explanation is partly about distance, but they may not be much won over by it.

As well as physical distance, there is what can be called “moral distance”. Because of our tribalism, people physically close to us, but who have different ethnicity, religion and culture, can seem psychologically distant, while we care greatly about people we are “close to” even when they are the other side of the world. The plight of people dying from preventable diseases in a far off country may stir us less because of the great differences between them and us. As with physical distance, it is hard to defend this downgrading of people’s claims because of psychological distance, but there is little doubt of its anaesthetizing power.


If a problem seems insoluble, that gives psychological support to the thought that any action we take is futile. We can be overwhelmed by the difficulties in the way of eliminating poverty in the world.

The difficulties come partly from the complexity of its causes. People may be starving because a drought has caused crops to fail. But, as Amartya Sen has taught us, famine often co-exists with there being enough food for people to eat, but those who are starving do not have access to it, sometimes through lack of money. Poverty and starvation may come from wars. Peasant farmers are driven away by invaders who take their land and crops. Or people may be trapped in poverty by cultural constraints. “The causes of her condition -Devki was born weighing 5 lb. but within six weeks her weight had fallen 3 lb. 8 oz- are as much cultural as they are because of the grinding poverty of Indian village life. Her twin brother, Rahul, sleeps contentedly, his limbs positively plump by comparison- stark evidence of the social preference for boys.”

Other cultural constraints come from common features of the way of life of the huge numbers of urban poor people in the developing world. There will soon be more people living in Bombay than in Australia. Films like Salaam Bombay and City of God portray this culture in India and in Brazil. In 1992, Mexico City had about 6.6 million poor people living in an extended shanty-town. Oscar Lewis used the term “culture of poverty” in his accounts of life in Mexico City. He said he used this term to emphasise that “poverty in modern nations is not only a state of economic deprivation… It has a structure, a rationale, and defence mechanisms without which the poor could hardly carry on… it is a way of life, remarkably stable and persistent, passed down from generation to generation along family lines… (with) its own modalities and distinctive psychological consequences for its members”.

These complex economic and cultural causes can paralyse the willingness to give aid. The paralysis comes through the thought that tackling poverty means changing the whole social world: eliminating war, re-distributing wealth, changing some very intractable cultural attitudes about gender, transforming the shanty towns and undoing the psychological distortions they have created in those growing up there.

It is interesting that, when we see people’s lives being wrecked by some event that is not entangled in all these cultural and psychological complexities, the paralysis may not set in. The Tsunami and its effects were seen round the world. Sympathy was aroused and none of the economic and cultural complications intervened to make action seem useless. The people who were its victims needed aid quickly in order to eat, to have shelter and to rebuild their houses. There were no insurmountable preliminaries like stopping a war or changing deeply entrenched cultural practices. Sympathy was not paralysed, and the response from people in the richer countries was on a scale that took their political leaders by surprise and put pressure on them to increase governmental contributions.


Even if the elimination of world poverty is not in principle impossible, it may still seem too huge a problem for any individual to affect it significantly. “My contribution would be only a drop in the ocean.” This response has several components.


Even if a single person’s contribution to famine relief does make a difference, the complexity of the causal links makes it hard to relate sending a cheque to saving someone’s life. The role of the single contribution is obscured.

There are two kinds of life-saving. Relief agencies sometimes give handouts of food. But a lot of their work is enabling people to support themselves through such things as irrigation schemes, enabling the cultivation of previously barren land. The food handout saves someone’s life on one day. Next day, without further aid, they will still be at risk. The irrigation scheme can rescue people from starvation permanently.

The irrigation scheme may save hundreds of lives, and may have been funded by the contributions of hundreds of people. But none of the contributors knows there is a particular person who was rescued by their contribution. Most donors do not know that this irrigation scheme, or even any irrigation scheme, is what their money went into. Particular donations are not usually tagged for particular projects. The only way of saying that one donation went to an identifiable project is if it is possible to work out which project would have been the one to be cut back if total funding had been slightly reduced. This lack of transparency of the causal connection makes the help given less vivid to the donor and may encourage the thought that the donation made no significant impact.


We are prone to our thinking being distorted by size illusions created by large numbers. It may be true that my contribution is only a drop in the ocean, but that drop may be the saving of someone’s life, or even several people’s lives. In a fire, if we are unable to rescue all the dozen or so people in danger, this does not mean we need not bother to rescue the one or two that we can. Undistorted thinking would take the same view when it is millions of people where we cannot save all of them.

And even where the contribution is not large enough to save someone’s life, or even in itself to make a detectable difference, it may still do good. This point applies strikingly in the context of environmental issues. If I switch off my television instead of leaving it on stand-by, this may have no detectable impact on global warming. But real harm is done if millions of people conclude that it is not worth bothering. Increments individually below the threshold of detection make a difference, both in matters of the environment and in the response to poverty.

We are used to familiar visual illusions and are used to correcting for them. Psychologists have also mapped out some of the more widespread cognitive illusions and it is becoming more common to correct for them. In morality there are also common illusions. Those created by large numbers and by the imperceptibility of individual contributions help cause the paralysis about poverty relief. We should start correcting for them too.


The feeling that an individual’s contribution will be dwarfed by the scale of the problem does not have to lead to paralysis. An alternative response is to shift the emphasis away from individual to collective action. One person’s contribution may be tiny, but a change of a government’s policy on aid or on developing countries’ debt can make a big difference. The campaign started by the churches on debt relief, and the public pressure on the governments of the G8, are cases in point. Of course, campaigns and public pressure require action by individuals. And taking part in a campaign is something that can be done as well as making a donation to Oxfam. The donation may still save someone’s life. But the contribution to the campaign, whether it is a financial contribution or one of time and work, may make a bigger difference. The power of collective action may be greater than the sum of uncoordinated individual actions.



What are the moral claims of the poor on the rich? What is their basis? Start with people in one of the parts of Africa where the median age at death is less than five years. Take a child born there and that child’s mother. Without help from outside, much of the child’s very short life will be taken up with dying from starvation or disease. The mother will have the experience of trying and failing to save her child from extreme suffering and death. The claim that none of this matters at all is too callous and horrible to deserve the compliment of being argued with. Anyone who makes it either has no imagination or no concern for others. Because of the harm such an attitude does to others, we may try to change such people. But, until we succeed, they have at least a severely diminished claim to be participants in moral discussion.

I shall assume that we all think that, other things equal, people should be rescued from such horrors. (Of course a lot hangs on “other things equal”, which different people will interpret differently. But I shall assume we all at least accept the absolute minimum interpretation that, if we could rescue the mother and child from starvation and disease simply by waving a wand, we should do so. To deny this is equivalent to saying their plight does not matter at all.)

Most of us would go beyond the view that rescue is morally obligatory when the means are as cost-free as waving a wand. Surely rescue is often obligatory even when there is some cost? There is a hypothetical case much used by English lawyers to illustrate the lack of legal obligation to rescue. Suppose I see a child, for whom I have no special responsibility, drowning in a river. If I had drowned a child, that would be murder. But English law, unlike some other jurisdictions, sees no crime if I knowingly fail to rescue the child. For English law, the distinction between act and omission is crucial in this context. I once argued that morally, the act-omission distinction perhaps will not bear this weight. Morally, the failure to rescue may be much closer to murder than it is legally. The claim about a moral obligation to rescue the child goes (minimally) beyond the wand-waving case. There will be some small costs attached to the rescue: I may be late for an appointment; my clothes may need cleaning, and so on. I assume that nearly all those of us who think saving someone’s life by waving a wand is morally obligatory will think saving life in this case is also obligatory. The cost is so small that someone who refuses to accept this conclusion places on saving a child’s life a value perilously close to zero. But, as the cost rises in different cases, when does rescue stop being obligatory?

One answer to this question has been given by Peter Singer. Taking up the question of rescuing the drowning child, he proposed a principle to explain why and when rescue is obligatory. He suggested that “if it is within our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it”. I agree that this principle is very plausible, although a lot will hang on what is “of comparable moral significance”.

It seems clear that being late for the appointment and messing up my clothes do not come anywhere near being of comparable moral significance to the death of a child. Obviously, I should rescue the child.

It seems equally clear that a parallel argument can be made about saving the African child. The Oxfam poster I mentioned earlier also had a claim along the lines of “£10 from you could save this child’s life.” Let us suppose that a claim of this order is true. (And suppose the life-saving is not a one-off handout, but permanent rescue on the model of the irrigation scheme.) Every time I spend ten pounds on a DVD I could save someone’s life instead. This suggests, very plausibly, that I ought to buy fewer DVDs and send the money to famine relief. Again, there are questions about how far this line of thinking can be extended before something of comparable moral importance is at stake. We will come back to that. But, wherever the boundary is best drawn, the claims of saving the child’s life are very strong indeed. The humanitarian duty of rescue is a strong one and only very serious considerations will outweigh it.


The people in developing countries who are poor also have claims based on compensatory justice. Some of their poverty comes from our exploitation. Part of the prosperity of those of us in the developed world comes from buying the raw materials and agricultural products of the developing world extremely cheaply. Part of it comes from protectionist policies designed to prevent their industries from competing successfully with ours. Part of it comes from the way corporations based in the developed world have so much muscle in negotiating with the weak governments of the developing world. Part of it comes from the way the rules governing international trade often tip the scales still further in favour of the corporations.

This broad picture is well known to many of us in the richer countries, but of course we do not experience the reality with anything like the vividness of those in the poor countries. The picture becomes a little more vivid when we focus on its details.

A recent report by Jeremy Laurance in The Independent focuses on a bag of salad or a bunch of cut flowers bought in a supermarket. If the salad contains lettuce, rocket, baby leaf salad, mangetout, peas or broccoli, any of these may have come from Kenya. A small 50g bag of salad uses almost 50 litres of water in countries like Kenya where water is in short supply. If the bag also includes tomatoes, celery and cucumber, the water used goes up to more than 300 litres. Washing and packaging increase the total further. Half of the cut flowers sold in British supermarkets come from Kenya, again using huge amounts of water badly needed locally.

Irrigation schemes for these crops sometimes cause farmers downstream to find that in the dry season their rivers have dried out. As one expert puts it, “We are exporting drought”. Another expert is quoted as saying that these crops are drying out Lake Naivasha: “Almost everybody in Europe who has eaten Kenyan beans or Kenyan strawberries or gazed at Kenyan roses has bought Naivasha water. It is sucking the lake dry. It will become a turgid, smelly pond with impoverished communities eking out a living along bare shores.”

The thought that we owe something to the people to whom we are doing this kind of thing is not easy to refute. Most of us who buy salad, flowers, or the many other products about which a similar story could be told, are only inadvertently doing this harm. And it is not clear how we as individuals can alter these practices of exploitation. But as we do become aware of the general picture, it is hard to resist the thought that we owe something to the victims of these practices from which we benefit.


The claims of justice here do not have to depend on compensation. Compare the baby in sub-Saharan Africa with a typical baby born here in Europe, who may well have a life more than ten times as long. The African baby has done nothing to deserve such a cruelly brief life and the African mother has done nothing to deserve having to watch her child die from hunger or preventable disease. There is a huge natural unfairness about this, even if the poverty is not caused by human agency.

One response to this is to say, “life is unfair”. It is true that life is in many ways unfair. People vary in their beauty, their gifts and their temperament. Some catch fatal or debilitating diseases while others are healthy. Some live in countries at peace while others live in countries at war. Some are born into happy families while others are not. And so on. But the fact that life contains a lot of good and bad luck does not mean that all “bad luck” has to be put up with. There is what –in another context- Allen Buchanan has called “the colonization of the natural by the just”. Illness not brought about by human agency was once seen as a “natural” piece of bad luck about which nothing could be done. But with the development of cures and of preventive medicine, we now see it as unjust if someone is denied available treatment. To the extent that devastating “bad luck” can be remedied, it moves away from being accepted as “natural” and enters the realm of justice and injustice.

If the “naturally caused” starvation and disease of Southern Africa were unavoidable, they would still be a horror, but moral criticism would have no place. Because they are avoidable, they are both a horror and an injustice.


All the moral claims of the poor are rooted in the fact that most of their misery is preventable. This creates a humanitarian imperative. It also creates a claim of justice, which is then further strengthened by the fact that much of their misery is actually caused by economic conditions from which those of us in rich countries benefit. Humanitarianism and justice unite in seeing the continuation of extreme poverty as a moral scandal.


If the Oxfam poster is right, the price of a DVD can save someone’s life. Obviously I can’t say that my having a DVD is morally more important than someone’s life being saved.

But how far does this go? Applying this each time will mean that buying a DVD is never justified. And, of course, it is not just DVDs. A holiday in France is not more important than someone’s life. Most of what we buy is going to fail this test. And most of what we own is going to fail the test too: selling a house and moving somewhere cheaper might enable us to save large numbers of lives. It starts to look as though the argument is going to require giving away most of our income and selling most of our possessions. And then there is our time. Having given away income and possessions, we could save more lives if we spent all our free time raising money for famine relief. This conclusion is so demanding that virtually none of us comes anywhere near it.

This upshot can be called a “life at the moral maximum”. It is often taken to be a reductio ad absurdum of those moral theories, such as many forms of utilitarianism or egalitarianism, that at some level give equal weight to the interests of everyone. Our intuitions are that saints and heroes may adopt this extreme self-sacrifice, but that there is something absurd about saying that everyone has a duty to act in this way. Isn’t such a morality utterly unrealistic?

I believe this dismissal of the demanding morality is much too easy. The dismissal is comfortable, but harder to defend than is generally supposed. We should be much more discomforted by the question than most of us are. Yet, at the same time, the demanding morality as so far described is too simple. I will start by filling in some of the necessary complications.


There are many moral claims that compete with those of relieving poverty. Someone who gives money to medical research or to the care of victims of torture instead of to famine relief should not be criticised for this. Nor should we criticise someone who devotes time (which could have been spent raising money for Oxfam) to campaigning about global warming or to running a party in a children’s hospital. Obviously some causes are more important than others. But there is room for debate about this and it is a good thing not everyone adopts the same cause. This line of thought does not absolve us from living life at the moral maximum, but rather shows that its content may vary for different people.


For nearly all of us, life at the moral maximum is likely to be unsustainable. After a time, our motivation would collapse and we would abandon the whole project. In the long run, we do more good in the world by taking on something more modest that we are able to keep up.

This point about life at the moral maximum being too hard to sustain seems obviously true and at the same time obviously open to abuse. It is easy to duck out of any moral commitment that is at all difficult by saying that it is not psychologically sustainable. The scope for self-deception is enormous. Yet we do have to take some account of sustainability if we are to avoid officially subscribing to the idea of life at the moral maximum and while in practice ignoring the official policy.

There is a worry about going for a “sustainable” policy. Suppose you say that you need some time and money for things you enjoy and so you depart from living at the moral maximum. Part of this might be spending money on a concert. You are in Africa on business. In the evening you queue to buy the concert ticket. You are holding the note needed to buy the ticket, when the wind blows it out of your hand. It is caught by a young girl, who is delighted, saying, “Now I will be able to afford the medicine needed to stop me going blind”. Would you take the money back, saying, “No, sorry, you can’t have that, I am already close enough to the moral maximum and need this concert to keep my moral efforts sustainable”? If not, does that suggest that the apparent permissibility of giving yourself a break depends on illusions created by distance?

The issue of psychological sustainability raises the question of the balance to be struck between moral demands and living lives of our own, with space to pursue our own interests and pleasures. It seems a strange psychological distortion to say that living our own lives as we want to is only justified as a means to avoid the collapse of our commitment to doing good in the world. Some space and means to live our own lives is important in itself. But there is no very obvious higher principle or set of principles to adjudicate between the claims of morality and of living our own life.


Within morality too, there are different kinds of claims which it is hard to weigh against each other. We owe things to spouses, partners, lovers, children, parents and friends who are close to us. How should we weigh their claims against the claims of making the world a better place?

There are two polarities. At one extreme is the person who says that personal relationships are everything, and that the claims of humanitarianism and of justice count for nothing. This outlook can be called one of “strictly circumscribed warmth”. It is fairly obviously narrow and unattractive. It probably needs either great hardness of heart or else the support of distance and other defence mechanisms.

The other extreme is taking public spirited good works to be everything.

In Bleak House the visit to Mrs. Jellyby is a vivid portrait of how someone’s concern with the general good at a distance can be the ruin of dependant people close at hand. Mrs. Jellyby was “a lady of very remarkable strength of character, who devotes herself entirely to the public” and was “devoted to the subject of Africa”. Her filthy house was swarming with her neglected children, who were always getting their heads stuck between railings and falling downstairs. There was no hot water as the boiler was broken and the kettle was missing. At the meal, the meat and fish were almost raw and the potatoes had been mislaid in the coal scuttle. Mrs. Jellyby herself “had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it”. Her secretary was her exploited oldest daughter, who privately said she wished Africa and herself and the rest of the family were all dead. The chapter heading Dickens gives to this devastating portrait is “telescopic philanthropy”.

Perhaps most of us would like to avoid both strictly circumscribed warmth and telescopic philanthropy. People occupy a huge range of positions on the continuum between the two. And, once again, there seems no obvious way of saying that one point on the continuum is the right one. It may be that there is a right balance to strike between the two kinds of claim and we just have not found out how to be sure where it is. But, perhaps more plausibly, there may be no such thing as the right balance to strike.



One problem with thinking of helping to reduce poverty in terms of life at the moral maximum is that it may make us blind to other strategies. Sending money –while good in itself- may not be the best strategy. Contributions that do not involve great sacrifices of money and time sometimes make more difference than those that do. The “war on terror” has rather put me off the metaphor of the war on poverty. But, relenting about this for a moment, the most effective war on poverty may not be costly attrition modelled on the First World War. The most effective contributions may need our intelligence, as we try to match what we like doing and what we are good at with what will help the problem.

For instance –as I assume the audience contains a fair proportion of students and academics- those of us of an academic disposition are often better at thinking and campaigning than we are at raising money. So perhaps we should be thinking creatively about strategies against poverty and then should campaign to get them implemented. Let me mention just a few areas where we could contribute.

In Africa -and elsewhere- local wars are a major exacerbation of poverty. Why do the major powers think it right to campaign against the drug trade but acceptable to profit from the arms trade? The arms trade and the assumptions underlying its supposed justifications cry out for the analysis and criticism needed for a campaign to have it stopped.

The lives of many are made shorter and far worse by lack of decent water. Recently, I noticed that the British government plans to develop a rapid reaction military force to intervene in likely future conflicts caused by water shortages. Would it not be better to invest in research and development of affordable technologies of desalination? Living on a planet mainly covered by sea, it should not be impossible to have enough water.

Then there is the question of the unavailability in developing countries of affordable medications. The pharmaceutical companies say they cannot afford to sell them at a cost that would make them affordable and that the development of generic versions breaching their patents would make research no longer economic. Perhaps this is bluff. If so, could we not work out ways of using the purchasing power of the NHS as leverage to bring about a change of attitude?

Perhaps it is not bluff and research really would be uneconomic without the patents being respected. If so, could we not work out some alternative to patents as a way to fund research? For instance, we could give companies subsidies to fund research based on the medical benefits (not the profitability) of their recent research. Or we could encourage development of particular kinds of medication by guaranteeing to buy a lot if they are produced. I am not an economist and do not know what the best schemes for solving these problems would be. The point is that intelligent thought by competent people about issues like these is likely to contribute on a different scale from those same people giving most of their income away.


Finally, the need to avoid the paralysis that comes from thinking the problem is too big for us to make any impact on it. Poverty is a daunting problem, but there are grounds for optimism about the possibility of progress. The key is collective action. The public campaign against the debt burden started by the churches has changed public opinion and brought pressure on governments. The agreement to cancel the debts of the poorest countries has already brought results. Zambia has been able to make basic healthcare free. The Tanzanian government has bought food for millions hit by drought. Nigeria has been able to employ 150,000 more teachers. There are transparent causal links between the campaign, the debt relief and these benefits.

It is true that much more is needed. And it is true that money is not enough because there are cultural constraints, such as the attitudes to women and the patterns of behaviour encouraged by the huge urban shanty-towns. Although cultural change is slow, it is does happen. Those depressed by the entrenched attitudes to women in India and China should draw some encouragement from what happened to entrenched attitudes fifty years ago towards gay people. Prejudices that stifle people lead to protest, and over time prejudices that are indefensible sometimes stop being defended.

The culture of the shanty-towns is obviously going to be changed only gradually. But I take some comfort from this description of the culture of urban poverty: “The filth and tottering ruin surpass all description. Scarcely a whole window pane can be found, the walls are crumbling, doors of old boards nailed together, or altogether wanting in this thieves’ quarter… Heaps of garbage and ashes… the foul liquids emptied before the doors gather in stinking pools. Here live the poorest of the poor, the worst paid workers with thieves and the victims of prostitution. Those who have not yet sunk in the whirlpool of moral ruin which surrounds them, sinking daily deeper, losing daily more of their power to resist the demoralizing influence of want, filth and evil surroundings.” That was Engels in the 1840s on the courts and alleyways near the Strand and Covent Garden. I teach in the Strand. It is not like that round here now. One day it will not be like that in Mexico City and Bombay. Let us try to make the time-lag less long.