Steve at Bloggertropolis wrote an excellent post, highlighting how uncomfortable it is to be closely confronted with poverty. He describes an encounter with a street beggar, and his sudden realisation that this 'drunken drop-out' was also a human being; a thinking, feeling, hurting person like himself - but caught in a circle of homelessness, alienation and the temporary respite of alcohol.
In the UK we are insulated from absolute poverty, certainly compared to say Africa or parts of Asia. Indeed, absolute poverty, of the type widely experienced in the Third World, is extremely rare in Western democracies. If we debate poverty at all, we are usually concerned with the relative poverty of our own underprivileged communities and social groups. But whilst absolute poverty may be 'out of sight - out of mind' the moral issues remain, and if we examine them carefully it is just as uncomfortable as getting up close and personal.
Some years ago I read a 'thought experiment' that tests our moral obligations to others. See how you get on with this...
Imagine you have just retired. You have a small pension that meets your basic needs but no spare cash - you are comfortable but only just. Then one day you win a few thousand pounds on the lottery, enough to buy the small car you have always dreamed of.
You buy the car locally but forget to arrange the insurance (senior moment!). Nonetheless you decide to drive it home, after all it is only a couple of miles. Unfortunately you stall the car on a level crossing and can't restart it. You get out and see there is is train approaching. Oh no, your one chance to own a car is about to be obliterated....
As the train approaches you notice there is a set of points by the side of the track. You reason that by pulling them you will send the train safely into a siding. So you run over as quick as you can and are about to pull the points when it becomes clear that it is actually your car which is on the siding. Phew, there is no danger from the train and everything is going to be okay....
Except at that same moment you also notice a young child has walked onto the main line!!!!
The situation is instantly clear. If you pull the points your car will be obliterated. But if you do not the child will surely be killed. You call to the child but she does not hear... you must act quickly... you have seconds to decide.
What a terrible choice. Do you save the child at the cost of your most prized possession; something you will never afford to replace? Or do you leave the points alone in the knowledge that almost certainly the child would be killed?
What would you do?
Would you leave the points alone? After all it wasn't your fault the child walked onto the line. You could say you had not seen anything... you could close your eyes and not watch the impact ... you have no legal 'obligation' to pull the points....
I think most people would argue that saving the child is the right thing to do. They would say we have a moral obligation to do so in preference to a car. I certainly hope I would pull the points no matter how precious my car was to me.
And yet... last year I spent well over a thousand pounds on computer equipment that caught my eye; I spent three times that on a holiday to France; and I could easily make a long list of expensive non-essentials I purchased in 2009. What is more, I spent this money when deep down I know there are millions of people who, through no fault of their own, are dying for lack of funds and resources. I am not alone in doing this. You probably did something similar.
The question posed by the thought experiment is whether there any substantive difference between my choice to buy luxuries and making the decision 'not to pull the points'? And my honest conclusion is that there is not a lot between the two. I might rationalise that there is little I can personally do about Third World poverty, that foreign dictatorships and wars make much aid worthless.. etc etc. But frankly, it is almost undeniable that had I given even half of my non essential expenditure to medecines sans frontier it would have saved some lives.
The difference is that the death on the railway line would be more immediate and more directly in my control. But is it really possible to claim we have less responsibility to avert evils just because they are out of sight? I find it hard to give ethical weight to the idea that child starvation is not our responsibility because it resides abroad.
The philosopher Peter Singer agrees; in his book, One World, he argues that as we become globally interdependent, our moral obligations to a greater humanity are stronger than ever. The alternative view - supported by John Rawls - is that States are ultimately selfish institutions and we are not obliged to help other nations. In practice, most modern democracies take a middle line - in the case of the UK that amounts to spending a meagre 0.7% of GDP on aid to the developing world.
In the West we enjoy societies that are freer and more affluent than ever before; that is a wonderful achievement - but at times that very security can leave me feeling uneasy. If political atrocities such as the holocaust were the moral outrage of the last century, it is at least arguable that history will take a similar view of our response to absolute poverty.
To return to the thought experiment, I could pick fault with the example; I could show how it is not a fair reflection of the real world; I could argue technical points of ethics. But no matter how I rationalise it away, the general point would remain - and I find its implications deeply disturbing.