Thomas Pogge argues that our obligations to the poor are largely negative. Explain what he means by this, and what evidence he produces in favour of the claim. Are his arguments compelling?

Thomas Pogge argues that our obligations to the poor are largely negative. In this essay I will focus on his arguments around the differentiation between omissions and acts which he uses to support this point.

I disagree with Thomas Pogge’s thesis that we are only obligated to help those of whom we are implicated in their poverty.

I will argue this point first by explaining Pogge’s argument around omissions and acts. Second I will visit Neera Chandhoke’s criticism of the idea by using Venezuela’s poverty problem as a case study of poverty not caused by the affluent west. Finally I will then present my own view of how to best approach the discussion of rights with positive duties.


Pogge’s thesis that members of the affluent west are only obligated to help those of whom they are implicated as a causal factor to their poverty is an attempt for Pogge to reconcile the cognitive dissonance he feels between his moral convictions and intellectual ones. We have a positive duty to the poor only if we have caused their poverty in some form.

Pogge highlights what he means by positive and negative duties by contrasting the right to not be tortured from the right to food and shelter. In torture, there is required to be a torturer. If A has the right to not be tortured, this creates a negative duty upon all others to not torture A and if someone does torture A, then they are ipso facto a violator of their human rights. A negative duty is something that requires others to abstain from doing in order for the right to be fulfilled.

A positive duty on the other hand requires people to perform certain tasks/provide certain resources for the right to be fulfilled. If the right to subsistence/from poverty carries with it positive duties, then it creates a duty on those who can to provide resources for the subsistence of those who do not have access to such resources.

Pogge denies that this is the case, and states we only have positive duties to the poor if one has been implicated in their poverty as a causal factor.

Pogge outlines in section 1.1.3 (2007:25) his conception of the global order which implicates members of the affluent west as causal factors to the extreme poverty of other nations. I will not discuss this further than to say that this is how Pogge reconciles his moral beliefs with his intellectual thoughts. They are congenial ideals which I agree with.

What I want to focus on is specifically whether an omission can be characterised as an act or not.

Pogge takes issue with the ‘maximalist’ consequence of viewing omissions as acts. What he means is that presented as a stark binary, the notion is extremely demanding to say that an omission is an act. According to Pogge it means that a person who chooses to spend $80 to go to the movies, knowing that he could save a life in a faraway place with it, is morally on par as someone who kills someone for $80 benefit (2007:22).

Pogge’s belief on this issue is that one cannot be considered as a violator of human rights merely for failing to help no matter how easy or low the cost. One violates a right only if one actively deprives or renders access to subsistence resources to another. It is important to note here that Pogge finds it appalling morally that this is the case, but intellectually feels obliged to agree(2007:19).

To argue his point, Pogge uses the example of Bob and Jill in the ocean. In this analogy Bob is drowning at sea and Jill is nearby in a boat. Jill has two options: One, Jill does nothing and Bob drowns. Two, Jill leaves the scene and Bob drowns. He highlights the “passivity baseline” here, where in one scenario someone left and one didn’t. He notes that in option one Jill’s failure to act is an omission because Bob would have died even if she were not there. In option 2, bob would not have died had she not sailed away, so Jill’s  conduct does play a causal role in Bob’s death(Pogge, 2007:21). He draws a distinction on the passivity of each scenario.

I disagree that there is any distinction of passivity in this scenario. To quote Canadian progressive rock band’s song Free Will “choose, or choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

In this scenario Jill has three options, yet two consequences:
O1: She can help Bob. C1: Bob lives.
O2: She can do nothing. C2: Bob dies.
O3: She can sail away. C:2 Bob dies.

Jill can only choose between two outcomes, but has many choices in how she reaches those outcomes. She could also shoot Bob in the head, bait a shark to the area to eat him or hold him under with a venomous viper, she has still chosen the same consequence as sailing away/doing nothing.

Furthermore, saying that in Jill’s first choice “Bob would have died if she were not there,” is the same as myself saying “Bob would not have died if he were not in the Ocean.” If we allow the use of hypothetical differences in the situation to affect the moral character of our actions, we open a can of worms to any number of different absurd justifications for our moral short comings.
Pogge does attempt to refute my point that no moral weight should be placed on the distinction. He notes the way in which day to day we don’t put people who pay $80 to attend the cinema instead of helping as being on par with those who kill for $80. While in hypothetical terms it is easy to place such a stark binary on the choice, in everyday life the choices are never so simple or as obvious. The reasoning to not give to a charity are many ranging from a distrust of the charity, a lack of belief that citizen charity is the right way to help the global poor (maybe it is the responsibility of our governments) or more convincingly, that giving to foreign aid is not sustainable when as Pogge would agree, changing the global order is a more long term and sustainable solution to the problem. Again, there are many options to get to the relatively limited consequences to choose from.

My entire point in questioning omissions is to apply the criticism of Neera Chandhoke. Chandhoke rightfully claims that there are more causes to global poverty than just the global order which implicated the affluent west. Where Pogge’s view works great when a causal link can be established, it says nothing of those who are poor from no causal relation, even when severe poverty entails a severe violation of generis human rights(Chandhoke, 2010:72).

To illustrate this I will use Venezuela as a case study. Venezuela is a very rich country, with a purchasing power of $407b, ranking it 34th largest GDP in the world(CIA, 2013). This is because of its massive oil reserves, which account for roughly 96% of export earnings, 45% of budget spending and around 12% of GDP(CIA, 2013). Despite this, 32% of its citizens are below the global poverty line (CIA, 2011).

The reasons cited for this are numerous: former President, Hugo Chávez lead a “Bolivarian Revolution” and declared war on the Bourgeoisie of Venezuela, expropriating over 207 private businesses in 2010, including banks, farms and housing developments (Romero:2010). His extreme left wing policies crippled the Venezuelan economy by hurting private investment and making the country seem less attractive to international investors. The resulting outcome is a housing crisis with rolling electrical blackouts and severe shortages in food and goods(CIA, 2013).

The government is not the only factor at play here either, the Venezuelan people could be claimed to be a causal factor in their own economic misfortune. One possible argument toward this end is that Venezuela is experiencing a severe brain drain and individuals with degrees continually leave Venezuela to seek a better life(Romero, 2010), thus not contributing to the country’s economic progress. Another is that due to the poor economy, people have taken to illegally selling groceries that they can to make ends meet(FoxNews Latino, 2014). This has become such a widespread practice that the government has had to resort to finger printing individuals to ensure they are not buying more than their share of food and goods rations.

In a scenario like this, where Venezuela’s mess of ideological policy has crippled the nation, where individuals leave to live more comfortable lives and citizens resort to illegally hoarding rations to then sell across the border, how could the affluent be causally implicated? And in the likely hypothetical future scenario that Venezuela uses up all of its oil reserves/the entire world makes the move to renewable energies thus eliminating demand for the commodity, then what? Venezuela’s poverty could only increase and it could only be its own fault.

Pogge would likely resort to trying to find some causal link to Venezuela’s predicament and the affluent west. For instance we induced Venezuela to be dependent upon its oil reserves or America’s destructive capitalist regime induced Venezuela’s revolution out of rejection. But both of these points undermine the nation’s agency, Venezuela has always known its oil cannot last forever, and is agency only be applied to the most affluent and not others? Denying Venezuela’s own agency by claiming it a victim of economic factors in bringing about its misfortune does the nation and its people a disservice.

I go to such an extent to show Venezuela’s culpability in its misfortune to highlight that in such a case, Pogge’s view he has no answer to why we have a duty to help. My position is that we do have a duty to help regardless of causal factors. I believe that this entire discussion brought about by Pogge of causal factors is a philosophical red herring that should simply be side stepped.
I subscribe to the idea of Martin Luther King Jr that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Instead of focusing on the causes, on philosophical justifications of the moral character of whether actions are right or wrong, the focus should be on what is good or bad. To help a foreign nation’s poor, regardless of causal links, can only benefit the global community as a whole. If it can be seen that in times of strife, such as natural disasters, when no causal link is present, we have a duty to help our global sisters and brothers, then when one’s own nation is a victim of such misfortune, it can be expected that it will receive help from foreign bodies.

If we take the view that we only need to help others when causal factors are relevant, then when we ourselves are presented with a circumstance of misfortune of no fault our own, we risk the possibility of not having out rights fulfilled. By fostering a global community of partnership, everyone nation which participates benefits from it.
The focus here is on the consequences of adopting the idea that we have a positive duty towards the global poor. I have ignored the philosophical justifications of causal links to instead appeal to the benefits of holding such a view. A failure to alleviate poverty in a foreign nation would be seen as a violation of the poor because one has failed to take part in a scheme that benefits the entire community. It not only provides a more robust protection to the global poor, as Pogge outlines such a view would contain but it provides benefits to those who participate in poverty alleviation by fostering stronger international bonds with other people’s.

Thomas Pogge makes a valiant and commendable effort to reconcile his moral beliefs with his intellectual obligations. He attempts to find causal links between the global poor to justify why the affluent west has a positive duty towards them. However in claiming that there is a differentiation between omissions and acts he leaves open the option to not help a nation’s poor where their poverty is not causally related to the west, as is arguably the case in Venezuela or after a natural disaster. I have argued that such a discussion about causal factors is a philosophical red herring distracting from what should be the focus of our attention, the poor whose suffering we can alleviate, that by instead participating in helping those in need, regardless of causal links, carries with it only benefits by fostering a stronger global community. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and by failing to alleviate the poverty of other people’s we threaten the likelihood of having our poverty alleviated should we run into similar misfortune.

References:

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The World Factbook, viewed 30 September 2014, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ve.html

Chandhoke, N; “How much is enough Mr Thomas? How much will ever be enough?”, Thomas Pogge and his Critics, edited by Alison M. Jagger (UK:Polity Press, 2010), pp.66-83

Fox News Latino, Venezuela Will Begin Fingerprinting Grocery Shoppers To Control How Much Food They Buy, viewed 1 September 2014, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2014/08/22/venezuela-wants-to-fingerprint-grocery-shoppers-to-control-how-much-food-by/

Pogge, T; “Severe poverty as a human rights violation in Freedom from Poverty as a Human Rights Obligation. Who Owes What to the Very Poor?, edited by Thomas Pogge (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.11-53

Romero, S; 2010, In Venezuela, a New Wave of Foreigners, The New York Times, viewed 1 September 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/world/americas/07venez.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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