An Ethical Discussion Regarding Foreign Aid

While western nations live lives of excess, billions of people around the world go without adequate food, shelter or healthcare. On a daily basis, 805 million people will not have enough food to eat and 750 million people will lack adequate access to clean drinking water (, 2015). It is estimated that 2 million children die each year due to preventable diseases (, 2015). Garret Hardin would argue that we have no obligation towards to the poor around the world. In fact, we should not help them for the sake of sustainability (Hardin, 1974). This view is incorrect. Rich nations have a moral obligation to give their wealth to poor ones. To demonstrate this, I will begin by summarizing Hardin’s three prominent arguments: The Lifeboat argument, the Tragedy of the Commons argument and the Ratchet Effect. Utilizing the work of Louis Pojman I will disprove Hardin’s three arguments. Following that I will utilize the work of Peter Singer to demonstrate that we have a moral obligation to provide aid to other countries. Finally, I will present a stance which I believe would hold greater weight in modern society.

Hardin presents three arguments for why rich nations should not provide aid to poor ones. First is the Life Boat argument. There are many lifeboats on a sea. Some of the boats are rich and some are poor. Some people fall out of the poor boats and swim to a rich boat hoping to get picked up or at least given a life jacket. What should the rich people do? Hardin suggests there are three courses of action. First, they could let all the swimmers on their boat. The result would be the boat exceeding carrying capacity and everyone would drown (Hardin, 1974). Second, they could let only a few on. But how does the boat decide who to take on? Also, taking on more people will only result in greater issues for the rich boat in the future. Assuming the population is already in equilibrium, taking on more people will disrupt this equilibrium which will result in future social issues (Hardin, 1974). Finally, the rich boat could let no one in. The positive of this is that the survival of those already on the boat is guaranteed. We should go with option three because it is our best choice for long term survival (Hardin, 1974). By letting other people on, we are signing a contract which guarantees the inevitable doom of future people in the form of future over population (Hardin, 1974).

Hardin’s second argument is the Tragedy of the Commons argument. It embodies two parts: First, he argues that when people do not have personal liability for a resources they will blindly abuse that resource. This blind abuse will lead to environmental degradation and ultimately greater tragedy (Hardin, 1974). Second, Hardin dismisses calls for a world food bank, arguing that nations would become reliant on the food bank. The only way for a country to become self-sufficient in the long term is to learn the hard way until they are able to provide their own food (Hardin, 1974).

Hardin’s final argument is called the Ratchet Effect. Populations exist in equilibrium. This means increases and decreases are natural occurrences and should be embraced. When we continue to respond to famine with emergency aid, we are turning the population cycle into a population escalator (Hardin, 1974). The world ends up having a larger population meaning that when disaster strikes next there will be more suffering and greater aid necessary to solve the problem (Hardin, 1974).

While each of these arguments serves the noble goal of stabilizing populations each is either factually inconsistent or morally wrong. Beginning with the lifeboat argument, Hardin paints a picture which suggests that each lifeboat is solely responsible for its own success or failure. What he fails to consider is the intertwined world we currently live in. Rich nations are as rich as they are because of globalization and the ability to profit off of the nations whose development succeeded ours. For Garret Hardin to live the lifestyle he does, he will eat food from South America, wear clothes made in India and watch a TV assembled in China. As Louis Pojman describes: “keeping the poor out of our lifeboats might be permissible if we hadn’t built the boats out of rubber taken from them in the first place” (Pojman, 2000). Because of rich nation’s reliance on poor nations to maintain their lifestyle, the rich have an obligation to provide the basic needs of those who enable their riches (Pojman, 2000).

One may take the stance that the transactions between rich and poor countries have been legitimate and moral. Because the poor nations choose to partake in the exchange of goods and services, a rich nation has no obligatory interest in the poor nation after the exchange. While this would hold true if the exchange of goods and services was mutually beneficial for all parties, more often than not he exchange increases suffering in the poor nation. A case commonly cited is in the Banana industry. American and European demand for bananas has lead certain Latin American countries to become overly dependent on the banana industry (Cohen, 2009). Throughout the 20th century western corporations utilized economic and political power to purchase large swaths of land in the Caribbean and Latin America (Cohen, 2009). Rich nation’s demand for cheap bananas, combined with corporation’s power to influence markets, has led to poor working conditions and low wages (Cohen, 2009). Because the demands of rich developed nations create and perpetuate the suffering experienced by those in developing nations, rich developed nations are liable for the suffering experienced. In a normal transaction, each party is said to benefit. In a transaction, if one party gains from another party’s suffering, that transaction is immoral and the party causing the suffering must remediate for the pain they have caused. I will call this the transaction principle. In a similar fashion, if through a legitimate transaction an individual purchases a car with faulty brakes, the car company would be liable to the damages caused by an accident. The car buyer and a poor nation are one in the same. In both cases, each party has an expectation of pleasure coming from the transaction. In both cases, unintentional suffering occurs to one party because of the mistake of the other party. As a consequence, the party who caused the suffering must remediate those who suffered. The notion that a transaction is between a large corporation and a state does not mitigate the need for justice. If we chose to live in a globalized world the same principles of domestic justice must govern the interactions between states, multinational corporations and individuals.

The Ratchet effect is a misguided argument which history has proven to be untrue. While natural disasters may in fact be acting as population equalizers, it is overly pragmatic to take the view point that this law of nature allows us to justify letting people die preventable deaths. The principle refuting Hardin’s stance has been called the Demographic — Economic Paradox (World Library, n.d.). This paradox shows the inverse correlation between wealth and fertility rates. Simply put, there is a strong correlation between the richer a nation becomes and the less children a women has. Karan Singh, former minister of population in India, noted this trend saying: “Development is the best contraceptive” (World Library, n.d.). While opposing Malthusian views, it has been theorized that when life expectancies and female literacy rates increase and childhood mortality decreases, natural reproductive restraint arises (World Library, n.d.). These historical trends in populations refute the idea that we have an obligation to not provide aid to those in need. In fact to avoid future population crises we should provide stability to those who need it most.

Addressing Hardin’s argument against foodbanks is fairly straight forward. Foreign aid is not always strictly in the form of food. It can occur in the form of education and technology which promotes the self-sufficiency that Hardin advocates for (Pojman, 2000). On the other hand, the first part of Hardin’s tragedy of the commons argument presents a compelling case for the abolishment of commons for the sake of the environment. If too many people rely on a certain commons for too long it will go to ruin. This is true, however morally irrelevant because the common which is Earth can in fact produce enough resources for every human and likely already does. The United States amounts for 5% of the world population yet consumes 35% of the world’s food (Pojman, 2000). Statistics such as these indicate that we have the capacity to feed the world without increased stress on the environment.

Upon dismissing the ratchet effect and the idea of the tragedy of the commons, it is at this time I would briefly like to revisit the transaction principle discussed above. In an attempt to demonstrate the idea that rich nations should share their wealth with poor nations, the flaw in this principle is that it is too short sited to account for those whose suffering has no relationship to the actions of the rich world. This demonstrates the common issue with many deontological approaches: they are too short sighted or can be easily contradicted. If Americans were able to produce, purchase and consume 35% of the world’s food, independent of any immoral transactions, then they would have no obligation to support poor nations. This principle only makes us obligated to help those whose suffering is a result of our immoral transactions. What about those who suffer yet we have not interacted with? How do we justify the need to share our excess with them?

Peter Singer has a solution. Singer will take a Utilitarian standpoint to this debate. Through the lens of maximizing utility the contradictory issues which arise with deontology can be avoided. Singer first affirms that suffering due to lack of food, shelter and medical care is bad (Singer, 1972). He will then go on to argues that: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, morally we ought to do it” (Singer, 1972). From these two premises he draws the conclusion that we must alleviate the suffering of others (Singer, 1972). This overarching claim requires us to help those who are suffering regardless of our past relationships with them. While a tall order, it forces us to ask, what is more important: a vacation and new clothes or the lives of starving children? As utility calculators, each choice we make should result in abiding by this principle. It will also result in us helping the poorest in the world. For example, if I have $100, I could pay for 10 dinners for 10 homeless people in Canada, alleviating their hunger for the day. However, this $100 dollars could save two children’s lives in Africa. In order to maximize utility I would save the children. This principle forces society to alleviate the suffering we have caused through transactions and the suffering which exists by its own right.

Singer advocates for his philosophies to be applicable in everyday life. But this philosophy, it would seem, would be far from feasible in a world bounded by consumerism. The largest issue which arises for people is the notion of helping people in other parts of the world when suffering exists in their own communities. Suddenly, the notion of maximizing utility seems unappealing to the ordinary person. Regardless, Singer maintains that in the globalized world, linked by modern communications, we have the moral obligation to help those in the worst conditions. In the absence of utilitarianism this can be looked at with deontology. A principle which would support this notion would be the idea that those who need help the most should be helped first. Relatively, the poor in countries like Bengal and Sudan are still far poorer than an American living in poverty. Further, their poverty is not only greater in terms of possessions, but also opportunity. For a nation to be rich their economy must be healthy and vibrant. This environment at least provides opportunity for a citizen in the rich world to take care of themselves. Poor countries cannot even offer this to their citizens. The purpose of morals is to take the humanity and bias out of decisions and choose what is objectively right. Recognizing this, regardless if one is a utilitarian or upholder of deontological laws, we must accept that there are those who need help more than our compatriots.

Yet we still feel unsatisfied. If suffering exists in my own community, and suffering exists in another at no fault to my own, regardless of utility or right and wrong my intuition tells me to help my own community. From this I would like to propose an approach which hopefully can satisfy all parties. Rich societies should share their wealth with poor ones for the reason outlined by Singer: our allocation of resources must maximize utility. In practice, the key word in this conclusion is wealth. Wealth, in this context, is the excess after the minimum needs of each individual in a society have been met. This would create a two stage approach to giving. First, Singers principle would be applied to one’s own society. When the basic needs of each individual in our own society are met, the excess would be given to whomever around the world would utilize it most efficiently.

In summary, Hardin’s arguments have been demonstrated to be factually wrong or morally incorrect. The lifeboat argument was disproved using a deontological principle, while ratchet effect and tragedy of the commons were disproved utilizing evidence from history. Peter Singer’s Utilitarian principles demonstrates that wealthy societies have a moral obligation to utilize excess wealth to mitigate the suffering of any human being. Complimenting Singers utilitarian stance, a deontological standpoint demonstrated why we should help other societies before our own. Finally, I proposed my own moderate alternative which upholds Peter Singers views of giving as much as possible, while accommodating people’s natural inclinations to their own community and society. If a team is only as strong as its weakest member, true global progress will only occur when nations unite to eradicate the fundamental problems facing large segments of the world.

Works Cited

Cohen, R. (2009). Global Issues for Breakfast: The Banana Industry and its Issues. The Science Creative Quarterly. (2015). 11 Facts About Global Poverty. Retrieved from Do

Hardin, G. (1974). Living on a Lifeboat. Contemporary Moral Arguments, pp. 662–672.

Pojman, L. P. (2000). World Hunger and Population. Contemorary Moral Arguments, pp. 690–700.

Singer, P. (1972). Famine, Affluence and Morality. Contemporary Moral Arguments, pp. 683–690.

World Library. (n.d.). Demographic Economic Paradox. Retrieved from World Public Library: