Poverty and our moral obligation

At the present, we are facing many problems all over the world. One of our most pressing concerns is the number of people who are living in poverty. If we draw the poverty line at 1.25 dollars a day, there are 1.4 billion people who have income below that line (2005). Of that number, many suffer from perpetual hunger. A large percentage of that number lives in underdeveloped parts of the word, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Imagine how life would be like, having to worry whether there will be a next meal or not. Eradicating poverty and hunger is a worthy goal in itself, but why does this problem still persist?

Is our lack of morals the major reason behind this problem? Imagine that you are walking down a street and you see a baby drowning in a muddy pool beside the road. There are no other people around you. You can easily wade into the water to save the baby, but it will ruin the new pair of shoes that you recently bought. Would you save the baby? Of course, the majority of the people would not hesitate to help. This seems to be an easy question with an easy answer. However, most of us in the developed world are doing the equivalent of preferring our new shoes to a baby’s life. By not contributing to efforts to help the world’s poor and underdeveloped, we let people live in suffering and die from hunger. There is a distinct difference between our moral ideals and our real-life actions.

Since our moral faculties tell us that we should act to reduce poverty, but they do not compel us to act, this means that there are other factors. The problem is not lack of morals, but the nature of human psychology, which makes us reluctant to help poor people in faraway lands. One major factor is the difference between a single real person in need, like the drowning baby in the above example, and millions of people in need who are out of sight. Research has shown that people donate more money if the description includes specific details of a single person. If the number of people in the description increases, even to two, the amount of donation significantly decreases. This trend may be explained by our evolutionary roots, where we lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers, and all of our interactions are face-to-face. We are not adapted to thinking about people who we cannot see directly. As Stalin allegedly said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

Another factor is the feeling of futility. When we think about donating a small amount of money, sometimes we feel like it’s only a drop in the ocean. The money may have helped a number of people, but there are a thousand times more people who do not receive aid. Research has supported this by asking a question of the form “A donation of 50$ can help 10 people in a refugee camp, but there are x more people in the camp who will not receive any help. Would you want to donate?” and varying the number x. Rationally, the number of other people in the refugee camp should not influence your decision, which should be based on how much the donation can accomplish. However, people do not act as an ideal rational agent. The greater the number x of remaining refugees, the smaller chance that someone will donate.

There are ways to overcome the psychological obstacles mentioned above. In order to make the plight of poor people more memorable, many donation-seeking groups now add pictures and/or stories of a specific person in need. When you read about the story of a nine-year-old girl in Bangladesh, see her picture, and imagine her in your mind, it’s more difficult to ignore her. As for the problem of futility, a different viewpoint may help. Instead of comparing the number of people you can help to those that you can’t, it would be more psychologically satisfying to compare the number of people you can help by making a donation, and those when you do not donate.

In conclusion, poverty is a global problem that requires a global effort to solve. We know the right thing to do, but we still do not act adequately. By focusing on the people who will benefit from more help, regardless of the amount of donation, we can get more motivated in doing something for the world’s poor. Helping these people is not just a good act, it is a moral obligation.



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