Moral Responsibility for Global Poverty

An investigation of P. Singer’s, T. Pogge’s and D. Miller’s theories

Master's Thesis, 2018

79 Pages


Table of Contents


1 Dimensions of Global Poverty and Inequality
1.1 Measures of Poverty
1.2 The Gap Between Rich and Poor

2 World Poverty as an Ethical Challenge – Three Proposals
2.1 “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” (P. Singer)
2.2 Upholding a Harmful Global Economic Order (T. Pogge)
2.2.1 Core Elements in Pogge’s Theory
2.2.2 Questioning the Harm of the Global Economic Order
2.3 Collective National Responsibility (D. Miller)
2.3.1 Two Concepts of Responsibility

3 Fundamental Differences among the Theories
3.1 The Ethical Level
3.2 Whose Responsibilities?
3.3 Justification of the Duty to Act
3.4 Concrete Normative Claims

4 Analogies Used in the Theories
4.1 The Analogy of the Roundabout
4.1.1 Solution Approaches
4.2 The Analogy of the Drowning Child

5 Humanitarian vs. Development Aid
5.1 Questioning the Effectiveness of Development Aid



List of Tables

List of Abbreviations


I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor Prof. Dr. Steigleder for the useful comments, remarks and engagement through the learning process of this master thesis. I would like to thank my loved ones, who have supported me throughout the entire process, both by keeping me harmonious and helping me putting pieces together. I am especially indebted to Güney, my loving and supportive fiancé, whose remarks were of considerable importance and who is an inexhaustible source of inspiration.


“Each day, some 50,000 human beings – mostly children, mostly female, and mostly people of colour – die from starvation, diarrhoea, pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria, measles, perinatal conditions and other poverty- related causes. This continuous global death toll matches that of the December 2004 tsunami every few days, and it matches, every three years, the entire death toll of the Second World War, concentration camps and gulags included.” (Pogge, 2005a, p. 722)

Reading books and articles about poverty today might support the mental image of a separated world. One can be tempted to think that while some in the world are blessed with all necessities such as water, food, clothing, shelter, health care and schooling, others are seeking to escape from a life of poverty and deprivation. Actually, there is some truth behind this thought. The majority of the global population is poor, hungry, cold and often illiterate and malnourished. This predisposes not only psychological illnesses like depression but also physical diseases. While this massive poverty exists, other regions in the world are enjoying not only life in considerable but also growing wealth. Relative to an international commodities basket, the average consumption expenditure of the rich is about 40 times greater than that of the poor (see Pogge, 2011). When comparison is made at currency exchange rates, it is even 100 times greater (Ibid). As the affluent get richer and the poor remain at or below the subsistence minimum, this inequality continues to mount decade after decade (see Pogge, 2008). This huge imbalance and inequality in the world has lead to many debates all around the world addressing the root causes of the problem, those responsible for it and many conceivable solutions. This paper aims to contribute to these debates and to analyze various questions posed in moral philosophy that apply in the global realm. More specifically, it asks the following four questions:

1. What is our moral responsibility for global poverty?
2. Can historical injustices such as slavery and colonialism be linked to backward-looking responsibilities?
3. Can the allocation of moral responsibility to rich and poor people be justified?
4. Considering both, humanitarian and development aid, which of the two concepts is the more effective one in the face of the huge challenges of world poverty?

The answer of the third question focuses immediately on the responsible actors that come into question, and the fourth on moral claims brought forward along with the practical implementation of particular claims. Having outlined the subject of the matter of this paper, it is now important to make clear the aims of it. These are twofold. First, it aims to explore in depth and to evaluate competing philosophical perspectives on the issue of moral responsibility towards the poor. As such it seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis of three important contributions to this topic. These are the ethical theories of Peter Singer, Thomas Pogge and David Miller, whose disparate viewpoints lay a good foundation for the depiction of fundamental dissimilarities. Second, my investigation seeks, on the one hand, to show that a proper allocation of moral responsibility to rich and poor people under certain conditions is possible; and on the other hand, to provide a defence of the claim that development aid is the more appropriate concept of aid for combating poverty-related issues instead of humanitarian aid in view of the adverse criticism of Singer’s theory. In the end, I shall propose points that could make development aid more effective.

After having outlined the subject matter of this paper and its aims, it is now important to turn to its structure. The paper is structured as follows. First, Chapter 1 will illustrate what poverty is and when and where poverty and wealth have increased or decreased globally to create a big picture about the dimensions of global poverty and inequality before moving on to the moral philosophical chapters. Based on the three proposals of Singer, Pogge and Miller, Chapter 2 shall show, why world poverty is seen as an ethical challenge. This chapter aims to descriptively work on their theories so as to draw on this information in Chapter 3 to investigate in fundamental differences among the theories considering forward- and backward-looking responsibilities. Chapter 4, then, comprises analogies and practical examples used in the theories that can best illustrate our backward- and forward-looking responsibilities towards the poor. Since Singer’s theory and examples motivate to treat the problem of world poverty like a humanitarian or natural disaster, I shall criticize this point so as to relate this to Chapter 5 where the concepts humanitarian and development aid will be compared with each other.

1 Dimensions of Global Poverty and Inequality

If we are talking about poverty, we usually think about it in absolute terms. But poverty does not only occur in developing countries. Also rich countries such as the United States still show a poverty rate of around 15 percent of the population (see Sachs, 2015). However, this poverty is not an extreme one. These people, unlike most people living in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, do not have to fight for daily survival hoping every day to get access to clean water or some food. The many evidences of poverty are the reason why there always had been a need for a proper definition of it. This has been recognized in the 1960s and 1970s by most major researchers and commentators on poverty issues (see Alcock, 2006). More specifically, it was Peter Townsend (1979) who opened his report with the following definition of poverty, which has been used by others since:

“Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary … in the societies to which they belong” (Townsend, 1979, p. 31).

Yet, he was not the first on the search for an appropriate way to define poverty. Efforts have been made since at least the end of the nineteenth century (see Alcock, 2006). At those times many debates in Britain have laid their main focus on the elementary differentiation between absolute and relative poverty (Ibid). However, in order to avoid the oversimplification of much more complex definitional problems of poverty, in the following I shall define poverty not only in absolute and relative terms but also in two other dimensions.1

1.1 Measures of Poverty

The first measure of poverty is called relative poverty (see Sachs, 2015, xxiii). This measure indicates that poverty does not only implicate cases in which people do not have the means to buy goods like water or food that are vital for surviving but also cases in which people cannot go to the cinema or theatre, for example. So a household is relatively poor if the income is so low that participation in the nation’s economic and social life is not possible anymore. A relatively poor household lacks access to cultural goods, entertainment, recreation, and to quality health care and education. The common standard of relative poverty is that the income of a household is less than 50 percent of the national median household income (Ibid). Relatively poor people cannot participate in activities that are customary in the society in which they live (see Townsend, 1979 and Alcock, 2006).2

The relative definition of poverty seems to also receive recognition and support from Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Adam Smith states the following:

“By necessaries, I understand not only the commodities which are indispensibly necessary for the support of life but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is strictly speaking not a necessity of life ... But in the present time ... a creditable day labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt.” (Smith, 1776, p. 691)

Likewise, Marx wrote, that “our desires and pleasures spring from society; we measure them, therefore, by society … they are of a relative nature” (Marx, [1849] 1969, p. 163).3

But measurements might also be based on local costs of food and shelter, or they can be based on a basic package of goods and services that are necessary for a decent life. This kind of poverty is called the national poverty line, where each country can define the national poverty line differently (see Sachs, 2015, xxii). In this measurement, an individual or a household is poor according to the individual lines that are set differently in each country.

Having outlined the first two kinds of poverty, I shall now return to the third kind of poverty, which is extreme poverty as per household consumption (Ibid, xxii). The World Bank has set a poverty line for consumption of $1.25 per person per day. So, households that have to live with less than this level for their daily consumption are living in extreme poverty. Just in case that a household lives above the $1.25 poverty line, but still is unable to meet other basic needs, there is the fourth measure called multidimensional poverty (Ibid, xxii). According to this concept, everyone who is unable to meet a range of basic needs such as nutrition, access to basic health care, access to safe water and sanitation, and access to education, is extremely poor.4

A fundamental criticism against these measurements of global poverty might be that they are largely concerned with income and consumption and that considering only the economic part of poverty would be an ineffective approach.5 However, today it is already widely acknowledged that poverty has also social, political and cultural implications and that it can also undermine human rights: economic (the right to work and an adequate income); social (access to health care and education); political (freedom of thought, expression and association); and cultural (the right to maintain one's cultural identity and be involved in a community's cultural life) (see Sané, 2001).6 Over the course of the thesis this critique will be taken seriously by also emphasizing the importance of other implications of poverty.

1.2 The Gap Between Rich and Poor

The current plight of poor people is enormous and therefore it is necessary to form an overall perspective of the situation. It is important to be acquainted with the most important facts, such as when and where poverty and wealth have increased or decreased globally or what the status quo in the world is. Truth be told, the present state in the world is not very encouraging. Until 2011, every year nearly 18 million human beings were dying untimely out of poverty, nearly 796 million adults were illiterates and 215 million children had to work (see Pogge, 2011). In 2011 there were 925 million human beings who were chronically malnourished, 884 million people who had no access to clean drinking water, 1.6 billion people who had no electricity, 2.5 billion people who did not have access to sanitation facilities, and nearly 2 billion human beings who did not have access to medicines that are of vital importance for their survival (Ibid). Over half of the population in North Korea, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe lived in poverty in 2013 (see Acemoğlu & Robinson, 2013). According to an official analysis and ranking of the world’s poorest countries by Global Finance Magazine, which was published in February 2017, African countries once more dominate the ranking (see Gregson, 2017). The analysis was made by means of the data from the International Monetary Fund and took into account the gross domestic product (GDP) of countries based on their purchasing power parity (PPP) per capita. The gross domestic product in the list represents the economic health of the countries in 2016 and is expressed in international dollars, whereas the purchasing power parity refers to a comparison of living standards among the different nations. Among the first 30 poorest countries in the world there are Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Nepal and Senegal (Ibid).

Interestingly enough, there had not been always a gap between rich and poor; neither did wealth exist in such a dimension as it does nowadays. As late as the middle of the eighteenth century, the gap between rich and poor was much smaller and most of the inequality today emerged since the late eighteenth century (see Acemoğlu & Robinson, 2013). With regard to human history, the expansion of modern economic growth and the divide between rich and poor are very recent phenomena. Two hundred years ago, it would have been unimaginable that we could possibly bring about the end of extreme poverty, because despite of a minority of rulers and large landowners, nearly everyone was poor and life in Europe was similarly difficult as it had been in India or China (see Sachs, 2015). Before both the population numbers and the per capita income started to change, the economy had not grown for the most part and the world population grew only slightly, as figure 1.1 and 1.2 illustrate.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1.1: World Population (see Sachs, 2015, p. 27).

Only after the modern economic growth, not only the population numbers but also the per capita income boomed as never before. As figure 1.1 shows, two centuries were enough to experience a more than sixfold increase in global population, or more specifically, to reach the amount of 6.1 billion people at the beginning of the third millennium (Ibid).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1.2: World Average per Capita Income (Ibid, p. 28).

The average per capita income in figure 1.2 rose sharply with a ninefold increase between 1820 and 2000. As a result, in 1820 the per capita income between rich and poor – especially between Great Britain, the major industrial power of those times, and Africa, the poorest region in the world – differed at a ratio of 4:1 (see Sachs, 2015). If we look at the ratio from 1998, which is 20:1, it seems to be the case, that some regions in the world achieved a strong economic growth and some did not (see figure 1.3).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1.3: GDP per Capita by Region in 1820 and 1998 (Ibid, p. 29).

The height of the two bars indicates the per capita income in 1820 and 1998. At the top of the second bar there is the average annual growth rate of the regions (between 1820 and 1998) given as a percentage in parentheses. According to the American economist Jeffrey Sachs (2015), there are three striking issues about this figure: 1820 all regions were poor; all regions experienced economic growth; and rich regions of today made by far the largest economic progress.

2 World Poverty as an Ethical Challenge – Three Proposals

In this contribution altogether three ethical theories concerning our moral responsibility towards the poor shall be examined. Before doing so, a descriptive part is necessary so as to draw upon this content in the following chapters. Peter Singer’s consequentialist cosmopolitan view, Thomas Pogge’s human rights defence of cosmopolitanism and David Miller’s defence of an account of collective national responsibility are altogether a great enrichment for the already existing body of literature in this field.

2.1 “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” (P. Singer)

Are we leaving a child to die if we choose to spend our money on drinks, meals out or new cars instead of contributing to an aid agency, which could have saved his life? By asking such thought-provoking questions the philosopher Peter Singer has opened up a new debate in moral philosophy. 40 years ago poverty was rarely discussed as an important ethical problem or as a legitimate and important object of philosophical reflection (see Wisor, 2011). This has changed when philosophical frameworks did no longer restrict the nation-state as the natural boundary of moral consideration. Only then, a proliferation of work in practical philosophy on human rights and poverty in a globalized context allowed for a “beyond the nation-state”-thinking. And only then, the focus was laid on the most deprived in the world. But before this was achieved, Singer’s observations in the 1970s showed that many millions of people are suffering and living with an income equivalent or less than one dollar a day. While this has lead to miserable lives, Singer was wondering about our corresponding duties towards these extremely poor people. He came to the conclusion that thinking about our moral responsibility requires us to also think about unnecessary expenditures. For Singer, this even means to think about the bottle of mineral water standing on our tables. The reason is that from the perspective of necessity it follows that buying mineral water despite clean tap water means spending money on things that are not really necessary (see Singer, 2010). Thus, we can not call our lives morally sound unless we are willing to give more than most of us think is humanly possible. Hence, the resulting strong moral principle is that we ought to prevent something bad from happening if it is in our power to do so without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance (see Singer, 1972, p. 231 and 2011, p. 200). It might also result in a more moderate moral principle where we ought to prevent something very bad from happening, if it is in our power to do so without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant (see Singer, 1972, p. 231). Taking into consideration the premise that extreme poverty is bad, we could conclude that we ought to prevent what is bad and not to promote what is good. Therefore, we ought to prevent some extreme poverty. For Singer, the stronger principle is the correct one because it seems to require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility. He proposes a more moderate version to show that even on this “surely undeniable principle a great change in our way of life is required”, even though it does not require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility (Ibid, p. 241). He emphasizes that, even if we accept the more moderate version, we still have to “give away enough to ensure that the consumer society, dependent as it is on people spending on trivia rather than giving to famine relief, would slow down and perhaps disappear entirely” (Ibid, p. 241). We ought to prevent people from dying of starvation by sacrificing our luxuries and by donating money to poor people. This act of giving money to a relief fund would not be an act of charity because we would not be sacrificing anything significant if we were continuing to drink tap water or wear our old clothes and give money to famine relief – it would be wrong not to do so.

Following this argument, we ought to wade in and pull a little child out of the shallow pond on the way to work or university, if there is no one else around who can help. Singer’s work on global poverty is largely based on this single hypothetical “child in the pond” situation. If we help the child in danger of drowning, most likely our clothes would get muddy, we would be ruining our shoes and also come late to work or university, but compared with the life of a little child we can save, none of these things are significant. Singer concludes that we ought to save the drowning child in light of the fact that we would incur only minor, insignificant costs in doing so.

With this analogy in mind, our corresponding moral responsibility would then be to save lives by donating a relatively small amount of money to a relief fund. But what if the bad is very far from us? For Singer the physical nearness and the personal contact with the person may make it more likely that we shall assist him; nevertheless “this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away” (Singer, 1972, p. 232). There is no moral difference whether the child in need is the neighbor’s son or a child in Namibia whose name we will never know. Referring to principles of impartiality, universalizability and equality, he believes that if we accept such principles, a discrimination of people in need based on distance cannot be justified. He shares the view that the world has developed into a “global village” in which our aid can be directed to a refugee in Bengal almost as effectively as we could get it to a person in our neighborhood (Ibid). This view will be challenged in detail in the following chapters. For now it is relevant to note that the effectiveness of aid in general is highly questionable and that Singer’s inconsiderate optimism might face difficulties in the long run (see Chapters 4 and 5). There are also other problematic issues in Singer’s theory. Where I am the only one who can do anything to alleviate the situation, the attachment of moral obligation appears justified. But what if I am just one among millions who can? Here Singer does not focus on the allocation of responsibility among several potential actors able to help as Miller does, but rather defends the view that it is an erroneous belief that numbers lessen obligation – for him it is merely an ideal excuse for inactivity (see Singer, 2011). Thus, neither our distance nor the number of people who are in our position lessens our obligation to do our bit in mitigating suffering. Other than the theories of Pogge and Miller, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” (1999) argues for the sacrifice of luxuries, such as, a new car, redecoration of the house or a pricey new suit. Therefore, there is no escape from the conclusion that everyone with wealth surplus to his essential needs should give most of it to help poor people that have to suffer so dire that their suffering is life-threatening. Thus, the formula in Singer’s view is: Whatever money we are spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.

Although Singer’s work received a lot of attention from the philosophical community, much of it was critical. It seems that his theory is the most controversial one among the three as it oversimplifies the massive problems posed by world poverty. Apart from that, the fundamental flaw in his theory is that it lacks institutions. Although he focuses on institutions in his book “One World” (2002a) by assessing its role in governance regarding the environment, the economy, international law, humanitarian intervention, and global poverty, it is incomprehensible why he then abstracts away from institutions in his later work “The Life You Can Save” (2009a). This is problematic since the absence of institutions in moral theories would mean to only push for more aid dollars which, on the other hand, might deliberately undermine efforts of poor people to reform institutions by their own (see Wrong, 2009 and Wisor, 2011). Through the analysis of the following two theories it will become clear why institutions matter if we want to investigate in the question of moral responsibility towards the poor.

2.2 Upholding A Harmful Global Economic Order (T. Pogge)

Pogge’s way of grasping the problem of world poverty varies significantly from the way Singer does it. He states that in only seventeen years, the ratio between the average income of the richest five percent and the average income of the poorest quarter has risen from 185:1 to 297:1 (see Pogge, 2011, p. 3). This might be already a reason to think that the problem of extreme poverty is too massive and overwhelming to be solved. But Pogge’s optimistic thought is that economically, it is possible to increase the incomes of the entire poorer half of humanity to the global median income with the amount that the richest five percent gained between 1988 and 2005 (Ibid). This is indeed a strong assertion and it seems to be a thought that is similar to Singer’s. As could be seen in 2.1, Singer is defending the view that money transfers can help to combat extreme poverty. Interestingly enough, Pogge’s abovementioned assertion resembles Singer’s view – still, they differ fundamentally. On the one hand, Pogge’s aim is to show that it is possible to increase the incomes of the entire poorer half of humanity to the global median income and that approximately one percent of the gross national product (GNP) in the 14 wealthiest countries would be enough to raise everyone above the two dollar a day line (see Pogge, 2008). On the other hand, however, there are constitutive obstacles to realize this. These obstacles will be discussed in detail throughout the paper. For the time being, it is important to note that the key issue for Pogge is that levels of inequality and absolute poverty that we find unacceptable within one country are acceptable globally at the moment. For him, severe poverty can continue at this level because affluent Western states do not find its eradication morally compelling. He is convinced that many among us know only the bare outlines of the problem and believes that our world is heavily dominated by citizens of the affluent Western states indicating that it burdens many people with deficient and inferior starting positions. Thus, money transfers alone cannot solve the problem since the problem is a more profound one.

2.2.1 Core Elements in Pogge’s Theory

The core elements in Pogge’s theory are two essential articles. As a human rights defender of cosmopolitanism he is focusing on articles 25 (1,2) and 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and stresses the widespread acceptance and recognition of moral human rights since the aftermath of World War II. However, he also points out that the distinction between legal and moral human rights is rarely drawn clearly. For him, the main difference is that even if governments may have views on what moral human rights there are, they cannot legislate such rights out of existence when they wish to do so (see Pogge, 2008). The validity of moral human rights is not dependent on any governmental body. Thus, in contrast to legal human rights, our human rights are not whatever governments agree them to be (Ibid). Quite the contrary: only if governments respect moral human rights they do have legitimacy. Only then, they have “the capacity to create moral obligations to comply with, and the moral authority to enforce, their laws and orders” (Ibid, p. 58). Furthermore, persons’ human rights can only be protected against violations from certain sources. These include not only governments but also their agencies and officials or general staff of an army at war, for example – but not a petty delinquent or a violent husband (Ibid). Hence, human-rights violations, to count as such, must be official in some sense.

Accordingly, article 25 concerns the right to an adequate standard of living and says:

1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 28, on the other hand, concerns the right to a social and international order, and states: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized“. These rights constitute a single, universal criterion of justice, which “all persons and peoples can accept as the basis for moral judgments about the global order and about other social institutions with substantial international causal effects” (Pogge, 2008, p. 39). This widely accepted core criterion of basic justice is necessary to assess social institutions by how they treat persons. Pogge’s aim is to show that an institutional order imposes human rights violations if and insofar as this order foreseeably gives rise to a substantial and avoidable deficit of these human rights. Based on this claim his argument is that not only individual agents such as representatives, citizens and affluent Westerners but also collective agents such as nations, corporations and other structured organizations contribute to global poverty by upholding a global economic order that causes harm to poor people in the world (see Pogge, 2008). He further claims that by doing nothing, we violate their negative right not to be harmed by us. Thus, it follows, that we have a strong moral duty to eradicate poverty. It is a negative duty to stop causing harm.

However, there are two other views regarding the moral responsibility question. The first is that we only have a weak moral obligation to help the poor – we should help but are not causing harm if we do not. Defenders of this view regard our obligation to assist as a positive (thus weak) duty. The other extreme conventional view is to claim that we have a strong moral obligation to help the poor. According to this view, it doesn’t matter if we cause their suffering or not. The very fact that they suffer puts a strong obligation upon us to help (see Singer, 2009a, 2010 and 2011). As distinguished from these conventional views, Pogge’s claim refers to the negative right of poor people not to be harmed by us. Thus, governments and individuals have the responsibility not to violate human rights by working for a global order where people have secure access to the objects of their human rights (see Pogge, 2008). This negative duty stems from two ways of conceiving poverty as a moral challenge: on the one hand, we may fail to fulfill our positive duty to help people in acute distress; on the other hand, we may fail to fulfill our more stringent negative duty not to uphold injustice and not to contribute to or profit from the unjust impoverishment of others (see Pogge, 2008). The difference is that the substantiation of positive duties is easier since the only thing to show is that the world's poor are much worse off than we are and that we can ease their misery without having to significantly lower our own standard of living (see Pogge, 2011). The drawback of such ease is that by accepting the positive formulation, the moral reasons of it are thought to be weak and discretionary. This may be why some do not really feel obliged to help. Therefore, Pogge’s aim is to prevent this by referring to stronger negative duties.

On Pogge’s institutional understanding, the negative human right of poor people not to be harmed by us does not result in a duty for everyone to supply necessities to the needy. Rather, the human right involves a duty on citizens to ensure that “any coercive social order they collectively impose upon each of themselves is one under which, insofar as reasonably possible, each has secure access to these necessities” (Ibid, p. 73).7

2.2.2 Questioning the Harm of the Global Economic Order

Frequently, critiques claim that the global economic order is not causing poverty. Affirming this would mean to defend the view that the causes of poverty are domestic. However, against this “explanatory nationalism” it is argued that global factors shape domestic circumstances. The claim is that the policies and lifestyle of the rich countries and the global institutional order affect the evolution of extreme poverty in the less developed countries in the face of the fact that in the modern world, the international and intra-national economic transactions and its traffic are “profoundly shaped by an elaborate system of treaties and conventions about trade, investments, loans, patents, copyrights, trademarks, double taxation, labor standards” (Pogge, 2008, p. 18). It is argued that while rich nations gained the benefits of free trade, their own markets were opened too little and thereby these benefits were withhold from the global poor. As a result, poor populations had to face great barriers when it came to exporting their own products and also could not participate in some competitive markets, which are of vital importance to them8 (Ibid). What the World Trade Organization (WTO) could have done is to open their markets to agricultural, textile and footwear imports from the poor countries; to agree to reduce their agricultural subsidies; and to leave access by the poorest in the world to vital generic medicines undisturbed (Ibid).9

The second common answer to the question of whether the global economic order really causes harm to poor people is that, actually, the global order has good effects since poverty rates are declining. Against this, Pogge argues that it is an erroneous belief that poverty is declining by pointing to the way statistical figures were calculated:

“When formulating the first Millenium Development Goal (MDG-1) in the year 2000, the world’s governments subtly changed the language of the pledge, now promising to halve not the number but the proportion of those living in extreme poverty, thus taking advantage of rapid population growth. This modification dilutes the target by relating the number of poor to a population whose growth, all by itself, lowers the proportion. In interpreting this diluting target, the United Nations shrewdly related the number of extremely poor not to the growing world population (as the MDG-1 text seems to demand) but to the faster-growing population of the less developed countries. Under its motto ‘We the people’, the UN also backdated the baseline to 1990, thereby capturing additional population growth as well as the 160 million reduction in extreme poverty that China had reportedly achieved in the decade before the MDG-1 had been adopted.” (Pogge, 2008, pp. 11-12)

The argument here is that it is not true that poverty rates are declining. Even if it were true, it does not follow that the global order does not harm the poor. The reason is that contributing to improve people’s situation to benefit them does not always mean that we do not harm them by doing so. Likewise, a man is not benefiting his wife if he beats her up less often than he used to. Even if he does it less severely than before, he is still harming her. That means that even if our economic world order were really reducing the poverty rates and, consequently, the misery of all poor persons, it could still be harming them severely, albeit at a declining rate (Ibid). This leads us again to (moral) human rights that have been employed as the internationally recognized minimal standard of our age. With his theory, Pogge prioritizes to improve the conditions of those who are worst-off with the conception of human rights by, at the same time, connecting the idea of human rights with a theory of corresponding obligations and appropriate institutions (see Freeman, 2015).


1 For further discussion on this critique see Lister’s (2004, Chapter 1) book on poverty.

2 As to the relationship between relative income (or other relative measures) and individual happiness see Easterlin (1995), Runciman (1966) and Falk and Knell (2000).

3 The relative measure of poverty is also exposed to critiques. Inter alia, it is argued that relative differences are no more than inequalities, which will exist in any society and that the aim of relativist protagonists is only to redistribute wealth by using the notion of poverty illegitimately (see Alcock, 2006).

4 Since extreme poverty and multidimensional poverty only occur in developing countries where there are chronically hungry individuals who perhaps lack rudimentary shelter and basic articles of clothing, such as shoes, I will only refer to both kinds of poverty throughout the thesis on the ground that these are the only types where there is a matter of the very survival of individuals. In these cases, assistance is indispensible.

5 For debates on the measurement of global poverty see Anand et al. (2009).

6 For details see sciences/themes/international-migration/glossary/poverty/

7 Pogge believes that this duty has been well expressed more than a century ago by Charles Darwin who was concerned about the effects institutions might have on people by stating: “If the misery of our poor be caused not by laws of nature, but by our own institutions, great is our sin” (see Pogge, 2011).

8 One of these competitive markets is the market in generic versions of advanced medicines. Where millions of patients have had access to generic versions of advanced medicines, which were cheaply available, they have been deprived of this possibility by introducing the Trade- Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) component of the WTO-Agreement (see Pogge, 2008). Many people died as a result. Also Stiglitz (2006) believes that TRIPS is the reason why a dominant intellectual property regime is imposed on the entire world, which is not in the interests of the developing countries.

9 The agricultural subsidies amounted to $300 billion in 2005 (Pogge, 2008).

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Moral Responsibility for Global Poverty
An investigation of P. Singer’s, T. Pogge’s and D. Miller’s theories
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
moral, responsibility, global, poverty, Pogge, Miller, Singer, Ethics, backward-looking responsibilities, humanitarian aid, development aid, Entwicklungshilfe, philosophical perspectives, philosophy, historical injustice, global poverty, moral responsibility, Thomas Pogge, David Miller, Peter Singer, ethical theories, moral claims, rich, poor, extreme poverty, relative poverty
Quote paper
Zülâl Can Sapmaz (Author), 2018, Moral Responsibility for Global Poverty, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: Moral Responsibility for Global Poverty

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