Most emphatically yes, if it is within your power to do so. A child accidentally falls into a river and you jump in without a second’s thought – assuming that you can swim – and save the child. But what if there are people who are thoughtlessly or even deliberately pushing children into the river. Should you continue to be fully engaged in saving the drowning children or must you at least tackle the problem where it originates, and go tie up the adults who are dropping children into the river?
My friend Nihar over at hoopyfrood.org uses the analogy of saving drowning children in his new year musings to argue that we, the non-poor, have a moral responsibility for charitable giving for the benefit of the poor. I find much value in that argument. While I am willing to burden the rich with giving, I also hold the poor responsible to no small extent for the poverty in the world. The poor, as I have argued before, are responsible for their poverty.
Here’s a brief response I wrote to Nihar’s post, for the record.
I agree with your view that helping alleviating at least some of the horrendous misery that exists around the world is an imperative for moral people. That said, I would like to look at the obverse side of the issue. It is good to hold people to higher moral standards and demand that they meet them. If one pushes responsibility on the affluent, one should also demand the non-affluent to be more responsible as well. Though cliched, it is still true that it takes two to tango. Alleviation of poverty cannot be the sole responsibility of the non-poor. Perhaps the poor are to some extent — maybe even to a major extent — responsible for their poverty.
If one puts a collective burden the rich to solve poverty, one should also put a collective responsibility on the poor for their poverty. I say collective because individuals are helpless to do anything about the circumstances of their birth. Life is a random draw and you don’t get to choose your parents. Collectively the poor help perpetuate their poverty by their fecundity. If the number of children born to poor parents exceeds the capacity of the society to lift children out of poverty and provide them with a decent shot at life, then the numbers of the poor will continue to expand.
Today you save one poor child from drowning, to use your analogy. But that poor child grows up and produces more children and the world then gets burdened with the saving of multiple children from drowning. At some point, you have to impress on people that they have a personal responsibility towards the children they produce — and that if they cannot care for the children they bring into the world, they out of basic human decency should avoid doing so. It is selfish for adults to procreate in circumstances where neither the adults nor the society has the wherewithal to take care of the children. The rights of the children must matter, not just the rights of the adults who have the opportunity to have sexual intercourse.
The charities that I support of two kinds: the first, those who help provide education to the children of the poor; the second, those that help the poor have only that many children as they can provide for. The former helps those unfortunates whose parents were irresponsible; the latter helps prevent more unfortunates from being born.
[Originally posted Jan 1st, 2010.]