by Dominic Roser
We are shocked by poverty. So we need to take action. But what kind of action?
Conventional poverty activism often consists of actions such as protesting free trade agreements, boycotting Nestlé, criticizing the super rich for their exploitation of the poor, etc. In contrast, EA poverty activism emphasizes actions such as donating money to charities, researching the effects of various healthcare policies, taking on a high-earning job in order to donate much, etc.
In this blogpost, I want to highlight a bundle of three features which are responsible for EA’s distinct “flavour” of poverty activism. And the point I want to make is this: this bundle of three features is also present in Christian poverty activism. By highlighting these three features, I hope to show that Christianity and EA chime well.
The bundle of three features which distinguish conventional poverty activism from EA poverty activism are an emphasis on…
…sins of commission — rather than sins of omission
…actions of others — rather than my own actions
…what is going wrong — rather than what might go right
(1) Commissions and Omissions
Nelson Mandela said: “Poverty is not natural. It is man-made.” Indeed, when we see all the poverty in the world, it’s hard to avoid the impression that someone must be causing it — possibly even deliberately so. Greedy bankers, neoliberal economists, our own prosperity, the poor’s bad choices, corrupt leaders: whomever we identify as the culprit, there must be a culprit. Otherwise, poverty wouldn’t be around.
However, it is not so obvious that poverty is due to currently alive people actively harming the poor. The alternative is that poverty is around due to natural or historical causes. Droughts, polio, historical misdevelopments, lack of technology, etc. might just as well be the root of poverty. Once poverty is here due to these non-human or historical causes, it might then simply persist because no one goes out of their way to get rid of it, i.e. everyone passively refrains from tackling it.
These two perspectives on why poverty exists are relevant to an important distinction in both Christian thought and secular political philosophy. In Christian thought, it is the distinction between “sins of commission” and “sins of omission”. In secular philosophy, it is the distinction between “negative duties” and “positive duties”. Regardless of what label we use, the point is this: We violate negative duties (sins of commission) when we actively push people into poverty. We violate positive duties (sins of omission) when we refrain from helping people out of poverty. In a nutshell: if we are to be blamed for the continuing existence of poverty, are we to be blamed for actions of ours which create poverty or for failing to take action to get rid of poverty?
Conventional poverty activism stresses negative duties (sins of commission). Multinational companies, trade rules, the super rich etc. bring about the suffering of the poor in the first place. Rather than helping the poor, we should primarily just stop harming them.
In contrast, EA poverty activism stresses positive duties (sins of omission). We ought to go out of our way to help the poor and we ought to do so regardless of whether we are responsible for their plight. If someone is in dire need, fulfilling this need presents a task for all of us — regardless of whether we are the cause of the need or not.
I think that there are good reasons for the EA position. Let me list just four of those reasons. First, the distinction between acts and omissions is questionable in the first place, due to fundamental philosophical difficulties. Consider, for instance, this case: if a doctor stops chemotherapy for a terminally ill patient, is she thereby actively pushing the patient into death or is she passively refraining from keeping her alive? In such cases, we can’t intuitively say whether the patient’s death is due to an action or due to refraining from an action. I personally believe that even in cases where — on the surface — the distinction seems clearer than in the doctor example, there are ultimately no convincing criteria for distinguishing acting and refraining from acting. Second, even if (contrary to what I said) the distinction between acts and omissions were to make sense, it would be difficult to disentangle duties to act and duties to refrain from acting in practice. This is particularly true for today’s supercomplex world in which technology and globalization mean that anything I do can have long-term and global ripple effects. Poverty emerges as a result of a hugely complex causal web of myriad current human decisions, natural causes, and historical roots, and it seems hopeless to draw a clear line between negative duties to refrain from harming and positive duties to help. Third, even if (contrary to what I said) we could in practice disentangle acts and omissions, I believe we have a bias to overestimate the importance of active harming. When we see someone suffering, we instinctively assume there must be someone responsible for it; we look for an identifiable scapegoat. But why assume this? We are often like the people in John 9:2 who, upon seeing a blind man, automatically assume that this must be due to the man’s or his parents’ sins — in response to which Jesus informs them that there is no human cause for the plight of the blind man. Fourth, even if (contrary to what I said) the root cause of poverty could be primarily traced to active harming, I believe our ethical approach should not give much more attention to poverty that is due to active harming than to poverty that is due to natural or historical causes. For the victim, the primary concern is getting out of poverty, regardless of what its cause is. While the causes of poverty are admittedly significant to some extent (for example, it violates dignity more if a person — rather than a tsunami — pushes you into poverty), this is not the primary concern. From a victim-centered perspective, the core issue is getting out of poverty.
Now, it seems to me that EA’s emphasis on positive duties — i.e. on duties to help — is also an emphasis that is justified from a Christian perspective. I am no theological expert here and would thus be interested in feedback. But I offer four observations. First, there are many injunctions in the Bible to help the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. How often is this command to help justified by the fact that one is responsible for the plight of these persons in need? Not often, it seems to me. Rather, I think, the injunction is to help them, period, regardless of the cause of their plight. Second, here are two nice passages that expressly mention positive and negative duties in one go. Listen to Proverbs 14:31 and Luke 19:8:
“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
“Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
In both cases, violating negative duties, i.e. actively harming the poor is mentioned as wrong (“oppressing the poor” and “cheating anybody out of anything”). But seamlessly and in the same sentence, positively helping those who are in need (“kind to the needy” and “give half of my possessions to the poor”) is mentioned independently of the cause of their need. It almost sounds like a reminder not to exclusively focus on the wrong of actively harming the poor. Third, repeatedly in church history, violating the positive duty of helping the poor has been equated to violating the negative duty of stealing. Thus, Luther says that seeing your neighbour destitute, hungry, thirsty, homeless, without shoes or clothes and not helping him amounts to stealing, as if you stole money out of another’s purse or box. John Chrysostom — mentioned in the catechism of the Catholic church — says that not enabling the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. Fourth, it seems to me that the Bible calls us to love indiscriminately. Love must flow everywhere. If love shall even flow to enemies, it shall surely at least also flow to those who suffer independently of us harming them.
Note that the distinction between negative and positive duties (or “sins of commission and omission”) relates to the foundational post on this blog. The message in this post was (slightly paraphrased): our altruistic actions should alleviate as much suffering as possible, all else being equal. The question then arises of what issues could be unequal such as to give reason not to alleviate as much suffering as possible? And one answer to this question is this: you should prioritize not harming others ahead of helping others — even if not harming has a much smaller effect than helping. An example for this case would be the following: assume you can buy the materials for your house from a fair trade source; this costs you an additional £50,000 and prevents (in expectational terms) you from seriously harming the health of one worker in a developing country. Alternatively, you could buy the materials from the cheap but harmful source and donate £50,000 to GiveWell recommended charities instead, thereby preventing ten people from suffering seriously. If we say that actively inflicting suffering is worse than being a bystander to preventable suffering, then it would be our duty to buy the fair trade materials. If instead we say that there is no deep difference between actively inflicting suffering and standing by to suffering, then we ought to donate the money to the charity. In short: some people claim that “all is not equal” when negative and positive duties are at stake: negative duties are more stringent or weightier. In contrast, I believe that all else is fairly equal when positive and negative duties are at stake.
Summing up: EA and Christianity chime well on this point. Both highlight that helping the poor is important regardless of whether we are responsible for their plight in the first place. Yes, actively harming the poor is wrong — but so is refraining from helping them when they suffer for other reasons than my having harmed them. And the latter should receive just as much attention.
(2) Others and Myself
Here’s a second feature which distinguishes traditional poverty activism from EA poverty activism: the focus on the sins of others rather than my own sins. Traditionally, the assumption has often been that multinationals, neoliberals, dictators, right wing people, etc. are responsible for poverty. This goes along with the assumption that these culprits aren’t ignorant about the effects of their decisions on the poor. Rather, they knowingly harm the poor but display indifference to their plight (and at times even malice). Thus, anger is the appropriate attitude towards these others.
Now, as laid out in point (1), EA assumes that the biggie in the fight against poverty is the omission of help rather than the active harming of the poor. If that is true, it is hard to single out certain groups of people as the core sinners. Why? If refraining from help is the primary sin, then we’re all in it. We all refrain from helping, or at least we all refrain from helping as much as we ought to. If the core issue were the active harming of the poor, then it would be much easier to single out some people as the principal baddies. But since, for EA, the ability to help is a sufficient basis for the duty to help, all of us who are able to help but refrain from doing so share the guilt for today’s poverty.
EA and Christianity chime well since Christianity shares this focus on positive duties. But there’s also another reason why EA’s focus on one’s own shortcomings chimes well with Christianity. The Bible calls us to recognize our own depravity and it warns against judging others. Jesus asks us: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). In Romans 3, the fact that there is no one righteous, not even one, and that all have sinned is stressed forcefully. Jesus criticizes it sharply when the Pharisees point fingers rather than focusing on their own sins. Thus, we are called not to focus on the sins of others and rather to focus on our own inadequacy.
Summing up: Again, EA and Christianity chime well. Both resist the temptation to prioritize anger at the faults of others. Both think that we ourselves fall short massively — and that we should therefore focus on doing away with our own sin first.
(3) What’s Going Wrong and What Might Go Right
The first two features are linked to a third feature. Often, traditional poverty activism has a certain negative flavour to it. We see the bad intentions of others, there’s anger, we perceive things to be going down, we feel helpless in the face of powerful but indifferent perpetrators, etc. In contrast, there’s often a certain positive flavour to EA-style poverty activism: we sense that we can actually do something, that our actions make a difference, that things are going up, etc. EA has a forward-looking spirit: regardless of what humans have done wrong in the past, things can be changed for the better, and there are some pretty powerful means available to do so, even for normal people like you and me! This positive flavour goes along with an emphasis on actually doing things. This is in contrast to traditional poverty activism which (in my experience) has too often remained at the stage of analyzing the root causes of the world’s wrongs, talking about them, and making appeals.
This hopeful attitude of EA chimes so well with the Christian faith. Christians have no time for endlessly dwelling on their and others’ mistakes. The past is gone. There’s no point in highlighting the obvious fact that the past has been a mess and full of wrongs. Yes, we have been crushed about it and we do acknowledge it — but we’re moving on. God wants to make all things new and he wants to turn wailing into dancing (Psalm 30). Even the greatest wrongdoers can be mighty agents of change in the hands of God. That’s what counts: moving forward. And since the most powerful and loving person is on our side and inspires us, there’s more than enough reason to cultivate hope — and to start taking action! As 1 John 3,18 says: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
I have to add a disclaimer: in this blog post, I deliberately painted a ridiculously black and white picture when contrasting what I called “conventional” poverty activism with EA and Christianity. This was purely for presentational purposes: I did this in order to make certain points as salient as possible. There is no doubt much value in conventional poverty activism. In particular, I passionately believe that we have a strong duty to denounce the harm that the rich and powerful actively inflict on the poor. My main point is that we should not remain content with this. We should move on to the bigger and more central task of positively helping the poor ourselves.
Also, besides the three similarities between Christianity and EA which I mentioned, I should of course also say that I’ve left out the biggie. There is a core overlap between Christianity and EA: both stress altruism (as EAs call it) or justice and love (as Christians call it). And this feature is also fully shared by traditional poverty activism.
The core message of this blog post is that EA and Christianity chime well. There’s a bundle of three features that distinguish them both from conventional poverty activism. In a nutshell: instead of putting the primary focus on angrily stopping the bad guys from harming the poor, our attention should primarily be on our own hope-filled task of supporting the poor.