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Caitlin O'Byrne

Mr. Alan Tomhave


Ethics final Paper
14 November 2007

Jan Narveson states, "If the fact that others are starving is not our fault, we have no duty
of justice to aid them. If we have no duty of justice to aid them, we may not be forced to do so.
The fact that others are starving is not our fault. Therefore, we may not be forced to aid them."
Narveson believes all of these premises are true in regard of other countries, as well as our own.
The important issue that Narveson is arguing is the difference between the duty of justice and the
duty of charity. He states famine relief is a matter of charity and is not obligatory. Yet, the
government violates this by imposing taxes to support welfare programs and foreign aid.
Narveson argues that it is not our duty to provide for those less fortunate. It is just a
matter of charity. I agree with Narveson. I belief it is a great thing to help with famine relief, but
it is not an obligation of ours. However, I do believe we should have a stronger desire to help
famine in our own country. We have better chance of success of helping if we internalize our
desires and focus on poverty within our own country, rather than trying to help foreign countries
where we sometimes end up causing more pain than good.
This is the question this paper is about. Is famine relief an obligation or just an act of
charity? We also explore the question of the government’s role in famine relief. Is it ethical for
the government to impose taxes to help the people in financial aid? Is it our duty of justice or our
duty of charity to help those in need? This paper will take a look at Narveson’s view on this
issue, as well as the Government’s actions towards famine relief. I will also point out a regular
criticism of Narveson’s view and provide a response to the critique. And finally, recap what we
have learned from Narveson’s article.

Add something about the premises. Do we cause poverty?

When dealing with the issue of famine relief, Narveson finds there are two main
questions we must ask ourselves. “First, is there a basic duty of justice to feed the starving? And
second, if there isn’t, then is there a basic requirement of charity that we be disposed to do so,
and if so, how strong is the requirement?” (Narveson, The Basic Issues).
Narveson’s view of famine relief supports the “Entitlement Principle”. This principle
states that we have rights to all of our properties. These rights entitle us to determine how we will
use our properties (as long as our actions do not violate the rights of others). This principle is true
regardless of if we can significantly benefit others at no significant costs to ourselves. Narveson
states that the “tendency and desire to do good for others is a virtue. Moreover, it is a moral
virtue, for all we have an interest in the general acquisition of this quality” (Narveson, Charity).
He reminds us that we must look at famine relief as a way to do good for people, a non-
enforceable act of charity that we should all strive to do. Donating time and goods to places and
people in need should not be mandatory, rather recommended.
Narveson points out that even though we are taxed by the government to benefit the poor,
educate the uneducated, and so on, much of the worlds starvation is caused by the government
and governmental policies. Here in the United States, there are many programs that
enthusiastically volunteer to visit these foreign impoverished places to “help”. By help, we mean
force the “American way” on foreign people. We give them the help we think they need.
Narveson does not argue the benefits of such government-imposed taxes. He just poses a
deeper and more complex question. Do these “programs produce benefits that outweigh their
costs”? (Narveson, Duties of Justice and Duties of Charity). He also takes a closer look at the
impact of government on starvation. “In fact, all of the substantial starvation (as opposed to the
occasionally flood) in the middle-to-later parts of the twentieth century has been due to politics,
not agriculture” (Narveson, Notes on the Real World). He includes examples of how in countries
like Nicaragua, China and even the Soviet Union, the government has been known as the catalyst
of starvation, not the answer to starvation. They did this by imposing artificially low food prices
or artificially inefficient agricultural systems on their people.
Narveson believes that the government should not involved in this agricultural system
and let the farmers farm on their own terms. He does not believe the issue of starvation will be
solved by having 1st world countries tax their own citizens just to send over food that most likely
will not even reach the citizens of the countries who need it the most. “Even if the local
government will let people have this bounty (they often don’t - corrupt officials have been
known to go out and privately resell the grain elsewhere instead of distributing it to their starving
subjects), providing it indiscriminately hooks them on Western charity instead of enabling them
to regain the self-sufficiency they enjoyed in earlier times, before modern Western benefits such
as “democracy” enabled incompetent local governments to disrupt the food supply” (Narveson,
Notes on the Real World). While it is a good thing to try and help these countries as best we can,
there is very little outside agencies such as the United States can do. Therefore, the government
should not impose these taxes that force the people to contribute to famine relief. Rather, leave
the issue up to the conscience of the people.
There are many philosophers who believe we are morally obligated to donate to famine
relief. These philosophers have one main criticism of Narveson’s view on famine relief. They
propose the question of there being a difference between starving a person and allowing a person
to starve.
While some people, such as Singer, argue that there is no difference between killing
someone and letting someone die by starvation, Narveson does not agree with this. Narveson
believes there is not only a logical difference, but also a difference of being morally inequivalent.
Would people honestly place the same punishments on those people who did not contribute to
famine relief with the punishments given to mass murderers? No, the actions were different.
Therefore, the actions would receive different consequences. Timothy McVey received the death
penalty for the Oklahoma bombing. According to some philosophers who support famine relief
as matter of justice, we would be doing somewhat of the same thing as Timothy McVey did
every time we did not give to famine relief. Therefore, we should all be given the death penalty.
When looking at famine relief as a matter of justice, the line of obligation becomes fuzzy.
After reading Narveson’s article, I was left with many questions and thoughts. I worry if
famine relief is looked as a duty of all people, something that is mandatory, then people will be
doing it for the wrong reason. People will have less empathy and compassion, and only help
people because they “have to”, and not because they “want to”. The overall lesson Narveson’s
left us with is the fact we may not forcibly impose a duty on others to feed those in need.
Contributing to famine relief is the “nice thing to do, and is morally recommended” (Narveson,
Summing Up), but it is not an obligation. Throughout his article, Narveson reminds us charity is
a virtue. And this virtue

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