Earth



NOTES AND
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FINAL PAPER TOPIC           HUMAN RIGHTS            PHILOSOPHY 19A

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22. Taking Care of Our Own

XXII. John should save the child from drowning, but it's not wrong for me not to contribute to UNICEF because we should look after those near to us, our families, and then to the children who are in need in our own country, before we think about poor and dying children in other far-off places.

Here's what Peter Singer has to say about this particular concern: "No doubt we do instinctively prefer to help those who are close to us. Few could stand by and watch a child drown; many can ignore a famine in Africa. But the question is not what we usually do, but what we ought to do, and it is difficult to see any sound moral justification for the view that distance, or community membership, makes a crucial difference to our obligations.

"Consider, for instance, racial affinities. Should people of European origin help poor Europeans before helping poor Africans? . . . People's need for food has nothing to do with their race. . . The same point applies to citizenship or nationhood. Every affluent nation has some relatively poor citizens, but absolute poverty is limited largely to the poor nations. Those living on the streets of Calcutta, or in the drought-prone Sahel region in Africa, are experiencing poverty unknown to the West. Under these circumstances it would be wrong to decide that only those fortunate enough to be citizens of our own community will share our abundance.

"We feel obligations of kinship more strongly than those of citizenship. Which parents could give away their last bowl of rice if their own children were starving? To do so would seem unnatural, contrary to our nature as biologically evolved beings, although whether it would be wrong is another question altogether. In any case, we are not faced with that situation, but with one in which our own children are well-fed, well-educated, and would now like new bikes, a stereo set, or their own car. In these circumstances, any special obligations we might have to our children have been fulfilled and the needs of strangers make a stronger claim upon us.

"The element of truth in the view that we should first take care of our own. lies in the advantage of a recognized system of responsibilities. when families and local communities look after their own poorest members, ties of affection and personal relationships achieve ends that would otherwise require a large, impersonal bureaucracy. Hence it would be absurd to propose that from now on we regard ourselves as equally responsibile for the welfare of everyone in the world; but an obligation to assist does not propose that. It applies only when some are in absolute poverty, and others can help without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance; and before that point had been reached, the breakdown of the system of family and community responsibility would be a factor to weigh the balance in favor of a small degree of preference for family and community. This small degree of preference is, however, decisively outweighed by existing discrepancies."

Young Girl, Vietnam




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February 14, 1998
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Oxfam America and CARE
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