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Interview with Scott Wisor, author of The Ethics of Global Poverty

Part of The Ethics of... series, The Ethics of Global Poverty by Scott Wisor offers a thorough introduction to the ethical issues surrounding global poverty. We interviewed the author to find out more about the book and the questions it tackles.

The Ethics of Global Poverty looks at the ethical issues surrounding this topic. How did you approach writing the book?

I intended for the book to be an antidote to much of the contemporary thinking on the ethics of global poverty. The standard approach (traceable to many sources but most notably Peter Singer’s early work that helped to establish the field) is to start with a few basic facts about global inequality and global poverty, and then move to some highly abstract and idealized thought experiments which are meant to generate moral principles that will guide the actions of wealthy individuals. Most of the philosophical debate revolves around these hypothetical thought experiments, leaving behind any rigorous examination of the structural causes of global poverty and the rich social scientific literature on possible routes out of poverty. In contrast, I wrote this book intending to show students that the normative questions raised by global poverty ought to be answered, in part, by a sustained engagement with the latest social science. The standard approach also tends to focus on the question of whether wealthy individuals have an obligation to give foreign aid. While I do address that question, I show that it is but one among many ethical questions related to global poverty, and not necessarily the most important.

One of the questions addressed in the book is whether wealthy individuals have a moral duty to reduce global poverty. Could you expand on this?

There are at least three ways wealthy individuals might have a moral duty to reduce global poverty.

First, wealthy individuals have the capacity to assist. If you are in the middle class of a high income country like the United States or United Kingdom, your income will fall somewhere around the 3rd percentile of global income distribution. That is, if there were 100 people in the world, maybe 2 would have more money than you and 97 would have less. Not only are you near the top of the scale, you are also very many times better off than the worse off. You have something like 20 times more income than someone who is at the middle of the income distribution. This number is even greater if you compare yourself to the world’s poorest. This disparity raises the question of whether the mere fact that you are capable of providing material assistance, and others are in need of it, generates a moral duty to do so.

Second, wealthy individuals may be involved in harming people living in poverty. Wealthy individuals contribute to climate change which will slow progress against global poverty, uphold suboptimal trade rules which slow growth in low income countries, vote for governments that permit harmful arms sales to low income countries, and uphold global financial rules that permit financial assets to be hidden from tax authorities in low income countries. Because wealthy individuals may be contributing to harming poor people, they may have a duty to rectify or compensate for these harms.

Third, wealthy individuals may be involved in enduring associations with people living in poverty that generates a moral duty to those people. The wealthy consume resources extracted by people in living in poverty and use manufactured products made by people living in poverty. These associations or relationships may generate a duty to ensure that the vulnerable member in these relationships is not treated unjustly.

I also canvas (though am inclined to reject) a fourth view, that the wealthy have no duty to reduce global poverty.

With so many people in the world living in poverty is it possible to solve the poverty problem?

It depends on how one defines poverty, and what one thinks would count as a solution to poverty. One chapter in the book addresses the question of how poverty should be conceived of and measured.

Some people are fatalistic about poverty, often asserting, “The poor have always been with us”, implying that they always will be and there is nothing to be done about it. I think this is mistaken. If we have a relatively modest definition of poverty (e.g.,that a person is free from poverty if they have access to enough resources to live a minimally decent life) then it is possible to eliminate global poverty. One reason I think this is possible is that we have seen tremendous gains in the quality of life in the last several generations. While the situation is dire, and indeed moving in the wrong direction in some countries, it is possible for countries to make rapid progress in expanding life expectancies, improving educational outcomes, reducing gender inequalities, and increasing material prosperity. That said, I think it is unwise to set implausible goals regarding the elimination of global poverty. I have been critical of the Sustainable Development Goals and other efforts that insist on rapid progress but take no account of the constraints which prevent rapid progress in the near term.

What does the study of the ethics of global poverty have to do with efforts to reduce global poverty?

This is a good and challenging question. Of course a scholar of the ethics of global poverty wants to say that only an ethically informed approach will lead to sustainable poverty reduction. But this is demonstrably false. The most rapid reduction of poverty in the history of the world is attributable to two decades of growth in China that have lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of extreme poverty. This has not been due to any ethical awakening on the part of the Chinese government. It simply resulted from a change in policies that led to economic growth.

However, I do believe that in many cases an approach to global poverty reduction that is guided by a concern for the ethical issues involved will accelerate the pace of global poverty reduction. For example, an ethical approach may recommend a re-allocation of scarce anti-poverty resources towards those people who can be most effective. And, importantly, an ethical approach to poverty reduction is more likely to maintain broad political support from relevant stakeholders. When anti-poverty campaigners or aid groups are engaged in unethical conduct, this undermines the longer term support for poverty alleviation.

Could you tell us a little about your background? Where did your interest in this area come from?

Intellectually, the clearest line I can draw to my own work in this area begins with my dissertation advisor, Alison Jaggar. Beginning in the 1990s much of her research began to focus on practical issues in moral and political philosophy raised by globalization, and by the time I began my dissertation she was doing work on the feminization of global poverty. This led me to work on a range of issues related to global poverty measurement, and I was lucky to be able to pursue a large research project with her and others on this topic. Writing a textbook on the more general ethical issues raised by global poverty was a natural next step.

Personally, I had a wonderful upbringing with a loving family, great schools, material comfort, and ample opportunities. In early adulthood I was fortunate to travel a good deal internationally and have twice worked for NGOs working to reduce armed conflict abroad. These international experiences have certainly made concrete for me some of the moral problems that exist in a world characterized by massive inequalities.

What do you hope students will take away from the book?

I hope that students gain an introductory understanding of the complex issues raised by the existence of global poverty and a desire to learn more. The book does not claim to offer final answers, but rather tries to survey many competing positions and arguments while sometimes suggesting some positions appear more plausible than others. I hope a student who reads this book finishes it and is eager to pick another book on one of the topics they found most morally significant.

The Ethics of Global Poverty

  • The Ethics of Global Poverty

    An introduction

    By Scott Wisor

    The Ethics of Global Poverty offers a thorough introduction to the ethical issues surrounding global poverty. It addresses important questions such as: What is poverty and how is it measured? What are the causes of poverty? Do wealthy individuals have a moral duty to reduce global poverty?…

    Paperback – 2016-12-05
    The Ethics of ...