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The ethics of poverty (1 Viewer)



This is a piece I wrote for my Ethics final a few weeks back. I never saw what grade I got for it, but it bumped me up from a C to a B, so I guess it went well. I didn't receive teacher comments on it though, so I'm curious as to what you all think.

The essay/paper I wrote was in response to a Peter Singer article we read. I've uploaded it here if you want some background. Here goes:

Peter Singer, in his article entitled “Rich and Poor”, explores the ideas of wealth and poverty as they are in our world. Peter makes the point that although our state of “absolute affluence” provides us in America and the west with much more than is used to fulfill our basic needs, we still ignore the obligation that that affluence implies; namely, to assist those in a state of “absolute poverty”. Mr. Singer proposes that since there is some absolute poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to make those sacrifices to prevent absolute poverty when and where we can. The question, the main question, raised by this argument is: Why don’t we?

This really hit home for me, as my life mirrors the criticisms I raise. On the day of the lecture in which we talked about this issue in class, it was a magic moment for me. When we started discussing the reading, something clicked. And then two or three more things clicked. It all fell into place, to make absolute, universal sense, and I was electrified! It felt like every nerve ending in my body was on fire. Yes! I thought. Why is it that we allow this sort of thing to happen? Every day! And without comment or consideration! What kind of people are we to sit idly by while this atrocious elephant in the room lingers on? This must be changed!

And then after class, after school, after I’d walked home¸ I plugged in my Xbox, and played for about 4 hours. I watched a DVD, listened to some music on my computer, and then was struck again, for the second time that day: This is what stops change from being made. We as Americans are so culturally married to our products and conveniences that we perceive them as having moral significance, and convince ourselves that we are unable to sacrifice these things. I don’t think this happens on a conscious level, but I do think it’s apparent when you look at what our money is spent on.

We lack, as a culture, an understanding of the responsibility that comes with the prosperity we enjoy. There are no ethics involved in the spending of our money; anything goes, all the time. There isn’t a compelling reason not to spend your money on frivolous things, when our culture places these products on such lofty pedestals.

We see Susan Sarandon walking through a sub-Saharan village on TV asking us to donate ‘just the price of a cup of coffee a day’ and we change the channel because on some sub-intellectual level, it’s just another TV show. It is removed from our experience, so different so as to be almost fiction. It has no meaningful connection to the reality of our lives, the reality that consists of commutes and credit cards, and then, ultimately, stops at the edge of our borders. There exists “us”, and there exists “them”, and the “us” gets more and more narrowly defined the further up the pay scale you go.

So the daunting question is now this: How can this be changed? The fact that it must be changed is self-evident. I think a period of time spent in service would be one solution, as a way to put a human face on this concern. We could possibly make teaching English classes in a third-world country as part of a bachelors program, or any other service project. More programs abroad in the vein of the Peace Corps would go a long way to developing the awareness of our, and perhaps more importantly, others’ situation in the world today.

But how do we transform the culture so as to develop a sense of ethical spending? How do we motivate people to look up from their own lives for that brief moment it takes for recognition of this travesty to set in? That question I do not know how to answer. And that’s unfortunate, because I’m willing to bet that no one else does either.

Ugh, now that I've re-read it, I'm not terribly thrilled with it. I was trying to give it some voice, but I think it falls flat in some places. The Niestzche and Socrates papers turned out way better.


By the way, I'm posting this because I don't have anything real to post... yet. But be gentle, I'm fragile.


Senior Member
it's an excellent piece of work... and your pov is thoughtful, thought-provoking, and terribly accurate, sad to say... there are a few technical glitches here and there, but not serious enough or in large enough number to dilute the impact of your logic...

this is something 'real'!... so stop putting yourself down, ok?

love and hugs, maia

ps: i deal with such things in my work... here's one bit that echoes yours and provides a bit of an answer--

Taking Inventory

What’s too much?
What’s not enough?
Why hoard such unimportant stuff?
Coin collections; postage stamps;
Lalique crystal and Tiffany lamps;
frogs; cows; dolphins; baseball cards;
plaster saints and plastic gnomes in front yards;
out-of-date magazines and comic books;
newest pots and pans for gourmet cooks;
shoes and purses; ties and logo-ed caps;
antique tables; old refolded maps;
cuckoo clocks; postcards; pens out of ink;
stuffed animals; dolls that used to blink;
empty cartons; boxes; gift wrap galore;
shopping bags from every store.

What is greed?
What’s obsession?
When does need excuse possession?
Whole shelves of cookies, jams and jellies;
empty cupboards, hunger-bloated bellies;
cases of soft drinks, fruit juice, and mineral water;
a mud-strained trickle for a thirst-wracked, dying daughter;
full fridge’s and freezers, plus emergency rations;
closets crammed with the latest fads and fashions;
grubbing for insects, eating leaves and bark;
the starving wear rags with no designer’s mark;
fat silos of left-to-rot, subsidized grain;
millions go hungry, their crops dead, needing rain;
kept off the market to raise the price,
stockpiled beans, corn, flour and rice.

What are you?
What could you be?
What will you do, if you ever see?
Bank accounts; CD’s; IRA’s;
leveraged buyouts; stock market plays;
inflation hedges; capital gains;
pennies in pigs saved for when it rains;
dollars hidden in socks and cookie jars;
under the mattress, silver in bars;
gold coins in banks or buried somewhere...
none of it’s good to eat, drink or wear
and when this greedy world’s seen its last days,
as the piper pipes, each one (rich or poor) pays
according to all of their good or bad ways.
What’s too much? You know, no doubt...
it’s whatever you can do without.


Senior Member
actually, jack, i gave away all i owned... before i wrote that poem... house, and everything in it... a half-century's worth of accumulatin'!

sure felt good... m


Senior Member
good for you!... do you live without doing anything for money now, too?... i've been searching the world over for a kindred spirit to compare notes with, to no avail so far... would be nice to meet another...

drop me a line 'at home' if you're so inclined...

love and hugs, maia
[email protected]


No, I hardly live without money.
I'm married and I have a family and responsibilities.
I also have children and adults in other parts of the world who depend upon my charity for their advancement.

What giving away all I had did for me, right before I started studying for the Priesthood (I never become a priest by the way, I got married first, though one day after I retire, I may take up as a priest again), was to teach me two very important lessons.

1. Do not be attached to your wealth as you can get along without it if you have to.
2. Giving away all of your wealth is going to make you poor but will not make anyone else wealthy or raise them out of poverty. If you really want to help the poor then build businesses, teach them how to handle wealth and accumulate their own wealth. Stress the important spiritual connection between Wealth and Personal Responsibility.

I have nothing against wealth, and nothing against poverty. I think it would be very, very, very spiritually beneficial if more people lived some part of their lives in voluntary poverty. And very, very, very good if those who were born into poverty lived far less of their lives in involuntary poverty. However poverty too often becomes an excuse to live irresponsibly and only for one's self, as a way to avoid work and to tend only to one's personal needs, while living off the labors of others. Just as wealth is too often an excuse to become selfish and self-involved in another way, by hoarding and stinginess. The poor should seek to remedy their poverty responsibly and the wealthy should seek to share the benefits of their wealth responsibly.
It is better to know both and to remember what poverty can teach you then seek to help alleviate it in yourself and in others. (Physical poverty that is, I'm all for spiritual poverty no matter how monetarily and physically wealthy one becomes.)