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The study of ethics deals with the largest questions of the human condition. The most important of these are those that concern the most basic requirement of existence: enough nourishment and nutrition to sustain life. Though food insecurity exists in the United States, more individuals in this country suffer the ill effects of too much food consumption than starve. This is usually not the case in the developing countries of the Third World, nor in undeveloped countries with little or no chance of ever obtaining a standard of living remotely comparable to that of the industrialized nations. LaFollette asks, “Are we obligated to do more than not harm foreigners?” (LaFollette 611)[1] And, for that matter, are we obligated to help the people of nations in which doing so would have no political benefits for our nation? Finally, is standing by and allowing a famine to claim millions of lives as ethically reprehensible as actively causing the same number of deaths?

Since Joseph Stalin demonstrated the effectiveness of eliminating undesirable peoples through famines, most of the world has come to accept that passively allowing others to die by starvation is an unethical and immoral act. You are more likely to find an elected official endorsing the use of nuclear weapons than suggesting that their nation’s enemies be deliberately starved. Anti-hunger campaigns are among the world’s most well-known charities. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that access to food is a basic and unalienable human right, and no serious public figure of any political persuasion in the western world would openly express anything but sympathy for those who lack sufficient food. Yet, according to Pogge, 790 million of the world’s people suffer this unenviable condition, and a third of human deaths are poverty-related. (LaFollette 633) Pogge suggests that this is systemic, caused by the economic order imposed by strong nations, who “distribute the planet’s abundant wealth amongst themselves” and “in collaboration with the ruling elites of the poor countries coercively exclude the poor from a proportional resource share.” (LaFollette 637) This is self-evident to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the major events of world history and average reasoning skills. Yet even a sensitive western liberal like Pogge declines to call for radical alterations in this state of affairs— instead, his “moderate proposal” suggests a modest tax on resource consumption that would annually raise less than the defense budget of the United States. (LaFollette 638-39) This money would be equivalent to $250 a year for everyone below the international poverty line, a dollar figure he asserts would be a miraculous windfall to the poorest of the poor. (LaFollette 639)


[1] Some would say that the Judeo-Christian tradition suggests we are under no such obligation. The Old Testament is replete with instances of double standards for foreigners and those of your own nation. God commanded the Israelites not to kill (or murder) on Mt. Sinai, but later told them to invade Canaan and kill as many Canaanites as possible. Jesus’ complimentary comments about Samaritans notwithstanding, aggression was usually projected outward onto those who were different.


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Northern Arizona University




Titel: The ethics of starvation