Dan Gaskill’s Lecture Notes on

Jan Narveson – “Feeding the Hungry”



Justice and Charity


Narveson makes a distinction between justice and charity.  According to his distinction, the demands of justice our enforceable, but charity is not.  In other words, it is at least sometimes morally permissiblre to force someone to act justly, but it is never morally permissible to force someone to be charitable.  Narveson doesn’t deny that we should be charitable, at least to some extent.  Nevertheless, it would be wrong to force others to act charitably.  Thus, for Narveson, it is very important to establish whether feeding the hungry is a matter of justice, or merely a matter of charity.  Narveson’s position is that feeding the hungry – seeing to the needs of strangers – is a matter of charity and not a requirement of justice.  He also holds that while we do have a duty of charity, it is not so strong as to require us to give until it hurts.


In “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”, Singer argues that we have a duty to give—a lot—but doesn’t say whether it is a duty of justice in Narveson’s sense.  That is, Singer doesn’t say whether it would be morally right for anyone to force us to give.  This is not surprising, considering that Singer is attempting to persuade his audience to give voluntarily; it would not help his case were he to voice his support for “enforced feedings” (to use Narveson’s term).  Narveson, unlike Singer, thinks that our voluntary choices about giving are morally permissible, whether we choose to give or not.  If you choose to sacrifice your luxuries for charity, then that’s fine (morally speaking), as long as you haven’t neglected your obligations (e.g. to your family) in doing so.  On the other hand, if you choose not to sacrifice for charity, then that’s fine too.  So, Narveson isn’t arguing that we should give and he’s not arguing that we shouldn’t—he’s saying it’s up to us, and whatever we decide is fine.  What Narveson does argue is that it would be wrong for others to force us to give, say, by taxing us and giving our money to charity.  This claim does not contradict anything that Singer says in “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”.  Nowhere in that article does Singer say that people should be forced to give.  But for a utilitarian, such as Singer, there is no reason in principle why it would be wrong to force people to give.  If the policy of forcing people to give maximizes utility, then it is ipso facto the right policy.


Principles vs. Policies

Narveson makes a distinction between principles and policies.  Principles are general theoretical claims (e.g. the Greatest Happiness Principle), whereas policies are strategies for implementing principles.  Narveson’s principles differ radically from the Greatest Happiness Principle.  But he points out that even utilitarians may have reason to adopt policies that do not require us to feed the hungry.  He cites an argument of Garrett Hardin which I regiment as follows:


The Don’t Feed the Hungry Argument

1)      If we feed the hungry today, then those we save will survive and reproduce, and the next generations will be larger.


2)      The underlying causes of their starvation will remain (crop failures, civil wars, etc.)


3)      Therefore, there will be another wave of starvation in the future.


4)      The next wave of starvation will be larger (because there are more starving people, see 1).


5.      Eventually, we will not be able to save the starving people (because there are too many of them).


6)      Therefore, we cause more starvation (and hence, more misery) by feeding the hungry than by not feeding them.


7)      So, we shouldn’t feed the hungry.



















Notice that the above argument is logically compatible with utilitarianism.  This shows that we can start with the same principle and come to radically different conclusions about which policies to adopt.


How would Peter Singer rebut the “Don’t Feed the Hungry Argument”?

          Narveson, by the way, would not accept the argument any more than Singer would.  The conclusion does not follow unless The Greatest Happiness Principle (or a similar consequentialist doctrine) is added as a premise; Narveson rejects consequentialism.


Narveson’s Take on the Utilitarian Position


1)      Our one and constant obligation is to maximize happiness.


2)      Therefore, we are obligated to give to others so long as doing so would create a little more happiness than the alternative.


3)      For most of us, there are others who are much worse off.


4)      Therefore, we are under a constant obligation to give to others until we are not any better off than they are.



Or, as Narveson puts it:  “Benefit others, at the expense of yourself--and keep doing it until you are as poor and miserable as those whose poverty you are supposed to be relieving.”  According to Narveson, this makes everyone into “the slaves of the less well off”, because it requires that we must always act to serve their interests rather than our own.  “The rule that neither the rich nor the poor ought to be enslaved by the others is surely the better rule.”


How would Singer respond to the charge that his position amounts to making everyone into the slaves of the less well off?  [We can safely assume that Singer doesn’t endorse slavery.] 


Justice and Starvation


          Recall that utilitarians do not make a moral distinction between acting to bring about a result and failing to prevent it.  This is the doctrine of negative responsibility – you are just as responsible for the consequences that you fail to prevent as those that you bring about.  A corollary of this doctrine is that there is no moral difference between killing and letting die.  For example, allowing people to starve to death when I have plenty of food is just as wrong as actively preventing them from getting food so that they starve to death (other things being equal).

Narveson observes that there is a logical distinction here, even if it isn’t morally significant.  If I act to bring something about, then I am the cause of an intended outcome, whereas if I merely allow it to happen, then I am not the cause of an intended outcome.  He claims there is a moral distinction in addition to the logical one.  Here is Narveson’s argument for making a moral distinction:


There are all kinds of points of view, diverse and to a large extent incommensurable. Uniting them is not as simple as the welfarist or utilitarian may think.  It is not certain, not obvious, that we “add more to the sum of human happiness” by supporting OXFAM than by supporting the opera.  How are we to unite diverse people on these evaluative matters? The most plausible answer, I think, is the point of view that allows different people to live their various lives, by forbidding interference with the lives of others. …We’ll agree to let each person live as that person sees fit, with only our bumpings into each other being subject to public control…The rule will be not to forcibly intervene in the lives of others, thus requiring that our relations be mutually agreeable. Enforced feeding of the starving, however, does cross the line, invading the farmer or the merchant, forcing him to part with some of his hard-earned produce and give it without compensation to others. That, says the advocate of liberty, is theft, not charity.


…So if someone is starving, we may pity him or we may be indifferent, but the question so far as our obligations are concerned is this: how did he get that way? If it was not the result of my previous activities, then I have no obligation to him, and may help him out or not, as I choose. If it was such a result, then of course I must do something.



The Argument for Non-Interference


1)      People differ fundamentally about what is valuable.  (Some people value pleasure, others virtue, others art, others knowledge, and so on.  And some people value certain other people but not others, etc.)


2)      We ought to respect other people and their values.


3)      Therefore, we should not adopt any one theory of value and impose it on everyone.


4)      The Libertarian Principle:  The best way to respect others and their values is to let each person live as that person sees fit, insofar as that does not prevent others from doing the same.  This means, in general, that we may not forcibly intervene in the lives of others.  Force is only justified when it is necessary to prevent or punish a use of force (e.g. stopping a mugger).


5)      By this standard, “enforced feedings” (e.g. using taxation to feed the hungry) would be wrong.  We have an enforceable obligation (duty of justice) to feed the hungry only insofar as our actions are responsible for depriving them of food.



Questions:  Is there a direct conflict between this argument and Singer’s position?  How would Singer respond to the argument?




According to the argument above, we have no duty of justice to feed the hungry.  But how extensive are duties of charity on Narveson’s view?  Not very.  One is obligated to make a “modest effort” to help others in need when doing so “will do a great deal”, but one is not required to do this very often.  This claim seems to be supported by two general considerations: 


(i)      our basic duty to respect others does not entail an obligation to sacrifice for others, and


(ii)      it is not true that everyone’s interests count equally, relative to each person.


This second point is crucial.  “Normal people care more about some people than others, and build their very lives around those carings.  It is both absurd and very arrogant for theorists, talking airily about the equality of all people, to insist on cramming it down our throats” (p. 169).  Narveson is not saying that there is some morally neutral standpoint from which some people matter more than others, so his view is not un-egalitarian in that sense.  Rather, his view is that there is no morally neutral standpoint from which all people matter equally.  As he sees it, people differ fundamentally regarding what they value, and there is no justification for assuming any one point of view is the correct one (e.g. the point of view according to which everyone’s happiness should matter to us, and matter equally).


          How should a utilitarian try to defend the utilitarian theory of value against Narveson’s criticism?


The utilitarian can argue that while people disagree about how to pursue happiness, it is still true that happiness is the only intrinsic good.  When people deny this, they are mistaken.



A Redistributionist Reply To Narveson

1.      People can live as they see fit and pursue their values only if they are alive.


2.      Thus, by helping others survive (e.g. by feeding the hungry), we make it possible for them to live as they see fit and we respect their values.


3.      On the other hand, if we allow others to die when we could have saved their lives, then we are not respecting them or their values.


4.      Therefore, the Libertarian Principle is not the best way to respect others and their values.  The best way involves actively trying to help others, even if that means making sacrifices and sometimes using force (e.g. through taxes).


A Libertarian would probably be inclined to deny premise 3.  But the question is, how is this denial to be defended?



According to Narveson, we have a duty not to forcibly interfere in the lives of others.  Doesn’t this principle already assume a certain theory of value that many would disagree with?  After all, being a good utilitarian sometimes involves paternalism (preventing others from doing things that are harmful to themselves, such as driving without a seat belt) and welfarism (forcibly redistributing resources for the public good, such as using tax dollars for public education).  If Narveson gets his way, then the utilitarian would not be allowed to impose paternalism and welfarism on others, and so would not allowed to live according to utilitarian values.  One could argue that the Libertarian Principle does not really respect everyone’s values after all, and so we shouldn’t impose it on everyone.  How should Narveson reply to this objection?


          The Libertarian could reply as follows.  People fundamentally disagree on matters of value, so it is impossible for everyone to have their way.  However, Libertarianism is the best compromise available.  Even the utilitarian is given quite a bit of freedom to maximize utility when Libertarianism is in force.  He can, for example, give all of his money to UNICEF, if that is what he desires.  What he isn’t allowed to do is impose his morality on others by forcing them to do the same.  If, instead of Libertarianism, we went with a principle that allowed everyone to impose their morality on others, then there would be no constraints at all—it would be a case of “might makes right”.  That is obviously not a way to respect people and their values.


Narveson’s “Notes on the Real World”

Narveson claims that nearly all starvation is caused by politics, not by insufficient quantities of food.  People are deliberately starved by corrupt governments who deny aid or enforce inefficient farming policies, or as a result of war (civil or otherwise).  If true, this calls into question the value of simply sending food to countries with starving people, since we have reason to think (a) the food will not reach the people who need it, and (b) the food won’t address the causes of the starvation.

          Granting that Narveson’s claims about the causes of starvation are correct, it is unclear as to why they are relevant to the larger issue.  If Narveson is right, perhaps this only shows that we need to be using our resources to change the political situation in other countries instead of--or in addition to--providing them with food.  A utilitarian such as Singer would still maintain that we have an obligation to make large sacrifices in order to help those in need; as far as Singer is concerned, Narveson’s points about the real world might justify a shift in policy, but would not fundamentally change our obligations.

For Narveson, though, there is a fundamental moral difference between helping others by sending them food and helping others by changing their government, since changing governments involves interfering in the lives of others, and might require the use of force.  If, as Narveson maintains, our basic moral obligation is to let others live as they see fit, then there is a strong moral presumption against forcibly intervening to change the government of another country, or stopping a civil war.  Moreover, the cost of such an intervention would be high, as opposed to the relatively low cost of sending food.  According to Narveson, charity requires only that we make “modest” sacrifices, not the large sacrifices (in lives, for example) of a forcible intervention in another country.



An Argument (not Narveson’s) that Singer’s “solution” is self-defeating


1.      Singer claims that everyone should donate money not needed for necessities in order to help those in other countries who are starving or otherwise in desperate need.


2.      If everyone in the U.S. gave away all of their money not needed for necessities, then the economy of the U.S. would collapse.  All businesses dealing in non-necessities (that is, nearly every business) would go bankrupt.  As a result, nearly all private sector jobs would be lost.  Moreover, the loss of tax revenues would mean the loss of nearly all government jobs as well.  Just about everyone would be unemployed and penniless.  Moreover, without capital, there would be no investment in medicine, agriculture, or anything else.


3.      The one-time cash infusion from the U.S. would not fix the underlying causes of world poverty, which include oppressive and corrupt government, lack of education, and rejection of free market economics.


4.      So, in relatively short order, the poor countries of the world would be poor once again.


5.      The collapse of the U.S. economy would mean that we would no longer be able to donate to those in need.


6.      Therefore, Singer’s proposal is self-defeating:  if we did exactly as he said, the world would be much worse off.


Singer could begin replying to the above argument by observing that most people will not do as he urges them to.  Note that the conclusion of the argument is a conditional:  If we did exactly as Singer urges, then the world would be much worse off.  Since the antecedent of this conditional is false, it can be argued that the conclusion does not constitute a strong objection to Singer’s thesis.

          This reply is not a bad start, but it does leave something to be desired.  It would be awkward for Singer to concede that if we all did our moral duty, then the world would be much worse off.  It is paradoxical to claim that we are obligated to maximize utility, but at the same time we are all obligated to do something that would greatly diminish utility were we all to do it.  Therefore, some clarifying remarks are in order.

          If it did come to pass that people were meeting their moral obligations and making sacrifices in great numbers, then economic harm to wealthy nations might occur.  If it reached a point where further sacrifices would do more harm than good, then Singer, as a utilitarian, should agree that further sacrifices would not be morally required (in fact, they would be morally prohibited!).  But, Singer would maintain that we are not at that point, or anywhere near it.

          The above reply to the argument is still not entirely successful.  Singer has not shown that his “solution” to world poverty will have long-term benefits.  Perhaps it is better for maximizing utility in the long run to use our resources to strengthen our society here at home, rather than feeding starving mouths overseas.  We would need to know the long-term effects of feeding the hungry versus the long-term effects of continuing to buy luxuries.  If you think of a luxury as an investment in our economy which helps to create jobs, fund important research (e.g. through the associated tax revenue), and create the very wealth that Singer proposes we give away, then it isn’t obvious that we create more utility by giving money to UNICEF.

          Singer might also suggest that our aid to the needy should include fundamental reforms in impoverished countries that would improve their long-term prospects.   As Narveson points out, however, such reforms would likely require military intervention, since it is the governments of impoverished countries that are largely responsible for starvation, and the governments are evidently not willing to enact the reforms themselves.  Military intervention raises new and very serious ethical issues that Singer does not discuss.  Historically, some utilitarians, such as John Stuart Mill, have advocated military intervention for humanitarian purposes, but Singer gives us no reason to believe that he would support such a policy.