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Poverty, injustice and obligations to take political action.

Kahn, Elizabeth (2016) 'Poverty, injustice and obligations to take political action.', in Ethical issues in poverty alleviation. Cham: Springer, pp. 209-224. Studies in global justice. (14).


Peter Singer has recently reaffirmed his belief that, in response to poverty, individuals have obligations to ‘do the most good they can’ by donating to those organizations that demonstrate the greatest amount of benefit per dollar donated (Singer, The most good you can do. Yale University Press, Yale, 2015a). Singer’s charitable giving based approach to extreme poverty has been criticized for failing to understand poverty as a form of injustice and for not acknowledging that it requires institutional change. This chapter investigates how Singer’s response to this criticism has been inadequate by exploring the ways in which Singer’s utilitarian understanding of morality and his account of the duties individuals have with regards to poverty can be rejected. Singer’s analysis implies that all those who recognize a common-sense duty to assist others in difficulty must address poverty by donating large amounts of their income to the most effective poverty reducing charities (Singer, The most good you can do. Yale University Press, Yale, 2015a; Philosophy and public affairs, vol. 1, no. 1, pp 229–243, 1972). His work suggests that rationality requires that all those motivated by a genuine concern for others must adopt the action he recommends. Thus his approach suggests that a common-sense approach to moral duties requires agents to donate to the most effective charities. However, Singer’s up front appeal to common-sense duties, concern for others and basic rationality hides a commitment to a controversial utilitarian approach to moral obligation. The analysis here will argue that a common-sense approach that identifies multiple duties to others and recognizes the fact that genuine moral action must be rational and grounded in concern for others can in fact make different recommendations from those supported by Singer. In doing so the chapter will articulate an alternative account of the duties individuals have with regards to extreme poverty. It will suggest that, given that poverty is a form of social injustice, individuals have collectivization duties that require that they act responsively with a view to establishing a collective of a particular kind. The collective they work toward forming must be willing and able to establish and maintain procedurally just governing institutions that end poverty by ensuring no agent is placed in a position where they are vulnerable to deprivation or domination. It will be proposed that this duty operates in addition to the duties to assist Singer recognizes.

Item Type:Book chapter
Full text:Publisher-imposed embargo
(AM) Accepted Manuscript
File format - PDF (Copyright agreement prohibits open access to the full-text)
Publisher Web site:
Date accepted:06 April 2016
Date deposited:28 November 2017
Date of first online publication:24 September 2016
Date first made open access:No date available

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