On the Ethics of Poverty Reduction

Poverty doesn’t have one cause or one basic response. Poverty isn’t just about the lack of income or basic necessities – it involves social isolation, an erosion of the sense of dignity and spiritual vitality. Poverty doesn’t just involve life choices or circumstances, but also structures, systems, and institutions, which can be shaped by bias, racism and privilege. This makes the way harder for some than others. Inequality and racism do not exist separate from culture. Thus processes to address these critical issues and ways to confront them must not either. The increasing income gap in society is alarming because it erodes social cohesion – a basic sense of trust between people who do not know each other. A reasonable degree of social cohesion is needed so that a society (and the world) can function, and for people to have the chance to increase their opportunities in life. Inequality tests our ethics.

Ethics is concerned with what is good for individuals and society and is also described as moral philosophy. Ethical comes from the Greek ethos “moral character” and describes a person or behavior as right in the moral sense – truthful, fair, and honest. Ethical behavior means acting in ways consistent with what society and individuals typically think are good values, and involves demonstrating respect for key moral principles that include honesty, fairness, equality, dignity, diversity and individual rights. If ethical theories are to be useful in practice, they need to affect the way human beings behave. Ethics provides us with a moral map, a framework that we can use to find our way through difficult issues. Many people think that for many ethical issues there isn’t a single right answer – just a set of principles that can be applied to particular cases to give those involved some clear choices.

It is generally accepted what made civilization possible was the invention of agriculture, but more fundamentally than agriculture were ethics. For only through ethics is it possible for large groups of people to live together. Agriculture was clearly necessary to support a large sedentary population, but there would have been no significant grouping of co-operative people to invent agriculture if they did not have a unifying, objectively valid code to begin with. Fundamental ethical principles include concern for the well-being of others and an obligation to bring about good in all our actions. We have an obligation to respect the autonomy of others, which includes respecting the decisions made by other people concerning their lives. We have an obligation to prevent harm to others, or at least don’t increase the risk of harm to others. In public life we have an obligation to treat all people equally, and fairly, refusing to take unfair advantage of them. These principles are applied equally to all people, with no distinction between strong and weak, and are what we expect of one another without needing to articulate the expectation or formalize it in any way.

Public perceptions of poverty and of the priority attached to poverty reduction are influenced as much by technical and policy perspectives as by shared values which define the social arrangements and institutions. Reducing poverty requires that public policies enhance material redistribution and social recognition. Promoting ethical decision-making and resolving moral conflicts will require changes in repertoires about morality, rather than shifting modes of cognition. Defining poverty as a concept uniquely applicable to humans has thus far helped us understand poverty as a condition that causes its victims to live lives in which they cannot fully participate in the range of activities expressive of their nature as human beings and they may even fail to be able to maintain their physical health. They are excluded from full participation as human members of society. Inequality and racism do not exist separate from culture. It is not possible to address them as separate issues.

The present weakness is the life style approach to interventions, instead of across the community activities focusing on poverty and inequities in the system that affect choices. Poverty limits choices. Poor people have limited choices for their diet. They often lack shops in their area where they live, or have trouble reaching them. In particular, the poor have the lowest intake of fruits and vegetables. This leads to consumption of an over abundance of cheaper junk food (high fructose corn syrup drinks and processed foods), leading to more obesity and chronic disease than the general population. Falling back on the lifestyle rhetoric of the health promotion approach that relies on health education to encourage healthy behavior has worsened social inequalities in health as upper socioeconomic classes have secured the most benefits.

Richard Wilkinson observes, “we had always regarded classification by social class as simply a proxy for the real determinants of health that we saw that we imagined were material factors – like diet and what you’re working with and what you’re exposed to at work and maybe housing, air pollution, things like that. Now it looks more and more like social status itself is an important determinant of health. There is now a growing realization that most health issues are caused, or worsened, by poverty and inequality.” In countries like the UK and America, people in richer areas can live up to 14 years longer than people in poor areas. Research shows health is responsive to changes in income, and that the death rates of the poor are more responsive to changes in income than the death rates of the rich are.

Around the world poverty is responsible for more preventable deaths than anything else. In 1995 at the World Conference for Social Development 117 Heads of State and Government signed a declaration committing to processes that would integrate social, economic and environmental goals. A feature of these development commitments is that they involve improvements in total human well-being, far more than, though inclusive of, the growth of national income. The Canadian Medical Association reports, “… poverty is the main issue that must be addressed to improve the health of Canadians and eliminate health inequities”. Poverty is a significant determinant of health. It means more of the household’s income will go towards shelter, leaving less for nutritious food. It also means families have less choice when it comes to housing, and are more likely to live in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions. Research in Canada on housing shows spending $10 on housing and support for chronically homeless individuals resulted in $22 in savings.1

At the heart of ethics is a concern about something or someone other than ourselves and our own desires and self-interest. Many people want there to be a single right answer to ethical questions. They find moral ambiguity hard to live with because they genuinely want to do the ‘right’ thing, and even if they can’t work out what that right thing is, they like the idea that ‘somewhere’ there is one right answer. For others moral ambiguity is difficult because it forces them to take responsibility for their own choices and actions, rather than falling back on convenient rules and customs. One problem with ethics is the way it’s often used as a weapon. If a group believes that a particular activity is “wrong” it can then use morality as the justification for attacking those who practice that activity. Modern thinkers often teach that ethics leads people not to conclusions but to ‘decisions’.2

Ethics is not only about the morality of particular courses of action, but it’s also about the goodness of individuals and what it means to live a good life. The cognitive bandwidth model explains why low-income people make decisions that extend their poverty: When people have very little of something (money, food, time etc.), they focus on that scarce resource and don’t have the “bandwidth” to think about long-term concerns. Reducing poverty requires that public policies enhance material redistribution and social recognition. Promoting ethical decision-making and resolving moral conflicts will require changes in repertoires about morality, rather than shifting modes of cognition. Inequality and racism do not exist separate from culture. We are more likely to address discrimination by gradually changing cultural narratives that stigmatize particular groups than by simply sensitizing individuals to their own subconscious biases.3

Distributive justice involves the use of ethics concepts and criteria to determine the distribution of wealth among people, groups, organizations, and communities. There are different theories of distributive justice. One approach or principle says that every person should have the same level of material goods (including burdens) and services. The principle is most commonly justified on the grounds that people are morally equal and that equality in basic material goods and services is the best way to give effect to this moral ideal. Rather than have goods and services to be measured and distributed according to some pattern, for developed economies like Canada and the US it is only necessary to reduce the economic gap. Distributive principles should be designed and assessed according to how they affect well-being, either its maximization or distribution.

The 19th century was marked by the creation of wealth associated with industrialization, the 20th century by its redistribution associated with rise of union power, and the early 21st century by its concentration and polarization, the consequence of neoliberal economic policies. In the era of neoliberalism, human beings are made accountable for their predicaments or circumstances according to the workings of the market as opposed to finding faults in larger structural and institutional forces like racism and economic inequality. Work can be a path out of poverty, but only when it provides a living wage, something hard to find in a labour market where precarity is a new norm of employment. The widening socio-economic gap created by the neoliberal project creates a critical necessity of reviving an ethics of fairness and just distribution in the popular imagination and in governing practices.

1 Lane Anderson. (17 July 2014) Giving the homeless a home is often cheaper than leaving them on the streets https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865606966/New-approach-to-homelessness-saves-money-by-giving-people-homes.html

2 Ethics and People http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/intro_1.shtml

3 Juanita Bawagan. (29 Nov 2017) Poverty, ethics and discrimination: How culture plays into cognitive research. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-11/cifa-pea112317.php


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