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What About the Poor? More on Sustenance Rights

November 19th, 2008 by Matt

In my last post, What About the Poor? Sustenance Rights Examined, I noted the position of Nicholas Wolterstorff that, “If a rich man knows of someone who is starving and has the power to help that person, and chooses not to, then he violates that person’s rights as surely and reprehensively as if he had physically assaulted the sufferer.” I argued that as stated, this position is subject to three problems; first, that it leads to absurd consequences, entailing that I have a duty to give to every poor person I know about. Second, that it has totalitarian implications and third, that acceptance and practise of this principle would destroy any incentive people have to work.

In a more recent article “Christianity and Social Justice,” Wolterstorff attempts to defend his thesis against the three criticisms I mention above.

Turning to the first problem, Wolterstorff’s response is to note that “acknowledging a person’s right to some good does not imply laying on everyone else a duty to extend to that person that good.” This seems odd, if a right to sustenance on the part of the poor does not mean we are obligated to give them the means to sustenance, what bite does it have?

Wolterstorff puts forward an interesting suggestion. Turning to the paradigm of a right to not be assaulted, Wolterstorff suggests that while we have a duty to not assault people we do not have a duty to protect every person against assault. However, he goes on to note that in addition to having a right to not be assaulted, people have a right against their society “to have practises” and “social structures” that protect them from assault. In particular, such things as a police force, courts and an army. Clearly, if the right does not just mean that members of society refrain from attacking people, it also means that these members have a duty support the police force. Further, if the police force is ineffective, people have a duty to try and improve it (through such things as voting and lobbying).

Moreover, Wolterstorff suggests if “I see you about to get mugged when no policeman is in view – then I may be obliged to offer you my protection in a direct way.” Wolterstorff’s argument is that sustenance rights are analogous to the right to not be assaulted in this way. People have a duty to support whatever institutions or charities exist that alleviate poverty. If they are ineffective, they have a duty to reform them. Further, if one encounters a person in extreme necessity one is required to assist them in a direct way.

Turning to the second criticism, Wolterstorff makes three points to get around the totalitarian implications sketched previously. First, he states that,

the general idea behind having such a right to some good is that individual actions and social practices ought to be such that one enjoys that good. But the role of the government in practices which secure that right may be nil or negligible. Not all rights are enshrined by law. Sometimes in the early church the care for the poor of society was principally in the hands of the bishop.

He goes on to note, correctly I think, that,

Far from acknowledging that there is such a right, nothing directly follows as to what, if anything, governments should do by way of securing that right. In particular, it does not follow that the poor should be put on a dole supported by public taxation. In principle there is a wide variety of other practices which would undo the violation of this right, some of which the government would have little or no role.

Accepting sustenance rights then, does not entail accepting massive public ownership or redistribution.

Second, he tries to mitigate the objection by appealing again to the analogy with assault; “in our fallen world… we do not suppose that, in the face of all the aggressive impulses of human beings purely voluntary arrangements would suffice to secure our freedom from assault.” He goes on to note, “why should we suppose that, in the face of acquisitive impulses of human beings, purely voluntary arrangements would suffice to secure our right to sustenance?” Finally he notes, “it is true, indeed that there are dangers lurking when governments try to ensure that the rights of the poor are respected. But who would be so foolish as to argue that the armies and police forces that we assemble propose no threat?”

Wolterstorff makes some pertinent points here. However, it is worth noting that if one takes the assault analogy seriously, several things are evident. First, the police and armed forces actually do not play as big a role in protecting us from assault as it may appear.

The Police do not patrol everyone’s houses at night, nor does it have 24/7 video surveillance cameras set up on every home, nor do we have publicly funded burglar alarms. If people want any of these things, they hire private security guards, install privately owned cameras and buy their own alarms. The police are called when these systems fail and there is immediate danger.

It is also worth noting that the ability of the Police to catch and prosecute assailants is limited by such things as the presumption of innocence, the need for warrants, probable cause, etc. In societies with lower crime rates, police typically have more sweeping powers, powers our society rightly rejects precisely to avoid the danger of excess state intrusion and its subsequent abuses. As such, if the state is to secure our rights to sustenance similar limits should apply.

Turning to the third criticism, Wolterstorff states that while people do not earn their basic human rights by merit, such as the right to be free from assault or the right to liberty, the same is true of the right to sustenance. Wolterstorff notes correctly that a person can forfeit these rights by misdeeds; if a person attacks another his right to be free from assault is forfeited and I can strike him if necessary to defend myself. Similarly, if a person commits a crime they forfeit their right to liberty and can be imprisoned.

In the same way, Wolterstorff suggests that the right to sustenance can be forfeited if a person is capable of providing for themselves but refuses to do so; just as a needy person has a right against society to sustenance, society has a right against those it supports that they will take responsibility for themselves when they can and not pass of their responsibilities onto someone else.

As far as I can tell, Wolterstorff’s responses enable him to accept sustenance rights without falling into the problems mentioned in my previous post. It is worth noting, however, his response makes the claim that the poor have sustenance rights significantly qualified.

What it means is that individuals in a society have a duty to support various institutions that aid and assist those who are unable to provide for their own needs. These institutions may or may not be run by the state but if they are, the state plays a last resort role and is subject to careful checks on its power. This picture may differ from that some proposed by certain types of Libertarian, particularly those who believe we have no obligations to support the poor at all, but it is hardly the charter for statism or massive public ownership

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9 responses so far ↓

  • Libertarianism is not a so much a moral as a legal or political position, and so libertarians do not, as libertarians, either require or exclude moral obligations to help the poor.

    The approach of Wolterstorff actually has a lot of merit, in considering not only the allocation of resources but the institutions of society and the impact they have on the poor. I.e. if institutions are to be judged on their impact on the poor, then institutions that blunted incentives to produce or safeguard from waste are to be questioned for the very reason that they fail to achieve their objective. For example Roger Douglas’s primary criticism of government intervention in markets etc. is that it fails to achieve the objectives of providing security, assistance and opportunity to those in need. The similarity of Wolterstorff’s position to the position of utilitarians or consequentialists is notable and I’d expect Matt to question it on this basis alone.

    The alternative to Wolterstorff’s position would be to recognise the obligation to assist the poor, but make it an individual obligation, enforced by conscience alone.

  • You are joking aren’t you. So if a rich man doesn’t help the poor then they are doomed??. So if the government doesn’t remove the wealth of the rich the poor will starve. For fucks sake how are the people you stick up for going to live without the rich. I have myself looked after people that you discribe as poor, if the government had told me how to spend my money then some of the people you speak of would not be here.

  • Anonymous, I suggest you re-read what was written. Your conclusions are way off.

  • I am a first time visitor to your site.This post was pretty heavy going. But I note this passage:

    “In the same way, Wolterstorff suggests that the right to sustenance can be forfeited if a person is capable of providing for themselves but refuses to do so; just as a needy person has a right against society to sustenance, society has a right against those it supports that they will take responsibility for themselves when they can and not pass of their responsibilities onto someone else.

    If you don’t work, you don’t eat.

    I am visiting in Australia and notice how little urban land has soil of any arable structure. People could not feed themselves if they wanted to.
    NZ, generally speaking, does not have that problem, although many new urban sections have soil of little merit. But our climate allows most a resonable chance of growing something.
    The Maori Party campaigned for GST to be removed from food. It seems ironic that the Party that claims an affinity to the land, and has so much under tribal ownership, cannot see that their people need not buy their food at all. Indeed they could not only grow their own food,meat included, but usefully engage their young able-bodied youth in worthwhile activity doing so.
    Replacing one form of “agro” with another at the same time.
    And surely they collect kaimoana freely?
    And there is no GST levied on koha.
    So feeding the many should involve little or no tax, indeed little or no cash per se.

    For the rest of us,growing our own removes the problem of food labelling.

    NZ’s definition of “poor” must be one of the shallowest in the world.

    agronymous

  • I’ve been thinking about this post for a while and realised how flimsy Wolterstorff’s position really is.

    Many libertarians and anarchists do not accept that the legal wrong of assault implies the legal right to be free from assault: although assault is a legal wrong, and actionable, it could logically be left to individuals to pursue their own remedies at law, without any obligation to financially support other people’s suits and trials or the enforcement of awards granted. Thus Wolterstorff assumes too much in his analogy. He presupposes that the institution of the state is justified, and therefore a source of remedies for potentially many social problems.
    It also either overlooks or downplays important differences in the character of supposed rights to sustenance vs. wrongs of assault.

  • Hi David

    Not sure your argument justifies the claim that Wolterstorff’s view is “flimsy”. Basically your position amounts to the claim that his position depends on an assumption that Anarchists reject.

    The problem is that any argument for any conclusion is going to be based on a premise someone objects, and second Wolterstorff was writing in a context, he was writing in a dialogue where his major opponents accept the existence of the state but suggest the poor have no rights to sustenance rather it’s a matter of charity not duty. Now in that context it seems perfectly appropriate to assume the existence of the state.

    Moreover my own post is designed to ask the question of whether our duties to the poor justify socialistic state redistribution. Now given socialists believe in the state its perfectly appropriate to take this assumption for granted in such a context. If I was trying to provide reasons for anarchists to accept sustenance rights then a different argument would be needed, but I wasn’t.

  • Hi David

    I was wondering about your comment “ it could logically be left to individuals to pursue their own remedies at law, without any obligation to financially support other people’s suits and trials or the enforcement of awards granted.”

    Now presumably the analogy here would be that the poor person who has no resources could pursue their remedies at law. How feasible is this really, I suppose one way of doing it would be to simply take the line Aquinas does and suggest that if they steal in a situation of supreme necessity no one will prosecute them.

  • This is the question that arises in my mind too that what poor can do to get all the things which is a necessity of him, It is the duty of all the people to help them in many ways.

  • Your post left me with a sense that the community bears a responsibility which the individual only suffers indirectly.  This crystallised particularly as I read the following comment near the start of this second part:

    This seems odd, if a right to sustenance on the part of the poor does not mean we are obligated to give them the means to sustenance, what bite does it have?

    Your 'we' is an individual, but if the obligation was against a community then the oddness seems to resolve to a degree of indirectness.  (And a new set of questions about finding my responsibilities within a (fallen) community, but no oddness.)  Each level of community would then find itself sharing responsibility for members of wider communties, in  a recursive pattern ending with our responsibilities to all persons on the globe.

    I am neither a philosopher nor a libertarian, so don't know how you would handle communities in this discussion.  They do seem to be a very real and tangible aspect of my world, however, and the Bible seems to routinely ascribe moral responsibility to communities (most clearly in the OT, iirc).