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What About the Poor? Sustenance Rights Examined

November 18th, 2008 by Matt

When I began university I had strong socialist leanings. The reason was that I believed, as a Christian, we had a duty to help the poor. Studying at Waikato University, however, brought me face to face with socialist academics and left-wing activists and I discovered a hostile and dangerous social agenda that I could not in good conscience embrace.

That, however, left me with a burning question. What about the poor? If the classical liberal or conservative view is correct. What about the poor?

In the next two posts I want to discuss my thoughts on this a bit. I will do so by examining Nicholas Wolterstorff’s defence of welfare or sustenance rights. I will argue that, as initially stated, Wolterstorff’s position is subject to three problems. In my second post, What About the Poor? More on Sustenance Rights, I will suggest that while Wolterstorff’s position can escape these problems, it does so only by qualifying itself in such a way that there is no necessary link between accepting the poor’s right to sustenance and the kind of statist re-distributionary policies favoured by the left

In, When Justice and Peace Embrace, Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests 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.” Wolterstorff suggests further that this conclusion is orthodox Christian teaching. He provides citations from Basil, Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Aquinas to substantiate this claim.

One immediate problem with this line of analysis is it ignores something of the context in which these theologians wrote. They were addressing the situation of alms-giving. A wealthy person living in a small town or village in the Roman Empire would come across destitute people in his community whom would ask for assistance in most cases a wealthy lord would be able to do so. In the age of the mass media, however, things are quite different. It is not just about the poor person down the road; I am regularly bombarded with stories of poverty and suffering of thousands of people all across the globe when I turn on the new or surf the web.

In this context, to suggest that failure to alleviate any poverty I know about violates the person I fail to help and is analogous to assaulting them is problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, take my duty (and corresponding right on the part of others) to not assault people. This duty applies 24-7, it is not like I can refrain from assault on Fridays but smash peoples heads in on Sunday. There are 6 billion people in the world, as I have a duty to not assault anyone I owe that duty to all these 6 billion people. Moreover, each one of them holds a right to not be assaulted against me. This is not problematic, because discharging my duty to all 6 billion is not hard, I can do so by refraining from assault.

Discharging such a duty and its corresponding right, is unproblematic because the duty to not assault is a duty to not do something

A claim right; a right requiring me to do or give assistance, however, is different. Clearly I cannot give assistance to all 6 billion people in the world at all times. I simply do not have the resources or the ability to do that. Hence, each individual poor person cannot hold a right to assistance against me. At best, I have a duty to help some people, some of the time, with some of my resources.

A related problem is that unless I live just above the sustenance level and force my family to do the same, and donate every cent I earn above that level to the poor then I will be failing to discharge my duty. Hence, accepting Wolterstorff’s claim would quite literally imply that everyone has a duty to live just above the poverty line. Wealth of any sort is a sin, a conclusion at odds with scripture which commends many wealthy people (like Job and Abraham) as Godly people and not as mass murderers.

A second problem is the quite oppressive political implications of Wolterstorff’s claim. Given what I have outlined above, if failure to give to a poor person when we can is analogous to assaulting them then every person who does not live just above sustenance level and does not donate everything they own and earn to charity is in fact a serious criminal. A just government would then be required to lock all these people up, their children would end up in foster care and all their property confiscated and given to the poor as restitution. The implications of accepting a right of the sort Wolterstorff affirms is totalitarianism; a system where everyone is poor and anyone else is arrested and detained. The state would be obligated to take almost everything.

A third problem, which follows on from the first and second, is that if everyone must be self-frozen in their income to just above sustenance level and any falling below it grants one a right to receive what’s needed to get above the sustenance line wouldn’t this destroy all incentives to work or be productive in any shape or form?

The problems with the idea of ‘sustenance right’ were not lost on Aquinas, whom Wolterstorff interestingly cites. In the Summa Theologica Aquinas addresses the question of whether a destitute person who steals food to avoid starvation has committed theft. Aquinas’s answer is no and he cites with approval the claim of Ambrose of Milan that the poor have a right to sustenance and any property given to those unable to maintain themselves is money they are owed.

However, Aquinas goes on to offer some important qualifications. First, in the articles prior to this section of the Summa, Aquinas defends the concept of private property and argues that those who claim the private property of others are in sin, further, those who claim we are required to renounce property to be Christians are expounding a heretical doctrine. Second, Aquinas states that;

Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all
to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the
stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of
those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that
it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at
hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no
other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by
means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this
properly speaking theft or robbery.

Aquinas observations are worth noting. Because there are so many in need and I cannot give to all I am not required to give to every needy person I know of. Instead I have a duty to give some of my money to some needy people and it is my choice to decide who. It follows from this observation that giving to the poor is an imperfect duty. Unlike the duty to refrain from assault it is not a duty to be discharged to all people at all times, but rather it is a duty to give some money to some poor people. But it is at the discretion of the property owner to decide who.

While there is a duty to give to the poor there is not a duty to give to any specific poor individual and hence no individual poor person has a right to my property (although I will be in serious dereliction of duty if I give to no-one).

Aquinas does provide an exception; what has been called the case of extreme necessity. As Donagan puts it, if a person “encounter[s] another who then and there needs help, which only he can give without disproportionate inconvenience” then such a person has a duty to give it and the other has a right to such help.

The medieval position Aquinas expounded is well summed up by Donagan in The Theory of Morality. Donagan suggests that all people have a duty of beneficence, “it is impermissible not to promote the well-being of others by actions in and of themselves permissible, in as much as one can do so without proportionate inconvenience.” By promoting the well-being of others, Donagan means things such as [paraphrasing Donagan] promoting the well being and up-bringing of those who are not adults, especially orphans; helping those who have duties, which owing to bereavement, injury, illness or desertion, they can’t perform without help; restoring to a condition of independence those who have been incapacitated with illness, accident, or injury and caring for those who are crippled, deaf, blind, are chronically ill, or senile.

However, the principle of beneficence is an imperfect duty. No individual poor person has a right to my assistance except in cases of extreme necessity. Donagan draws the appropriate conclusion; apart from cases of extreme necessity,

Duties of beneficence, seeing they are not owed to specific individuals generate
no enforceable rights; and apart from duties of beneficence, no innocent
person has any obligation to contribute to the wellbeing of others, except as he
may freely undertake.

Donagan suggests that the duty to benefit the poor is an imperfect duty to pursue a particular end and not based on a right that another may have. While one has a duty to pursue this end, it is at a person’s discretion as to how exactly they would pursue it.

It would seem then that social polices based on alleged welfare rights of the poor and the authority of the state to coercively uphold such rights are unjust. While we have a duty to aid the well-being of the poor as an end, no poor individual, outside of cases of extreme necessity, has a right to such assistance and hence one cannot justly be forced or required to give any individual such assistance.

In my next post I will look at how Wolterstorff responds to criticisms of this sort and how he qualifies his position to do so.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • Over at Christianity: Doctrine and Ethics, I read a series on this from a Biblical angle called “How do we do social justice?” I’m really enjoying seeing the issue from a more philosophical angle over here, and it’s interesting that both approaches seem to get to similar conclusions about the Christians’ responsibility to the poor.

  • It is a far cry from how Christians are painted, objectivists seem to miss the distinctions and many Christians do too, erroneously believing they must endorse statism.


  • A related problem is that unless I live just above the sustenance level and force my family to do the same, and donate every cent I earn above that level to the poor then I will be failing to discharge my duty. Hence, accepting Wolterstorff’s claim would quite literally imply that everyone has a duty to live just above the poverty line. Wealth of any sort is a sin, a conclusion at odds with scripture which commends many wealthy people (like Job and Abraham) as Godly people and not as mass murderers.”
    1. I think there’s a middle point between Wolterstorff’s and your own point of view, and I think it’s the Christian POV. First of all I think you misrepresent his position. Indifference on the part of the rest of the world’s wealthy may, from his position, mean you have an obligation to give to as many people as you can, up to the level of poverty.
    “A related problem is that unless I live just above the sustenance level and force my family to do the same, and donate every cent I earn above that level to the poor then I will be failing to discharge my duty. Hence, accepting Wolterstorff’s claim would quite literally imply that everyone has a duty to live just above the poverty line.”
    But this last statement is clearly false, because if “everyone” performed their duty of seeing that the poor had a viable path out of poverty, then it’s quite possible everyone could live quite a bit above the poverty line.

    “Given what I have outlined above, if failure to give to a poor person when we can is analogous to assaulting them then every person who does not live just above sustenance level and does not donate everything they own and earn to charity is in fact a serious criminal.”
    Perhaps it’s not quite analogous to assaulting them. But it can still be a very serious moral offense…merely one which isn’t prosecutable. Even if not giving to a poor person is just as morally deviant as assaulting that person, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the law needs to treat the two moral crimes the same. For instance our culture maintains a number of different standards about the legality of tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis, and many of these standards are based at least partly on the proportion of people who use each of these drugs and how acceptable it’s seen, not solely on how damaging each drug is.
    Likewise, I can consistently maintain that assaulting someone and refusing them to find a way out of poverty are equally as sinful, yet argue that only one should be outlawed/criminalised, because if we were to outlaw both of these sins society, as you can see, would all be locked up.
    “A third problem, which follows on from the first and second, is that if everyone must be self-frozen in their income to just above sustenance level and any falling below it grants one a right to receive what’s needed to get above the sustenance line wouldn’t this destroy all incentives to work or be productive in any shape or form?”
    Not all incentives (though I do acknowledge a problem). From a purely moral and Christian perspective, your incentive for working hard and being productive should be to glorify God. From a more secular perspective, as Freud said, “work is the cornerstone of our humanness” and many people would do it just for the enjoyment.
    And why can’t we modify Wolterstorff’s argument so that the utilitarian need for a material incentive for productivity is balanced with the moral need to help the poor? Alternatively, we could limit his statement so we only have an obligation to help the deserving poor, meaning that we wouldn’t be obligated to give to people who can provide for themselves, thus retaining the material incentive.

    I hold that there is a moral obligation to give to the poor, and that this obligation extends to requiring significant sacrifices in our lifestyles. Paul wrote “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”. I don’t need to tell you that in the Christian worldview at least, the fact that a moral system requires us to make sacrifices and “take up our crosses” does not imply that that moral system is flawed or wrong.

  • Hi binScmidt

    You make some good points let me respond the best I can.

    1. Your correct if everyone gave to the poor then people could give and live above sustenance level. The problem is that everyone does not do this, and in a context where everyone does not a duty to provide sustenance to every needy person I know about means that anyone who is conscientious will have to live just above the poverty line and I think that’s a far to stringent requirement.

    2. I agree with your comment viz a viz incentives. In fact I myself argue in my second post on sustenance rights that one does not have an obligation to give to those who are able to provide for themselves but refuse too. I would simply add however that from a Christian perspective the incentive question is an issue. Paul in fact seems to be very concerned about it in his instructions about giving to widows in 1 Timothy 5.

    3. You talk about the need to make sacrifices, now I don’t necessarily disagree let me however make a couple of points. First, it seems the question is how great a sacrifice one is required to make and whether a moral code that demands huge excessive sacrifices all the time is plausible. Second, I think there is also the issue of wether its acceptable to demand that others make these sacrifices and to back this demand up with force. Third, I think there is also the fact that some sacrifices are superogatory or obligatory for Christians because they have received superogatory grace from God. They are not requirements for all people everywhere.