The Ethics of Human Rights (16): The Extent of Our Duties Towards the Poor

Not only the state has a duty to help the poor and to protect their economic rights. The individual should also intervene in order to realize the economic rights of his or her fellow citizens and fellow human beings. He or she can intervene in different ways: through caritas or altruism, through trade and exchange etc. (Simply giving the example and inspiring others by way of your own success, as in this cartoon, is not enough).

It is only when these interventions fail or never take place and individuals neglect their duties, that the state must act by way of redistribution. After all, redistribution is a limit on freedom and on property rights (which are very important) and should therefore be kept to a minimum.

I mentioned our fellow human beings. The extent of our duties towards the poor is an interesting discussion in contemporary philosophy. Some say that we have only duties towards our fellow citizens; others that we have a duty towards everyone. Whereas in principle, everyone regardless of borders has the same right to our assistance, there has to be some differentiation in practice. Our duties arising from economic rights are not the same towards everyone. In general, we have more duties towards certain persons than towards other persons. This is because of the principle “ought implies can” (if you cannot swim, then you do not have a duty to rescue persons from drowning), which is a general principle of law and morality. None of us can give material assistance to everybody in need of assistance. We all have a limited amount of resources, and even if we have more than we require for our basic needs, we will not be able to assist everybody.

That is why we have to be selective. Our own children, for example, take precedence. We have more duties towards our children than towards other people. Closeness means that you can do more, and if you can do more, you ought to do more. Can also implies ought. Closeness, therefore, plays a part in the degree of duty, although not in the existence of duty. If we can help everybody, then we have to help everybody. This is especially the case when we transcend the level of individuals. Wealthy groups – for example a wealthy country or a group of wealthy countries – can help many people and maybe even everybody, and hence have a duty to do so.

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