Is aid really a moral duty?

Through Roving Bandit, I spotted this coverage of Andrew Mitchell’s defense of aid as a moral duty:

In a direct riposte to those in the media and on the Tory right who have attacked the government’s decision to spare the aid budget from George Osborne’s austerity programme, Mitchell said: “It is a stain on all our consciences that a girl born in South Sudan today is more likely to die having a baby than to complete primary school.

“When we know what life – and death – is like for over a billion people living on less than 80p a day, and we have the wherewithal to do something about it, then, yes, I do believe we have a moral imperative to do so.”

I agree with Peter Singer’s basic argument: that we do have a moral imperative to help the poor out of poverty. Many, including Singer himself, have used this to argue that overseas aid is a moral duty.

Yet this argument is conditional on aid being the most effective means of reducing poverty, or at least the most effective way you can reduce poverty. It’s not clear, when stacked up against trade, immigration, investment, etc, that aid really is a moral duty. It’s a bit like arguing that baking cakes is a moral duty, but choosing to focus just on the icing.

Readers would be reasonable to point out that the average person can’t do much about these other paths out of poverty, at least not in expectation. This is also Singer’s argument – aid is the easiest way for people to ease suffering in the short term. Still, this isn’t true for Andrew Mitchell – he’s in the cabinet of a major government. If he’s going to argue that we have a moral imperative to give aid, he should also spend more time arguing for other policies that might have equal or even greater success in reducing poverty.

7 thoughts on “Is aid really a moral duty?

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    June 9, 2011 at 1:28pm

    if this was f**ebook I would have clicked ‘like’.

    That’s the problem with invoking moral duty – you quickly get into absolutes, and no politician should ever be dealing in absolutes.

  2. Philip

    June 9, 2011 at 3:23pm

    On whether aid is effective, well, hmm, probably not an argument to get into over right now. Certainly trade, migration, etc. are more important.

    Having said that, Singer’s argument rests entirely on the assumption, and a very big one, that there are shared duties between human beings, but it’s not clear how they arise. Within a society political philosophers make that argument based on societal ties, but it’s a very big jump to take that onto a global scale as the cosmopolitans like Singer and Pogge do. For more on this, Thomas Nagel is particularly good:

  3. Bruce

    June 9, 2011 at 7:49pm

    Very good point indeed – i believe Singer’s analogy is spotting a drowning child and not jumping in to save them. Giving aid is maybe more like shouting instructions how to swim…..

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    June 9, 2011 at 8:02pm

    bruce – that is brilliant, and I will be stealing it. Apologies in advance.

  5. Lee

    June 9, 2011 at 10:50pm

    Ha! We should clearly be doing a listening exercise to find out what kind of emergency floatation device the child wants.

    Perhaps migration is a but more like lifting someone out of the pond altogether?

  6. Jiesheng

    June 10, 2011 at 3:26pm

    Mitchell has to say that; he’s trapped by the ultra pro-aid people like Harriet Harman and some NGOs.

  7. Steve

    June 26, 2011 at 8:36pm

    @Bruce I think it’s more like aid is jumping in without knowing to to swim well and writing a blog complaining abou aid is like shouting instructions on how to swim better.

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