Your negative duty

Why does an internationally recognized philosopher feel that better personal morals is enough to create a better world?


– In many Western nations, poverty is viewed in light of positive duty. We feel that we have a positive duty to make a reasonable contribution to fighting world poverty, and this eases our bad conscience, ethics philosopher Thomas Pogge says.

For the fifteenth year running, Pogge’s in Oslo, as visiting scholar at the University of Oslo, lecturing on ethics in the war on terror and on morality and poverty. In auditorium 1 in the Georg Sverdrup building, students and academics have gathered. The occasion is the five year wedding anniversary of the Norwegian crown prince and wife. To mark the occasion, the royal couple have established a humanitarian fund to raise awareness of poverty and humanitarian aid issues, «Human Dignity and Global Development». Pogge the philosopher is an honorary speaker.

Not kill or save

– We have to think new thoughts. Today’s global financial situation causes and conserves the poverty of the world. This could be avoided through reforms, and we, as part of the Western world, have a duty to do this, Pogge says.

According to Pogge, our negative duty to fight world poverty outweighs the positive duties. Moral philosophers separate between the negative duty to do no harm, and the positive duty to help or protect.

– Morally speaking, it’s more important for me not to throw you in a pool, than it is to save you from drowning, Pogge says.

He explains that moral philosophers consider the moral value of not killing innocent people to be higher than the value of rescuing innocents. Hence, it’s morally reprehensible to kill one person in order to save two lives.

– As long as we think in terms of positive duty alone, we tend to place a low value on that which is foreign and far away. But if we realize that we are hurting people through our action or inaction, this awakens our sense of negative duty. In this case, we have to take this seriously, for the damage we cause the poor of the world through unjust economic institutions, far outweigh any other damage we cause, he says.

18 millions dead

Pogge claims that stamping out world poverty is more important, morally speaking, than it was for the Allies to stop the war crimes of Nazi Germany.

– The Allies acted out of a positive duty to protect people. We, on the other hand, have a negative duty not to harm, and this weighs heavier than the duty of the Allies, Pogge says.

Today, wealthy nations have the main responsibility for the global economie. Pogge maintains that in preserving poverty, these nations commit history’s most severe and wide-spread violation of human rights.

– Every year, 18 million people die as a result of poverty. This is twice the number of deaths caused throughout the entirety of the second world war, Pogge says.

– What can we, as individuals, do about this?

– Use your skills! Different people ought to do different things. I, for instance, would be a disaster as politician, but I can do other things, says Pogge, and adds with emphasis:

– The poverty is not melting like snow in the spring sunshine.

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