Is it more ethical to let the starving die?

Nathan asked:

In a world of increasing demand on resources (e.g. food, water, medicine), is it ethical to support charities which save human life or prevent death by natural means, if the effect of extending human life is to place more burden upon resources and therefore risk even more lives in the future through sparsity of resources or cause death and suffering through conflict arising as a result of resource shortages?

This arises from a question asked to me by a charity recently, as to whether I would like to sponsor their initiative to provide ‘First Responders’ to preempt arrival of Paramedics and increase the chance of saving lives. Initially it seemed like a good scheme, but subsequent thought on the matter prompted this question, which applies to many other charitable endeavours (e.g. aid to victims of drought, starvation etc).

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Your question has no ethical dimension at all, but turns on an issue of practical morality. In ethical terms the question is answered by the imperative of humanity towards all humans point blank. If people miss out, are exploited or exposed to man-made perils, then ethics is non-negotiable you must help and do what you can.

Once you start arguing the way you do, your attention should be directed elsewhere. Not to the people who are suffering, but to those who create the conditions under which suffering is created. I will put it to you not in philosophical, but crassly materialistic terms. If just a tiny fraction of the earth’s resources which the developed world is squandering on its luxury pursuits were devoted to greening the planet’s huge deserts, then we would not have a starvation problem. If just a tiny fraction of the military budgets of the world’s nations were devoted to ridding the world of the most common evil of humanity, fratricide, then a great deal of the suffering would also cease. So the real answer to your question does not involve any putative ethics of charity, but the morality of greed and evil.

From the point of view of practical morality, therefore, your decision should not be influenced by furphys like ‘should medicine allow nature to rid the world of poor, starving, decrepit, diseased people?’ Consider that in 1348-50, the Black Death claimed 70% of Europe’s population. You would not be around to write to Pathways if people had not, after that event, begun to question the wisdom of letting God decide such matters.

To sum up:

(1) You may feel that helping or not helping is much the same, because the situation is hopeless. But if this is how you feel, then in fact you argue yourself into helping, because once you’ve made yourself aware of it, the other choice is unethical.

(2) If your concern is for the survival of the lucky ones who do not suffer from disease, malnutrition, exploitation etc., but may in future suffer from diminishing resources, such as less motor cars, more expensive food and pharmaceuticals etc., then (as explained above) you have no question.

Much else could be said, but the important issue, I think, was to stress what seems to me an inapplicable pseudo-ethics at the bottom of your question.

One thought on “Is it more ethical to let the starving die?

  1. Thanks; an interesting answer, which raises some more questions: Why is it assumed that all fellow human beings are deserving of help? A limb may be amputated, in order to save the whole body. Why should this not be applied to humanity on a macroscopic level?

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