Is it ever right to allow a population to starve?
May 1, 2006 5:19 AM   Subscribe

Please help correct my cold utilitarian calculus: is it ever right to allow a population to starve?

A Michael Buerk BBC documentary on Ethiopia a while back said something along the lines of having "merely created a nation of half-starved beggars" by aiding them during the 1980s famine. The underlying hypothesis seemed to be this:

If a country of 15 million people can support itself in food most years, but only support 10 million during a drought, then 5 million will starve. However, if an outsider steps in and donates 5 million food rations, the country lives on.

Every 10 years or so the drought recurs, except in the intervening 10 years, the population doubles. Now the country has 30m people, and can only support 10m. So 20 million will starve unless outside aid is delivered.

Another ten years on, 60 million people with food enough for 10. 50 million starve unless food aid is delivered.

At some point, the outsiders will become unwilling or unable to continue supporting the poor country, and no food aid will arrive. If this is 30 years on from the original drought, 110 million people will starve.

So would it have been right to withhold food aid initially, resulting in only 5 million deaths rather than 110 million?

Given that the parameters of this scenario are accurate (population will continue to grow while food is available, food aid will eventually stop), the answer seems to be yes. It doesn't feel right though.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Simple moral answer is surely this: if you think it is right, offer to swap places with someone there. Better still, why not offer your family and friends.

Same answer applies in war-time - if you think a war is worth a life, volunteer
posted by A189Nut at 5:25 AM on May 1, 2006

posted by rdr at 5:36 AM on May 1, 2006

One minor point, even if no food aid was given, wouldn't the population increase to at least 15 million before every drought? So 15 million plus will die in those 30 years, not 5 million.

But, remember that if you're using a utilitarian calculus, you can't just count "deaths". Do you think would the people who remained alive be happer seeing a third of their population die every 10 years or not? In general, utilitarianism adds up happiness, not deaths.

Also, since the outcome in somewhat in doubt (that is, it may be possible that before the next drought that the situation may change so they can support themselves better), I'd say even with a utilitarian system, you'd be hard press to say it's moral to let people starve.
posted by skynxnex at 5:40 AM on May 1, 2006

Part of the problem with your question is that it seems to assume the other countries have nothing to do with the starving nation in the years where there is no famine. But why couldn't they spend those full years distributing condoms and birth control, spreading new farming techniques and building new infrastructure, and trying to educate the populace about population control?

If the starving nation could learn to keep its population at a reasonable level, the cycle of famine could be broken.
posted by BackwardsCity at 5:40 AM on May 1, 2006

If the five million die, those who survive will still reproduce, and the next drought will still fall on a larger population
posted by leapingsheep at 5:42 AM on May 1, 2006

The longer answer is that Ethiopia is part of the world, not a closed system. If the world decides to something about it, then it can easily feed the people who are starving. Better yet it can change the parameters of the situation. By educating women and lowering the poverty level it change the patterns of population growth and help the people of Ethiopia build up reserves that will make them less vulnerable to drought.
posted by rdr at 5:45 AM on May 1, 2006

In most public parks here, there are signs that say, "Do Not Feed The Geese". The reasoning is the same, that giving them additional food will encourage them to stay and increase in population. And of course, people ignore the signs and do feed them, which leads to a huge population increase. But the situation in Ethiopia and other drought ravaged countries is much different than that or what the BBC mockumentary suggest.

The governments of those countries make poor decisions on what to do with their wealth and resources and then coupled with unforgiving weather creates a huge problem. Ideally western countries should provide aid and knowledge to make them more self-reliant. No, it isn't right to withhold aid. The simplistic view which may hold true for animals does not hold true for people. People can make decisions and with a decent education can usually make a more informed decision.
posted by JJ86 at 5:51 AM on May 1, 2006

Given the way you've prejudiced the parameters it is easy to see why someone might feel it is better to do nothing the first time, better to have them suffer a little now then a lot later.

However this is not the moral answer. You assume that the wealthier countries in question have no other way of helping the poor country. Why wouldn't the aid countries wise up to the problem and figure out a way to help the country help itself before the population was too large to help with just care packages.

Moral dilemmas are often the result of simplifying the problem to an unconscionable degree. This is fine for some armchair philosophy but it's no way to react to the world. Anyone who insists on reducing real world problems to simplest terms is just not going about solving them the right way.
posted by oddman at 6:03 AM on May 1, 2006

If the world decides to something about it, then it can easily feed the people who are starving.

Exactly. Famines are caused by politics, not lack of food. Read Amartya Sen (review).
posted by languagehat at 6:26 AM on May 1, 2006

I see some of the comments above are taking a literal approach to hoverboard's question.

Of course famine is political - and there are real world solutions... but as a hypothetical I think his question is interesting in other ways.

I think the gist is: Should we alleviate the suffering of a few today with the results that more will suffer in the future?

Or rather, do we have a responsibility to prevent the suffering of future, as-yet unborn, humans?

I think on the environmental front many people already argue this along the lines that we are destroying the environment and thus future generations of humans will suffer due to our present over consumption, etc.

My anecdotal feelings are that we live in the immediate present with only a vague notion of both the past and the future. So we are more likely to be altruistic toward our immediate (currently living) peers rather than thinking about the implications on future generations.

It's sort of a reverse-temporal presentism I think.
posted by wfrgms at 6:47 AM on May 1, 2006

Moral dilemmas are often the result of simplifying the problem to an unconscionable degree.

Very good point.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 6:50 AM on May 1, 2006

The amount of food that Ethiopia (or any country) can grow is heavily dependent on technology and farming practices. Given fertilizer, mechanization, irrigation, and soil conservation, I suspect that Ethiopia could feed far more people that live there right now.

I dislike all these pseudoscientific projections that treat people like they were so many amoebas in a test tube, unable to expand their resource base.
posted by LarryC at 7:01 AM on May 1, 2006

Given the resources which an unborn American will consume in a lifetime vs an unborn African, wouldn't the utilitarian solution be to cull Americans? Greatest good for the greatest number
posted by A189Nut at 7:05 AM on May 1, 2006

In cold, utilitarian terms, the answer is definitely yes. It is better to let "them" starve. If a place can't sustain the life that is on it, that life should die. With the understanding that, if global warming changes climates, if we become involved in an all-encompassing war, if we're hit by a plague, the "them" becomes us.
posted by clarkstonian at 7:31 AM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

If our only choices are letting a person starve or dribbling bleach into their cuts so that they slowly die in excruciating pain, then letting them starve is the moral option.
Luckily, the choices are rarely so limited.
posted by klangklangston at 7:32 AM on May 1, 2006

They are already us
posted by A189Nut at 7:56 AM on May 1, 2006

In cold, utilitarian terms, the answer is definitely yes.

Actually, I think the answer is definitely we'd need more information to calculate the utility of letting a large number of people live.

If a place can't sustain the life that is on it, that life should die.

What does that even mean? Everyone living in a country that imports most of its food/resources should die?
posted by Espy Gillespie at 8:31 AM on May 1, 2006

I guess he means can afford to import most of its food/resources. Which only takes us to another issue...
posted by A189Nut at 8:56 AM on May 1, 2006

Well the real answer to this is that just giving people food isn't a real answer to world hunger.

First, I doubt that you could feed five million hungry people with five million sandwiches, because probably four million would go to people who weren't starving, but just wanted a sandwich.

Second, what this really shows is that you need to provide aid that will have a lasting impact i.e. improvements in infrastructure, government, education, etc.

It seems silly to say food won't end world hunger, but it's true. There's a ton of food in the world, but people are starving.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:59 AM on May 1, 2006

Utilitarianism is to morality what arithmatic is to astrophysics. The more "variables" (people) you draw into any utilitarian calculus function, the more exponentially incalculable it becomes.

Given just the numbers that you supply, the cold utilitarian answer is to let 5 million starve each year to prevent more people from starving the subsequent year.

However, using the same information, the more "moral" solution is to nuke the entire country, since you would be saving countless future generations of millions from starving for the cost of only 15 million people. Plus, instantly vaporizing in a fireball probably consists of less suffering than starving to death or watching your loved ones starve to death.

Of course, the end point I've always come to with any sort of utilitarian thought exercise is to kill everyone on the planet, ending all the potential human suffering of the future for the low low price of every human life on Earth.
posted by Durhey at 9:54 AM on May 1, 2006

I second reading Amartya Sen on the nature of famines.
posted by furiousthought at 10:16 AM on May 1, 2006

I guess it comes down to whether your moral code requires that you help others. Personally my morals, which I consider to be very strong, don't require that I help anyone, merely that I don't cause any harm myself. There is no such thing as a single moral code, so you can't really ask 'is it right?' in such a generic way.
posted by wackybrit at 11:49 AM on May 1, 2006

Re: Durhey's solution

There's an old saw about how if you put a mathematician or a physicist in a cabin with a sink, a pot and a stove, and tell them to boil water, they'll do the same thing: fill the pot with water, turn on the stove and boil it.
However, if you give the physicist the pot with the water already in it, they'll boil it; but if you give the mathematician the pot with the water already in it, they'll toss the water out the window and declare the water boiled, as they've reduced the problem to the level of one that's already been solved.

(I just like the mathematical precision of "from a utilitarian viewpoint, we should kill everyone.")
posted by klangklangston at 12:15 PM on May 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'm with Jonathan Swift.
posted by raider at 4:51 PM on May 2, 2006

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