A Philosopher's Blog

Obligations to Others: Hunger in America

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 12, 2014
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In my previous essay, I considered various stock arguments in favor of the claim that we have obligations to people we do not know. In this essay I will consider a rather concrete matter of obligation, namely that of hunger in the United States of America.

The United States is known as the wealthiest nation on the planet and also as a country that is facing an obesity epidemic. As such, it probably seems rather odd to claim that America faces a serious problem with hunger. Sadly, this is the case and the matter was featured in Tracie McMillan’s “The New Face of Hunger” in August 2014 issue of National Geographic. Out of a total population of 313.9 million people, 48 million Americans are food insecure, which is a contemporary term for the hungry. In terms of demographics, over half of the food insecure are white and over half are people who live outside of the cities. 72% of recipients are children, senior citizens and the disabled.  Two thirds of families on food stamps have at least one employed adult. The reason why these employed adults need assistance is declining wages: people can work multiple jobs and still not earn enough to buy adequate food. These facts run counter to the usual stereotypes often exploited by politicians.

The United States does have a program to address hunger—what was once called food stamps is now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). While the program paid out $75 billion to about 48 million people in 2013, the average recipient received $133.07 a month (under $1.50 per meal). On average, SNAP recipients run out of money after three weeks and then turn to charity, such as food pantries and other assistance for the hungry. Of the 48 million recipients, 17.6 million lack the resources to provide for even their basic food needs.

The federal government also provides an indirect means of providing food—taxpayer money subsidizes the production of certain crops. Corn gets the lion’s share of subsidies and is distantly followed by wheat and soybeans. Rice, sorghum, peanuts, barley and sunflowers also receive some subsidies while the only subsidized fruit is the apple. Because of the subsidies, food products that include or involve corn, wheat or soybeans tend to be the cheapest. As such, it is not surprising that low-income people get most of their calories from such foods. Examples include sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, chicken, grain-based desserts, tacos and pizza.  These foods tend to be high calorie and low nutrition foods.

Also impacting the diet of low income people is the existence of food deserts: areas that lack supermarkets but have fast food restaurants and small markets (like convenience stores). A surprising number of Americans live in these food deserts and do not own a car that would allow them to drive to buy healthier (and cheaper) food. For example, 43,000 people in Houston, Texas lack a car and live over a half mile from a grocery store. The food sold at these places tends to be more expensive than the food available at a grocery store and they tend to be high calorie, low-nutrient foods.

These two factors help explain the seeming paradox of an obesity epidemic among hungry people: people have easier access to high calorie foods that have low nutritional value. Hence, people tend to be overweight while also being malnourished. Now that the nature of the problem has been discussed, I now turn to the matter of obligations to others.

On the face of it, the main issue regarding obligations to the hungry would seem to focus on whether or not there is an obligation to provide people with food. This can be broken down into two sub-categories. First, whether or not there is a collective obligation to provide hungry citizens with food via the machinery of the state (in this case, SNAP). Second, whether or not there is an obligation on the part of better-off citizens to provide food to their hungry fellow citizens.

Arguing that the state has such an obligation is fairly straightforward. A basic obligation of the state is to provide for the good of the people and to protect them from harm. While the traditional focus is on the state providing military and police forces, this would certainly seem to extend to protecting citizens from starving.

A utilitarian argument can also be advanced in favor of this obligation: helping to feed millions of citizens creates more utility than disutility. Part of this is the obvious fact that people are happier when they have food to eat. Part of this is the less obvious fact that when people get hungry enough, open rebellion seems better than starving to death—so feeding the poor helps maintain social stability.

One stock objection against this view is to contend that providing such support creates a culture of dependence that encourages people to stay poor. The obvious counter to this is that, as noted above, those receiving the aid are mostly people who are seniors, disabled or children—people who should not be expected to labor to survive. Also, as noted above, two thirds of the families that received SNAP have at least one working adult. People are not on SNAP because they turn down opportunities—they are on SNAP because of the lack of opportunities.

The matter becomes rather more controversial when the issue switches to whether or not better off individuals are obligated to assist their fellow citizens. This, of course, means apart from paying taxes that help fund SNAP. Such assistance might involve donating money, time or food.

Intuitively, people tend to think that assisting others in this way is a nice thing to do and worthy of praise. However, people also tend to think that there is no obligation to do this and that someone who does not assist others in this way is not a bad person. This does have some appeal—after all, being bad is typically seen as an active thing rather than merely not doing good things.

Turning back to the general arguments for obligations to others, there are religious injunctions to feed the hungry (which explains why American churches are typically on the front line in the war against hunger), and it is easy to reverse the situation: if I were hungry, I would want my fellow citizens to help me. As such, I should help them when I am well off.

The utilitarian argument also applies here: a person who gives a little to help the hungry will incur a small cost (but might gain in happiness) but it will yield greater happiness on the part of the recipients who now have something to eat. As such, the utilitarian argument would seem to nicely ground this obligation. Of course, there is the stock objection about building dependence.

Rational self-interest would also seem to provide a reason to provide such aid—there are plenty of selfish reasons to do so, not the least of which is gaining a good reputation and helping to keep the hungry from revolting.

The debt argument might work here as well—if a person has benefited from the assistance of others, then she would be obligated to repay that debt. However, a person could contend that as long as they have not received food from others when hungry, he owes nothing.

The argument from virtue obviously applies here: the virtue of generosity obligates a person to give to others in need. This, and the religious injunction, would seem to be the truest forms of actual obligation—as opposed to merely doing it from self-interest or for utility.

Digging deeper, there is also another issue. As noted above, people are hungry primarily because they are not earning enough to purchase adequate food. One reason for this is that wages have consistently declined for most Americans, although the profits of businesses have steadily increased. As such, the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, yet has many very poor people. This raises the moral issue of whether or not employers are obligated to pay a living wage—a wage that would enable a person to purchase food on that salary without requiring the assistance of the state or others.

Businesses obviously have a strong self-interest in not doing so—lower wages mean greater profits and shifting the cost to other people (taxpayers and those who contribute to food pantries) means that their workers survive despite the lack of a living wage. However, there is still the moral question of whether or not they have an obligation to provide such a living wage.

The religious injunctions would seem to apply to employers that accept these specific faiths—and companies that wish to claim they are religious should be obligated to act the part. However, secular companies can easily claim exemption.

Reversing the situation would also apply: presumably those running businesses would not want to be so poorly paid. Of course, they would probably claim that as job creators there is a relevant difference.

The utilitarian argument does involve some complexities. After all, there can be very good utilitarian arguments for allowing some people to suffer so as to produce greater utility for others—so a case could be made that the utility generated outweighs the disutility of the low pay. However, the opposite sort of argument can also be made.

The debt argument would also apply. If corporations are people or at least are fictions that are run by people, then they would have a debt to the others that make civilization possible. As such, they should pay back this debt, perhaps in the form of decent wages.

The virtues of fairness and generosity would seem to obligate employers to pay employees fairly and this should be a living wage, at least in many cases. If corporations are people, then they should surely be held to the same obligations as actual people.

Thus, it would seem that there are good reasons to accept that we are obligated to help others.


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Ferguson, Police & Race

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2014

On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson. Repeating an all too common pattern, Brown was unarmed when he was killed. While some claim that Brown was murdered, others claim that the shooting was justified because Brown was attacking the officer. While this might strike some as implausible, unarmed people do attack police officers and, though this might seem odd to some, an officer can be morally justified in using lethal force against an unarmed attacker. As this is being written, the facts of the matter have not been established so I do not know whether Brown was shot down in cold blood or in a legitimate use of force. Obviously enough, if the officer used force legitimately (that is, in defense against an unprovoked attack), then he acted in a morally acceptable (though regrettable) manner. If Brown was not a threat or if Brown was a threat but could have been subdued without killing him, then the shooting would be immoral. This is, of course, a matter of the ethics of the incident taken in isolation. That is, was the officer morally justified in shooting Brown or not, regardless of the broader context? Settling this will require knowing the facts of the matter.

In discussing this matter, I have found that some people consider this aspect of the incident the most important one. That is, the critical issue is whether or not the officer was justified in shooting Brown or not. This view is clearly reasonable, but has an obvious defect: it does not consider the broader context. Roughly put, it could be the case that the officer was morally justified in shooting Brown in what could be regarded as the individual context of one person facing off against another. However, there is also the broader context that involves the social roles of the individuals, the social context, the history of race in America, the political context and so on. That is, the incident is not just a matter of two men who confronted each other. It is also a confrontation of class and race heavy with the weight of history. These considerations lead to the broader moral concerns regarding why Brown and the officer were in that situation.

One obvious part of the answer is the history of race in America, both recent and in the more distant past. This history, as it has done so many times before, has set the stage for death. To state a truism, being black in America is generally rather different from being white—despite the untrue claims that America is post-racial. Since I look very white, my experience has been the white experience. However, I have taught at an HCBU (Historically Black College and University) since 1993 and this has given me a perspective somewhat different from most other white folks. One rather obvious difference between whites and blacks in general is how they tend to be treated by the police. It is a considerable understatement to say that blacks tend to be treated rather worse by the police and young black men tend to be singled out for some of the worst treatment. It is, of course, important to note that many police officers are decent people—one should no more stereotype people by profession than by race. Not surprisingly, young black men tend to look at the police rather differently than white folks and the dynamic between young black men and police is often a rather bad one. I have had indirect experience with this dynamic: many years ago I was training for a marathon with a fellow grad student who happened to be African American. While running through a neighborhood we apparently did not belong in, we were stopped by a cop who inquired what we “boys” were doing. I have never been fond of being called “boy” and my friend clearly hated it. Not wishing to be arrested so close to the race, I reigned in my pride and engaged my diplomatic skills while my friend stood in silent anger. The cop let us go and we left the area at a good clip. I am not sure how things would have gone if my friend had been alone—but I suspect it would have not gone quite so well. I have been stopped by police while running one other time and also while biking—although I was not doing anything illegal on any occasion. From these incredibly limited experiences, I can only imagine what it would be like to be subject to such police attention on a regular basis. Once again, to be fair to the police, I have also had many positive experiences with the police and it would be unjust to sweepingly condemn all police because of the actions of some. However, there is clearly a serious moral problem in America in this regard.

Another obvious part of the answer is the philosophy of order held by many in power. While perhaps not familiar with Hobbes, they tend to operate in accord with his view of order and morality. The practical application of this view is that force is the primary (sometimes sole) tool in the toolbox of order.  The most visual manifestation of this is the militarization of the police: even small town police forces have combat gear and sometimes even armored vehicles. As Thoreau noted, “thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” That this approach leads to violence is hardly surprising.

When the context of race is combined with a philosophy of force, it is hardly a surprise that violence and death are all too often the results. As such, even if the officer was justified in his individual actions, they were taken in a context that is fundamentally morally flawed.


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Is America’s Decline Inevitable?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 27, 2009

The recent economic disaster has raised the old questions about the fall of empires. Now, the questions are being asked about the United States. While the rise of China, India and other countries has left the US in a relatively less elevated position, we have actually be losing ground by declining. Signs of this include the obvious: a weaker economy, talk of moving away from the dollar as the world’s currency, less political clout and so on. Signs also include the less obvious: less brain drain from other countries to the US, less innovation in science and technology, and so on.

One reason for the decline of the US is that the US reached its height in the ruins of WWII. The other great industrial nations were in ruins or were at least badly damaged by the war. While the Soviets did present a challenge, they were (as history showed) burning bright by burning far too hot. The US, whose lands were not directly touched by war, was in a position to become a true superpower.

Now the world has recovered from WWII and the US is thus losing relative ground. Also, former empires such as China and India are reclaiming their former glory and power, thus returning to the world stage in force. These other countries are spending considerable resources on the future: education, research, energy and so forth.

Naturally, some folks might think that the signs are in place: the United States reached its peak and is now in a slow (or not so slow) fall.  It is quite reasonable to suspect that the US must fall. After all, all other empires have fallen and thus empires seem to be analogous to living things: they are born, reach their maturity and then perish.

Of course, while the history is accurate, the analogy is flawed. Living creatures do perish because they cannot replace their mortal flesh. But, an empire need never fall in this manner. Provided it can keep restoring its vigor and the basis for its success, it could be effectively immortal. The challenge is, of course, to pull of this seemingly imposisble task. Of course, it is not actually impossible-just rather difficult.

Even if the United States does decline, it need not become irrelevant nor need it stay down forever. After all, China was once a great empire that fell into a great decline. But China is on the rise and is a great nation once again. Interestlingly, China was rather easily defeated by the Japanese just a few decades ago. But now China is a giant looming over Japan. This, of course, may not last-as an empire rises again it can easily slide down the wheel of history and end up back on the ground.

Whether the United States declines or not is largely up to us. One factor that seems to be driving our decline now is the rot and corruption within our economic and political systems. Perhaps this will be the cancer that brings about our end, or perhaps it is but one disease among many infecting the political body.

Happy 4th of July!

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 4, 2009
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Happy 4th of July!

Life, liberty, and blowing stuff up…these are inalienable rights.

As always, be sure that you have the same number of fingers at the end of the day as you had at the start.

Also, be sure to think of all the oppressed people in the world and how those who deny them liberty really need to be blown up. Or at least sent to someplace like Antarctica.

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Is Russia a Threat to the United States?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2008

A common view is that Russia ceased to be a viable threat to the United States when the Soviet Union fell apart. While the fall of the Soviet Union did diminish Russia’s capabilities, it did not eliminate them. Russia still possesses a significant nuclear, chemical and biological arsenal. No doubt many of the Russian weapon systems are still targeted at the United States (although Russia recently threatened to target the Ukraine) and this obviously still presents a threat to the United States.

It might be argued that while Russia is still well armed, her leaders have no intentions that would threaten the United States. This seems to be unlikely. Russia has been showing clear signs that it has not lost the desire to be a world power and a major player and has done so in ways that put it at odds with the United States. If Russia is going to ascend once more, it almost certainly be at the expense of the United States. This, naturally enough, positions Russia as a potential threat.

Are the Russians likely to attack America? This seems unlikely, given the behavior of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. What I think we can expect to see is a gradual return to some of the hidden conflict of the Cold War as Russia makes deals with countries hostile to America, steps up its espionage efforts and makes trouble for American allies.

One lesson I recall from my days in political science is that Russia has always historically sought to create a buffer zone between itself and potential enemies-hence the formation of the Soviet Union.   Given that Russia has been a favorite target for invaders (Napoleon and Hitler being the most recent) their view is actually quite understandable. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has lost its buffer. Further, the countries around it have been acting in ways that the Russians seem to dislike (hence the recent blustering about targeting Ukraine with nuclear weapons). If Russia follows the historical pattern, then trouble awaits on the horizon.

As we get mired down further into the war on terror, we certainly should not forget about the Russians.

Iran & The Navy

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2008

Recently Iranian patrol boats harassed American warships. As usual, the American military showed a great deal of restraint and did not destroy the patrol boats. Such destruction would have been justified-the Iranian craft acted in a threatening manner and even made threats over the radio. This situation raises the question of how the United States should respond to Iranian provocations.

On one hand, there is much to be said for exercising restraint and resorting to violence. From a moral standpoint, it is generally preferable to avoid killing people. From a practical standpoint, an American use of force could play into Iranian hands by making the United States appear as a bully and an aggressor.

On the other hand, there is also much to be said for responding to such provocations with force. First, tolerating such threats and instigation is likely to encourage further incidents. It seems likely that Iran is testing American resolve and that they will keep escalating until either they attack American ships or American ships are forced to open fire. The longer America waits and hesitates, the worse the incident will probably be when it finally occurs. If the United States quickly responds with legitimate force to such provocations, this will be an incident-but it will be an incident that could be used to send a clear message to Iran and thus perhaps prevent a worse incident in the future.

Second, permitting Iran to get away with such harassment serves to make America appear weak in the eyes of the world. Iran has already humbled us before and their leaders probably regard America as still being weak. As such, they will push America as far as they can because they believe we will not respond. Ironically, by avoiding violence in these incidents, the United States will probably encourage even greater violence. After all, people are far more reluctant to attack those who respond with decisive action and more likely to attack those who show hesitation and weakness.

To use an analogy, if you are being harassed by a wild beast, the way to prevent it from attacking you is to cause that beast to experience fear and pain whenever it acts in that way. If it persists in such behavior, then destruction might be your only option.

This is not to say that Iran is a wild beast. The Iranians are people (just like us) and their leaders are somewhat rational (just like our leaders). It would be best to be able to convince them that provoking America and harassing our ships is not in their best interest. Sadly, doing this might require sinking some of their patrol boats.

The Dollar

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 4, 2008

I’m not an economist, except to the degree that economics is a part of moral philosophy. However, being a philosopher does provide a useful perspective on the state of the dollar.

As most people know, the US economy is a bit wounded. We are dumping billions into Iraq and the war on terror. We are borrowing heavily. We are wallowing in the muck of the sub-prime mess. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the economy is weakening and this is reflected in the declining value of the dollar.

On one hand, this has some positive aspects. The most obvious is one everyone learns in Economics 101-if your currency is weaker, then your exports will increase. This is because those with foreign currency have increased buying power. There are other claimed advantages as well.

On the other hand, this has some negative aspects as well. The most obvious is that if you are being paid in dollars, you are now making less in relative terms. This is especially noticeable if you are traveling abroad. For example, that  Starbucks card you just filled up in the US won’t buy as much coffee as you expected when you arrive in the UK.

On a larger scale, a weaker US dollar also serves  to reflect and contribute to the negative perception of the United States. Since shortly after WWII the US dollar has been the backbone currency of the world. This is starting to change and is potentially a bad sign for America.  This shows that our economy is weaker and that there is less confidence in America. This makes perfect sense. After all, America is showing clear signs of decline. One sign is that we are hemorrhaging money into the war on terror and borrowing heavily to do this. Another sign is that we have done poorly diplomatically. The Bush administration seems to have done all it can to create bad feelings towards the United States. A third sign is that our leadership is weak. The upcoming crop seems to offer little hope in this regard. It is hard to see any of the candidates as a strong President who has what it takes to get America back on track and deal effectively with the world. America, as always, needs greatness in its leaders. Sadly, that greatness seems to lie in the past. I do hope I am wrong-perhaps the person who is elected will be like some of our great leaders of the past: seeming small at the start, but rising to the challenge and doing what must be done. America has been lucky in the past-we have often had just the right person step into a dire situation and save the day. This happened in the revolutionary war, in the Civil War and WWII. Perhaps it can happen again.

It is said that empires are like people-they have the vigor of youth, the decline of old age and finally fall to death. Perhaps this is the start of America’s fall. Perhaps not.

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