“Clouds on the Sea,” Ruth Dallas (New Zealand), This Same Sky, p. 177 (see Resource List)
I walk among men with tall bones,
With shoes of leather, and pink faces,
I meet no man holding a begging bowl,
All have their dwelling places.
In my country
Every child is taught to read or write,
Every child has shoes and a warm coat,
Every child must eat his dinner,
No one must grow any thinner,
It is considered remarkable and not nice
To meet bed bugs and lice.
Oh we live like the rich
With music at the touch of a switch,
Light in the middle of the night,
Water in the house as from a spring,
Hot, if you wish, or cold, anything
For the comfort of the flesh,
In my country. Fragment
Of new skin at the edge of the world’s ulcer.
For the question
That troubled you as you watched the reapers
And a poor woman following,
Gleaning ears on the ground,
Why should I have grain and this woman none?
No satisfactory answer has ever been found.
Background on Philosophical Issues
Dallas gives us a striking tongue-in-cheek account, in somewhat sarcastic rhyming verse, of a speaker realizing the significance of her living in a culture in which abject poverty is very rare. All of the privilege that she notes, which is most often taken for granted, gives us a chilling reminder of the majority of the world, in which circumstances are otherwise. Living in a place in which affluence is the norm, it is easy for many of us to forget that the majority of humans cannot just assume their basic needs will be met each day. At the end of the final stanza, the “you” is confronted with a women who has very little, and demands of the world why she should have plenty and this other woman has nothing.
We know that there is enough food on earth to feed the world’s human population many times over. So why are there still so many people starving? If we have access to more than we need, are we obligated to give some of our own food and resources to help other people? If so, how much? For those of us living in affluent nations, these are questions we often shy away from confronting. They can seem to big for one person to solve.
Most cultures throughout history have built into their moral codes some notion of obligation to “charity.” For instance, members of the Jewish community traditionally give at least ten percent of income to those in need. Others give their time or a portion of their resources instead of money. This practice is called tzedakah, a term derived from the Hebrew word tzedek, meaning “justice.” To live justly, says this philosophy, we must help those in need, even if we are in dire need ourselves.
Peter Singer, ethics professor at multiple universities and author of The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, also insists that we have a moral obligation to allocate at minimum 1% of our income to help other people – perhaps more if we are in a higher economic bracket. However, many people disagree that traditional “charity” – giving money to an organization – is the best or most effective way to help others. Some people worry that poverty is too big a problem for one person to make a difference.
If we agree that we should give some percentage of everything we earn to others, how do we calculate how much that should be? If I give one per cent of my income, I will still have plenty left over to satisfy all of my own needs and most of my real wants – which would leave me far better off than many people in the world. However, if I were to give away everything I earn, then I would be plunged into poverty myself, and the cycle would only continue. Am I then obligated to give more than is easy for me? If so, why, and how much? If not, why not?
Then there is the controversial issue of education. Most countries make education free up to a certain age, but then higher education is available only to those who can pay for it. In many of those countries, some grade schools are free, while some have tuition costs. Some people choose to send their c
hildren to public schools even if they can afford private school, while some people cannot afford private school but would choose to send their children to one if they could. Wealthier communities tend to have public schools with more resources than less wealthy communities, since public schools are funded by tax dollars. Many people feel that for their children to get a very good education, they have to pay to send them to a better school than the government can provide. Is this just? Why or why not?
In philosophical discourse, a right is a privileged moralclaim that an individual can insist on. Rights generally trump other moral considerations like efficiency, and sometimes even freedom. Many people believe that the basic necessities of life must be rights, because if we do not have them, we cannot fully enjoy any other rights. However, there is a great deal of debate over what counts as the necessities of life.
In a way, one person’s rights interfere with the freedoms of others, because they impose restrictions on others’ behaviour. Many rights are considered negative rights, which simply means others cannot interfere with them. If I have the right to life, it means others do not have the right to kill me just because they feel like it. Positive rights actually impose duties on other people. If every child has a positive right to foodand clothing, it may mean that someone else has the obligation to make sure they are fed and clothed. In Ruth Dallas’ poem, “Clouds on the Sea,” the speaker implies that many people in the country she is visiting are not seeing their basic rights fulfilled. However, it is unclear whose responsibility it is to make things better.
Rich, Tracey R. “Tzedakah: Charity.” Judaism 101. <http://www.jewfaq.org/tzedakah.htm.>
Singer, Peter. “Ten Reasons Not to Give Money to Charity.” The Life You Can Save.<http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/Learn-More/Common-Objections-to-Giving>
Sample Questions for Discussion
“Oh we live like the rich…”
- What does it mean to be rich?
- If I have more than someone else but I still do not have everything that I need to be happy, am I rich?
- If many people have more than me, but I have enough to be happy and healthy, am I rich?
“Every child is taught to read or write,
Every child has shoes and a warm coat,
Every child must eat his dinner…”
- What does it mean for something to be a right? Does society have an obligation to make sure that all my rights are fulfilled?
- What is the difference between a right and a privilege?
- Is warm clothing and food a right (something that everyone must get no matter what) or a privilege (something special that you have to earn or work for)? Why?
- If food and clothing is a right, should it be free? Why or why not?
- Is education a right or a privilege?
- If education is a right, should it be free? Why or why not? And for how long?
- Should all schools be free? Should all schools cost something? Or should some be free and some cost money? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
“Why should I have grain and this woman none?
No satisfactory answer has ever been found.”
- In some parts of the world/cultures, food and clothing is relatively inexpensive, but in others, it is very expensive. If I can afford more food and clothing than I need, do I have an obligation to give some of it to people who cannot afford enough? Why or why not? If so, how much?
- If I cannot work, does society have an obligation to make sure that all of my basic needs are met? Why or why not?
- What if I could work, but I choose not to?