I describe and analyze the Drowning Child case in the previous post. Huemer proceeds to make the following distinctions between that and welfare statism which he dubs “Charity Mugging”:

a) In the Charity Mugging, the problem you seek to address is a chronic social condition, whereas in the Drowning Child, the problem is an acute emergency. …

b) In the Drowning Child case, one can easily and quickly solve the problem, whereas in the Charity Mugging case, one can realistically hope only to alleviate the problem.

c) In the Drowning Child case, the coercion required to address the problem is a one-time intervention, whereas in the Charity Mugging, it is an ongoing program of coercion. (155)

He adds in a footnote that Peter Unger objects to (a) that the only difference is that the victims of a “chronic problem” “have been suffering for a longer time; but this surely cannot lessen the reasons for helping victims of chronic problems.” (156n)

As it happens, I discuss this problem in my book. The requisite passages are below.


Utilitarians like Peter Unger who harp on our alleged duties to the poor in faraway lands fail to grasp the details of their own moral theory. For the demands of utilitarianism are hierarchical. At the base lies the prescription to make a society (or the world as a whole) as efficient as possible. There are very few truly needy in rich and successful societies.

The second tier is private charity, voluntarily discharged duties to help the poor, the widows and orphans, the church, and suchlike. The reason why there is a lexicographical priority is that it is worse than useless to throw charitable donations into a society that cannot but remain poor because of its abhorrence of capitalism. First, the citizens must learn economics and cooperate according to its teachings. Only then, with respect to abandoned infants, the incapacitated, and so on, will charity play its indispensable role. One must first teach the vast majority to fish and give fish only to those who cannot produce.

A reply to Unger’s Living High and Letting Die then is that unless the poor countries put themselves together and on their own eliminate poverty for the general population, flooding them with foreign aid or charitable donations is futile. If we want to help, then we should send them economics teachers who will explain to them what’s what. Only once laissez-faire capitalism is accepted and implemented, and the standard of living is rising rapidly, will it make sense to care for the sick, the dying, and so on. When the masses are dying from hunger or live on the brink of starvation or barely subsisting, there can be no talk about helping the few deserving poor, because everyone is poor.

Again, what “they” need is not charity but a solid grounding in economics and libertarianism. It is contrary to utilitarianism for the failed nations to leech off the successful ones: must not “they” cooperate with “us” honestly? Paying people for not producing diminishes overall wealth and happiness. Unger postulates second-tier duties to “us,” while forgetting about first-tier duties to “them.” If it is objected that they cannot in principle help themselves, then I reply that in that case, they for all intents and purposes are not human, and we have no duty to feed them, just as we have no duty to feed wild animals.

I agree that it is a scandal that many people in Third World countries are malnourished. But “we” are not responsible for that. Left-liberals, for all their coercive “compassion,” think that the Africans, etc. are an embarrassment to humanity. In a way, they are right: it is their flaws that cause their poverty. That does not mean that we should be treating them as subhumans who (we have decided) cannot take care of themselves.

Not only does acting on our alleged second-tier duties tempt them to violate their first-tier duties, but if the latter were fulfilled, then the former might disappear entirely, because the givers, “we,” in Unger’s cases, are too far away which violates the subsidiary principle which may have some authority even for a utilitarian. Why should an American help the beggars in Africa and not someone closer to them by location, kinship, language, etc.? It should not be a “burden” to be a “white man.” …

The third tier is paternalism. If everything fails, and a person’s powers incline to evil, then those powers must be temporarily taken away, until such time when he will learn to use them responsibly.

Thus, taking what seems to me everything in account, utilitarianism is promoted by (1) a social system of efficient laws which create such incentives as to make individual profit and the good of society (or common good) to harmonize with each other, i.e., making society prudent; (2) teaching people how to succeed in their personal undertakings, i.e., making individuals prudent within that prudent society; and (3) prescribing certain limited, imperfect in the Kantian sense, and voluntarily discharged duties, such as helping the poor or donating to the church, that redistribute resources within the social values scale (insofar as love of friendship entails merging of the values scales of the lovers) to satisfy the most urgent needs, i.e., remedying situations in which the prudence of an individual fails through no fault of his own (essentially bad luck). (SAtK, I, 42)


Regarding (a), it is plain that the chronic problem of the poor’s poverty is a normal, settled, and expected state of affairs. An acute emergency on the contrary is a significant disturbance in the regular course of life. Moreover, the poor bear full responsibility for their contemptible (allegedly chronic) poverty and remain the very people who must through their own efforts lift themselves up. An acute emergency is different in that without further details we assume that the drowning child is in grave danger to his life through no fault of his own. For example, the situation would be relevantly different if we knew that the same child insisted on drowning himself anew every day.

In addition, “poverty” is not the same as an imminent threat to life. As I argue in a brief discussion of rescues, “Even if a person is seriously disabled and has no one who loves him to care for him, a charitable organization is by the nature of its mission not obligated to do more than sustain his physical life. It is not required to feed him pomegranate juice.”

This brings us to point (b).

What explains the fact that the Starving African Adults continue having Starving African Children? Are they crazy? Are they really animals? Regardless, feeding the Starving Children through “charity” will soon enough result in more of them. Surely, the givers would be perfectly justified in this case in imposing strict population control measures upon the Africans up to and including mass sterilizations. But this sort of treatment is inhuman according to natural morality and disgusting according to Christian morality. Whites and blacks are, after all, members of the same species. The extreme separation between the human whites and subhuman blacks cannot be sustained in the longer run. “Charity” does nothing to narrow the gap in dignity and honor between the races.

Thus, feeding a Starving Child indeed “alleviates” the problem and only for a few hours. The child appears to have no parents who will care for him, or if he does, then they, too, are starving. The entire operation is a massive exercise in futility.

Point (c) follows.

Unger claims that utilitarianism commands “us” to enslave ourselves — and our posterity — for the rest of our lives to foreign wretches, to some insatiable maw that devours resources without even bothering to utter “thanks.” “We” must allegedly sacrifice our own lives and ends to serve the dark Starving African demon-god. I think any reasonable man will reject this outrageous demand. Nor does utilitarianism mandate or recommend it.

In short, the welfare state is nonsense.


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