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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
June 2012
Print publication year:
Online ISBN:
Ethics, Philosophy

Book description

This multi-authored book explores the ways that many influential ethical traditions - secular and religious, Western and non-Western - wrestle with the moral dimensions of poverty and the needs of the poor. These traditions include Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, among the religious perspectives; classical liberalism, feminism, liberal-egalitarianism, and Marxism, among the secular; and natural law, which might be claimed by both. The basic questions addressed by each of these traditions are linked to several overarching themes: what poverty is, the particular vulnerabilities of high-risk groups, responsibility for the occurrence of poverty, preferred remedies, how responsibility for its alleviation is distributed, and priorities in the delivery of assistance. This volume features an introduction to the types, scope, and causes of poverty in the modern world and concludes with Michael Walzer's broadly conceived commentary, which provides a direct comparison of the presented views and makes suggestions for further study and policy.


‘The challenges posed by poverty are both universal and particular. To meet them, we need social science and policy making to be informed by the diverse normative frameworks through which poverty is viewed around the world. The essays in this collection maintain the high standard of previous Ethikon volumes, offering riches to general readers and specialists alike. Poverty and Morality will enable us to both appreciate the constraints that exist in dealing with poverty cross-culturally, and discover possibilities for creative and constructive solutions both at home and abroad.’

Stephen C. Angle - Wesleyan University

‘Combining economics and sociology with philosophy and theology, this book brings multiple moral traditions into dialogue about the ever more complex problem of global poverty. It will be of use to students and scholars in many academic traditions, and it provides food for thought for people of conscience in all the major cultures of our interdependent world.’

Richard Madsen - University of California, San Diego

‘Poverty and Morality: Religious and Secular Perspectives is a thoughtful and engaging book on an important subject. It will be of interest to people in a wide variety of disciplines, including philosophy, comparative ethics, political theory, and development studies. The individual essays are clearly written, interesting as stand-alone pieces, but especially instructive because they are set in the context of other traditions’ treatment of these same questions. Poverty and Morality offers a wealth of rich, detailed arguments on how different traditions have framed ethical issues connected to poverty, which is very instructive, given the current debates on global justice. Throughout this volume, the various authors not only connect the authoritative texts and assumptions of various different ethical traditions with the political and intellectual world in which they were writing, but also address the perennial questions of the scope of our responsibility to ourselves and others, which are raised by the existence of the poor in our midst.’

Margaret Moore - Queen’s University, Canada

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  • 1 - Introduction
    pp 1-14
  • View abstract


    This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book which prompts us to wonder whether we are compelled to choose between secular and religious approaches to poverty. The book addresses questions about poverty and the poor within specific ethical traditions articulating ethical or normative theories rather than empirical claims. It provides readers with the opportunity to make comparisons between and among several secular and religious traditions, as well as to make comparisons within what are never truly homogeneous and unchanging systems of ethical thought, texts, and behavior. Addressing poverty across, not just within, national boundaries requires a better understanding of the variegated intellectual and religious traditions that have shaped our global civilization. In a modest and tentative way, the book helps to build that understanding and, in so doing, contributes to the alleviation of deprivation and want, wherever it may exist.
  • 2 - Global Poverty and Unequal Development
    pp 15-43
  • Contemporary Trends and Issues
  • View abstract


    Questions about global poverty and inequality inspire some of the most contentious debates not only among academics but also among politicians and the public at large. This chapter assesses recent empirical trends on poverty and inequality, with a focus on human well-being. It argues that the past decade was one of unprecedented progress for some but stagnation and reversal for others and that there is a growing gap among developing countries as well as among all countries of the world. Although many economists agree that poverty is multidimensional, they continue to use the income poverty framework. Because they argue that economic growth is the primary means to reduce poverty and that there is strong correlation between income poverty and non-income human deprivations. The trends documented in the chapter make it apparent that many countries and groups within countries were marginalized from the global economy during the globalization of the 1990s.
  • 3 - The Karma of Poverty
    pp 44-61
  • A Buddhist Perspective
  • View abstract


    Absolute deprivation, that is insufficient food and water, clothing, shelter, and access to basic medical care, needs to be addressed wherever and whenever it occurs. The author's presentation of Buddhist perspectives on poverty highlights what Buddhism has to contribute. Buddhism's implicit critique of consumerism, in particular, challenges the values that often accompany a higher standard of living. The popular understanding of karma as merit making tends to make Buddhism into a kind of "spiritual materialism". The author demonstrates that this distorts the Buddha's own emphasis on transforming the quality of our lives by transforming our motivations. Most important is the correlation Buddhism emphasizes between one's sense of being a discrete self, an individual whose ultimate well-being can be pursued separately from the well-being of others, and dukkha, one's basic dissatisfaction or disease. The author also mentions the success of socially engaged Buddhism movements in Vietnam, Thailand and Sri Lanka.
  • 4 - Poverty and Morality in Christianity
    pp 62-82
  • View abstract


    Within both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the absence of material goods is the foundational meaning of poverty. In Judaism as well as the ancient Roman Empire within which Christianity grew, women, children, and aliens, had no legal standing without the intercession of an adult male patron. Speaking of volition of both God and humans, the chapter says that God's will is to be followed in the distribution of all goods. Although early Christians were hardly in a position to make the alleviation of poverty a matter of law, the early church felt a moral burden to meet the needs of its own members. The chapter addresses three concrete remedies followed by Christian tradition: work, charity, and hospitality, and three remedies related to the practice of virtue: generosity, forgiveness, and Christ-likeness. Responsibility for the alleviation of poverty is also distributed widely among individuals and institutions in Christian thought.
  • 5 - Classical Liberalism, Poverty, and Morality
    pp 83-114
  • View abstract


    The tradition of classical liberal thinking draws primarily from three disciplines: moral philosophy, social science, and political (or juridical) science, supplemented by ancillary disciplines such as psychology, history, and sociology. Each of the three elements reinforces the others to produce a coherent theory of the relationship of freedom, rights, government, and order. Classical liberal thinkers, despite often robust disagreement among themselves, have agreed that the creation of more wealth is the solution to the alleviation of poverty and that, because outcomes are not themselves generally subject to choice, just and efficient institutions are the key to increasing wealth and diminishing poverty. Moreover, although many make room for state provision of assistance to the poor and indigent, all agree that there is a hierarchy of means for the alleviation of poverty, cascading from personal responsibility and self-help, to mutual aid, to charity, to the least preferred option, state compulsion.
  • 6 - Confucian Perspectives on Poverty and Morality
    pp 115-133
  • View abstract


    The Chinese tradition has hallowed a lineage that goes from Confucius through Mencius eventually to Zhuxi, branding Xunzi a heterodox interpreter of the master. Believing in human nature's innate goodness, Mencius regarded morality as natural and instinctive. Xunzi, by contrast, regarded morality as artificial and learned behavior. This chapter considers how these three classical Confucians would have answered the questions of how to combat poverty and whose responsibility it is to do so, and by examining all three, it conveys the range of possible perspectives with legitimate claim to being Confucian. By way of conclusion, the chapter uses the example of contemporary urban homelessness, speculating on how Mencius, Zhuxi and Xunzi, might counsel their local authorities. The purpose in doing so is to show both the potential utility of their insights and those insights' limitations.
  • 7 - Poverty and Morality
    pp 134-159
  • A Feminist Perspective
  • View abstract


    Poverty from a feminist perspective starts with lack of financial resources. From a feminist perspective, gender inequality is a factor that overlaps and complicates these other factors. Indeed, poverty is to some extent caused by gender and inequalities in gender relations. The similarities between John Locke's and John Stuart Mill's accounts of poverty are fairly evident, particularly the linking of poverty to character failings and inferior rationality, the attribution of individual fault as the cause of poverty, the role of the state as the reformer of character by requiring labor, and the control of reproduction. Both theorists display many themes, tropes, and "solutions" that cohere eerily with late twentieth-century welfare and poverty policies as they pertain to women, such as limiting reproduction. What is perhaps more interesting are the echoes between these liberal discourses and poverty in countries that do not share the liberal tradition.
  • 8 - Hinduism and Poverty
    pp 160-179
  • View abstract


    The relationship between poverty and morality, and Hinduism, can be analyzed diachronically as well as synchronically. When it is analyzed diachronically, the economic history of India comes into play. When it is analyzed synchronically, the overarching templates of Hinduism and its understanding of the role of the state help frame the issue. On the basis of certain Hindu normative texts such as the Manusmṛti, one could initially argue that the lowest class, referred to generally as Śūdras, would fall into the high-risk group, and so also would include women. The elimination of poverty and the alleviation of poverty are not dichotomized in traditional Hinduism. It is a matter of resources and agency. The responsibility for removing poverty seems to rest on oneself, on others, and on the state, according to Hinduism. The activist interpretation of karma emphasizes one's economic well-being.
  • 9 - The Problem of Poverty in Islamic Ethics
    pp 180-203
  • View abstract


    The problem of poverty occupies a central place in Islamic ethics. This chapter offers a survey of how Muslim thinkers over the centuries have grappled with the problem of poverty. The "problem" may be divided into three ethical concerns: why poverty; who are the poor; and what are the best means to alleviate poverty. Building upon moral-legal injunctions and admonitions in the Qurʾan and sunna of the Prophet and the first four "rightly guided" caliphs, legists dealt at length with these issues in the jurisprudential (fiqh) literature. This literature demonstrates that the four principal schools of Sunni jurisprudence and the dominant school of Shi'i jurisprudence agreed broadly on the general ethical approach to identifying the poor and to dealing with poverty, including the assignment of responsibilities to society and state. Zakat is arguably the primary instrument in Islamic ethics for poverty alleviation and distributive justice.
  • 10 - Jewish Perspectives on Poverty
    pp 204-219
  • View abstract


    The political changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought an end to the political authority of halakhic law. In a society shaped by Judaic traditions, groups more liable to be poor include immigrants and aliens, women, and paradoxically those committed to the supreme religious ideal of a life of study. In the Jewish tradition, alleviating poverty is by no means merely a matter for supererogation; the duty to help the poor is called tzedakah. Providing for the basic needs of the poor was seen also as a communal responsibility, and Jewish communities did so through two complementary mechanisms: a daily operation of food collection and distribution, and a tzedakah fund that made weekly disbursements to all poor residents. The common form of competition for welfare resources was between the local poor, asserting an entitlement to the care and resources of their own community, and itinerant claimants.
  • 11 - Liberal Egalitarianism and Poverty
    pp 220-241
  • View abstract


    The egalitarian liberal commitment to poverty reduction rests on commitments to either equality or liberty (or both). Amartya Sen argues that the equality achieved by equalizing primary goods or resources obscures an important source of remaining inequality: the capabilities of persons to convert resources into functionings. Sen levels two criticisms against accounts such as Ronald Dworkin's and John Rawls's. The summary of Dworkin's view illustrates a strain of egalitarian thinking that tries to take inequality-producing individual choices as sources of just inequality. It is clear that Issues surrounding volition in egalitarian thinking overlap with those involved with responsibility. This chapter presents a survey of a few alternative accounts on responsibility and conditionality. The existence of poverty in underdeveloped countries is evidence of an unjust global order, and directs responsibility to those who maintain that order.
  • 12 - Marxism and Poverty
    pp 242-264
  • View abstract


    Marx's relation to moral philosophy was quite attenuated. In his Young Hegelian period, Marx faulted moral theories, or, more precisely, Hegelian theories of Right (Recht), precisely for their universality. Bolshevism did, in a way, promote a distinctive (though hardly unique) ethic. That would be the straw man ethic of popular moral theorizing, where "the end justifies the means". Although Marx and Marxists often spoke of the poor and therefore of poverty, the concept is not integral to any distinctively Marxist theory. The current fixation on "gender, race, and class" in academic and other circles is a bastard offspring of classical Marxism's concern with working-class emancipation. Marxists believe that, in moving toward communism, poverty will disappear, and recognize no tension between relieving poverty, removing the effects of poverty and promoting other human goods. The remedy for poverty consists in overcoming capitalism by instituting an economic order based on social ownership.
  • 13 - Poverty and Natural Law
    pp 265-284
  • View abstract


    As the nature of poverty changed significantly from the medieval to the modern and contemporary periods, so also has natural law reflection on poverty. This chapter begins with an exposition of the basic lines of Thomas Aquinas's natural law ethic, particularly as it was applied to poverty, and provides a brief explication of one of this tradition's most important early modern advocates, Bartolomé de Las Casas, O.P. It also examines the work of John Finnis, one of the founders of the "new natural law theory", and the use of his theory by a development economist, Sabina Alkire. Natural law approaches responsibility for domestic poverty in terms of three principles: the principle of solidarity, the principle of subsidiarity, and the principle of the common good regarding the state as ultimately responsible for promoting the public good when other agencies fail to do so.
  • 14 - Afterword
    pp 285-294
  • View abstract


    The author's own views are social democratic in character. This perspective is relected n this chapter, which is a commentary on the other chapters of this book. The politics of poverty figures hardly at all in the traditions, even the secular traditions. Marxists are interested in political agency but only for revolution, not for any of the more ordinary, day-in, day-out efforts to help the poor. Liberal egalitarians are concerned with the design of a just society but have little to say about its achievement. Libertarians do not believe in politics, except at the margins. Feminists are advocates of organization and empowerment, but their focus addresses only the special vulnerability of women and children. Religious writers often gesture toward the role of public officials in the relief of poverty but have nothing to say about the political pressure necessary to make sure that the role is responsibly enacted.
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