Feed People First? Do We? Ought We?
“Feed people first!” That has a ring of righteousness. The Rio Declaration insists. “All States and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement.”(3) In the biblical parable of the great judgment. the righteous had ministered to the needy, and Jesus welcomes them to their reward. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” Those who refused to help are damned (Matthew 28:31–46). The vision of heaven is that “they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more” (Revelation 7.16), and Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that this will of God be done on earth, as it is in heaven. “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 5.11). These are such basic values, if there is to be any ethics at all, surely food comes first.
Or does it? If giving others their daily bread were always the first concern, the Christians would never have built an organ or a sanctuary with a stained glass window, but rather always given all to the poor. There is also the biblical story of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment. When the disciples complained that it should have been sold and given to the poor, Jesus replied, “you always have the poor with you. She has done a beautiful thing.” (Matthew 26.10–11). While the poor are a continuing concern, with whom Jesus demonstrated ample solidarity, there are other commendable values in human life, “beautiful things,” in Jesus’ phrase. The poor are always there, and if we did nothing else of value until there were no more poor, we would do nothing else of value at all.
Eradicating poverty is an indispensable requirement! Yes, but set these ideals beside the plain fact that we all daily prefer other values. Every time we buy a Christmas gift for a wife or husband, or go to a symphony concert, or give a college education to a child, or drive a late model car home, or turn on the air conditioner, we spend money that might have helped to eradicate poverty. We mostly choose to do things we value more than feeding the hungry.
An ethicist may reply, yes, that is the fact of the matter. But no normative ought follows from the description of this behavior. We ought not to behave so. But such widespread behavior, engaged in almost universally by persons who regard themselves as being ethical, including readers of this article, is strong evidence that we in fact not only have these norms but think we ought to have them. To be sure, we also think that charity is appropriate, and we censure those who are wholly insensitive to the plight of others. But we place decisions here on a scale of degree, and we do not feel guilty about all these other values we pursue, while yet some people somewhere on earth are starving.
If one were to advocate always feeding the hungry first, doing nothing else until no one in the world is hungry, this would paralyze civilization. People would not have invented writing, or smelted iron, or written music, or invented airplanes. Plato would not have written his dialogues, or Aquinas the Summa Theologica; Edison would not have discovered the electric light bulb or Einstein the theory of relativity. We both do and ought to devote ourselves to various worthy causes, while yet persons in our own communities and elsewhere go hungry.
A few of these activities redound subsequently to help the poor, but the possible feedback to alleviating poverty cannot be the sole justification of advancing these multiple cultural values. Let us remember this when we ask whether saving natural values might sometimes take precedence. Our moral systems in fact do not teach us to feed the poor first. The Ten Commandments do not say that; the Golden Rule does not; Kant did not say that; nor does the utilitarian greatest good for the greatest number imply that. Eradicating poverty may be indispensable but not always prior to all other cultural values. It may not always be prior to conserving natural values either.