Black and White: Ethics and Hunger

When we talk about Ethics and Childhood Hunger we need to go all the way back to the first conversations about the so called “Have’s and Have Not’s.” The first real conversation about the ethical considerations regarding the subject of hunger, and famine began with Peter Singer’s (1972) paper “Famine, Affluence and Morality.” This paper ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ launched an important round of reflection on the developed world’s moral responsibility to undertake development assistance. 

Denis Goulet’s  book The Cruel Choice has sparked the conversation about hunger and ethics. This book, published some 40 years ago and marks the beginning of development ethics. The importance of Goulet’s work is the role it played in bringing philosophy into the theory and practice of development (Thompson, 2014).

There are two main ethical arguments for and against hunger:

  • Give aid and assistance to those in need despite the financial burden (Barrett and Maxwell 2005)
  • The Ecology debate lower the birth rate or increase the death rate via starvation, infection, etc. (Hardin 1968, 1974,1976).

Seems really BLACK and WHITE don’t you think?

When we talk about ethics, it’s always important to consider the ethical principals of beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice, and respect for autonomy, and fidelity.

Definitions (School of Education, Syracuse University 2018)

  • Respecting autonomy: the individual has the right to act as a free agent. That is, human beings are free to decide how they live their lives as long as their decisions do not negatively impact the lives of others. Human beings also have the right to exercise freedom of thought or choice.
  • Doing no harm (Nonmaleficence): Our interactions with people (within the helping professions or otherwise) should not harm others. We should not engage in any activities that run the risk of harming others.
  • Benefiting others (Beneficence): Our actions should actively promote the health and well-being of others.
  • Being just (Justice): In the broadest sense of the word, this means being fair. This is especially the case when the rights of one individual or group are balanced against another. Being just, however, assumes three standards. They are impartiality, equality, and reciprocity (based on the golden rule: treat others as you wish to be treated).
  • Being faithful (Fidelity): Being faithful involves loyalty, truthfulness, promise keeping, and respect. This principle is related to the treatment of autonomous people. Failure to remain faithful in dealing with others denies individuals the full opportunity to exercise free choice in a relationship, therefore limiting their autonomy.

Personally after considering the United States childhood hunger statistics and knowing from the health perspective the implications for health outcomes of children who grow up hungry, I have come to think that we MUST be on the Pro Aid and assistance to end childhood hunger. I think the other key factor to this issue is that it MUST be sustainable. Arizona needs to implement sustainable solutions to help feed the many hungry children and their families in Maricopa County.


Barrett, Christopher B., and Daniel G. Maxwell. 2005. Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting its Role. Abingdon, OX: Routledge.

Chatterjee, R. (2017, March 23). Kids who suffer hunger in first years lag behind their peers in school. Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162: 1243–1248. doi: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243

Hardin, Garrett. 1974. Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor. Psychology Today Magazine, September 8, 38–43, 123–126.

Hardin, Garrett. 1976a. “Carrying Capacity as an Ethical Concept.” Soundings 58: 120–137.

Hardin, Garrett. 1976b. The Limits of Altruism: An Ecologist’s View of Survival. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.

 Singer, Peter. 1972. “Famine, Affluence and Morality.” Philosophy and Public Affairs1: 229–243.

Syracuse University. (2018, October 23). Common ethical issues. Retrieved from

Thompson, P. B. (2015). From world hunger to food sovereignty: food ethics and human development. Journal of Global Ethics11(3), 336-350. Retrieved from


6 thoughts on “Black and White: Ethics and Hunger

  1. hgsfnp19

    You have brought up such an interesting point, food insecurity/hunger is not always a black and white subject. You mentioned the two main ethical arguments for and against hunger. I, personally, have never heard the argument FOR hunger, but again, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It seems somewhat cruel that someone could suggest the demise of other people to make resources more available to those that survive (Hardin, 1974). This “lifeboat ethics” theory caused me to think in a way I don’t think I have ever before.

    I can understand why the theory exists and how someone can apply it to situations in the world, like hunger, but I do not believe the problem of hunger is best described by this phenomenon. While people who are suffering from hunger may be somewhat isolated, the are not completely out of reach like those on the lifeboat. Rather than not having enough food to go around, there seems to be more of an imbalance of food; some have extreme excess and others have very little or nothing at all. Those outside the lifeboat must work together to better proportion what they have, and in many cases it may not cause a significant financial burden.

    The theory of lifeboat ethics when it comes to hunger seems like the lazy way out, it requires little effort. With that said, I do not agree with Hardin’s theory of lifeboat ethics in the problem of hunger in communities, or in other parts of the world.

    Have you heard of lifeboat ethics prior to this course and do you believe this theory should be applied to hunger?


    Hardin, Garrett, (1974). Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor. Psychology Today Magazine, September 8, 38–43, 123–126.


  2. Rey Manalese

    Hi Wairimu,

    Arguably, as humans we have a moral duty to minimize human suffering, thus making it almost mandatory to help those people who are experiencing scarcity in food. However, as you mentioned, one of the ethical considerations is the financial burden on our economy. I can see how ethics can really play a big role in this topic. For instance, a solution to this problem may give way to another problem to occur. Most public and government programs that aim to feed the poor are usually financed by our welfare budget. People in our community including the middle-class pay taxes to contribute to these programs. However, many of our middle-class people in America are already having financial problems due to the inflations and the high cost of living. Now, the question is, if we plan to improve our programs to improve hunger in our country, would this lead to increase federal taxes? Or cut back on some of the welfare budgets such as healthcare? One can even argue that the burden should be equalized among people, but this can be a revolving door to another ethical concern.
    I think this is a great ethical consideration for your health policy, as this can affect many aspects of our community. I am a strong advocate of feeding the poor as I was born and raised in a third-world country (Philippines). One way to combat this ethical dilemma is to educate lawmakers and the community about the positive impact of feeding programs. For example, evidence suggests that kids that are hungry are more prone to using healthcare services and do poorly in school which results in repeated use of our educational resources. This then becomes a question of short-term vs long-term benefits. As a result, feeding the poor may actually save as money in the long run. Here is the link of some of the consequences and impacts of hunger on our economy, I hope this helps:


  3. Thank you for providing such a great perspective on the history of the ethical conversations regarding hunger and the developed world’s responsibility toward this issue. I read through some of Hardin’s (1968)1 publications that discuss economic theories such as the Tragedy of the Commons, and Lifeboat Ethics (1974)2. In the example of his lifeboat ethics theory, he creates an argument based on a place (Earth) with limited resources, and while acknowledging there are rich and poor, introduces the reproductive differences between the two groups, speculating that the poor reproduce at an increasingly higher rate than the rich. From here is where he positions his argument that the rich—which he characterizes as the U.S.—could not realistically maintain a system in which we share our wealth or our food with the poor countries. He goes on to further discuss why food banks won’t work and essentially brings his article to rest on the precipice that the poor should simply learn the hard way and die as a form of crude population control2. Wow.
    Now, whether or not I agree or disagree with Mr. Hardin, the fact is that the issue you are looking at is not Earth; it’s actually the U.S. And, this chasm that separates the rich from the poor is not an ocean, but rather a street or a zip code. How do we address the issue of hunger when the disparity between the have’s and the have nots exist right here in the richest nation on the planet? I think it is of great importance to note that the Roadmap to End Global Hunger—a document drafted for the U.S. administration outlining actions on how U.S. programs and policies can address global hunger—suggests that the U.S. needs “to increase the capacity of people and governments to ultimately feed and care for themselves.”4 The U.S. should definitely be taking a healthy dose of their own medicine.
    What are your thoughts on how the U.S. government should that address childhood hunger from a policy perspective? The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—AKA: food stamps— is currently controlled by the federal government. Conservatives would like to see more of the responsibility of the anti-hunger programs given to the individuals states, although the liberals feel that the states do not have an adequate enough budget to address the many undertakings currently being funded by the federal government3. Some experts propose that nutrition education will address some of the aspects of hunger as it relates to families that choose low-nutrition foods with their limited funds. However, others suggest that education will not address these concerns at all, as only a well-paying job can adequately ensure families have the funds to choose nutritious foods in the first place.
    I’m excited to hear your thoughts as you continue to tackle this extremely complex issue in your blog.

    1. Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162: 1243–1248. doi: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243
    2. Hardin, Garrett. 1974. Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor. Psychology Today Magazine, September 8, 38–43, 123–126.
    3. Institute of Medicine (US). (2010). Mitigating the Nutritional Impacts of the Global Food Price Crisis: Workshop Summary. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US), 7, U.S. Policy in Food and Nutrition. Retrieved from:


  4. Thank you for arguing this important point. It is interesting for me to note when people complain about paying taxes that will go to creating safe infrastructure, and educating children, some state that they do not have children, so why should they have to help fund schools etc… There seems to be a lack of general realization that as a community, we are going to be healthier/ better, when we all have access to basic human needs such as food, shelter, safety, and education.
    Your comment regarding the Haves and the Have-nots made me think of Ocasio-Cortez’s policy idea of taxing the multimillionaire class at 70%. This idea of taxing the multimillionaire class as one way of providing for the needs of the community and the environment I believe, makes a lot of sense. CNBC (Jan 31, 2019) reports that at Davos, professor Erik Brynjolfsson reminded the audience that the United States used to have taxes as high as 70% or higher from around the 1930s through the 1960s.
    I am not an economist, but it seems as though a policy change like this would go a long way to helping provide for basic human needs, like food, for those that live in the United States.

    Clifford, C. (Jan 31, 2019) AOC has company: Another new congresswoman backs 70% marginal tax rate on the rich. CNBC. Retrieved from


  5. Thank you for raising the issue of sustainability as an ethical point for policy to address hunger. As you think about the ethics definitions you discussed (and I appreciate that you included fidelity as an ethical concept), how does sustainability map onto these definitions?


    1. Sustainability maps into the definitions of beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice, and respect for autonomy, and fidelity in a complex manner. Beneficence in regards to ending hunger is actively promoting health and wellness through the use of infustructure and additional resources to create an equitable solution. Nonamaleficence is finding solutions that do not harm those who find themselves in a hunger situation. For example helping with aid and food resources but not increasing the cost of living, healthcare, etc. Justice to end hunger is working towards equitable solutions such as increasing funding for food resources and lunch programs. Respect for autonomy is creating programs in which the communtiy is able to participate in the care and action for ending hunger in the population. Fidelity to those that suffer from hunger keeping the promise of engaging them and helping them in diffcult times. All of these principals are able to be used in the hunger topic the complexity comes from those who believe that assisting the hungry is a privledge for those who are hungry.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s