Why does the USA continually claim to be the greatest and most ethical country (for example around human rights) when its citizenry is uninformed about so much harm that their government contributes to in the world? Do you agree with Filice that we have a prima facie moral obligation to be informed?


Assumptions:  God gave the Earth to humans in common to meet their needs for life.  There is moderate scarcity, that is that there are not infinite resources, but there are enough to meet everyone’s needs.  (If there were not enough to meet everyone’s needs, the right to life would be non-sensical.)

Needs are very different from wants.  Needs can be empirically measured and satisfied, they are objective; wants are subjective and there are not enough resources to meet everyone’s wants.

In the “natural state” no one needs consent to take what she needs to live—that is (for Locke) a God-given right, the right to life.

The justification for private property (to meet the needs for life):

In order to be able to justify taking from the common pile, you must follow these three criteria:

  1. You must labor (if you are able).  The ethical dimension of this is the work ethic.
  2. You must not take more than you need. The ethical dimension of this is that under moderate scarcity there is enough to go around, but if you take more than your fair share you will be infringing on someone else’s right to life.
  3. Leave enough and as good for others. The ethical dimension of this is the same as number 2, above, but adds that you must not take the best.  For example if there are 100 apples, and 50 people who need two apples each, and 50 apples are bruised, you take one of the non-bruised, and one bruised.

Locke wrote:  “It is useless, as well as dishonest to carve himself too much, or take more than he needs.”


Whether or not you believe in God, I submit that this justification is impossible to deny unless you give up the right to life.  That is, Locke’s justification is absolutely consistent with the right to life, and the empirical condition of moderate scarcity.  In a world of finite resources (even with renewable, there is always a finite amount) taking more than your fair share risks others’ lives.  To take more than your fair share (and all of the best) is to say to others that you do not care about their rights, just your own.    This is true with or without God; meaning that you do not need a religious basis for the right to life.  Further, if you claim to be any variety of a Judeo-Christian, Locke’s criteria are absolutely consistent with scripture.  If you take more than you need for life, you are necessarily putting others at risk.

If you do not care about others’ lives, then you can reject Locke’s criteria. However, that also folds back onto you and you do not then have a right to life.  Thus there is no obligation on anyone else to protect you and ensure your needs.  The world would become a Hobbesian hell, with life being “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Many people in the USA claim to be Christian but do not live by these criteria.  In fact while the USA is only about 5% of the world’s population, they consume vastly more than 5% of the resources, in some cases up to 30%.  The USA also generates a very high and disproportionate rate of most forms of pollution.

It is blatantly obvious that “we” do not live by Locke’s criteria.  Not living by these criteria is denying others’ an equal right to life.  Yet we claim to respect human rights.  This is the epitome of hypocrisy.

Why do you think that we do not live by Locke’s criteria?


Assumptions:Singer is a utilitarian which means that he is concerned with minimizing harm and maximizing overall good.  In this reading he questions the difference between killing and failing to save.

Singer provides the example of a child drowning in a pond.  Suppose someone (an adult who will be at no risk by entering the pond and getting the child) is passing by and sees this child.  If he stops to save the child there will only be two consequences to him.  He will be late, and his suit will get wet.

Singer proposes a principle:  “If it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.” (p. 301)

In order to reject Singer’s trajectory here, you must reject that principle.  In the example above, the man will be late to class lecture, and get wet if he intervenes; if he does not, the child will drown.  Singer (and I) consider that any moral person would agree that a wet suit, and being late are not of comparable moral significance to a child drowning.

From this, Singer provides an argument about our duty to help those in poverty.  That argument is on p. 302.

Remember that Singer is utilitarian.  Utilitarians are judged by the consequences they bring about that minimize suffering.

He is talking to anyone who has money after her basic needs are met.  What he argues is that it is a moral duty for her to give money to alleviate the suffering that comes with poverty—but not to give to a point of suffering.

The strong principle is to give all of your extra resources/money to those impoverished, but not to reduce yourself below the line of marginal utility.  The line of marginal utility is the point where you are above suffering, and below which suffering exists.

The weak principle is to give something to those suffering, but not to bring yourself near the line of marginal utility.


Both Locke and Singer address the excess that one has.  For Locke, you are not justified in having excess because it means that you have taken more than you need, and this threatens the right to life of others.  For Locke, if you have excess, it should go back into the “common pile” for others to labor to obtain what they need.  If you are able, under Locke, you must labor (no hand-outs).

Singer does not say as strongly that you are not justified in having excess, but he does argue that it is your moral duty (and not charity) to give it to the poor who are suffering below the line of marginal utility.  He allows for giving a little (under the weak principle) but the strongest moral position is to give all excess, while insuring that you do not suffer.  (Because your suffering would add to the other suffering, and this violates utilitarianism.)

Some people try to justify their excess by claiming that they “worked for it.”  That is labor, and under Locke, this is the first requirement.  However, you may not take more than your share, no matter how “hard” you work.  If you do, you put others at risk.

Some try to justify excess for the future, or for their own families.  Again, everyone has the right to life and if your actions threaten others’ rights, they are immoral.

Once again, we’re faced with the right to life.  Either we take it seriously, and don’t just bandy it about, or we abandon it and all safeguards that also protect us.

Ethics is about self-restraint, about not harming others, about doing the right thing, about one’s duties, about responsibility.  It is not about getting what you want just because you can.

Just as with Locke, “we” in the USA generally do not follow Singer’s argument and give the excess we have.  Why?


Assumptions:Filice assumes that it is our moral duty to be informed about distant atrocities, insofar as we are able.  This duty is magnified if we, in any way, contribute to such atrocities (including via tax dollars).

Filice gives two disparate examples of a person:  1.  A “well-educated, refined hedonist whose world revolves, by conscious choice, around private pleasure.” And 2.  A “seriously underprivileged, culturally deprived, illiterate person.”  He assumes that most of us fall somewhere in between those extremes.

Filice provides the case study of East Timor, and the atrocities there.  There are many more where our government plays “supportive roles in the atrocities of other governments.”

He then provides a 10 point argument (pp. 169-170) about our prima facie obligation to be informed.  (Prima facie means at first glance, or on the face of it.)


Underlying Filice’s argument is the same principle that Singer articulated—if you can act to prevent suffering, without causing comparable suffering to yourself, it is your duty to do so.Filice ups the ante by showing how the duty is stronger when you contribute to the harm.

Filice considers a number of objections to his view, and as you read these, consider if you are swayed into agreement with him.

One important note is that as we continue to move forward with globalization, and as technology allows us extremely easy access to information, Filice’s position only grows stronger.  (This essay was published in 1990 before the internet technology that we “enjoy” now.)

*****************DISCUSSION FORUM QUESTIONS***********************

  1. Why do people consider themselves, for example, good Christians, or good people (with or without faith in God), when they violate Locke’s criteria, especially the second and third criteria?
  2. Why does the USA continually claim to be the greatest and most ethical country (for example around human rights) when its citizenry is uninformed about so much harm that their government contributes to in the world? Do you agree with Filice that we have a prima facie moral obligation to be informed?

In the notes, it is clear that Locke’s criteria, in the presence of moderate scarcity, are to ensure that everyone has what is needed for the right to life.  We supposedly believe that everyone has the right to life, yet we do not live so as to ensure that right.  I’d like to have seen you really grapple with the empirical facts of moderate scarcity and what taking more than a fair share really means.  Reflect a bit on the overwhelmingly self-centered nature of violating the criteria.  What our lifestyles show is that we really do not care about everyone’s right to life.  Locke’s criteria are not irrelevant, out-dated, or too old.  His criteria are absolutely morally and empirically right.  I am not a poster child for living his criteria.  I drive an SUV that guzzles gas, I live in a big house, and I own many things.  I live beyond the criteria.  While I’d like to think that I care about the right to life of everyone, my lifestyle shows otherwise.  The USA is 5% of the world’s population but consumes far beyond that percentage.  I am part of that consumption, and I, too, choose lifestyle over (other) lives.

For me, this is part of the challenge of ethics.  Ethics is about self-constraint, responsibility, not hurting others, and doing the right thing.  We like to think of these things as part of our principles, but based on evidence we don’t live those principles, that is we don’t walk our talk.  I don’t think that the problem is our principles.  And just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right.  It simply means that we, too, can get away with it without being called out.

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