Thinking about the needy: A Reprise

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This article discusses Jan Narveson's "Welfare and Wealth, Poverty and Justice in Today's World," and "Is World Poverty a Moral Problem for the Wealthy?" and their relation to my "Thinking about the Needy, Justice, and International Organizations." Section 2 points out that Narveson's concerns differ from mine, so that often his claims and mine fail to engage each other. For example, his focus is on the poor, mine the needy, and while many poor are needy, and vice versa, our obligations may differ regarding the poor than regarding the needy. Also, Narveson invokes a narrow conception of morality as those rules that government or society may compel people to follow. Given a broader, more plausible, conception of morality, many of Narveson's claims actually support my substantive views. Section 3 shows that many of Narveson's claims are relevant to the best means of aiding the needy, but do not challenge the validity of that end. This is true, for example, of his claims about the role of poor governments, the importance of freedom, the undesirability of mere "handouts," and the effects of bad economic policies. Section 4 defends the importance of my distinction between acting justly and acting for reasons of justice. It illustrates that on several widely shared conceptions of justice there might be agent-neutral reasons of justice to aid the needy, even if from an agentrelative perspective one would not be acting unjustly if one failed to do so. Section 5 contests Narveson's portrayal of egalitarianism as concerned about inequality of wealth, per se, as insensitive to prior wrongs, and as holding that the worse-off have a right to be made better off at the expense of the well-off. In addition, it rejects Narveson's contention that egalitarians violate impartiality, and aim to impose their personal tastes on others. Section 6 challenges a fundamental assumption underlying Narveson's doctrine of mutual advantage. In addition, it denies that egalitarians are irrational merely because equality can conflict with the pareto principle. More generally, by appealing to impersonal ideals, it challenges the widely held view that the pareto principle is a condition of rationality. Section 7 argues that Narveson's meta-ethical assumptions are controversial, internally inconsistent, in tension with his normative views, and ultimately a version of skepticism. In addition, it challenges Narveson's view about the role intuitions play in moral theory. Section 8 clarifies points where Narveson's discussion of my views may be misleading. Finally, the paper notes the role that moral reasons may play in deliberation and action, but emphasizes the philosophical and theoretical nature of my work. My aim is to determine the moral considerations that are relevant to how people should act regarding the needy. Whether people will actually be moved to so act, for those reasons or otherwise, is another matter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)409-458
Number of pages50
JournalJournal of Ethics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy


  • Agent-neutral reasons
  • Agent-relative reasons
  • Comparative justice
  • Egalitarianism
  • Equality
  • Foreign aid
  • Guilt
  • Ideals
  • Injustice
  • Internalism
  • Intuitions
  • Irrationality
  • Jan narveson
  • Justice
  • Leveling down objection
  • Libertarianism
  • Meta-ethics
  • Moral motivation
  • Moral reasons
  • Mutual advantage
  • Pareto principle
  • Personal ideals
  • Rationality
  • Reasons
  • Relativism
  • Skepticism
  • Social convention theory
  • The needy


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