The moral claim: a (part) response to Dan and Christina

Dan asked me to clarify what I meant by ‘the moral claim’, referred to an a recent post. The reference:

– a relative said to me, while back in Perth, ‘We’re so glad you are doing this work in Afghanistan on behalf of us, Phil.’

Me: ‘It’s not on behalf of you.’

Relative: ‘I think it is.’

Me: ‘It’s not. There is a moral claim on you too.’

Relative: ‘…’

Christina too, made a comment about not feeling able to respond to this claim, and as I understood her, feels bad about that. Not wanting to confuse or discourage my worldwide readership, here’s an expanded reflection on this issue.

I am white, male, English speaking, and am an Australian citizen. Those four attributes alone mean I am amongst the world’s elite, and never even remotely likely to experience anything like poverty or marginalisation, yet not one of these things did I work for or achieve through my own effort, merit or character.  Nor did I choose these things. Add in that I have three degrees, (which though I worked for, I only really chose in a limited sense – given my family background, it was pretty much a given that I would go to university), and it is clear that I am enormously advantaged. (a note here: Christians often say, ‘blessed’ – as though God had bestowed these on me.)

Yet we often talk about poverty as though it were the result of bad choices, moral turpitude, ineptness. And conversely, we justify our own lifestyle as though our advantage was somehow the result of our character or efforts – or of God’s favour*. Plainly this is grossly wrong and if you spell it out, offensive enough that most people would deny that this is how their thinking runs. But it does. It is this thinking that allowed my relative to justify the trajectory of spending, consumption, self absorption and so on that typifies perhaps not only her life,but the life of many who are similarly advantaged.

Now I am no saint and no ascetic, but I understand that there is a moral claim on me to do something about the imbalances and unfairness of life. That’s what the moral claim is: not that we all come and work in Afghanistan, or the Horn of Africa, but that we recognise that our wealth and power is only fractionally the result of our efforts or goodness, and largely the result of being born in a developed country. That recognised, what flows from it is a responsibility to change and keep changing how you live and what your priorities are.

And what my relation did not understand is that this moral claim cannot be outsourced. It falls on you by virtue of your relative wealth, power and status. The claim is correspondingly reduced the less of these you have. So – Christina – if you are not physically capable, don’t berate yourself. The claim on you is met through solidarity and simplicity, through speaking out and challenging the injustice of inequalities and so on. For someone like me – and a good 90% of my peers – there are no such allowances.


*If God does bestow such advantages, each comes with an equal and irrevocable responsibility. In the end, it doesn’t really matter though, the origin of the advantage; what matters is its existence and the arising claim.


11 thoughts on “The moral claim: a (part) response to Dan and Christina

  1. Well explained and I totally agree. Understanding poverty is something that I will continue to grapple with which hopefully in my own small way, I can make a difference and have enough reasons to do what I can do about it by God’s grace.

  2. Phil, I appreciate your expanded reflection. It has been a long time since I thought this through coherently. I agree completely with your conclusions, but fail often and repeatedly to put recognition, changing priorities, solidarity and simplicity into practice. I feel envious of people who ARE able to go to places like Afganistan, not because I envy your lifestyle (I don’t!), but because your choices to really commit to said recognition, changing priorities, solidarity and simplicity seem easier from where I stand (although I recognise that this may not be the case). I don’t know if it is possible to live a Christ-like life in a capitalist-consumerist culture: the undertow is so constant that it is hard to even draw breath. Your post was really helpful… that you and others think that this is important. Thank you.

  3. I can’t find a loophole Phil, and you’ve reduced to a few paragraphs a worldview that I find quite difficult to summarise succinctly – thanks for that I’ll take and use it when I do the odd bit of ‘speaking’ publicly. Like Christina, I find it’s wearing to try and live out the consequences of this truth, because the surrounding current is going a different direction.

    I also get discouraged by my own hypocrisy. I take one action towards the goal of simplicity, solidarity or direct action towards righting injustices, and then I spend a whole lot of money on myself the next day in a totally unjustifiable way.

    I also succumb to the following fallacy: I’ll do something more radical and costly once I get to a certain point in life… when I’m not parenting young kids, when the mortgage is paid off, once the house is renovated. What happens is that the material/life goals can move one step ahead of wherever I currently am, so that the ‘radical shift’ point never actually arrives. Like your argument, when you write this down it becomes readily apparent that actions start today, not tomorrow, and that my current circumstances are already incredibly advantaged/blessed*

    *blessed – I’ve never understood my fellow Christian use of this word, and I can’t bring myself to use it. You’ve covered ‘being blessed’, but for me the use I can’t fathom is ‘Lord we bless you’. I can’t get how I can ‘bless’ God, it seems vacuous to me. I can serve him, I can obey what I understand him to want of me, I can offer him my love, my gratitude, even perhaps my ‘praise’, but who am I to offer him my blessing? I’d love someone to convince me it’s a legitimate way to address him, otherwise I’ll have to go on cringing.

    • It is an amazing thought that we can bless our God! I see it laid out in Scripture many times (Psalm 103 is a real favourite for me), so I’m prepared to take it in faith and run with it. If nothing else, it should cause us to be intentional and passionate in the choices we make to both bless and curse.

      • Hi Dan
        I am putting your comment up, because I essentially believe in the right of people comment publicly on what I write publicly, but I don’t want this to turn into a kind of Christian argument. I am someone who struggles with a lot of Christian talk and practice, partly because where I live, so much of it is shown to be culturally constructed, or irrelevant. If people want to bless God (whatever that means), fine, but for many people who call themselves followers of Jesus (here, and elsewhere), that idea has no traction.

  4. Hi Phil,

    I absolutely love this article as well as the one you are responding to. In addition, I also find the status / attributes of the speaker (unfortunately) influential in making a point (on that, many more thoughts in relation to the conference you went to in Sri Lanka, and the stark reality of the uneven ratio of White to non-White speakers) – I often hear patronizing comments being directed blatantly to the speaker when the speaker was, say, female, non-White, or / and non-English speaking.
    Sadly, I too, feel that Hanson’s probably won in Australia.

  5. Phill,
    Thank you. Your post answers my question perfectly. I am in only a slightly different state than the one you described because I grew up a poor farmer in the US state of Kansas (still rich by any Afghani farmer though, I know) and I was not assumed a college student, so I do feel I might have earned the degrees a little. Having said that, I have money to go to college (thanks to the US Navy) and I make plenty of money. It’s money that I shouldn’t think of as mine, so I’m grateful for your post. Now I just have to do something about it. otherwise it’s all just words…

  6. Well said, Phil.

    Moral claim on you… I don’t think it’s about changing your routine, turning your life upside down or going to Afghanistan. It’s about responding to the world around you appropriately. The big book clearly tells us that inaction is a type of “action”. In other words, if you see a hungry person and don’t feed him, you’re actually doing “non-feeding” which in itself is a negative action. Just look around you. There are plenty of people who need you right where you are.

    This is, at least, what I tell myself.

  7. “I am white, male, English speaking, and am an Australian citizen. Those four attributes alone mean I am amongst the world’s elite, and never even remotely likely to experience anything like poverty or marginalisation…”

    You’re poor and marginalized already, you just don’t know it. You haven’t seen the kind of wealth commanded by the average man of 500 years from now, but when his day comes, he’s going to look back at you and wonder how people ever survived living in such shocking poverty. You and everyone on this planet today is desperately poor, poorer than you can probably imagine.

    And that’s an important thing to keep in mind, because if we get carried away with this “white European male” nonsense (Australian, in your case), then we very quickly end up taking on a worldview in which we’re the elites, which by implication means that everybody else isn’t. The resulting impulse is to help the downtrodden, which is admirable so far as it goes, but when it’s done from a notion of “I’m better off than he is,” then with it comes the unconscious notion of “he’s less than me.”

    You work in aid and development in Afghanistan, and so do I. Virtually all of our aid programs are built on the premise that the Afghans are poor and weak, and need our help in order to stand up. Like I say, that idea quickly gets taken way too far, and billions of dollars in debilitating handouts have been the result. After a decade of working here, this country is a mess precisely because we see ourselves as more advantaged then they are, and therefore obligated to help. We are wrong in that view, which is why so many aid programs here have been utter disasters.

    What if their poverty is really not so different from ours? What if there’s only a hair’s breadth of difference between an Afghan’s wealth and mine? Compared to the average man of 500 years from now, that’s the state of things– my Afghan housekeeper and I are on almost equal footing. But if that’s the case, then why give things away? Why take on airs of being elites? Why not treat these guys as essentially equals, and try negotiating and bargaining with them, instead of giving them things?

    There’s an objective moral order to the universe, and we go against it when we try to help this country by giving it things for free. That we do so out of some big-minded idea of “I’m privileged and that’s not fair” is not a mitigating factor. There is a better way.

  8. Pingback: A response to a comment. | itinerant and indigent

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