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Citizens of affluent nations violate the human rights of people living in poverty in certain significant but restricted ways. To show how this is so, we must first clarify what we mean by human rights violations. German philosopher Thomas Pogge[1] states that human rights violations occur whenever individuals or institutions knowingly neglect the unfulfilled human rights of the poor, or whenever we “knowingly contribute to the design or imposition of institutional arrangements” under which these human rights foreseeably and avoidably remain unfulfilled.[2]

Pogge differentiates three ways in which we[3] relate to the unfulfilled rights of the world’s poorest people. First, we have positive duties. Positive duties are related to what we should do. Pogge says that, to the degree that we have the capacity to diminish human rights deficits, we bear some responsibility for them.[4] These positive duties include, among others, the provision of food, clothing, housing, and medical care.  Second, we have negative duties, duties related to what we should not do—duties not to do harm. Even so, we may be neglectful of these duties, or may actively and knowingly cause harm, and therefore “bear some responsibility for [them] or have a responsibility not to contribute to [them] in the future.”[5] Pogge points out that, besides these positive and negative duties, there are some human rights violations for which we have no duties and bear no responsibility, those that lie beyond our capacity to influence them, such as those that may have occurred in the distant past.[6]

Furthermore, Pogge says that these duties have both interactional and institutional applications. Consider, for example, world-wide slavery. During its long history, slavery was marked by both interactional violations (such as cruelty and brutality), and institutional violations: slavery as a whole was unjust. The main focus of Pogge’s work is on these institutional violations. Much of the moral force of his argument derives from Articles 25 and 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[7] a groundbreaking UN document in which, for the first time in human history, world-wide human rights were delineated in bold and definitive terms.

Pogge is unequivocal when he says that “insofar as global poverty is causally traceable to the design of global institutional factors, citizens of affluent countries are actively responsible for it.”[8]  With characteristic concision and force he goes on to assert that “We are not merely distant witnesses of a problem unrelated to ourselves, with a weak, positive duty to help. Rather we are, both causally and morally, intimately involved in the fate of the poor by imposing upon them a global institutional order that regularly produces severe poverty and/or by effectively excluding them from a fair share of the value of exploited natural resources and/or by upholding a radical inequality that evolved through a historical process pervaded by horrendous crimes.”[9] In sum, we are actively harming the poor.

Pogge’s ideas have received enthusiastic support from many quarters, but have encountered a variety of criticisms from others. Though there is not space here to explore these various associations and critiques, I will point out two opposed views that highlight their general range and direction. Among those of sympathetic disposition is Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer.[10] For all practical purposes, Pogge’s project may be understood as a compatible extension of Singer’s more broadly based utilitarian approach.[11] But, whereas Singer’s main focus is on individuals and their positive duties to do more and give more,[12] Pogge’s focus is on institutional reform.[13] A more critical view of Pogge’s project is brought forward by Canadian philosopher Jan Narveson[14] who articulates a characteristic Libertarian objection when he says, “I will take it as given that we are certainly responsible for evils we inflict on others, no matter where, and that we owe those people compensation . . . Nevertheless, I have seen no plausible argument that we owe something, as a matter of general duty, to those to whom we have done nothing wrong.”[15] Pogge responds to Narveson’s critique with clarity and force when he says that “Human rights violations are crimes actively committed by particular human agents who should be identified and then be persuaded to change their ways or else be stopped.”[16]

In conclusion, we must ask how we can work for change so that we can diminish, protect, and fulfill the human rights of people living in extreme poverty. First, we can use democratic processes to change unfair trade rules and other institutional injustices. Second, we can increase aid where violations are most extreme. Third, we can compensate the poor for the damage they have suffered as a result of institutional violations of their human rights. And, fourth, we can raise awareness in others of the nature and extent of these human rights violations, and stress the need to act on that awareness with courage and resolve. With Thomas Pogge, we can only hope that “what now seems like an eccentric and utopian cause” will someday be “an exemplar of what justice commands.”[17]


[1] Thomas Pogge is the Director of the Global Justice Program and Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University.

[2] Pogge, 2014, 74.

[3] In this essay, I follow the protocol set by Thomas Pogge, using “we” and “our” to refer to adult citizens of the US, EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – at least those who share the economic security and basic Western values of these countries. See Pogge, 2008, 266, n6.

[4] Pogge, 2014, 74.

[5] Pogge, 2014, 74.

[6] Pogge, 2014, 74.

[7] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was approved and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the UN on December 10, 1948, as resolution 217 A (III).  Article 25 includes the following statement: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care. . . .” Article 28 includes the following statement: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”

[8] Cohen, 2010, 178.

[9] Pogge, 2008, 217.

[10] Peter Singer is an Australian moral philosopher. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.

[11] Utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good.

[12] See Singer, 2010, and the web site of the same name. The mission of The Life You Can Save book and web site is to change the culture of giving in affluent countries while dramatically raising annual donations to highly impactful nonprofits that reduce suffering and premature death for people living in extreme poverty.

[13] Meer, D. Van der, “A Comparison of Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge in their approach to World Poverty and Hunger.”

[14] Jan Narveson is professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

[15] Singer, 2015.

[16] Singer, 2015.

[17] Pogge, 2008, 32.



Joshua Cohen, “Philosophy, Social Science, Global Poverty,” in Thomas Pogge and His Critics,    ed. Alison Jaggar, (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010), 18-45.

Pogge, Thomas. “Are We Violating the Human Rights of the World’s Poor? Responses to Four     Critics.” Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, January 1, 2014. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yhrdlj/vol17/iss1/3

Pogge, Thomas, World Poverty and Human Rights, 2nd ed., Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008.

Singer, Peter, Effective Altruism Lecture: “Institutional Human Rights Violations,” 2015. https://www.coursera.org/learn/altruism/lecture/Xvmyr/institutional-human-rights- violations

Singer, Peter, The Life You Can Save. New York: Random House, 2010.

The Life You Can Save (web site) – Effective giving against extreme poverty. Accessed April 08, 2017. https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/.

“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. Accessed April 08, 2017. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html.

Meer, D. Van der. “A Comparison of Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge in their approach to World Poverty and Hunger.” Academia.edu. Accessed April 08, 2017.