Monday, August 20, 2007

My wife's challenge

My wife recently challenged me to teach about the ethical issues surrounding world hunger/poverty in my intro to ethics courses. She had been reading an article on Norman Borlung written by Jonathon Alter in Newsweek (July 30, 2007) and she asked me to read and comment on it. Of course, I have discussed world hunger and poverty this in my intro course for years (who hasn’t?), but not at the level that would be required if I was to take her concerns (and challenge) seriously. During our discussion she said that this would be a topic well worth investigating and discussing in my ethics courses because what we are dealing with is a central issue in ethics; how should we live our lives and how our actions as individuals and groups (communities, nations) affect who will suffer. One of her concerns (taken from the article) was why does the US federal government pay people not to produce food when so many are hungry and what can we, as ordinary citizens, do to stop this practice?

Of course she is correct that this is a very important issue, so I am going to take up her challenge, but it is too late to do so this semester in the depth that would be necessary to understand the complexities of this issue. I am thinking of doing this in the Winter semester of 2008, but I am faced with pedagogical issues. How best to accomplish achieving learning outcomes; in fact, what are the learning outcomes that I want? What are the issues related to world hunger/poverty that are worth discussing in an intro course? How should I utilize traditional texts or important articles on these topics? Should I require some level of community service with agencies/organizations that deal with hunger and poverty in our own community as a requirement for earning an A (or even a B)?

I am really going at this rather blindly, so I am asking for help! But one thing I am thinking of doing is making this course a large research project where the students will do some introductory readings on the general topic, research the general topic of world hunger/poverty, and bring to class relevant material to share and discuss. The course will develop as the discussions leads us. This will be tremendously interactive, as well as risky. I am inclined to think that if I can successfully pull this off (with your help) then the students will learn through their research and class discussions about the classical ethical theories (which is a stated general goal of our intro to ethics courses) and come to realize our interdependence with the environment and each other.

I am familiar with Singer’s work and have in the past have used Narveson and Kamm as counterpoints to his position. I am using Singer and Narveson in a 2-week section of my Fall courses to see if I can determine a way to develop some parameters wherein to conduct a semester long research project. But, I would be very interested in your ideas on how best to develop this course. In so far as there are @ 850 million people suffering from hunger (Newsweek, July 30, 2007) this does seem to be an important issue for all of us to tackle.

I look forward to hearing your comments and suggestions.


  1. This will be a very profitable topic for a course. Obviously there's the personal ethics angle, whether we individually have obligations to assist the hungry or impoverished. But the social policy issues are equally interesting, and I would guess that students know relatively little about them. There's just not much discussion in the larger culture about how agriculture and food policies contribute to hunger. Michael Pollan has written a lot on this. This article from the NY Times introduces some of these themes very well.

  2. Oops; couldn't quite squeeze that link into the column. The reference is Michael Pollan, "You Are What You Grow," NYT, April 22 2007.

  3. Hi John

    I would throw Thomas Pogge into the mix as a contrast to Singer, not as a counter point, but as a response to the negative rights position. As a bonus you can freely download some of his relevant work.

  4. There's some stuff on my previous post on this here.

    Here is a very thorough handout by Richard Cameron that addresses various objections to famine aid arguments.

  5. My entire course critical thinking is around global ethics (text by John Seitz). Extremely successful class-- I know partly because I enjoy tremendously teaching it; partly because students are incredibly engaged, do the readings, do the assignments, participate in class discussions, and the best part-- I enjoy tremendously also reading the final exams. Class consists in a good amount of interactive material, i.e., some powerpoint, videos, slides, presentations, news articles, etc...

  6. I recommend Julian Simon's writings on world food supplies (much of his writing is available on his home page), and David Schmidtz's contribution to the recent collection "Singer Under Fire", available at Schmidtz's UA faculty page.

  7. Thanks for the excellent suggestions. Once I figure out what I am going to do I will post it.

  8. I have only read a little of this, but it is fascinating:
    Good Luck


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