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Could Poverty Be A Violation Of Human Rights?

5200 words - 21 pages

Political Philosophy
Candidate number: 847044
Word count (excluding bibliography): 4913

2. (a) Could poverty be a violation of human rights?

In this essay I argue that poverty could be, and sometimes is, a violation of human rights. But what counts as a ‘violation’?
After sorting out terminology (section 1), I distinguish three ways in which impoverishment could be a human rights violation (section 2). When an agent deliberately acts to impoverish someone, the resulting impoverishment, indisputably, is a violation of human rights. In contrast, when an agent merely omits to aid someone who is impoverished, it is deeply implausible that the impoverishment ...view middle of the document...

1. Terminology and Assumptions
Let’s get some terms clear before we begin. I’ll interpret ‘poverty’ to mean extreme and absolute (rather than relative) poverty: though it has its problems, and is undoubtedly too low, I’ll follow the World Bank in interpreting extreme absolute poverty as consumption expenditure lower than US$1.25 a day at 2005 prices, purchasing power parity adjusted.

This essay will discuss whether there is a human right to freedom from poverty, and, if so, what form it should take. For now, we’ll formulate it as the right to have access to income such that one needn’t live in extreme poverty. The emphasis on access is important: if the recipient chooses to give away all her income it’s implausible to suppose that there remains a duty to supply the agent with an income, rather than merely to make sure that the agent has the opportunity to receive an income if she desires.

I use ‘agent’ to refer both to persons and to collective agents, such as states, organisations and corporations.

I do not discuss out-and-out scepticism about human rights. Though I assume that paradigmatic human rights, such as the human right not to be tortured, are justified, I don’t assume what the nature of that justification is, or what being a right precisely involves.

2. An easy question?
Depending on how one interprets ‘violation’, our starting question could be easily answered. Let’s distinguish three notable types of causes of poverty that are contenders for being human rights violations.

Let’s call the first type-1 impoverishment: where an agent A deliberately acts such that she causes a person S to be in poverty.

To illustrate, here’s an imaginary example. Suppose that a group of households live by farming unowned land, but that this land was appropriated by the government, because the households were not supportive of that government, and the government wished to make them destitute. This would be a type-1 cause of poverty. Indisputably, it would be a violation of human rights, for three reasons.
First, it seems that whatever grounds one gives in order to justify human rights, the right not to be deliberately impoverished will be justified by that ground. Not being impoverished is as important to persons as paradigmatic examples of other rights, such as the right not to be assaulted or tortured: it is important whether one cashes this out in terms of persons’ wellbeing, their autonomy or their needs.
Second, the right not to be deliberately impoverishmed is a negative right, like paradigmatic human rights: it imposes duties on others only to refrain from acting in certain ways; it does not impose, for example, positive duties of assistance. So even those who think that all human rights are negative rights should have no problem with the claim that there exists a human right not to be deliberately impoverished.
Third, even if one thinks that poverty cannot itself constitute a human rights violation,...

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