Famine Ethics

Abstract

This paper revitalizes the debate of an ethics of contemporary famine. Famine constitutes a distinct development challenge that has only received moderate public and academic attention. Singer’s Famine Relief Argument from 1972 emphasizing a strong obligation of charitable benevolence towards victims of famine, for example, continues to constitute the dominant ethical principle of famine. The paper argues this revisionary principle still constitutes a strong and convincing ethical argument. However, the dynamics of contemporary famine makes it necessary to expand this ethical obligation outside the realm of pure philanthropy. Concretely, the paper argues for the obligation of criminalizing famine and prosecuting the perpetrators of famine that have either callously allowed famine to unfold or have intentionally created and exacerbated the conditions for famine. While such an obligation is not void of ethical dilemmas, a famine ethics relying on obligations of charity as well as obligations of criminal prosecution constitutes a superior ethical principle for the alleviation of famine.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    The data does not distinguish between singular/plural or the chronology of words. Restricting the sample to news searches produces a similar outcome but with fewer observations. The use of English search terms, although a potential source for bias, cannot be responsible for the marked difference between famine and other types of disasters.

  2. 2.

    In the period after Singer’s influential article in 1972, only 19 articles in the Ethics category of the Web of Science’s database mentioned “Famine Relief Argument” or just “famine” in the abstract/title/or the author keywords (if no author keywords were available, KeyWord Plus was applied). The impact of these articles appears limited. While Singer’s article has been cited 954 times (as of July 24, 2019), the average number of citations for the subsequent 19 articles was three.

  3. 3.

    Naturally, these two categories do not cover all ethical objections that been waged against Singer’s principle. Hardin (1974) argued that Singer’s principle was downright immoral because it would lead to overpopulation and thus greater suffering. Kekes (2002) argued against the principle along the same lines by arguing that impoverished families are responsible for their own plight, as they should have realized the easily foreseeable consequences of having more children. Lastly, Jamieson (2005) rendered Singer’s principle invalid due to a long litany of flaws with development aid and humanitarian interventions.

  4. 4.

    Mens rea thus captures both first-degree famine crimes of intent and second-degrees famine crimes of recklessly ignoring the consequences of implemented policies (see also Marcus 2003 and Howard-Hassmann 2016).

  5. 5.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer on a previous version of a related manuscript for this argument.

References

  1. Aloyo, E. 2013. Improving global accountability: The ICC and nonviolent crimes against humanity. Global Constitutionalism 2 (3): 498–530.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Appel, B. 2018. In the shadow of the international criminal court does the ICC deter human rights violations? Journal of Conflict Resolution 62 (1): 3–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Banik, D. 2010. Poverty and elusive development. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Banik, D. 2016. The hungry nation: Food policy and food politics in India. Food Ethics 1 (1): 29–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Boin, A., P. Hart, E. Stern, and B. Sundelius. 2005. The politics of crisis management: Public leadership under pressure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Burchi, F. 2011. Democracy, institutions and famines in developing and emerging countries. Canadian Journal of Development Studies 32 (1): 17–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Checchi, F. and W. Robinson 2013. Mortality among populations of southern and Central Somalia affected by severe food insecurity and famine during 2010–2012. Rome and Washington D.C. http://www.fews.net/sites/default/files/documents/reports/Somalia_Mortality_Estimates_Final_Report_1May2013_upload.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  8. Cullity, G. 2004. The moral demands of affluence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Currie, B. 2000. The politics of hunger in India. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  10. De Waal, A. 1993. War and famine in Africa. IDS Bulletin 24 (4): 33–40.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. De Waal, A. 1997. Famine Crimes. London: Villiers Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  12. De Waal, A. 2018. Mass starvation: The history and future of famine. Cambridge: Polity.

    Google Scholar 

  13. DeFalco, R. 2011. Accounting for famine at the extraordinary chamber in the courts of Cambodia: The crimes against humanity of extermination, inhumane acts and persecution. The International Journal of Transitional Justice 5: 142–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. DeFalco, R. 2016. Conceptualizing famine as a subject of international criminal justice: Towards a modality-based approach. University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law 38 (1): 1113–1187.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Devereux, S., ed. 2007. The new famines: Why famines persist in an era of globalization. Abingdon: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Duthie, R. 2014. Transitional justice, development, and economic violence. In Justice and economic violence in transition, ed. Dustin Sharp, 165–201. New York: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Economist. 2017. Charting the news of: 2017 https://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21732709-years-events-most-grabbed-worlds-attention-charting-news-2017. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  18. Edkins, J. 2007. The criminalization of mass starvations: From natural disaster to crime against humanity. In The new famines, ed. Stephen Devereux, 50–66. Abingdon: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  19. EM-DAT. 2019. The international disaster database. http://www.emdat.be/. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  20. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2017. The state of food security and nutrition in the world 2017. Rome. http://www.fao.org/3/a-I7695e.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  21. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2019. The state of food security and nutrition in the world 2019. Rome. http://www.fao.org/3/ca5162en/ca5162en.pdf . Accessed July 24, 2019.

  22. Fergusson, J. 2013. The World’s most dangerous place – inside the outlaw state of Somalia. London: Black Swan Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Ferris, E. and D. Petz. 2012. The year that shook the rich – A review of natural disasters in 2011. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/03_natural_disaster_review_ferris.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  24. Flores, A., and A. Smith. 2013. Leader survival and natural disasters. British Journal of Political Science 43 (4): 821–843.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Forbes. 2018. The World’s billionaires. https://www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  26. Goodin, R. 1988. What is so special about our fellow countrymen? Ethics 98 (4): 663–686.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Google. 2018. Google trends. https://trends.google.com/trends/. Accessed July 4, 2018.

  28. Haggard, S., and N. Noland. 2007. Famine in North Korea. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Hardin, G. 1974. Living on a lifeboat. Bioscience 24 (10): 561–568.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Heaton, L. 2012. Somalia famine relief: A view from Mogadishu. https://enoughproject.org/files/somalia-famine-relief-view-mogadishu.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  31. Howard-Hassmann, R. 2005. Genocide and state-induced famine: Global ethics and Western responsibility for mass atrocities in Africa. Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 4 (3–4): 487–516.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Howard-Hassmann, R. 2016. State food crimes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Howe, P. 2018. Famine systems: A new model for understanding the development of famines. World Development 105: 144–155.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Howe, P., and S. Devereux. 2004. Famine intensity and magnitude scales: A proposal for an instrumental definition of famine. Disasters 28 (4): 353–372.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Integrated Phase Classification (IPC). 2012. Integrated food security phase classification: Technical manual version: 2.0. Retrieved from http://www.ipcinfo.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ipcinfo/docs/IPC-Manual-2-Interactive.pdf Accessed July 24, 2019.

  36. International Criminal Court. 1998. Rome statute of the international criminal court. Rome: ICC http://www.icc-cpi.int/NR/rdonlyres/ADD16852-AEE9-4757-ABE7-9CDC7CF02886/283503/RomeStatutEng1.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2019.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Jackson, A., and A. Aynte. 2013. Talking to the other side. HPG working paper. http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/5346928c4.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  38. James, S. 2007. Good samaritans, good humanitarians. Journal of Applied Philosophy 24 (3): 238–254.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Jamieson, D. 2005. Duties to the distant: Aid, assistance, and intervention in the developing world. The Journal of Ethics 9 (1–2): 151–170.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Jo, H., and B. Simmons. 2016. Can the international criminal court deter atrocity? International Organization 70 (03): 443–475.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Kahn, M. 2005. The death toll from natural disasters: The role of income, geography, and institutions. The Review of Economics and Statistics 87 (2): 271–284.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Kearney, D. 2013. Food deprivations as crimes against humanity. New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 46: 253–289.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Keen, D. 1994. The benefits of famine. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Kekes, J. 2002. On the supposed obligation to relieve famine. Philosophy 77 (4): 502–517.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Kuper, A. 2002. More than charity: Cosmopolitan alternatives to the ‘singer solution’. Ethics & International Affairs 16 (2): 107–120.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. MacAskill, W., A. Mogensen, and T. Ord. 2018. Giving isn’t demanding. In The ethics of giving: Philosophers' perspectives on philanthropy, ed. Paul Woodruff, 178–201. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Malk, B.Y. 2017. State-induced famine in Eritrea: Persecution and crime against humanity. Journal of Politics and Law 10 (4): 1–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Marcus, D. 2003. Famine crimes in international law. The American Journal of International Law 97: 245–281.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Martins, J., M. Toledo Florêncio, P. Grillo, P. Franco M. Do Carmo, A. Martins, G. Clemente, C. Santos, M. Vieira, and L. Sawaya. 2011. Long-lasting effects of undernutrition. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 8 (6): 1817–1846.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Maxwell, D., and M. Fitzpatrick. 2012. The 2011 Somalia famine: Context, causes and complications. Global Food Security 1 (1): 5–12.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Maxwell, D., and N. Majid. 2016. Famine in Somalia. London: Hurst & Company.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Mercy Corps. 2017. Quick facts: What you need to know about famine. https://reliefweb.int/report/world/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-famine. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  53. Miller, D. 2007. National Responsibility and global justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  54. Niang, M. 2017. Africa and the legitimacy of the ICC in question. International Criminal Law Review 17 (4): 615–624.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. OCHA. 2011. Humanitarian funding analysis for Somalia - drought and famine scale-up. Available at: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full_report_229.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  56. Ó Gráda, C. 2009. Famine – A short history. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

  57. Otteson, J. 2000. Limits on our obligation to give. Public Affairs Quarterly 14 (3): 183–203.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Plümper, T., and E. Neumayer. 2009. Famine mortality, rational political inactivity, and international food aid. World Development 37 (1): 50–61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Rachels, S. 2014. The immorality of having children. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 17 (3): 567–582.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Roach, S.C. 2016. Why moral commitments matter: Mapping the ethics and politics of responsible and accountable global governance. Cambridge Review of International Affairs 29 (1): 309–326.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Rubin, O. 2009a. The merits of democracy in famine protection - fact or fallacy? European Journal of Development Research 21: 699–717.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Rubin, O. 2009b. The Niger famine: A collapse of entitlements and democratic responsiveness. Journal of Asian and African Studies 44 (3): 279–298.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Rubin, O. 2019. The precarious state of famine research. The Journal of Development Studies 55 (8): 1633–1653.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Sankey, D. 2014. Towards recognition of subsistence harms: Reassessing approaches to socioeconomic forms of violence in transitional justice. The International Journal of Transitional Justice 8: 121–140.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Seipel, P. 2016. Philosophy, famine relief, and the skeptical challenge from disagreement. Ratio 29 (1): 89–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Sen, A. 1981. Poverty and famines. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Sen, A. 1995. Nobody need starve. In Granta 52: Food - the vital stuff, ed. G. Swift, J.M. Coetzee, and J. Lanchester, 213–220. Penguin: London.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Sen, A. 1999. Development as freedom. New York: Knopf.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Singer, P. 1972. Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (3): 229–243.

    Google Scholar 

  70. Singer, P. 2007. Review essay on the moral demands of affluence. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 85: 475–483.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Singer, P. 2009. The life you can save. London: Picador.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Small, D., G. Loewenstein, and P. Slovic. 2007. Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 102: 143–153.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Sumner, A. 2012. Where do the poor live? World Development 40 (5): 865–877.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Swanton, C. 2009. Virtue ethics and the problem of demandingness. In The problem of moral demandingness, ed. Timothy Chappell, 104–123. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Thompson, P.B. 2010. Food aid and the famine relief argument (brief return). Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 23 (3): 209–227.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. Timmerman, T. 2015. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown. Analysis 75 (2): 204–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Timmerman, T. 2018. Save (some of) the children. Philosophia 46 (2): 465–472.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. U.S. Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome. 2017. 20 Million people in four countries face famine. https://usunrome.usmission.gov/mission/20-million-people-four-countries-face-famine/. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  79. UN Human Rights Council. 2014. Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/CommissionInquiryonHR inDPRK.aspx. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  80. UN NEWS. 2017. Famine declared in region of South Sudan. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56205#.Wak7wMhJa70. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  81. UNDP. 2018. Zero hunger. http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-2-zero-hunger.html. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  82. Unger, P. 1996. Living high and letting die: Our illusion of innocence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  83. Web of Science. 2019. The social sciences citation index and the arts & humanities citation index. https://webofknowledge.com. Accessed July 24, 2019.

  84. World Development Indicators. 2018. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/sn.itk.defc.zs, Accessed August 6, 2018.

  85. World Food Programme. 2018. Fighting famine. http://www1.wfp.org/fighting-famine. Accessed July 24, 2019.

Download references

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Howard-Hassmann for detailed comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Olivier Rubin.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Rubin, O. Famine Ethics. Food ethics 4, 123–138 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41055-019-00047-3

Download citation

Keywords

  • Famine relief argument
  • Philanthropy
  • Famine attention
  • Famine criminalization
  • ICC