Moral Obligations

I have been thinking about this for a while, in fact, the background for my thoughts on this subject go all the way back to my undergrad days. It was then, during a Macroeconomics class, that the professor drew the supply and demand curves for labor on the board and redrew the demand curve based upon a change in the economy.

When he noted that this change in demand caused both the price for labor to drop and the number of people employed, he was talking about how “perfectly” the “market” went about efficiently setting and resetting the price for labor and the employment levels.

I raised my hand and asked a question that has dogged me to this day: “Who takes responsibility for those who fall below the curve?” He hemmed and hawed for a few minutes, but never really gave an answer, instead harking back to the “efficiency” of the market.

This relates strongly to the question I have been thinking about recently, which is this: “If we have the technological ability to feed everyone on the planet, do we have a moral obligation to do so?”

Particularly here in the United States we accept at face value that capitalism (that is to say the profit motive and the market) is how we determine what goods and services are produced. But when it comes to people starving to death is that the right thing to do?

I can somewhat understand that we do not spend $Billions on building a massive water desalinization plant on Africa’s coastline and thousands of hydroponic farms that would use that water to enable all of the people in Africa to eat – that money would have to come from somewhere and is beyond the capacity of charity. However, when we are talking about being able to fully utilize fields that are available here in the US, fields that are not being planted at all, to feed people who are starving to death, how can we justify that by simply saying that it isn’t profitable enough?

I know that the profit motive spurs innovation. I know that this system has led us to great things in this country, and that forms of capitalism have built wealth and spurred innovation everywhere around the world. But can it be right to simply say that people will starve to death because there isn’t enough profit in it for some to make sure everyone is fed?

Similarly, is the profit motive a reason to deny everyone in the United States the healthcare that we have the ability to provide? How many times over must an MRI machine be paid for before it stops costing a thousand bucks per image? At a time when more and more diagnostic work is being done by computer applications, how can we continue to deny such life changing measures to people because they cannot afford health “insurance” coverage?

I believe that we, as a society, need to start facing such questions head on. Humans as a race, need to think about those and other questions as well.

When I think about this and I think about a future with improved technology that will make things like energy, medical care, food and other essentials of life even easier to provide, I come to the conclusion that we will face a radical change in the way we organize our societies. Once we have the robots building the other robots who will drive us, grow the food for us, diagnose our illnesses, and eventually even prepare the food we eat and perform the medical procedures that we need, how will the profit motive be able to keep taking money out of that system?

The real and present danger, of course, is that we will not intelligently enter that “brave, new world,” that there will be those among us who will cling to outmoded ideals so long that the possibility of shaping our future will pass us by and we will simply have to live with whatever happens. There remains a good chance that some would rather see humankind destroyed rather than see it evolve into something they don’t agree with.

Okay, I have strayed quite a bit from my original question, but to me it is all tied up together. We will have to figure out what governmental and societal forms will be best for all of us in a future that grows increasingly closer every day. There are already those who would rather see millions without healthcare than move to the same kind of single payor system that works very well in France, Italy and Germany. How the hell can we expect that they wouldn’t block moving towards a more radically different form of government or economy?

No, we’ll wait until we have limited choices, or we will wait until someone starts a revolution, or we will wait until there is some catastrophic event… (sigh). That’s the American way, right?

In the meantime, please ponder this question with me. Do we have a moral obligation to feed everyone in the world if we have the technologicel means to do so?