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The (A)Morality of Material Resources

March 6th, 2012 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Following up on yesterday's musings about the proper distribution of material resources, I thought I'd walk through a bit more O'Donovan for us all.

A lengthy section, no doubt, but one worth sitting through.  And besides, if there's one rule I have in life, it's that one can never get enough Oliver O.  With a few additional paragraph breaks and bold sentences, to make it easy on the eyes, then:

The critique of poverty (and of wealth with it) is not founded on a demand that material resources should be equally distributed.

There is no moral significance in distributing goods equally as such.  At graduation ceremonies one may present every child with a Bible, or an economics textbook, just as one may present a political leaflet to every passerby in the street; but in the absence of anything sensible the recipient can do with their new possessions, this scrupulous impartiality will not amount to a serious act of justice.

To ask about the justice of possessions is to ask about their human significance, i.e. how they empower the possessor to act, how they work as a resource for the exercise of human freedom.  And only in certain well-defined contexts can equal distribution confer something like an equal increment of freedom.

The children at the mealtable may demand fair shares, but that is because they have roughly equal appetites; it would make no sense to insist on piling Granny's plate as high as that of the ravenous nine-year-old.  For the most part, freedoms won from a given material resource will vary as widely as our different histories and projects vary.  Equality of treatment never guarantees equality of outcome.  "Outcome," indeed, is a chimerical notion.  Economics can draw lines under its predictions only when it functions in an abstract mathematical mode.  Reinsert the predictions into history, and they are no more than trends.  New communications will always ensue to produce new inequalities.

Measures of equal distribution, then, can achieve only momentary states of equality, and are not a universal response to poverty.  They may or may not be a sensible strategy for dealing with it in any given circumstance.  Yet there is a categorical case for undertaking them on the threshold where social participation itself is threatened or denied.

Let us imagine a society confronting a serious problem of refugees, who have lost their homes and their possessions in a disaster or a war, and are sitting in large numbers in camps.  The first call they make, of course, given the predictable threats from starvation and disease, will be for a program of food, shelter, and medicine.  That is their claim to equal treatment on the threshold of death.

But when that provision is in place, something will have to be done about their resettlement and the provision of basic equipment for them to earn a living.  This, too, is simply the claim of equal humanity for equal treatment.  As we must respond to them on the threshold of death, so we must respond to them on the threshold of social exclusion.

Both responses are concerned with a minimal provision equally necessary to all human beings.  There may then be very good reasons to do more than the minimum:  to provide their children with educational opportunities, to assist them to learn new skills that might avert future such disasters, and so on.  But these further measures will not apply universally to every person by virtue of his or her bare humanity; so the argumentfor them will be made in terms of relative attributive claims, where one claim competes with another.

The criteria of human equality establishes the minimum demand, the demand on the threshold, which takes priority over all other possibilities of attributive justice.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.