How bad is poverty, really?

Most people think that poverty–maybe not as it exists in the first world, but at least as it exists in the third world–is pretty awful. For one thing, most people think–or at least often talk as if–premature death is one of the worst things that can happen to you. They understand what is meant by “a fate worse than death,” but think such fates are extraordinarily rare. Murder gets a special place in the ten commandments, and questions of causing or preventing death have gotten a key place in ethical thinking ever since: famed ethicist Peter Singer is best-known for writing about questions like “is it OK to kill animals for food,” “how strong are our obligations to prevent other people from dying?” “when is it OK to make medical decisions that we know will result in death?”

All this means poverty must be pretty bad, because really extreme poverty increases your risk of starving to death because you can afford food, or dying from disease because you can’t afford medicine or maybe even basic sanitation, or freezing to death because you can’t afford shelter. There is also a definite correlation, though perhaps a harder to explain one, between poverty and your chance of being murdered.

And death isn’t the only reason to think poverty is awful. Pain is pretty bad, and in the case of every bad thing listed above, there is an extremely painful if non-lethal version: starving, just not to death; having a horrible illness you don’t die from; constantly suffering from lack of shelter, but never freezing to death; and being brutally maimed, raped, or tortured, though never murdered. And aside from these positive evils, poverty may simply deprive people of the things that make life worthwhile, like education or even “time spent not worrying about survival.

A corral of these seemingly-obvious facts is that a world where the population is kept in check by shortages of food and medicine is a much worse place than a world where the population is kept in check by birth control. Thus, we should be glad for the invention of birth control, and sickened by the thought that evolution may one day cause an innate distaste for birth control to be universal in the population. Or should we? Robin Hanson recently said otherwise:

Our ancestors were designed with pleasure and pain to motivate them in a near subsistence world. Lives of continuous torture, where they’d rather be dead, were rare. Our descendants will be similarly adapted to find joy and meaning in their near subsistence lives. And intense pain may well be eliminated in favor of other ways to inducing the required focus. Contact with virtual worlds and with a vast larger society will be far cheaper for them that it was for our ancestors, though contact with a real wild nature will be more expensive.

One easy assumption to pick on is the assumption that a life of continuous torture = you’d rather be dead. The evolutionary pressure not to prefer death is a lot stronger than the evolutionary pressure not to experience a life of torture. A quote from David Hume is relevant here:

All animals might be constantly in a state of enjoyment: but when urged by any of the necessities of nature, such as thirst, hunger, weariness; instead of pain, they might feel a diminution of pleasure, by which they might be prompted to seek that object which is necessary to their subsistence. Men pursue pleasure as eagerly as they avoid pain; at least they might have been so constituted. It seems, therefore, plainly possible to carry on the business of life without any pain. Why then is any animal ever rendered susceptible of such a sensation?

Hume was using pain as a powerful refutation of the idea of a benevolent creator, but while the existence of pain does come into any such conflict with evolutionary theory, Hume’s question is still a puzzle for evolutionary theory. There’s no particular reason for evolution to have settled on a particular pain-pleasure system for motivating animals, no reason for it not to settle on a system of mostly pleasure, but also no reason for it to settle on a system of mostly pain. And it may be that in fact the latter is what has happened–but we don’t see how horrible the situation is, because evolution has programmed us not to kill ourselves under mere ordinary horribleness.

And it does in fact seem that ordinary horribleness is quite horrible. The quote above is from the two chapters (X and XI) of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which put all Hume’s literary talents to describing just how awful the pains that many people of Hume’s day felt were–a must read for thinking about this issue. Spend enough time reading literature from before modern prosperity came to be taken for granted, and you’ll start to feel like such descriptions are all over the place. In his book Utilitarianism, John Stewart Mill conceded to critics of his theory that moments of really great pleasure tend to be brief, and few escape the really awful calamities that life can visit upon us. Bertrand Russell once wrote that in his day, advances in technology were just beginning to make life tolerable. I have never actually read Malthus, but I can imagine what he said about this issue.

I am tempted by Hanson’s alternative explanations for why rich people like me are so horrified by poverty, and on a theoretical level I can think of arguments for why we should care less than we do about premature death. But when I think about the basic reasons why poverty is so horrible, and about the way people closer in touch with it have written about it, such explanations (to quote Hume again) appear to me so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further.

UPDATE: Vic Reppert has alerted me to a post that reinforces this point.

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  1. I think you need to get out more, and meet some typical real poor people. Being moved by Mill’s eloquence isn’t at all the same as looking at typical real cases.

  2. Robin, do *you* feel like you’ve met many typical real poor people? What passes for poor in the most English-speaking countries isn’t “typical” from a historical perspective; you can be living well below the U.S. poverty line without merely subsisting, and future subsistence-level living was what your original post was concerned with.

    The advantage of reading Mill, for an English-speaker, is that he wrote during a time when really desparate poverty still existed in the main English-speaking countries. I know that’s no substitute for real-world experience, but for an English speaker going to really desparately poor and countries and getting to know the locals is a challenge. Not an insurmountable one, since I do plan to travel to Egypt next summer, where lots of people are poor and lots of people speak English, though on the other hand I may never have the guts to visit Johannesburg.

    If you’ve done what I hope to do in terms of travel experience, by all means share. But if you haven’t, it’s hypocritical of you to suggest I need more real-world experience.