December, 1981 III/4


At this time of year, whether for religious or secular reasons, most of us have a strong tendency to think of the less fortunate and to help them in one way or another. We expect this sentiment of "peace on earth, good will toward all" to be promoted by churches, synagogues and other religious and charitable organizations. For one reason or another, today even radio stations and used car dealers collect food and clothing for those less fortunate. The theme of the season offers an occasion for considering some ethical issues which are closely related to "peace on earth, good will toward all" and the response to those issues which people might offer. The ethical issues I have in mind are not those which might be called individual or family issues, rather they are the issues which affect people at the social level, the systemic issues which dehumanize, deprive and even destroy people on a grand scale. These are the macro as opposed to the micro ethical issues; the issues that affect whole nations or groups of people rather than a comparatively small percentage.

Macro Issues

That there are macro ethical issues affecting large segments of population today, there can be no doubt. The potential for nuclear war, the deprivation throughout the world of basic human rights, the serious problem of increasing population, the continual pollution of air and water, and the scarcity of food in some nations are all social problems that have serious ethical issues connected with them. There are no simple solutions to any of the above-mentioned problems, and as the experts seek to offer solutions they are more insistent that most of these problems are interrelated, stifling somewhat our hopes for solution. In this short essay, my intention is not to talk about solutions to these macro problems. Rather, I shall present options for responding or reacting to these issues. Because it has been featured recently in Science (1) and the Annual Review of Nutrition,(2) I shall use the shortage of food in the world as the focal point of discussion.

Possible Responses

What are the possible responses when a person realizes that hunger and starvation are the lot of many people in the world today and that predictions indicate the problem will increase drastically. It seems that three responses are possible:

1. to confine one's ethical concerns to one's own small world, thinking that the issues of world hunger is exaggerated by the media, or hoping that "someone will develop new technology" which will improve the production of food and eliminate hunger and starvation;

2. to maintain an interest in the macro issues of spaceship earth, relying upon the solutions which seem to have worked in the past. Thus one would support policies of governments or agencies which would encourage people to work harder to produce food, depending upon the Lockian concept of self-interest and the conviction that there are enough resources in the world for ambitious people to feed themselves; (3)

3. to work for the solution of the complex social issues by supporting approaches to the problem which call for a sharing of resources by developed countries with underdeveloped countries. This latter response is founded upon a realization of the brotherhood of all human beings, a teaching contained in every one of the world's great religions. One who follows this response will support and join those people and organizations who suggest innovative and comprehensive solutions to the problems of society. For example, one might join the local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, if concerned about nuclear war. If concerned about world hunger, people following this method of response will encourage the government of the United States "to offer not only food, but also capital, research support and educational opportunities" (4) to people from underdeveloped countries. This form of response implies that those with more will have to do with less so that everyone will have enough. Moreover, it presumes that the world has so changed and the ethical problems are so serious and complex that the resources of society are limited rather than unlimited, and that the strictly economic solutions usually offered to solve ethical problems are simply insufficient because they do not provide sufficient motivation for equitable sharing of the world's goods.


Working with ethical problems at the macro-level is a frustrating experience because individuals seem so helpless in the face of such devastating deprivation. Yet we know that many macro-ethical issues of the past, for instance, the social injustice of slavery, and the deprivation of political rights to women, have been solved or improved substantially. Moreover, most of the serious disease which devastated large numbers of people, such as, smallpox and tuberculosis, and which have been conquered in our day, were listed as macro-social problems of society one hundred years ago. Hence we can solve macro-social problems even though they may seem insurmountable when we begin the effort.

Though bettering social conditions is never easy, it is possible when the fitting solutions are present and when people open their hearts and realize that all are equal and all share in the mutuality of human nature and in the love of God. At this time of the year then, while we may not solve any of the world's problems, let us not sit on the sidelines of the struggle and merely lament the situation. Above all, though it will be painful and involve some generous sacrifices and some personal deprivation, let us become part of the solution by taking seriously this theme of the season: "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward All."

Kevin O'Rourke, OP


1. L. Brown, "World Population Growth, Soil Erosion, and Food Scarcity," 27 Nov. 1981, p.995; T. Barr, "The World Food Situation and Global Grain Products, 4 Dec. 1981, p.1087.

2. Samuel Stumpf: The Moral Dimension of the World's Food Supply; pp.1-26.

3. ibid., p.18.

4.T. Barr, p.1087

© Kevin O'Rourke, O.P.