The “Paradox” of Plenty

pope_francisHobyahs2smallThere is enough food to go around, and yet many in the world do not have enough to eat.  Is this a paradox or a travesty?

In a recent address to a U.N. con­fer­ence on nutri­tion, Pope Fran­cis called for a more equi­table dis­tri­b­u­tion of the world’s food resources.  He warned against falling into the “para­dox of plen­ty”.  But there is no para­dox.

A para­dox is a set of claims, each of which is plau­si­ble on its own but which are joint­ly incon­sis­tent.  Imag­ine a philoso­pher who has just sent her first book off to be pub­lished.  She worked hard on the project and is jus­ti­fi­ably proud of it.  She stands behind each and every claim she made in the book.  Still, she doesn’t have delu­sions of grandeur, so she also believes that there is bound to be a false claim or two some­where in her book (a point she is sure to make in the pref­ace).  But how can this be?  If she rea­son­ably believes each and every claim in the book, then she can­not rea­son­ably believe that there are false claims in the book.  But it does seem rea­son­able for her to believe that there are false claims in the book!  This is the para­dox of the pref­ace.  The fol­low­ing set of claims are each plau­si­ble yet joint­ly incon­sis­tent:

  • the author rea­son­ably believes each claim in the book to be true
  • if the author rea­son­ably believes each book in the claim to be true, then it is not rea­son­able for the author to believe that the book con­tains any false claims
  • the author rea­son­ably believes that the book con­tains some false claims

But there is no such set of propo­si­tions in the case of the “para­dox” of plen­ty.  The clos­est we come is this:

  • There is enough food for no one in the world to go hun­gry
  • If there is enough food for no one in the world to go hun­gry, then no one in the world should go hun­gry
  • Many in the world are going hun­gry

Each of these is plau­si­ble, but they are not incon­sis­tent.  To make the set incon­sis­tent, we’d have to add:

  • Every­thing that should be the case is the case

But this claim is clear­ly false.  This is not a per­fect world, so not every­thing is as it should be.  Call­ing this prob­lem a para­dox is per­ni­cious.  It implies that there is some deep puz­zle here, some claim that needs to be reject­ed.  But there isn’t.  The solu­tion to the prob­lem is not rati­o­ci­na­tion but rather dif­fi­cult and unpop­u­lar polit­i­cal action.

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