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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