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Anna Drabarek

Presentation - BreadMatters I, Lublin, Poland


Ethical Aspects of Hunger


The notion of hunger has two connotations, philosophical (metaphysical) and practical (common). Hunger in a common sense is a lack of food, the lack of sustenance which brings about suffering, its most extreme forms may result in death. From everywhere we get attacked by the visions and the real pictures of hunger. Or we are told that in the future we will run out of food supplies; the Earth is often compared with a pie that is being eaten up or to a space ship filled up with people who cannot take any more the constant multiplying of mankind. On the television screen we watch people who suffer from the lack of food due to poverty or major disasters. These extremely drastic pictures make a huge impression on us, especially when they are contrasted with the pictures of the wealthy, well-fed world. For the contrasts between the hungry and the well-fed, the rich and the poor, makes sensitive people feel guilty, sometimes it results in their involvement in nuumerous charity actions.

Thus hunger means a physical lack of bread, but when we look at this problem from a wider philosophical perspective we see that hunger means also the lack of unrealised need, not only of physical but also of mental nature. The feeling of hunger can also be a kind of experience that reaches the deepest layers of intimacy, incomprehensible even for a person who experiences this hunger.

Examples of suffering connected with physical as well as metaphysical hunger constitute a subject often taken into consideration in literature. "Hunger" by Knut Hamsum, a Norwegian Nobel Prize winner, can be quoted in this context. This novel does not only offer us a description of man's suffering brought about by the capitalist exploitation. It is true that you can find there naturalistic pictures of places and moments when man struggles with the unfriendly matter of life, with chop-houses, pawn-shops, cheap little shops or nonchalant salesmen. But it is not where the real sense of "Hunger" should be looked for, because the lack of food and a sensation of emptiness in one's stomach are the real foundations for Hamsums considerations. For in this context more important becomes a man's sense of dignity, his disagreements to the evil and hunger brought about by the lack of precious values in man's life. This novel demonstrates that you can encounter extremely sensitive people who die when they get confronted with brutal words.

In this context it is worth considering the old and frequently depreciated law advocated by Karl Marx: 'being, forms, awareness'. Interpreting it in this most banal way we come to a conclusion that the well-fed, satisfied have a healthy system of values, which cannot be violated by pathologies. Thus their peaceful and healthy mentality is a result of physical satisfaction. At the same time it implies that the hungry people are doomed to axiological hunger. However, one cannot approach the law advocated by Karl Marx as absolute - being abused it leads to reductionism which determines the phenomena and products of awareness by the conditions of social welfare. Whereas it is extremely difficult to establish in an univocal way the dependence between awareness and its practical positioning. Many a time, the search for such simple dependence leads to crude and detrimental simplifications.

We may say that economic success as an aim does not get common support. There are some people for whom the peace of mind, inner balance and mental health are superior to wealth and satisfaction. Thus viva active loses in confrontation with viva contemplativa.

Assuming an economic success, leading to the consumers style of life, as the only objective, is perceived by many people as as an obstacle in gaining their inner balance and satisfaction from life. in the Puritan ethics, the foundations of American democracy are based on, man himself is responsible for his success, but he is also responsible for his defeat. This excess of responsibility brings about anxiety threatening the inner balance. Hence it happens frequently that people are inclined to resign from more profitable jobs, bringing high income, in favour of more modest ones which give them a better sense of safety. At the same time, one can criticise stimulating aspects of competition, implying undesired tensions, not only with respect to mental health but also from a moral point of view.

The term 'adjustment' has positive connotations. It does not mean accepting one's aspirations; it means to adjust oneself to the environment, make ones actions harmonious with the requirements defined by society. This kind of adaptation or adjustment does not result in losing ones individuality, identity. However, it promotes an ideal meeting the standards of these who aspire towards it, that is an ideal which is easily accessible and can be consumed, an ideal which guarantees psychological and axiological satisfaction, that is eliminating the sense of hunger for needs, hunger for aspirations, hunger for values. The society of greedy-guts does not necessarily have to be a happy society. What do well-fed people do having done their stressful work in benefit of their society and common welfare? They buy goods and consume them. They put new things in their rich houses. They have great fun watching omnipresent and universal television programme. They take care of their bodies for they love their bodies more than anything else, and do not want to surrender to ageing too easily. They travel all over the world. But their are less and less virgin lands, not penetrated by McDonald's and tourist agencies. Is it true then that the world has been already conquered, and apart from a few extraordinary places, it is gentle and tamed? Probably it is not the case still, therefore we do not have to be afraid of boredom which is an attribute of satisfaction and safety.

T. Hobbe's statement saying that a number of goods existing in this world is limited and a number of people who want to get them grows bigger and bigger is still valid, although it was formulated three hundred years ago. Unexpectedly valid seems his other statement 'Homi homini lupus est'. Thus a limited number of goods and man whose nature is evil, caring solely about the realisation of his egotistic needs, destroys this safe and satisfied image of the world. It is clear that the growth of aggression and war in different places is distributed differently. Thus next to the hunger for material goods, so drastically experienced by people living in the area with insufficient supplies of water and food or destroyed by wars, the hunger of kindness, gentleness, empathy is experienced equally drastically.


In this context kindness is conceived of as a positive attachment to non-egoistic values, hence it is a kind of man's activity that opens itself to all values consciously transcending the limits of one's own interest. In a history of man's thought, however, the evil, the negative and conflicts turned out to be more real, whereas the problem of kindness was as if deprived of reality. Whereas the world which feels hungry for goodness is a desert uninhabited by men.

© Anna Drabarek, June 2000


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