Ethics for the down-and-out?

A couple of weeks ago, I (perhaps unwisely) posted a sarcastic and hastily written note in response to a news story about the crime-fighting adventures of ethicist Jonathan Glover [original post now removed].  It turns out that I didn’t make my intent clear enough, and that at least some people read it as an attack on Professor Glover’s conduct or personal character.  Fortunately, Glover himself seems to be an unusually forgiving and generous-spirited soul, and despite his initial displeasure at the note (which might have had others threatening legal action), an email exchange between us quickly turned into a friendly correspondence between philosophers interested in similar themes.  For the record, I really did not mean to imply anything about this philosopher’s personal qualities, about his handling of an attempt to defraud him, or about how he came by whatever wealth he may possess (by buying a house a very long time ago, as he tells me). Sure, there is a sense in which I do think that people like Jonathan Glover – and, for that matter, people like me – shouldn’t exist (and are fair game for a certain amount of satire or vitriol).  In any even minimally acceptable society, there just would not be neighbourhoods where the average house costs in the region of £3 million, sat alongside areas of crushing poverty, with tens of thousands of people who cannot afford to keep a roof over their heads at all.  Which is also to say, of course, that the homeless and destitute wouldn’t exist either (as George Bernard Shaw put it: “I hate the poor and look forward to their extermination.”) – but I’ll leave it to the right-wing press and the Bullingdon Club boys who populate our Government (speaking of categories of people that shouldn’t exist) to poke fun and sneer at the poor and the working class.  There also wouldn’t be people like me swanning around Oxbridge colleges eating pheasant and wearing gowns, while the higher education system (along with all the other major public services) crumbles around us.

The main point of my note, however, was not that.  It was just to draw attention to something about the way in which the media and a number of philosophers reacted to the event.  That reaction, it seemed to me, was lighthearted in a radically inappropriate way, an unreflective celebration of what was seen as a whimsical Scooby Doo-style story, a piece of entertainment, a bit of a laugh.  But a glance at the report in Ham & High made clear that there was nothing funny or uplifting at all about this story.  An intended victim of crime had been a little more on-the-ball than most, and another homeless man was facing a prison sentence.  The disparity between the two addresses – Chalcott Square, Primrose Hill and Salvation Army Hostel, Victoria – was glaring.  None of this is to say that any individual involved in this story should have acted differently.  I left that open.

We are often too quick, I think, to frame questions in terms of how individual agents should or should not act, under circumstances and in wider social contexts which are kept fixed for the purposes of the enquiry.  A way to apply the brakes, perhaps, would be to keep in mind Adorno’s statement that ‘wrong life cannot be lived rightly’ (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen).  One of the more comprehensible thoughts that may be read into this statement is that, under social conditions which are themselves sufficiently deeply wrong, there may be no right answer and perhaps no sense to the question, “What should I do?” And even where we think there is a right answer, the question of what a particular individual should do under a set of bad conditions and structures is often far less important than other questions we might ask – questions about the sorts of conditions and structures it would be good for us, collectively, to strive to bring about. All the same, it’s interesting to consider what happens when we apply this limited model – call it the ‘individual non-ideal’ model – from the standpoint of the poor or oppressed, rather than the standpoint of the relatively privileged (commonly known as ‘we’).  Within the kinds of normative theory which operate within this model, it is far more common to find examples that focus on dilemmas that only really apply to those in positions of (relative) privilege: the question of how much we ought to give to charity; the question of how far we have an obligation to help ‘distant others’; the question of whether it is acceptable for those who are able to give their children certain advantages, such as sending them to private school, or reading them more than the average number of bedtime stories, to do so.  If we choose to get into these questions, we will no doubt find many ‘difficult cases’, many seemingly intractable dilemmas, and few obvious answers – just the sort of thing that keeps philosophers busy and happy.  But perhaps it would be more productive to consider things from the other side.  And when we do so, what we may find – at least sometimes – is that the answers are brutally straightforward.

Philosophers like to abstract away from the particular as much as they like to focus on the individual, so let us now abstract away from any particular philosophers or homeless criminals that may have sparked these thoughts, and consider things in general terms.  If I am wealthy, and an impoverished person tries to relieve me of some of my wealth, then of course there are various questions we could ask about what I should do: should I call the police? Should I try to make a deal with this person? Should I give away all my money to the poor? I want to put these familiar questions aside.  I doubt that they have any satisfactory answers (which is not to deny that some answers are better than others – you don’t do what the Bullingdon boys reportedly do: stand in front of a homeless person and set fire to a £50 note); and after a point they become self-indulgent.  Most of us have felt awkward when confronted with a homeless person wanting money, because the fact is that even if we give them a quid we are always keeping the other five or ten or twenty that we could quite easily go without whilst still doing all the things we wanted to do.  Which is why people construct rationales, like “Well I couldn’t afford to do it every time” (pretty weak as an excuse for not doing it this time), or “That’s not the way to help them, they’d only spend it on drugs” (hardly relevant, even where true – how would you fare without your escape routes and consolations, even with a roof over your head?).  Those of us who live indoors ought at least to be prepared to live with these momentary feelings of awkwardness.  But what if we look at things instead from the point of view of the woman or man who is homeless – for presumably you do not stop being a person, a subject and moral agent, just by virtue of being or becoming ‘housing insecure’?

Like Mr Chowdhury the foiled fraudster, I am 28 years old. In the world in which I am a homeless 28-year-old rather than a cosseted pheasant-eater (I don’t actually eat pheasants, but you get the idea), neither my future nor my past looks very rosy, to say the least.   It is highly likely that I will have suffered from mental or physical illness, and that the chances are that I still do (though it is unlikely that I have seen a GP in the last year).  As a woman, one of the most likely precipitating factors of my homelessness is that I have escaped a violent relationship.  I am now 13 times more likely than a non-homeless person to be the victim of violence.  I probably spend my entire day alone, or speak only with other homeless people.  My chances of exiting this situation are low, and if I remain homeless, my life expectancy is 43 (it would be 47 if I were a man) – but of course this average is the product of the fact that many homeless people die much younger than that, often suddenly or violently.  What, in this case, am I supposed to do? And don’t say, “Sell the Big Issue, and gradually work your way back into mainstream society”, or “Get off drugs” or “Get a tin whistle and learn to play it nicely”.  It is much easier not to ask this question – avoidable homelessness in a rich society can only be tolerated through the systematic suspension of thought, imagination and empathy – but seriously, what would YOU do?

I have no real idea what I would do (and the evidence suggests that nothing I could do would have much chance of success), but I can say this: if I thought I saw an opportunity to relieve a wealthy person of some of their money by non-violent means (the violent means would be another conversation, although I doubt that many of us have much insight into what we would be prepared to resort to under truly desperate circumstances), then I would do it like a shot.  Given the choice, and if I did not know better, I might even select a certain kind of ethicist (a utilitarian would do nicely) or an egalitarian political philosopher to unburden, in the hope that they might be better placed than most to understand [NB.: not a dig at Prof Glover, who did not know, in any case, that the guy was homeless; if anything, it’s a dig at philosophers in general…].  And so would most people if they knew they could get away with it, I suspect, when faced with the prospect of spending even one night outside in freezing temperatures or exposed to the other hazards attendant on rough sleeping.  If it were a matter of not one night but the whole of the foreseeable future, we’d probably do it even at a relatively high risk of getting caught (it’s telling that a fifth of all homeless people have apparently committed ‘imprisonable offences’ in order to get somewhere to sleep).

Now of course, philosophers will be quick to point out that there is at least a conceptual difference between what we would do, under certain circumstances, and what we should do (thanks for that).  But what is it, exactly, that might ground the view that it is morally wrong for someone in a gravely desperate situation to take something from someone in a very comfortable situation, in order to ameliorate her own condition, without much diminishing the comfort of the other? If the categorical imperative says otherwise, then that is just one more bullet for Kantians to either dodge or bite.  The idea that theft or fraud under such conditions inevitably constitutes a moral wrong can only belong to ‘commonsense morality’ thanks to a dramatic failure of imagination.

Still, this kind of thinking can only take us so far.  It may be instructive to shift perspectives within the game of what I’ve called the ‘individual non-ideal model’ of ethics, but the kind of imaginative failure which protects certain of the contents of ‘commonsense morality’ also places limits on the value of thought experiments and appeals to ‘intuitions’ (where, after all, do we think these intuitions come from?).  What this suggests to me is that we would do better to avoid the individual non-ideal model altogether, in favour of an approach to ethics which grants greater epistemic weight to practical action as opposed to introspection, and which maintains a dual focus: on collective as well as individual action; on the societal structures in which the moral agent moves as well as on the agent herself – structures which are not held fixed even for the purposes of considering the moral situations of individuals, but recognised in their plural significance as both constraining and enabling action, including action directed towards the transformation of those same social structures.  And if a consequence of this is that the boundary between ‘ethics’ and ‘political philosophy’ breaks down, then perhaps both domains would be the better for it.

Be Sociable, Share!
This entry was posted in Articles, Discussion, Politics, Posts, Public Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply