A couple of weeks ago I gave you a challenge having to do with the concept of the deserving and undeserving poor. Today, I’d like you to revisit that concept, but with a new twist. In that challenge I asked you to answer the question: should we make a distinction between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor? I wanted you to consider whether we could make this distinction at all, or whether we must simply give aid to everyone (or refuse aid to everyone). This week I’d like you to assume that this distinction is a valid one (i.e. that there are some people to whom we should give aid and some people to whom we should refuse aid). You’re question this week is: how do we make this distinction?

I want to present three concepts that I would like you to consider in developing your response:

1) The causes of poverty: In a very general way we can identify three major causes of poverty, one or more of which will fit the majority of individual situations. The first cause of poverty is disaster. This could be a natural disaster (such as a the tsunami that hit the Philippines, the nuclear meltdown in Japan, etc) or it could be a personal disaster (such as sudden health problems, an unexpected additional responsibility, etc). The second cause of poverty is oppression. This could be due to greed (for example, unfair wages could be considered oppression), recklessness on the part of others (i.e. the embezzlement at Enron cost a lot of people their jobs), racial or otherwise systematized oppression (i.e. the plight of black sharecroppers in the reconstruction south), etc. The key here is that the poverty of the individual is directly caused by the unjust actions of others. The third cause of poverty is irresponsibility. This could be an individual who is lazy, has self-discipline problems, expensive or illegal tastes, etc. Regardless, in this case the poverty of the individual is caused by his own unwillingness to work or unwillingness to handle his money carefully and responsibly. It should be noted here that in many individual cases elements of all three causes of poverty will be present.

2) The concepts of development and change: Regardless of the causes of an individual’s poverty, how that individual reacts to their poverty is also an issue that should be considered. Is the individual hopeless? Unwilling to make an effort to improve his/her lot? Confident that ‘his life is his own’ and thus unwilling to accept advice or education, even though he does want to improve? Or is the individual teachable, humble, willing, and focused on doing what it takes to get out of poverty? Again, it should be noted here that a person whose poverty has been caused by a sudden health problem may not be directly responsible for his poverty, but he may also not be willing to do anything to improve his poverty. So, in light of these questions we can divide people into two (again very general) categories. The first category is made up of those people who want a handout, but do not want to see or are not willing to work towards any fundamental change in their lifestyle and situation. The second category is made up of those people who want long-term help in becoming either independent or a productive member of society, but may need hand-outs in order to reach that place. It should be noted here that, in some cases, fundamentally changing an individuals situation may not actually create a change in their need. We often think of ‘development’ as creating financially independent individuals. However, there is a class of individual who is teachable, hard-working, humble, and focused on ‘doing what it take’, but who is also in need of long-term aid. This class may best be described as the ‘life-long humanitarian’. For example, free clinics do not run on the profits that they create. Similarly, a doctor who serves the poor and does not charge them will not be able to live off of the proceeds of his work. However, this does not mean that he is not doing productive work that deserves to be paid for by someone.

3) The concepts of partiality and impartiality: These are two concepts that are important in both Chinese (Confucian and Mohist philosophies) and Western (Kantian and Utilitarian philosophies) thought. Partialism argues that while all people might be equally deserving of someone’s aid, specific individuals are more deserving of my aid. Partialism often speaks in the language of responsibilities. For instance, a partialist would argue that I have a responsibility to aid all people as I am able, but my first responsibility is to my ailing mother, my second to my hungry neighbor, my third to the out of work man in my community, and only what is left should be given to the stranger. Impartialism argues that all people deserve my aid, and thus my aid should be given to those most in need, regardless of my relationship with them. For instance, an impartialist would argue that I should give aid to a starving stranger before giving aid to my ailing mother because the stranger’s need is more dire and immediate. Impartialists argue that I must see everyone as fundamentally equal, and thus determine who I give aid to by need alone.

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9 thoughts on “Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

    1. Dominika, I think that’s also a potentially fair concept. However, I also think that it needs to be clearly defined, just like the concept of deserving and undeserving poor needs to be clearly and carefully defined. How would you define the concept of deserving and undeserving rich?

      1. Most definitely it should be defined if further discussed, I agree. As for myself, when it comes to defining the concept of deserving/undeserving poor or rich, I struggle to allow the mindset to deem judgment on the value of other human beings and their livelihoods.

        After all, deserving/undeserving are subjective concepts that will heavily depend on the person’s epistemological and cultural bias; especially in regards to something as loaded as economic status. These two concepts (undeserving/deserving, rich/poor) are both deep wells of extremely tangled roots when it comes to analysis and contemplation.

        If I were to develop some modern-based ideas, I’d start with these questions to build a definition from; Are rich who have inherited their wealth deserving of it? How about those who have stolen it? Those who have manipulated and lied to acquire it? Those who have caused long-term negative effects to entire communities in order to secure wealth? What about those rich who have taken advantage of ignorance or disaster in order to profit; Or the ones who acquire wealth through viral/tabloid media or fame (hollywood/sports)? What activities and attitudes are considered acceptable to be deserving of the wealth acquired? Is anything acceptable?

        On Aid; Is it acceptable for rich, poverty -> wealth/wealthy.

        1. Oops, looks like it cut out there, might be the less than sign messing with the html… Hmmm… let’s see if I can remember what I wrote…

          On Aid; Is it acceptable for (less than) 10% of a population to hoard wealth to the detriment of their society (refuse aid to everyone)?

          The development and change, impartial/partial concepts would remain mostly the same for discussion purposes, just switch out poor -> rich, poverty -> wealth/wealthy.

          1. Dominika, honestly I think that you’re starting in the wrong place. As I read through your list of questions I see you focusing on negative concepts of wealth, but entirely ignoring positive ones. We often do the same with poverty. We focus on questions like ‘should we give to someone who will just waste it?’ or ‘Does a person who is poor because of his own irresponsible behavior deserve aid?’ However, if we look at the causes of poverty above we can see that there are many poor (perhaps even the majority of the poor) who are not poor primarily because of their own irresponsibility, though their irresponsibility may be a part of the reason for their poverty.
            I think that we might see the same thing for the rich. So, I think that instead of starting with questions like ‘does this kind of person deserve to be rich?’ We need to start by asking 1) Where does wealth come from? What measures actually make people rich? 2) Which of these measures are fundamentally moral? Which are fundamentally immoral? With are fundamentally amoral? 3) When and why is it right to take from someone something that they have?
            Once we’ve answered these questions specifically, then I think we’ll actually have a basis for answering some of the questions that you’ve proposed above. Thoughts?

          2. I agree those are good furthering questions, especially “where does the wealth come from” and positive framework is an important aspect when it comes to perspective.
            For myself, contextualizing the foundation of a modern concept tends to start with negative-based reasoning by seeing what doesn’t (negative) fit and then going on to help define what does (positive) fit by the previously established what doesn’t.
            But when it comes to in-depth discussion, it’s best for a balance between perspectives and experimenting to find the weak points. These sort of discussions often have a number of roots leading to logical foundations that can also be discussed. It’s a dense subject, that’s for sure! 🙂

  1. If we are talking world wide issues you are missing one major, and perhaps the most common cause of poverty, the collapse of a functioning society. This is current in the Sudan and in other parts of the African continent. It appears highly questionable if the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of creating a functioning economy. No matter how hard one works if there are no markets for one’s product or no effective currency for which to pay for those products poverty results. E.g. the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – The currency suddenly became worthless.
    Changing weather patterns also have this effect. When what was productive land becomes desert (Northern Africa) people are rendered poor if they do not have the resources to leave.

    1. Wayne, honestly, I would put the collapse of a functioning society under ‘disaster’. I think that disaster can refer to a personal disaster (i.e. sudden illness or unexpected responsibility), natural disaster (i.e. flood, earthquake, etc), or cultural disaster (i.e. the collapse of a major societal institution or governmental structure). I also think that both natural and cultural disasters are highly likely to lead to oppressive social and economic structures that cause further poverty.

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