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.