Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Well, I hope that you’ve all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I’m sure that everyone overate and then went shopping for the Black Friday sales, right? So, now it’s my turn to make you all feel horrible about yourselves. This is going to be my last post in this series that’s been focused on wealth and poverty issues, and I think that this weekend of, let’s face it, indulgence is a good opportunity to consider some of the issues surrounding consumerism and over-consumption. Last week I asked you the question: how much is enough? I hope you had a lot of fun with that little gem. So, this week I have an equally complicated ‘simple’ question: how much is too much?

Clearly, we live in a culture that has at least some issues with consumerism. Our advertising should tell you that much. Now, this might be as simple as ‘that’s the nature of capitalism’ or as horrible as ‘African’s are starving every day because Americans throw away food’ depending on your personal views and political bent. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. However, today I want you to think specifically about consumerism. There are relatively few Americans that are honestly struggling to meet their basic needs (i.e. food, water, shelter). However, where do we draw the line? Is a middle class home with two cars and three meals a day plus snacks too much? What about a $35 million home, a fleet of cars, and a jet at your beck and call? Is there even such a thing as too much? Or does too much have less to do with what you have, and more to do with what you’re willing to give up? Does a single man who makes $24 thousand a year and spend $29,000 a year while giving nothing to charity have too much? Does a family of five that makes $50 million a year, spends $10 million, saves $5 million, and gives $35 million to charity have enough?

You know the drill. Write me a story of 1000 words providing your answer to the question: how much is too much?

If you’d like to post it on your own blog then please comment and leave a link. If you want to leave your story in a comment then please keep it under 500 words.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Boy^_I_sure_did_a_good_day's_work_today^_-_NARA_-_534883I’m sorry this post is late. I managed to crash last night without even realizing that I’d forgotten to put one up for today! So, we’ve been talking about concepts of labor and a fair wage recently, and I’d like to add a third wrinkle: retirement. Consider: the vast majority of retired people work in some form or fashion. I remember when I was a security guard I worked with a retiree. I figured he was working part-time because he needed the money. However, as I got to know him better I found out that he had over a million dollars in the bank (well… I imagine it was probably invested somewhere, but you get the picture). When I asked why he was working for the (admittedly horrible) company that we worked for his response was that he ‘just wanted something to do’. This attitude seems to be pervasive. Regardless of whether we get paid, regardless of whether we need the money, we all seem to have a need to be productive in some way. The only other choice seems to be complete apathy, which is an even worse feeling than working. So, here is your question: why do we work? Is it a ‘god-given need’? Do we have a divine mandate to work? Is it simply a way to stave off boredom? Is it just a way to pay the bills? If it is, then how can we explain people like the man I knew at my security job?

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

001372acd0b50f2ddaab07What do you think about capitalism? Good? Bad? Ugly? Necessary? The best we can do? There are a lot of differing opinions. This isn’t actually your challenge for this week, just a primer for it. I’m planning on writing a paper about the concept of a ‘fair wage’ for my Wealth and Poverty class, and of course this raises a lot of questions about capitalism and society. So, there are a few considerations here. First of all, what do we even mean when we say ‘fair wage’? Do we mean: a wage that is essentially what my work is worth? A wage that I can survive on? A wage that gives me a comfortable standard of living? A wage that reflects that standards of the society? These are really just the first questions. Choosing which of these we even want to answer raises a bunch of new questions, for instance: what is my work worth? Who gets to decide? How do we decide? By survive do we simply mean ‘put bread and water in my belly and a roof over my head’ or do we mean something more than that? What do we mean by ‘comfortable’? Can we argue that the standards of our society are actually good standards? How much damage can artificially inflating payments cause? Consider that, if minimum wage moves to $15/hour its likely that a lot of service workers (fast food employees for example) will probably lose the jobs they have now as companies cut jobs. At the same time, there are plenty of minimum wage workers who actually are trying to survive of their income. Do these people simply not have a good option? Do we just let them suffer? Take care of them forever?

So, here is your philosophy challenge today: what do we mean when we ask speak of a ‘fair wage’? Does the concept even matter outside of a capitalistic society?

Remember, you need to write me a story of 1000 words that presents and defends your answer to this question.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

DBP_1981_1103_EntwicklungszusammenarbeitOne of the most significant marks of enduring poverty is not simply the lack of necessary goods, but the lack of the means to acquire necessary goods. This is true of many different types of poverty. Those who are materially poor often lack the ability to acquire needed material goods. This could mean a lack of marketable skills, but it could also mean a lack of access to markets. Consider the cliche ‘You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day, or you can teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime’. Teaching a man to fish is a wonderful analogy for developmental training in marketable skills. However, using the same analogy, if the nearest fishable body of water is a hundred and fifty miles away, teaching the poor man to fish does him little good. Similarly, you can teach a man marketable skills, but unless you also give him access to markets in which to offer those skills, the skills themselves are useless. The same thing is true in non-material types of poverty. A lonely man in an urban center might read the book How to Make Friends and Influence People, put the skills he learns into practice, and solve his problem. However, a hermit living in the middle of a difficult to access mountain range is unlikely to find the book helpful. You might give an illiterate man Plato’s Republic as the beginning of a solution to his intellectual poverty. However, without teaching him to read, the book will quickly become nothing more than an interesting doorstop. We can easily identify five different kinds of poverty: material poverty (i.e. the lack of material goods), intellectual poverty (i.e. the lack of knowledge, critical thinking skills etc), emotional poverty (i.e. depression, self-control issues, anger issues, etc), social poverty (i.e. lack of friendships, family, etc), and spiritual poverty (i.e. lack a spiritual awareness, divine connection, etc – a Christian would define this as being unregenerate or lacking a relationship with God, alternatively a Zen Buddhist might define this as having a clouded mind). Each of these forms of poverty runs into the same initial problem: giving the man a fish isn’t necessarily enough, but teaching the man to fish isn’t necessarily enough either. So, you know the challenge: I provide you with a question, and you write a story of 1000 words or less to answer it. Here’s your question: using one of the above types of poverty as an example consider, what are the first steps in creating a long-term solution to the individual’s problem? This could be considered either from the individual’s point of view (i.e. seeking aid to solve the problem himself) or from another’s point of view (i.e. someone working to aid him).

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

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.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

BaganmyoI read and I write, and then I read more. Anyone else have a similar life experience at the moment? Well, if your a graduate student I’m sure you do. I have to admit that I have enjoyed most of the books that I’ve read thus far (…one of these days I’m going to have to put up a list…). Anyway, life is exciting, and I hope that it’s exciting for all of you as well! I’ve been thinking a bit more about the story that I need to write. I’ve more or less settled on a story that focuses on Sizma, though I like NQ’s idea of Rikard playing an important part in that story. At the moment, I’m trying to think through plot lines, so I’ll let you know what I come up with. I considered trying to focus on debt issues, but rejected the notion of Merethal having a debt-based economy. While concepts of debt and credit certainly exist, I don’t think that the economy is advanced enough for it to actually be based on debt. Anyway, I have a question for you. You know the rules, write me a 1000 word story that presents and defends your answer to the question:

What is justice and how does it aid in developing opportunity for the poor? Consider the arguments of Plato, Thrasymachus, and Glaucon from The Republic. Consider the Old Testament financial and social laws, the Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven and the Celestial Order, and Modern concepts of law (especially concepts of private property, fairness in business, and the Rule of Law vs the Rule of Power) and social justice. You may also want to consider the video series Poverty Cure part 3 “Justice for the Poor”. Make sure that you are not thinking only in your own context, but also examining contexts such as Macaba in Buenos Ares, Burma/Myanmar, or Ghana, where property rights are extremely unclear.

You may also want to give some thought to the opposite question: what is injustice and how does it prevent the poor from developing in natural ways?

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Homeless_ManWell, it’s that time again. Time for questions and answers. So, before the government started its welfare programs those who gave their lives to caring for the impoverished and needy made a clear distinction between two concepts: the undeserving poor (or those who deserved aid because they did not deserve their poverty), and the deserving poor (or those who did not deserve aid because they did deserve their poverty). The undeserving poor were considered to be those individuals who were poor through no clear fault of their own. They may have been a victim of circumstance (as many were during the Great Depression for example, when jobs simply weren’t available), ill, crippled, or otherwise truly unable to work, but they wanted to provide for themselves, and did their best to do so (even if those efforts were insufficient). The undeserving poor, on the other hand, were those who were poor through their own choices. They may have been too proud to take the jobs that were available, lazy, addicted to some substance, or simply unwise with money (i.e. compulsive gambling, shopping, etc). So here is your question today: Is this legitimate? What is the important difference between the deserving poor, and the undeserving poor ? Should we make this distinction? If so, how do we do so in the modern world?

Merethal and Mathal

So, last post I was doing a little world building for a story that I’m planning to write. The nation of Merethal is ruled by a merchantile oligarchy called the Mediere, and the upper crust of the nation goes by the same name. This is a very materialistic group of people who see wealth as the measure of all things. The population of Merethal is divided into three main classes: the Mediere (again, powerful, wealthy social elites), the Sanguinary [not sure I’m keeping this name, it seems a little too on the nose] (a small middle class made up mostly of soldiers along with a few clerk, scholars, and bureaucrats who glean off the wealth of the Mediere and keep the nation in order), and the Posanieu (the lower class poor and near poor which makes up the great body of the people). I have to admit that I’m drawing some of my model from Richard Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society.

The Mediere are made up of the top 2% of the populace of Merethal so, since the current population of Merethal is about 15 million people, the Mediere are made up of about 300,000 extremely wealthy individuals.

The Sanguinary are made up of an additional highly trained 25% of the population, so about 3.75 million people who are highly trained soldiers, scribes, paper-pushers, researchers, etc who serve the Mediere directly and make up a small middle class in the nation.

The Posanieu make up the remaining 73% of the population, about 10.95 million people, and generally range from very low paid servants and day laborers to conscripted peasant levies to beggars and criminals.

Further, the southern parts of the nation are no host to a further 1.5 million refugees fleeing the warfare in Azan. So, the southern portion of Merethal is in chaos at the moment, and the city of Merethal is smack-dab in the middle of it.

After doing a little more thinking (and consideration of actually populations of Europe during an appropriate time period) I’m also changing the demographics of Mathal.

So, the total population of Mathal is 768,000 (approximately). About 1o,000 of these are Mediere (a number of the Mediere have left for the north to avoid the influx of refugees); about 200,000 are Sanguinary, and there are currently over 100,000 trained, professional soldiers in the city working to keep the peace; and there are about 558,000 Posanieu in the city. Add to this a further 300,000 refugees in the city itself (many living on the streets), and even more camped outside and you begin to get the picture. The city is currently under martial law and is heavily patrolled not only by the normal garrison, but also by the additional troops supporting them.

So, in the midst of all of this, I have two main characters that I’m going back and forth between:

Rikard – Rikard is one of the Posanieu, but he is in an even worse position that most Posanieu. Rikard’s parents died when he was young and he’s grown up on the streets. He’s been a guide, a pickpocket, and has been caught for burglary before. If fact, if he’s brought in again, it’s very likely that he will lose a hand (the legal code is kind of a progressing 3-strikes system, the first time you are caught, you are forced to repay [often through service] your victim, the second time you suffer an ‘appropriate’ physical punishment, and the 3rd time you’re brought in you are executed). So, Rikard begs for a living. He would like to work, even as just a cleaner or low-level servant, but the influx of refugees has made it harder than ever to find work, and he has no really ‘marketable’ skills. Rikard has essentially given up on finding a job.

A story about Rikard would probably revolve around another, secondary character. This character would either be a Knight from Fa’ar who grew up in the slums of Merethal and ‘sees himself’ in Rikard, thus taking him on as a squire, or the character would be someone attempting to start a business against the wishes of the Mediere and looking for workers/protection/support.

Sizma Hathar – Sizma is a refugee from Azan. He is in his late thirties and, before being driven out, was one of the best cobblers in his (rather large) city. Sizma has lost everything though. His business is gone, and he has no family to fall back on. Sizma wants to start a business in Merethal, but he needs 1) capital, and 2) permission. He’s attempted to join the cobbler’s guild, but the Mediere strictly control craft and trade. It is impossible to join the guild without the backing of a Mediere merchant, and it is impossible to meet with a Mediere merchant without the backing of the guild (it’s a closed system designed to only allow the apprentices of guild members to become guild members). Beyond this, I’m not entirely sure where to go with this story-line though.

I have considered attempting to combine the two concepts and have Sizma be the person who is trying to start a business from the Rikard concept, but I’m not really sure which way I’m going to take the story at this point.

So, anyone have any thoughts?

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, I’m pretty much exhausted at the moment. I haven’t had a lot of sleep and I have been doing a lot of work. However, I do have another good question for you. Last week I asked you to define ‘poverty’ in a story of a thousand words. This week my question is this: what is the best way to help the poor? As always, write a story of no more than 1000 words to present and defend your response. In your writing consider that there are two primary models for aid: relief and development.

Relief is by far the most common aid model. In essence, relief aid is when I actively give something (i.e. food, money, clothing, etc) to a person who is in need. Clearly, giving to those in need is a good thing, right? Yes, sometimes at least. However, also consider that the massive donations of 2nd hand clothing that poor into Africa have destroyed the Kenyan cotton industry, putting many people out of work. Also consider that monetary relief aid often comes with strings attached. For instance, a European charity group might offer a loan or financial gift to a third world government with the stipulation that it be used to hire German contractors to complete a specific project. Again, free money, right? Well, yes, but consider that the third world government might not actually need the project that the charity group has decided to fund, and that the requirement to hire German contractors actively takes work away from local construction companies, and also ensures that the charity money flows back into the European economy, instead of actually flowing into and bolstering the economy of the third world country.

Development is less common and also less flashy. Development aid involves partnering with local groups in the country or area to work on developing projects and programs that they choose and design, through assets and abilities that they have. For instance, development might involve providing partial (not complete) funding to a local bank in that same third world country to help fund their project of offering small business loans and contracts to local construction companies and software developers. This does provide aid, but it keeps local people in charge, and ensures that local companies and the local economy benefit from the aid being provided, instead of being trampled. Sound good, right? Well, in some cases. However, consider that after Hurricane Katrina or the Nuclear Meltdown in Japan people needed immediate help. They didn’t need small loans or slow help in developing their businesses. They needed food, clean water, clothing, and shelter for the night.

So, with these models in mind, and any others that you want to consider: what do you think is the best way to help the poor? Is there a ‘best’ way? Are all method’s equal? Let me know what you think.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

IMFP78Well, as I’ve been saying all week I am currently reading When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. Actually, if I manage to stay on schedule, I should be finishing the book either today or Monday. It’s been an easy and enlightening read that I thoroughly suggest everyone pick up. However, today’s challenge I want to keep very simple. You all know the rules: I give you a philosophical question and you write me a 1000 word story that illustrates and defends your answer to that question. So, your question for today: What is poverty?

In considering your answer to the question consider that middle and upper class 1st world citizens (generally those who have the interest and means to do something about poverty) generally define it in terms of material wealth. They respond by saying things like poverty is not having enough, making under ‘$blank’ per year, needing food and clothing, or even generally ‘having unmet needs’. However, when poor people who daily experience poverty are asked to describe it their responses generally focus on the emotional. They respond by saying things like poverty is shame, fear for one’s life, daily anxiety, hopelessness, inferiority, always looking up at others, being stepped on, being voiceless, and not having any choices. Consider also that there are many different causes of poverty: we tend to focus on poverty as unmet material needs, and so we assume that throwing money at the problem will fix it. However, poverty can be caused by ignorance concerning how to effectively use what material goods are available, it can be caused by outside oppression (i.e. the forceful stripping from a people of what they do have), personal choices of the poor (i.e. I know what I should do, but I buy whiskey instead), a general lack of material goods (i.e. the economy sucks and there just isn’t enough to go around), or the lack of ability to acquire material goods (i.e. I have no useful skills so no one will hire me). If we attempt to provide material goods when the problem is actually ignorance or oppression, then we don’t actually do anything to effectively solve the problem.