Morally Impaired

I recently wrote a blog focusing on a comment made by an anonymous blogger who characterized the poor as “folks who are usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year..” The blog drew a very incisive comment from MFB (My Favorite Blogger) newsofthetimes who said “I don’t understand how people can be so sure that they are not going to be the next person in line asking for help. . .” I was going to jot a quick response to MFB, but decided it warranted a longer response. So here goes.

Some years ago during the Summer I was a visiting professor at the University of Rhode Island and taught a course in Ethics to a class of about 30 students. It was a good class and we had some lively discussions. At one point we were discussing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act so the maxim of your will can serve as a universal law.” We tried to unpack the peculiar words in order to make some sense of them and perhaps see how they might help us resolve moral perplexities — which is the purpose of an Ethics course, after all. We decided that Kant was saying something like this: adopt a moral principle that would affect both yourself and others equally. In a word (though somewhat of an oversimplification) Kant was saying something very much like the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The interesting part of the discussion came about when we were trying to use examples to see how the rule might be applied in a particular case. We finally came around to the case of a poor person who required assistance and we decided that anyone who was in the position of the person in need would want, even welcome, assistance. We all pretty much agreed — except for one student who simply could not imagine that he would ever be the person in need. He denied that it was morally right to help those in need if the rule depended on the one making the rule supposing himself or herself to be the person in need. He simply would not allow that the right thing to do was to help the other person. The entire class went after the young man to the point where I was genuinely concerned about his well-being. He never did change his mind.

It is possible the young man was just trying to draw attention to himself, or make a scene. But I suspected that he honestly could not imagine himself ever to be a person in need of assistance from someone else. He was not stupid by any means, though he certainly lacked sympathy. But above all he lacked the faculty of imagination. He simply was incapable of putting himself in the place of another person — even for a moment. As a result after the discussion was over and I reflected on the class, I decided that this young man was incapable of acting morally in Kant’s sense of that term. If he were to do the right thing it would have to be by habit, training, or accident.

I think this is the case with the anonymous comment to my previous blog: the author of the comment, “Auth” by name, simply cannot imagine that he might be poor and in need of assistance. Otherwise, how could he possibly take such a narrow, superior, unfeeling, condescending attitude toward another human being? I suspect that in this person’s mind, the poor are less than human — certainly nothing like him! Perhaps this is what allows such people to adopt the superior air. In any event, most of the comments on the blog suggested that “Auth” is in the minority: most people responded with feeling to the possibility that they might themselves be poor, given the uncertainty of today’s economy for example, and that we do have an obligation to help those in need. I just hope that the majority of those who responded to the blog are typical of the rest of the people in this society. If they are like “Auth” or the student in that class then heaven help us!


15 thoughts on “Morally Impaired

  1. Excellent post. One of the sad, but pertinent to your point, occurrences I have witnessed in the ranks of those in need since the recession began are people seeking help that have never had to seek help ever before. They have had no experience in navigating a system designed to help them stay housed or if they lost their home get housed. When companies downsize, they often times end up cutting very good workers. So, let’s say Auth is doing a good job, but his boss asks him if he has a minute to come to a conference room. Auth walks in and he sees someone from HR sitting there, whom he may or may not know. Auth has a mortgage, VISA bills, car payments and two kids in private schools. Ten months later he is still looking for a job and first tells his kids they have to go to public school now. 99 weeks after his severance ceased he loses unemployment benefits as they max out. Six months later, he is about to be foreclosed on as he renegotiates his mortgage. As a manager of people, I have seen much better workers than Auth get let go, where you scratch your head and say, you mean Joe? There but by the grace of God go I. Thanks for beating the drum on this.

    • Great comment, as always OF. Did you both see the 20/20 program about a month ago aboutt poverty in Boulder County? THey interviewed my boss and covered this exact phenomenon. They call it the suburbanization of poverty and it is very real. Thanks for keeping the spotlight on these isues.

      • Thanks for the comment MFB. I did not see the 20/20 program. But I have a good friend who was a superintendent who lost his job and is about to lose his house. As the “old fart” says in his comment, it is becoming more and more common. Sad. But the attitude of people like “Auth” is even sadder.


  2. One can be poor and have financial riches beyond belief.
    One can be in need of assistance, and the assistance would require no funds.
    You are correct – the lack of imagination paralyzed the student.
    I feel sorry for anyone who thinks their money is going to save them from the ills of the heart and soul.

  3. MFB – I love that title!!! 🙂 Thanks for the shout-out Hugh!! Great post. That must be amazing as a teacher to observe the learning – or not learning – process like that. I think I know a number of people who think that they could never be thrown into poverty. It is foreign to my reality, but I guess if you have grown up behind high walls and been shielded from the world outside those walls your entire life, you just wouldn’t know any better. Not an excuse, but probably a reality. I actually feel bad for people like that – they are missing a big, beautiful world. BTW – I always read your posts in the morning, but like to think about them and be at a computer to respond rather than send a quick response full of typos from my phone. Please don’t think you are last on my list to read. You are always first! Besides, it is always fun to see your comments as they unfold!! Thanks for another thoughful post!!

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