Ethical Obligations and Equal Opportunity

Disclaimer: This post is from the archives, and may not represent the current views of the author. It also may not be at all interesting to read. Continue at your own peril!

For the past few weeks or so, I’ve been thinking about and working through an issue that I’ve had in my head. When on the bus, or when walking to and from class, I kind of stare off into the distance, contemplating this issue. It’s likely not one that most people pay too much attention to. But it’s something I think is important to resolve. It’s the issue of moral obligations – what are our duties as moral beings? And specifically, what are our moral obligations to the poor?

Now, let me be the first one to declare that I think helping the poor is a great thing. It’s an important thing, and I see it as a morally praiseworthy thing to do. However, I’m not trying to determine the morality of helping the poor; I’m trying to determine whether people are morally obligated to help the poor. Roughly speaking, there are three categories of actions: morally prohibited, morally permissible, and morally obligatory. Some people break these down in different ways, but this framework is good enough for me. Essentially, in the first category are things that are immoral and that you should not do. In the second category are things that are allowed but not required – they’re good for people to do, and praiseworthy, but not expected of people. In this category also falls actions that are morally neutral, not good or bad; say, for instance, choosing to wear a blue shirt instead of a red shirt. In most cases, that’s not a big deal. Within the third category, however, are actions that are expected of people to do. They are actions that any decent human being should do. If you are capable of having knowledge about morality, these are things that are required of you.

So my question is, where does the act of helping the poor fall? Is it something that is morally permissible and praiseworthy, or is it something that is morally obligatory? This is the question I’ve been wrestling with. I first thought about wealth distribution. Should wealth be evenly distributed amongst the population? Should the government take money from the rich and give it to the poor until they are equal? I don’t think so. For one thing, it seems as though there will always be rich and poor, no matter what. If people make the same amount no matter what, then they have no incentive to work hard; this differential of wealth, then, is important. Certainly the rich are allowed to give money to others if they so choose, but there doesn’t seem to be any obligation on their part to do so. I’d still say it’s something they should do, but not something they’re required to do. However, it’s also important to remember that the money we make – whether we are in the upper, middle, or lower class – is always made at the expense of others. For example, there are plenty of unemployed people in North America. Not all of these have the skills and expertise, but some of them likely do. For every person employed, there are several turned away. Add this to the number of people worldwide who have no access to the job, and who have no access to the education necessary to develop the required skills for the job. Our money, our jobs, are always bought at the expense of others.

So it seems to me that while equality of wealth is not something that is obligatory or necessarily even desirable, equality of opportunity is a very different matter. People should not all receive the same amount of money, but they should all be able to have the opportunity to make money if they put in time and effort. Let’s face it, North American society does not operate this way. A black woman in the lower class with no college education is going to find it much more difficult to find a job than a white man in the middle class with a Master’s degree. We like to think that we are “equal opportunity employers”, and certainly there has been much progress made in this area, but we are not there yet. Providing equality of opportunity involves breaking down racist and sexist attitudes, allowing greater social mobility between social classes, and increasing access to affordable education, among other things. This type of equality is important, because many individuals who grow up in the poor areas of, say, the Bronx, find it difficult to escape the cycle of poverty. They rely on government assistance to live in substandard housing, and they cannot break out because they lack the money required to develop the necessary skills to achieve a higher-paying job. Without money, they cannot get a better job, but without a better job, they cannot make more money. Much of this is only amplified by issues of racism and sexism, not to mention that schools in the area find it hard to get high-quality teachers (since they don’t want to move into the neighbourhood), so the next generation growing up has subpar education. The cyle continues.

This, I feel, is where our obligations lie. We need to do everything possible to create conditions that will allow for equality of opportunity. This needs to be done not only on a national scale, but on a global scale. How does a little girl in Ethiopia ever break out of the cycle of poverty? She has no access to education, and she might find it hard to just hop on an airplane and fly to the US for school. Certainly this is a complex issue, but it seems that we have an obligation to deal with it as best we can. As I thought about this, though, it was difficult to know just how an individual would have such an obligation. I am not in government; I don’t own a business; I can’t influence international policy. But there are several ways. I can first of all change my own attitude. Attitudes and beliefs are contagious. If I live consciously with equality of opportunity on my mind, it can influence others. This is a simple way. Second, I can speak out. Sort of like I’m doing right now. The Internet offers a huge opportunity to spread one’s words, with little cost at all. That is one small way to use my words to effect change. Third, I can act. I can support governments who lower trade barriers and support free trade. I can vote for politicians who advocate the eradication of racism and sexism, who fight for accessible and affordable education, and who enact policies that provide more opportunities for the poor. If I own a business or am a manager in charge of hiring, I can make sure that my hiring policies are fair and equitable, and I can resist the urge to stereotype.

Most importantly, I think it is necessary to rethink where our money goes. Numerous charities exist, but not all of them try to effect change in the same way. Some organizations will raise money, and then provide food for the poor. That is a good thing, but I do not think it is the best way to approach the problem. I am reminded of the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.” I think it is crucial that we move ourselves away from simple “handouts” and move towards empowering the poor and the destitute to become self-sufficient. This is especially crucial in developing nations. We can continue to ship food and clean water and medical supplies over to Africa forever, or we can help them to develop these things on their own. We can help them to grow crops and teach them modern farming techniques to increase their yield. We can help to dig wells that will provide clean, drinkable water for them. We can educate them in medical advances (and other areas) so that they can start to combat disease on their own. Instead of simply throwing money at the problem, we need to solve the problem. It is not that helping individuals is not important. Providing food aid is not a bad thing. It’s just not the best thing. We can work on helping individuals, in some never-ending lineup for assistance, or we can work at changing the system. It’s like medication – we can either try to reduce the symptoms, or we can attack the disease causing them. So with that said, I think it is crucial that we are more selective in our charitable giving – not that we should give less, but that we should give to charities that will actually help solve the problem. We need to find charities that are not content to simply work within the system, but will try to enact change in the system itself.

So this is the result of my pondering on morality. I have not completely resolved the problem. I know I started off saying that I had no obligation to give my money away, but then I ended by saying that I have an obligation to give money to charities that combat the problem of inequality of opportunity. I don’t see this as a necessary contradiction, but I still need to work out what I should be doing with my money. Unfortunately, the problem seems to be more complicated than just “give to the poor.” I hope I’ve been able to show the complexity, at least. But hopefully this provides stimulation for others to think about what their moral obligations are, and what strategies they can use to solve the “big problems” in our world. If I was able to do at least that, then I’d say that’s a pretty good start.

5 responses to “Ethical Obligations and Equal Opportunity”

Cori-Beth

Great posting, Jeff! Ever consider running for office?! It's crazy that you should write this particular blog as last week (Nov. 9th) I put as my FB status something about this to me and my fellow Christians that struck me as an ouch. I wrote "Are we worthy, if we are able bodied, to be called Christians if we are not even attempting the Great Commission in some form or another?" I'm not going to get into the "obligations" Christians have with the Great Commission, I just wanted to quote what I had put, and tell you I had been thinking along basically the same lines lately as a Christian. Weird, eh?

Anyway, something along similar lines – Are we doing our part as human beings let alone Christians, Jews, Muslims, Agnostics, etc. etc. if we are just ignoring and being blase of what's going on around us? Are we in our own worlds, not caring or even seeing what's happening? It doesn't necessarily mean giving money like you said, it could be digging a well, again like you said, or driving a friend somewhere, or helping a little old lady across the street, opening and holding the door for someone regardless if they acknowledge us… What has happened to a little compassion and empathy??? Wake up people! I will admit, that have been guilty of being in "Corinne's World" aka "Planet Corinne" and just ignoring what is in "the real world". I'm sure others will admit to being on their own plants as well!

So to sum up my two cents about moral obligation, we should have an obligation as human beings to have compassion and empathy, not to mention respect, to our fellow man. It's not just a charity thing. That should go without saying. If you feel you should give money to a charity, go ahead. If you feel you should volunteer at a soup kitchen, sponsor a poor child in Africa, fund their education, do those. How about saying something nice to a stranger like "thank you". What ever it is, to quote Nike "Just Do It!" Okay, off my soap box now…

I think I just expanded a bit on what you had wrote about "moral obligations". At the very least, gave my perspective and thoughts on what people in general are and aren't doing in today's illuminati, let alone what they are doing for charity. Shame on us and how sad!

feeno

Jeffery

What's gotten into you? You are beginning to sound like my dad.

And I agree with you and my dad.

But what makes us "morale" beings? What do morales have to with anything? What's your definition of morales.

On Johns site I had a guy tell me the reason we do good stuff is because we evolved that way, 'cause if we were jerks nobody would like us and we'd be outside of our group looking in. (I paraphrased quite a bit, but that was his jist).

What would be the reason that society would owe anybody anything? Simply to keep our species survival rate up?

I've read just about everything you've ever written on this blog, going back old school when you were a sandwich makin' Christian dude. And I know you are a genuine good person with a big heart for those not as fortunate as you are. I admire and respect you greatly because of this. But why do you think you have a desire to help out the "needy".(evolution)?

You know politics makes my skin crawl but you have said many wise things such as "…we move ourselves away from simple "handouts" and move towards empowering the poor and destitute to become self sufficent". I love that. I think my boy Ronald Reagan had that tattoed on his ass.

Be careful of those who say they are for the "poor" and against "racism" when they will offer these handouts in exchange for votes because many of these laws are whats keeping many of these people in that vicious cycle of poverty.

I once read that 90% of all US millianaires are 1st generation millionaires. That means anyone can do it.

And as poor as my broke ass is, I know I still have a shot if I so desired. Personally I'm not a very ambitious person, however I've always wanted to be rich. Maybe I'll get there, maybe I wont, but I certainly would never expect or think somebody owed me something just because they had more than me. Chances are if your a rich person you've earned every penny. And that money should be used by you for whatever reason you feel like. Good, bad, morale immorale whatever.

Now for those wonderful people out there like the lovely Cori-B. I am grateful for all the wonderful blessings our Lord has showered me with. And because of that I tend to act out as you have described things in your response.(also CB if your reading this, I use the term "Nike" in my everyday vocabulary instead of saying "just do it".

Good stuff… and I wasn't trying to go down the "Atheist can't be morale" or the "Christian can't be good without God" path. But this was very insightful. Thanks.

Dueces, feeno

Jeff

Hi Corinne,

Yeah, I saw that in your status. It's an interesting thing to think about! I think you're definitely right that we have an obligation to have compassion, empathy, and respect for others. However, my difficulty is that it's one thing to have a feeling of compassion…it's another thing to take action that shows compassion. And certainly doing these things is great – but I really still don't know whether we are obligated to do them. It's nice to think that we should all just be nice to people, and if that were the case, I think my problem would disappear, but I guess it's important to think through moral obligations so that we can have something to point to when people aren't following through. This is especially difficult when you want to also say that people have a right to do what they want with the money they've earned. I guess I'd just like to have my cake and eat it too – to say that people are obligated to help others, but that they are fully permitted to keep their hard-earned dollars to themselves.

But anyway, you bring up some good thoughts, for sure. I totally can relate to what you say about people being in their own worlds; however, I think that may be a bit of an exaggeration. People tend to care about their family, their friends, etc. Maybe it's just that it's difficult to relate to a starving child on the other side of the world – even if they see him on TV every night in World Vision commercials.

Anyway, thanks as always for your comments!

Hey Feeno,

Well now, you get into an entirely different issue. I think that there's something to be said about the evolutionary explanation – I think that there are certain "rules" of society that simply help it function better, so evolution may have selected those who follow those "rules", since we are a social species and therefore need society to function properly. Society may not "owe" us anything, but it provides crucial functions for us. At the most basic level, think about what would happen if mothers just left their children on the jungle floor to fend for themselves. Somehow I don't think they'd last very long. I think society tends to have a pretty big benefit in that area.

But I think that no matter how you explain morals, it's safe to say that wherever they came from, we have them now. Whether they evolved or whether we picked them up at the supermarket last week, we've got a sense of morality now. So, using that sense, I can at least get a general idea of what I should do as a moral being – and that's what I was trying to do in this post.

Anyway, you bring up politics, and it's a very good point. Politicians drive me nuts because ultimately, they don't care much for doing what's best – they care about doing what most people think is best so that they'll get voted into office. So what ends up happening is that they spend more money on researching public opinion than they do researching the actual issue and how best to solve it. Blech. I know what you mean about politics making your skin crawl…

Anyway, I think I'm going to be doing a follow-up post to talk about a competing viewpoint that I've been thinking about. I haven't quite come to a conclusion on it yet, but it sort of deals with what you're talking about people being able to get rich if they really work hard, as well as the idea that people should be able to use their own money on whatever they feel like. So I'll leave my comments about that for my more extensive blog entry.

Thanks for the thoughts!

Gandolf

Hey Jeff our world can only become a better place if young folks like yourself are willing to give these things such serious amounts of thought as you obviously do.

I find i agree with most everything you say.

But i wonder besides the issues of morals and obligations etc.

What about the idea that maybe a big part of its also about it being to all our benefit in the long run as well.I think you touched on this in your answer to feeno.

Sure somebody could say well then rich folk have nothing to gain by helping poor folk out..But im pretty sure history suggests one generation of man can be rich and then something can happen and next moment the following generation of that rich mans family is poor.

So maybe its beneficial to us all as well as humans to help each other.

Even maybe in the sense that hopefully the less poverty there is the less need there should hopefully be for people to really need to steal etc.And specially in ancient times gone by maybe it was better to help neighbours out,lest they just invade you and take what they need anyway.

Sure when one country has a bad earthquake or something and aid from other countries start pouring in,on the surface it might have something to do with us feeling like we are obligated to help.But personally i think much deeper there also lays some evolutionary knowledge we have learned, that folks helping each other out means better chances of survival exists for everyone overall in the long run.

And maybe even that moral feeling of obligation is more about a realization that if we expect to be helped ourselves when we need help,we must also be prepared to chip in and help out others when its them thats in need.

What do you think Jeff.

Jeff

Hey Gandolf,

Thanks for dropping by!

I think you bring up a good point that much of helping others can benefit ourselves as well. It's not always a completely selfless act, nor does it need to be. I think it's a good thing, since it means that there will be people helping others because "it's the right thing to do", and there will be other people who help because it benefits themselves – but either way, help is help.

And yes, that lends evidence to the idea that it could be a product of evolution. In some of my psychology classes we have discussed evolutionary psychology (which is admittedly speculative, but still offers some interesting hypotheses at any rate), and one thing mentioned is the concept of reciprocity. In other words, "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." This would be most obvious in small communities where people would expect to be repaid, but as society got larger and more complex, it may now operate on the principle of expected reciprocity. In other words, if I help someone out now, someone else will help me out later. It may not even be the same person, but if we all act in each others' interests, we all come out better for it.

So I think you're right on the money there. Of course, people often have to weigh the options of helping others or helping themselves, and these are often competing. But in many cases, it seems that people act in prosocially. And that seems to be a good thing 🙂

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