The problem of poverty
Much of the discussion on giving alms to the poor rests on the tension between charity and dependency, on whether one should be compassionate or one should be just and leave it to the state to find solutions to such a problem. While taking a short ride on a jeepney in Manila, I found it amusing to see two youngsters distributing envelopes and a crumpled letter with an old picture of a dying man to passengers in order to solicit some money from them. In many urbanized cities, street children or a mother with a sickly infant seeking alms is not an unfamiliar sight.
Economics, according to Ben Fine, is poor in terms of its ethical content. The reason for this is not unintended. Indeed, economics finds itself on a pedestal in contemporary times, being in that special place given the epistemic nature of the sciences. It seeks, therefore, like much of the social sciences, to colonize theorizing — for good reason, since it can provide the explanations to some of our social and political problems. How to marry ethics and economics is the primary mission of human development.
The truth is that we often look at human well-being on a personal basis and simply set aside the structural dimension of it. In this respect, if society is to address the issue of extreme poverty, then we have to look at it from an institutional perspective, including how societal culture and positional differences inform our decisions. For example, as an individual, you just have to stop thinking that you are guilty of something if you do not give alms. While it is not wrong to beg, the moral wrong is in tolerating a poor man’s demeaning of himself.
What poverty is appears obvious. But the problem is that policymakers look at it from the viewpoint of distribution. In this way, poverty is seen as the lack of resources, and, thus, people think that in order to solve poverty, what is required is a matter of transfer of resources. But by simplifying poverty as the lack of income, we fail to see the underlying issues and circumstances, as Amartya Sen notes. Poverty is an entitlement problem. No matter what you say, a P5 coin won’t change the life of a poor man. It will only give him the wrong reasons to remain on the streets.
The idea is that we have to develop a culture in which we value persons beyond the economic. If, for instance, you give a beggar P5, while it might make you think that you have done something good, in truth you are simply exacerbating the problem. It is understandable that there appears to be an urgent moral duty to help, but you also need to look into the bigger picture of things. There is no moral duty on your part to give, nor can the beggar demand from you. The right thing to do, in this respect, is to actually provide the conditions for the beggar to flourish, which, in our case, is not feasible at the moment.
We can begin by developing a culture that teaches people how to value themselves. There are thousands of persons with disabilities who choose to work rather than beg on the streets. The reason is simple. Physical disability should not make an individual lose self-respect. Impairment, of course, is a matter of will. Life is a question of self-determination. It is fundamental how human beings value their freedoms, and in this regard, it is society’s moral duty to be able to expand the positive freedoms of citizens.
Persons who are fully healthy but who are engaged in begging deny themselves the true worth of their person. It is not money but self-respect and education that the beggar needs. To give alms is an insult to the beggar and society. While nothing can prevent any individual from giving alms as an act of kindness, it is equally important to realize that it is the intelligence of people that is necessary in order to improve the conditions of human life. Government programs, and what we must do as a society, should be a reflection of the same.
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Christopher Ryan Maboloc, PhD, teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University.