Poverty, desperation, and morality

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Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby Tailsteak » Tue Mar 11, 2014 8:11 am

Most people would agree that stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family is, if not morally acceptable, at least a grey area.

Of course, the operative word there is "starving". The desperation, the lack of other options, is key. If you have money to pay for it, or if you have other food you could legally obtain, or if your family is just a little peckish, then the grey area vanishes.

Or does it? Perhaps your family is only a little peckish now, but with no food on the horizon, the bread today is still a priority. Perhaps you do have money to fork over a couple of bucks to Dempsters, but you know you'll need it later to pay off your loan shark, or your rent, or for medicine. Desperation is desperation, and if it comes from an empty tummy now or a tummy you know will be empty a few days from now is immaterial.

So then, if we accept this, it follows that poverty in general makes immoral acts less immoral. What is poverty, after all, if not constant low-grade desperation? What is poverty if not lousy circumstances that compel one to make unsavoury choices they'd rather not make?

We can readily imagine a sliding scale, then, that corresponds to income. You make $20k a year? No theft for you. You make $13k a year and have a kid to feed? You can get away with taking the money out of that wallet you found before tracking down the owner. You only made $7k this year and your kid needs meds? Feel free to shoplift once a week or so.

Of course, the corollary is that rich people wind up with more moral scrutiny than the average person. Five digit bonus this Christmas for being such a great CEO? Not only can you not steal, but you can't even get away with being rude in traffic. Stocks did well this quarter? You're a bad person if you don't give at least 50% of it to charity. And so on.

Of course, now we start dipping our toes into the class warfare that's becoming more prevalent today (and that always seems, throughout history, to correlate with income inequality - go figure). We have poor people nodding their heads and saying "Yes, the one-percenters have an unfair advantage, they should, necessarily, be compelled to give back", and we have rich people countering with "I worked hard to get where I am, therefore I deserve what I've got, and I'm an innovator and a job creator blah blah blah." And, to be certain, a moral system based around wealth redistribution - making money and privilege a hot potato, the only rule being that whoever's got it has to give it up - is unsavoury in its own right.

So, then, some people will attempt to deny the first principle - that stealing a loaf of bread is in any way acceptable, that desperation doesn't factor into morality. This has the advantage of being black-and-white, which makes enforcement easier, but it runs counter to our emotional reality.

Because, of course, most morality is very much based on emotion and empathy. A "suspect" or a "perp" who steals something is a different emotional reality from "Diane Bergerson, with the braids, whose husband left her and whose son Duane has that thyroid issue" stealing something. (And, of course, pretty people tend to be more relateable than ugly ones, and people in the ethnic majority are more relateable than minorities, and so on.)

What do you think? Is stealing a loaf of bread more acceptable when you're desperate? If so, is poverty a form of permanent desperation, a moral, if not legal, get out of jail free card? Do rich people have greater moral obligations than normal people? Does having a vacant slot or two in the bottom of Maslow's pyramid promote or excuse immoral behaviour psychologically?
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Re: Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby Deepbluediver » Tue Mar 11, 2014 9:34 am

If you are going to venture into hypothetical gray areas, then you should also point out that it probably matters who you are stealing it from. What if I take another starving families loaf of bread to feed mine?

The best argument I can make at the moment against the situational-morality issue is that it doesn't eliminate desperation, it only transfers it (wealth transfer in reverse, perhaps?) Afterall, if to many people steal the baker's loaves of bread, he himself will become poor. Also, in this sort of situation, would you say that the baker is has a right to defend his own property? Would he be wrong for trying to prevent the theft? If you are morally "OK" with stealing to feed your starving family, what about murder? Is there a moral cut-off for what isn't acceptable?
Suppose there exists only enough food to feed one person, but two people want it- who then has the morale right to that food? Does the person who produced it (if that is the case) have more right to it than the other? How do you reconcile private property rights with inequality? Complicated issues, to be sure.

I believe that a society should take reasonable steps to help the truly unfortunate. The exact definition of "reasonable", of course, being the kind of thing you could start a war over. I believe you need to balance the desire on the one hand to help everyone, all at once, immediately, with taking care to not destroy that which produces the excess wealth in the first place or dis-incentivise people from wanting to better themselves and their situation. I believe that things like public education are an investment in the future and are beneficial overall to the society, and that establishments such as soup kitchens are necessary but undesirable. I'd rather have a situation where they wheren't required in the first place.

However, if you claim that people with an excess of resources have a moral obligation to share with people who have less, then I also believe the people who are on the receiving end have a moral obligation to not take advantage of it and to try to move towards a day in which they no longer require help.
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Re: Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby Merle » Tue Mar 11, 2014 9:56 am

The people with the money and power have an additional obligation - one to not make the system more difficult to rise up out of. To actually help those with less money improve, rather than hinder.

The real issue here is that, ideally, nobody should ever be in such straits that they are obligated to steal in order to ensure the wellbeing of themselves or their loved ones. Any society that doesn't provide the bare minimums of food, shelter, and other necessities - that doesn't allow for people to get up on that first rung of the ladder, and perhaps a boost to start climbing it - has failed, deeply and fundamentally, right at the start.
Neither a creeper nor a jackass be; if you manage these two things, everything else should work itself out.
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Re: Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby MysticWav » Tue Mar 11, 2014 4:13 pm

Most people would agree that stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family is, if not morally acceptable, at least a grey area.

Of course, the operative word there is "starving". The desperation, the lack of other options, is key. If you have money to pay for it, or if you have other food you could legally obtain, or if your family is just a little peckish, then the grey area vanishes.

Or does it? Perhaps your family is only a little peckish now, but with no food on the horizon, the bread today is still a priority. Perhaps you do have money to fork over a couple of bucks to Dempsters, but you know you'll need it later to pay off your loan shark, or your rent, or for medicine. Desperation is desperation, and if it comes from an empty tummy now or a tummy you know will be empty a few days from now is immaterial.


This reads like the intro to a very philosophical Noir novel. :)
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Re: Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby MysticWav » Tue Mar 11, 2014 4:19 pm

However, if you claim that people with an excess of resources have a moral obligation to share with people who have less, then I also believe the people who are on the receiving end have a moral obligation to not take advantage of it and to try to move towards a day in which they no longer require help.


The people with the money and power have an additional obligation - one to not make the system more difficult to rise up out of. To actually help those with less money improve, rather than hinder.


I think an additional important question is: How did the rich get so rich, and how did the poor get so poor? Are these things completely independent of each other? Back luck? Or are they connected. If you've gotten rich at the expense of others, that has a huge impact on the moral obligation to spend that wealth alleviating the effects of poverty.

The devil is in the details.

I do reject the idea that stealing in advance is equivalent to stealing at the point of desperation. Someone who is stealing to avoid current desperation is out of options. Someone who is stealing to avoid future starvation has forgone efforts to avoid said starvation through other means and not waited on opportunities to avoid starvation through other means. Often time those efforts will come to naught and those opportunities won't materialize, but I think it matters morally.
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Re: Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby JoshOfSpam » Wed Mar 12, 2014 9:30 pm

Tailsteak wrote:What do you think? Is stealing a loaf of bread more acceptable when you're desperate? If so, is poverty a form of permanent desperation, a moral, if not legal, get out of jail free card? Do rich people have greater moral obligations than normal people? Does having a vacant slot or two in the bottom of Maslow's pyramid promote or excuse immoral behaviour psychologically?


I'd say the biggest problem is that it isn't as nearly as simple as that.

I often find myself wondering why a person would be forced to be so poor or why would the rich complain about losing more in taxes when most likely everyone is going to chip in some if they can afford it?

Sometimes I get back to the simple fact that their have been so many people born in the world and the number of the disabled and seniors retiring has just caught up to things. Other times I think business might be making the standard work peon to obsolete and it's making it's own problems in the economy and their to whiny to see the world is as they make it and if they don't take the time to care it not only screws the little guy, but it also catches up to them as well.....

Sadly these are much deeper thoughts then I normally think. And as such, the idea's escape me and I'm left with a few impressions on what I was thinking about. It's definitely all worth thinking about. But at the same time, I fear that something more important might have been missed in it.
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Re: Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby crayzz » Thu Mar 13, 2014 4:13 pm

I agree with everything up to this point:

So then, if we accept this, it follows that poverty in general makes immoral acts less immoral. What is poverty, after all, if not constant low-grade desperation? What is poverty if not lousy circumstances that compel one to make unsavoury choices they'd rather not make?


Only theft was asserted as more moral in the case of poverty. Specifically, theft that alleviates hunger. I would generalize this for immoral acts that alleviates the desperation of poverty.

We can readily imagine a sliding scale, then, that corresponds to income. You make $20k a year? No theft for you. You make $13k a year and have a kid to feed? You can get away with taking the money out of that wallet you found before tracking down the owner. You only made $7k this year and your kid needs meds? Feel free to shoplift once a week or so.


I would add to this sliding scale the wealth of one's target. Theft from a millionaire? Doesn't really hurt. Theft from a fellow sufferer of poverty? That hurts, and badly.

Of course, the corollary is that rich people wind up with more moral scrutiny than the average person. Five digit bonus this Christmas for being such a great CEO? Not only can you not steal, but you can't even get away with being rude in traffic. Stocks did well this quarter? You're a bad person if you don't give at least 50% of it to charity. And so on.


This is where I think you go off the rails. The key issue above is desperation. Once desperation no longer exists, there's no more relevant difference between a rich person, a middle class person, or a poor person who lives on a stable income and has stable homestead.

Of course, now we start dipping our toes into the class warfare that's becoming more prevalent today (and that always seems, throughout history, to correlate with income inequality - go figure). We have poor people nodding their heads and saying "Yes, the one-percenters have an unfair advantage, they should, necessarily, be compelled to give back", and we have rich people countering with "I worked hard to get where I am, therefore I deserve what I've got, and I'm an innovator and a job creator blah blah blah." And, to be certain, a moral system based around wealth redistribution - making money and privilege a hot potato, the only rule being that whoever's got it has to give it up - is unsavoury in its own right.


Well, no. The rich aren't paying more because they have an unfair advantage; taxes and the like may decrease their income, but not to an extant that significantly diminishes their advantage. They're paying more because they've benefited most, and in ways that are disproportionate to both how hard they've worked and how much others have benefited.


What do you think? Is stealing a loaf of bread more acceptable when you're desperate?[1] If so, is poverty a form of permanent desperation, a moral, if not legal, get out of jail free card?[2] Do rich people have greater moral obligations than normal people?[3] Does having a vacant slot or two in the bottom of Maslow's pyramid promote or excuse immoral behaviour psychologically?[4]


1) Yes.

2) To simple. It's a mitigating factor. It might buy one some leniency.

3) Yes, but not for the reasons you describe.

4) “Promotes” is an odd word. It certainly makes such behaviour more common. “Excuse” is to absolute. Again, mitigation.
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Re: Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby doctor100 » Mon Mar 17, 2014 12:28 pm

For three years I lived without money-asking and recieving for simple needs like food and clothing. Most people wouldn't think that this sort of not-buying is bad.

On the other hand, if you were a police officer, doing business like that can put you in jail. Or a politician, or a judge- in fact, some might even consider recieving things for the asking to be not criminal behavior, but perhaps behavior criminals are known for. . .

I knew a family, other details aside-they were poor. It was the husbands habbit to recieve free takeout, fastfood, and pizza, by pretending something was wrong with the food, or they didn't receive the order they placed etc. These folk ate pretty much every night-not exclusively this way, but often. They worked hard for what little money they did have, but did not have most of the pleasantries a social security family might have. R amen was also a staple of their diet. Were they stealing? were they starving? Was what they were doing morally right?

Is it better or worse if it's habitual.

(by the way, the fast food places know people do this)
Particularly considerign that so much of morality is emotional based 'not to hurt people' 'don't be mean' 'build community' 'listen' 'be humble', a logical answer doesn't present itself, the problems exist in an emotional framework.
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Re: Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby Merle » Mon Mar 17, 2014 2:21 pm

doctor100 wrote:For three years I lived without money-asking and recieving for simple needs like food and clothing. Most people wouldn't think that this sort of not-buying is bad.

On the other hand, if you were a police officer, doing business like that can put you in jail. Or a politician, or a judge- in fact, some might even consider recieving things for the asking to be not criminal behavior, but perhaps behavior criminals are known for. . .

I knew a family, other details aside-they were poor. It was the husbands habbit to recieve free takeout, fastfood, and pizza, by pretending something was wrong with the food, or they didn't receive the order they placed etc. These folk ate pretty much every night-not exclusively this way, but often. They worked hard for what little money they did have, but did not have most of the pleasantries a social security family might have. R amen was also a staple of their diet. Were they stealing? were they starving? Was what they were doing morally right?

Is it better or worse if it's habitual.

(by the way, the fast food places know people do this)


Yes, they were absolutely stealing - and moreover, they were being dishonest about it. If you order food, then pretend that the waiter got your order wrong when you know damn well they didn't - who do you think gets in trouble because of that? Who may lose out on a raise, or lose their job, because of your dishonesty?
Neither a creeper nor a jackass be; if you manage these two things, everything else should work itself out.
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Re: Poverty, desperation, and morality

Postby RyukaTana » Mon Mar 17, 2014 11:50 pm

Merle wrote:
doctor100 wrote:For three years I lived without money-asking and recieving for simple needs like food and clothing. Most people wouldn't think that this sort of not-buying is bad.

On the other hand, if you were a police officer, doing business like that can put you in jail. Or a politician, or a judge- in fact, some might even consider recieving things for the asking to be not criminal behavior, but perhaps behavior criminals are known for. . .

I knew a family, other details aside-they were poor. It was the husbands habbit to recieve free takeout, fastfood, and pizza, by pretending something was wrong with the food, or they didn't receive the order they placed etc. These folk ate pretty much every night-not exclusively this way, but often. They worked hard for what little money they did have, but did not have most of the pleasantries a social security family might have. R amen was also a staple of their diet. Were they stealing? were they starving? Was what they were doing morally right?

Is it better or worse if it's habitual.

(by the way, the fast food places know people do this)


Yes, they were absolutely stealing - and moreover, they were being dishonest about it. If you order food, then pretend that the waiter got your order wrong when you know damn well they didn't - who do you think gets in trouble because of that? Who may lose out on a raise, or lose their job, because of your dishonesty?


Yeah, okay... In an ideal (but still practical) world, that would be the issue. However, (putting myself in the proverbial shoes of the 'offender') my need to eat supersedes your job, simple as that.

Is that the right way? Fuck no. Is that the way the world is? Yeah, pretty fuckin' much.

The world we live in, is a pretty shit place. If I have to fuck your life so I don't starve, I'm gonna. That's what our society breeds.
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