“HoboJacket – An Ethical Analysis”
Last week, a website created by MIT student Jin Pan attracted the ire and moral condemnation of media commentators. The website was called ‘Hobojacket’. Its purpose was to give college students a novel way in which to ridicule members of rival colleges; the idea was that people would use the website to pay for jackets bearing a rival college’s logo, jackets which would then be donated to the homeless. This, it was claimed by Pan, would show the “true value” of a degree from the rival college, in (what one must tragically presume) was believed by Pan to be an amusing fashion.
Following calls from members of the public and media commentators, the website has since been taken down, and replaced by an apology from Pan. It might be the case that Pan realised his own moral obtuseness and took the website down of his own accord. However, to avoid some complications that this raises, let us suppose that Pan took down the website in response to its condemnation in media circles. What are we to make of this scenario?
Although most would be united in condemning Pan’s contemptuous attitude towards the homeless in creating the website, it is not immediately clear that taking down Hobojacket is the best outcome for the homeless, all things considered. The Hobojacket case seems to attracts two divergent sorts of moral reaction, the first broadly Kantian, the other crudely consequentialist. The first regards the website as deeply immoral; giving college jackets to the homeless in order to ridicule members of that college disrespects and objectifies the homeless, using them as a means to an end, and not only that, but an end of complete triviality. The second, crudely consequentialist reaction is to point out that, when all is said and done, the website ensures that some homeless people have been given warm clothing, an outcome which is surely better than their not receiving any warm clothing at all. The question thus arises as to how we are to assess the Hobojacket case in view of these conflicting intuitions. The case, I believe, turns out to be more morally complex than this Manichean characterisation implies.
Before considering why, it is important to dispel one argument which involves an important misunderstanding, and thus obscure the morally relevant issues in this debate. One argument that might be used against the consequentialist assessment is to point out that Hobojacket is a highly inefficient scheme for providing the homeless with jackets compared to the many other schemes that provide this service. As an empirical point of fact this is probably true (Pan claimed that each jacket would cost about $10). However, it seems highly unlikely that those who donated to Hobojacket were doing so instead of donating to another, more efficient, homeless charity. Rather, it seems plausible to assume that the majority of those who donated to Hobojacket were doing so because they want to engage in the pranking of other colleges, and not because they were overly concerned with the welfare of the homeless; if the opportunity to ridicule a rival college is taken out of the equation, it seems likely that most would not have donated any money to a homeless charity. As such, the consequentialist point that Hobojacket would have provided jackets to the homeless that they otherwise would not have had, seems to stand.
Is there any way in which we might reconcile the Kantian and consequentialist intuitions highlighted above? One way in which we might do so is to agree with the Kantian claim that Pan’s intention in creating the website was morally deplorable, but join the consequentialist in recognising that there is some moral good that came from the website, in so far as it gave the homeless the opportunity to receive a resource that they would not otherwise have had. On such a view, we might lament the fact that some people might only donate clothing to the homeless if it involves this sort of denigration, but find solace in the fact that these abhorrent individuals are at least saving the lives of some homeless people in spite of their insensitivity.
However, those who adopt the broadly Kantian approach would surely wish to reject this understanding of the case; this outcome cannot be good all things sonsidered, it might be claimed, because the jacket is obtained at the expense of the recipient’s dignity. Although Hobojacket did not force homeless people to accept jackets against their will, it might be claimed that the website presented an offer that a homeless person could not refuse, despite the fact that accepting the offer involved self-degradation and a loss of dignity. Accordingly, it might be claimed that it was morally right to take the website down because it prevented the homeless from being exposed to an unrefusable offer which would coerce them into self-degradation.
I do not find this argument in favour of taking down Hobojacket convincing. I agree that accepting a jacket offered by Hobojacket would be demeaning for a homeless person and an affront to their dignity. And it might be right that most homeless people would feel that they had no choice but to accept the jacket. However, it is not clear that the offer that Hobojacket would have provided to the homeless would therefore have been coercive. Coercion, it seems is characterised by an illegitimate reduction of options. Hobojacket did not take away any options of the homeless; in fact it gave them an additional option. As such, it may even be argued that in taking away the option that Hobojacket provided, we seem to be advocating coercion, rather than rallying against it, insofar as coercion is characterised as an illegitimate reduction of options. Perhaps it might be claimed that it is legitimate for us to reduce a homeless person’s options in this case because we are taking away a bad option that they should not take. However, what grounds our authority to make this claim? It seems odd to claim that we are respecting or benefitting the homeless by denying them the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not it is better to engage in a demeaning activity which otherwise benefits them, than it is for them to put their life at risk. Indeed, it is surely a part of respecting a person’s dignity that we respect a person’s choices in so far as those choices reflect their conception of what is good for them. To argue then that we should take away the option of the benefits that Hobojacket made available is to presume that we know what is best for a homeless person, and to assume that they are just mistaken if they accept the offer of a jacket that demeans them. However, such an attitude fails to recognise the dire situation that many homeless people find themselves in, and their ability to make their own decision based on their own knowledge of their situation. In many cases, a warm jacket, however demeaning, might just be the difference between life and death; in such unfortunate cases, self-respect can become a subsidiary concern to sheer survival. It is not clear why we have the authority to take away this choice, in the name of the dignity of a person whom we have denied the possibility of any choice in the matter. Indeed, granting the homeless person this choice might give an oppurtunity to express their dignity; it would be an extremely strong expression of dignity and self-respect if a homeless person were offered a ‘hobojacket’ and turned it down.
Second, we should also acknowledge some further implications of the above argument. If the above argument is used to claim that it was right to take the Hobojacket website down, then this seems to imply that we ought to protect homeless people from engaging in any activity that they regard as benefitting them but which undermines their dignity in some way. This would surely have the corollary that we should stop homeless people from begging, or even accepting gifts of charity in so far as these acts may also be said to undermine their dignity, albeit it to lesser degrees. This seems, to me at least, a somewhat counter-intuitive implication.
We can all agree that the best feasible outcome would be one in which homeless persons were provided with alternatives which ensured that they would not be compelled to engage in demeaning activities in order to survive. If this were so, then there would just be no concerns about the Hobojacket initiative coercing the homeless into self-degradation, since they would have no need to accept the offer of a jacket which served to denigrate as well as warm them. Sadly though, this is not the situation that we find ourselves in. Although there are many laudable initiatives which provide such alternatives for the homeless (the Big Issue initiative seems to be a prime example here) there are still many homeless people who are compelled to engage in demeaning activities just in order to survive; the resources are just not there to help everyone. In the absence of better alternatives for all homeless people, it is not clear that we are benefitting the homeless by further restricting their options in the name of their dignity. Unfortunately, some people are in the position where their dignity has become a subsidiary concern to sheer survival. Whilst we should lament this fact, and seek ways in which to solve this terrible situation, there are grounds for believing that however deplorable the motives underlying the Hobojacket website were, it did bring some good given the nature of the world in which we live, a world in which many homeless people have to fight for survival in the cold winter months, and in which some college students are more willing to part with their cash in order to ridicule a rival college than they are to provide a dignified life-line to those in need. In such a world, a Manichean assessment of this sort of case is perhaps convenient, but not altogether helpful.