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Homelessness as a moral cost to the housed

Written by Neil Levy

Homelessness is, of course, above all a cost to the homeless:  it’s a dangerous, difficult, insecure way to live. There are therefore strong moral reasons to address it, for the sake of the homeless. There are also (non-moral) reasons to address it, centring on its costs to everyone, homeless and housed alike. It’s a financial cost to all of us, at least if it is true that it’s cheaper to give homeless people housing than to pay the costs associated with homelessness (policing, emergency care and shelters). Homelessness is an aesthetic cost and might bring with it associated litter, drunkenness (addiction is both a cause and a consequence of homelessness), and disorder. It decreases amenity for everyone. I want to suggest that homelessness is also a moral cost to the housed.

Homeless people often must beg for money. To support addictions, or due to chaotic lives arising from mental health problems and the day-to-day stresses of life on the streets, because Universal Credit is insufficient or because they can’t access it, they often need money and must ask for it, disregarding any feelings of humiliation they might experience. Many of the more fortunate feel an obligation to give or at least see it as a decent thing to do, and do give on occasion. But few of us give every time we’re asked. We could and perhaps should do much more, but very few people could give enough, on every occasion they’re asked, to make a substantive difference to the life of the person.

Beggars ask those of us who are more fortunate to do something for them and they are well within their rights to do so. Often, they ask explicitly, sometimes they ask implicitly. Their presence on the street constitutes a mute appeal to us, those who can afford to give (to them or the relevant charities). Because they ask something of us, and because we can’t give (enough) on every occasion they ask, their presence requires us to daily to make decisions. Who gets the money today? Why this beggar and not that one? Am I being unfair in how I give, preferring the beggar who seems grateful over the one who seems wheedling or aggressive (when this appearance may well reflect mental health issues)? Couldn’t I give more today? Should I be drinking this coffee, given what I could do with my money?

The constant need to make these decisions, to second guess them and to say ‘no’ to people who deserve generosity is a moral cost to each of us. We are faced with moral options that are invidious. Do I harden my heart to suffering (perhaps no longer seeing it)? That makes me morally worse than I might have been. Do I instead try to empathise with their plight, and feel the pain of refusal to give? Insofar as their demands require us to make decisions not about whether to prioritise our own welfare over theirs, but how much to prioritise our welfare over theirs, being faced with their need and implicit or explicit entreaty  daily stains our moral record.

Some philosophers argue that proximity, that is being up close and personal, shouldn’t make a difference to these kinds of questions. We have an obligation to those in need, whether we can see them or not. If proximity doesn’t make a difference, it might even be true that we don’t have an obligation to the beggars in London, because our money would be better donated to saving people in imminent danger of death (say victims of the famine in Tigray). Perhaps we should think that this moral stain is the human condition and that it would persist, just as deeply, even if we solved the homeless problem in our cities. On this view, so long as there is severe need, anywhere, we face minute-by-minute decisions about how much to prioritize ourselves over those in need.

It’s certainly plausible that we have serious moral obligations in virtue of knowing about suffering we could alleviate at relatively low cost to ourselves. But it is also plausible that having to make these decisions to prioritise ourselves while looking directly at the person in need (or perhaps worse, while shamefacedly averting our gaze) brings a special sort and especially significant sort of moral cost.

Perhaps, then, the more fortunate have an oddly self-interested moral reason to house the homeless (in addition to the moral reasons we have to alleviate suffering). Christians and romantics sometimes see immoral action as staining our souls; we who accept a naturalistic metaphysics recognize some sort of secular analogue. Perhaps it is not merely immoral actions that stain our souls, but permissible actions that prioritise our own welfare (or prioritise our kids wants over other kids’ needs, and so on). For the sake of our souls, or some secular successor, we should want an easier moral world, and the best way to achieve that is by solving the moral problems that make it difficult.

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