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“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.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. Many thanks for this extremely interesting post, Jonny! It really makes me think. However, I still have the intuition that this website was immoral.

    I understand your reasoning, but I wonder if we can assume that the homeless knew what the true purpose of offering these jackets to them would have been? I reckon the college students wouldn’t have approached them saying ‘please wear this jacket since this ridicules our rivals’. If the homeless wouldn’t have known that they were a means to this end, they wouldn’t have been able to make a full informed decision in weighting their dignity against the value of getting a warm jacket.

  2. I think the initial premise is wrong : no homeless person is in my view subject to ridicule in this story : the only persons acting ridiculously are Jin Pan and his supporters through their rather childish method of “demonstrating” the “value” of his college.
    Of course, ridicule, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder…..

  3. I agree with Anthony that Jin Pan and friends are acting childish and ridiculous.

    Another point: You write, Jonny, ‘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.’ Wouldn’t it be a consequence of that argument that NO OFFER can ever be coercive? Would that mean that no offer can ever be immoral? For example, offering a starving mother of two to feed her and one of her kids if she kills the second child also gives an additional option to this woman. But still I feel this is a very immoral offer to make.

  4. Thanks all. Let me try and respond to the points that you raise.

    Nadira – First, I agree that we can’t assume that the homeless recipients would have known the true purpose of giving the jackets in the first instance. However, reports seem to suggest that Hobojacket was a reasonably popular initiative for the short time that it was live. It seems to me somewhat feasible that had the website continued, the homeless would have been made aware of the initiative (most likely by its opponents) in a manner that would allow them to make an informed decision. However, I did not state this in the original post, and it is an important clarification, so thanks!

    On the second point about coercion. An offer can be coercive if it involves an illegitimate reduction of options. If a thief points a gun at me and says ‘give me your money or your life’, he is making me an offer which involves two options. Crucially though, in making the offer, he is illegitimately taking away my status quo preferable option of being able to live without handing over my money, even if he provides me with other options. This is where the hobojacket case and the case you mention are slightly different. These offers do not involve taking a preferable status quo option away and replacing them with inferior options. When we make the offers in these cases, the mother still has the option of starving, and the homeless still have the option of choosing to risk their lives in the cold; in these cases, we supplement a terrible option that the agent already has with one that seems better, even if the additional option still involves significant costs. Now it may be immoral to make such an offer if it is within our power to provide a better option without imposing the additional costs; but I don’t think the immorality of this situation is best explained by appeal to coercion. If you’re interested in this topic, Janet Radcliffe-Richards has an excellent discussion of unrefusable offers and coercion in her ‘The Ethics of Transplants’.

    Anthony – as you mention, ridicule can be of a somewhat subjective nature, and not all people would find the Hobojacket jacket’s offensive. However, I believe that there are good grounds for a homeless person to find the offer of a jacket in this instance offensive (assuming they know the purpose of its donation). After all, they are being offered a jacket on the basis that the person offering the jacket believes that they represent failure and worthlessness. Although this view is wrong, it can still be coherent to find it offensive.

  5. If you find HoboJacket offensive, you don’t have to donate. Let those who benefited from the service (the homeless) make the decision themselves that they don’t want warm jackets, because your moral outrage has no bearing if they do want them. That you are conservative and sanctimonious shouldn’t detract from the service these college students attempted to provide. Find a sense of humor. It will help you a lot in life.

  6. From a utilitarian perspective, surely we must look beyond the initial possible benefit to the individuals offered a jacket? By associating homelessness with ridicule, Pan is promoting and perpetuating an attitude that sees the homeless as somehow being deserving of their lot in life. This could discourage people from trying to find solutions to homelessness (such as building more houses and limiting buy-to-let landlords etc).

    Alternatively, if all publicity is good publicity, then Pan may have helped raise awareness of the problem.

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