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Tormenting Unlucky People

Pictures and Essays by Martin Hunt

Tormenting Unlucky People
OK let me be blunt - our society torments unlucky people. Biologically this isn’t a huge anomaly - lots of social mammals torment conspecifics who have a difference in behavior to death. And even doves - that symbol of peace - will torment weaker doves to death if they can’t flee. But humans are moral animals and tormenting the unlucky raises moral issues for us.

Of course there are situations where humans torment others without moral qualms. Our moral sense is not really universal. We favor immediate family over extended family, extended family over village other tribes, etc. So one of the ways that we enable torment of the unlucky is to think of them as an outgroup - the poor aren’t like me (many think) so they fall outside my moral concerns just like cows or snakes fall outside my moral concerns.

Our moral sense is very sensitive to cheaters - we will typically pay a price to punish cheaters. So another way that we enable ourselves to torment the unlucky is to think of them as cheaters. Then they deserve what they get. But are unlucky people cheaters worthy of torment? And in a society that shelters and protects the right of obscure fish and birds to a particular environment is it reasonable that we torment unlucky people as outsiders?

OK - you may be wondering who I’m thinking of as unlucky people.

Put simply, I’m thinking of people who are poor in our society - people whose income doesn’t provide them with enough money to pay for housing or good food. Lots of people think that the poor are just reaping what they have sewn; that they aren’t unlucky, that their misfortune is their own fault, and they need to take responsibility for their own fates and not impose on others.

There are many flaws in that way of thinking. The primary flaw is that it assumes that there are lots of good paying jobs and the only reason a person doesn’t have one just doesn’t want one. But we live in a time where when a job comes open there are hundreds of applicants for it. We live in a competitive society, a society that prides itself in being competitive, and any competition has one winner and many losers. Wanting to have a job doesn’t necessarily mean you will get it. When there are hundreds of applicants for a job then there will be hundreds of people who don’t get what they strive for. Those who lose in the competitions go on to other competitions and those who never can find a job at a certain level lower their sights and try for jobs that aren’t as good. So, presumably each person finds his own level. And for lots of people the only level where they can find work is at a minimum wage job. This is poverty. You work hard and you basically live on bread and water - minimum wage living is punitive - nobody would do that out of choice.

But there is a level below minimum wage; thats the level where you don’t have a job. At that level the living conditions are worse and you have to deal with constant humiliation. Where I live people without other support get welfare (not the bureaucratic name for it). People on welfare face constant humiliation, and are forced to a very low standard of living. Welfare will pay slum landlords more in rent than it will pay recipient for living expenses. With welfare you can’t even make an appointment to talk to a social worker on the phone - you have to go stand in line at the office for half an hour to talk to somebody to make an appointment. There is a good reason for this - welfare has to be worse than living on minimum wage as an incentive for people to not give up their minimum wage jobs, and as an incentive for people to get off welfare to take minimum wage jobs. And minimum wage jobs have to be miserable as an incentive for people in slightly less than minimum wage jobs, etc.

My point here is that with our present incentive system the lower levels are supposed to be punitive. This is what I mean by torment. But nobody at the lower level wants to be there - they’ve basically had bad luck of one sort or another. This is what I mean by tormenting unlucky people. We have an incentive system that depends on tormenting unlucky people for it to work. Without that torment the lower levels of our economic system just wouldn’t work. Sweatshops and fast food restaurants wouldn’t be able to find workers. So why do I call people at the bottom of the economic ladder unlucky? Well - whose fault if it if you aren’t very smart so you can’t compete? Whose fault is it if you aren’t very strong so you can’t compete? Its nobody’s fault; its just bad luck. Those are easy cases, yet we still torment them. I live in a very poverty struck neighborhood. I work as a cashier in the bottle depot. I deal with hundreds of poor people a day and its politically incorrect to say, but a high percentage of the people are ugly. I suspect that one of the significant things that has made them poor is that they are ugly. Isn’t being ugly a matter of bad luck?

Yeah yeah I know - some people have overcome barriers like those - but is it reasonable to think that everyone can? And anyway - why is it a good idea to torment the ones who don’t?

Lets look at a harder case. Whose fault is it you are lazy, have been since you were a kid, and no amount of prodding can break you of it? What if laziness is built into you by your genetic structure (and its reasonable to think that this is so)? Isn’t it bad luck to have genes like that? Lets look at an even harder case: what about drug addicts? Why isn’t it bad luck get addicted to drugs? Lots of people do. Drugs are hard to avoid and while some people can just say no, others live in peer groups that think its cool. Do people really control the peer group they are in? And if they do, do they really control the impulses that makes one or another peer group attractive?

OK - at this point people are squirming - but what about personal responsibility? Aren’t we responsible for our fates? Aren’t we free to be anything we want to be? But the obvious answer to that is - nope. The idea that we are responsible for our fates is an ideological tenet, a thing taken on faith, and not a fact in the world.

But but but . . . people will splutter . . . what about Steven Hawking, or Helen Keller, or Rick Hansen (who dealt with a crippling spine injury by rolling around the world in his wheel chair to raise awareness of spinal injury). And I salute and admire such people - but I think they are exceptional. They are as lucky as the guy who wins the $40 million lottery. Their example is no reason to torment those who can’t do what they did.

So - I say that our incentive system torments the unlucky and lots of people think that our incentive system is the only one possible. But thats silly - history shows lots of incentive systems. Next week I’ll try to sketch out an alternative incentive system. But our topic this week is the way that our present incentive system torments the unlucky. Can this be denied? Can this be justified? Who wants to defend such an inhumane system?