Am I Right?

How to live ethically

The Ethics and Politics of Fairness

The concept of those in need has been extended over the centuries

Since biblical times people have been instructed to care for those in need, the orphaned and the widowed. But this can't mean all orphans and all widows. For example, there’s the old joke about a man who kills his parents and then asks mercy from the court because he is an orphan. Only a ludicrously strict reading of the injunction would move a court to such pity. The widow from a wealthy family who has no financial worries does not require special consideration in terms of money.

If orphans and widows need special attention it is because, generally, they are vulnerable, particularly in traditional societies in which nearly all means of support are out of their control. When the husband and father died, wives and children had to depend upon the goodwill of others for their survival.

This concept of caring for the needy has been extended over the centuries to include, amongst others, people who are poor, unemployed and disabled. The question of how far to spread welfare, who is to be supported by it remains a difficult matter of public policy and whether this is best done as a private (charitable) or a public (social justice) function.

Social policy debates over revamping New Deal and Great Society legislation have revolved around, at least in part, the following questions: Do you support all the poor or only the deserving poor? How do you define "deserving" and how do you determine if the person deserves society's support or not? Does making an effort count? What about those who can't make an effort, or is it the case that everyone can make an effort no matter how limited he or she may be? Who is handicapped and how much does a society need to do in attempting to make the environment handicapped-accessible?

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Knowing when someone is making a real effort is no easy matter. Sometimes I can't tell myself whether I am lazy or whether something else is interfering with my will power.

Once I was sick and didn't do much for about a week. I didn’t know if this was because I didn’t feel like working or because I wasn’t able to work. The dividing lines between lack of motivation, physical enervation and depression were blurred. Maybe I was using the illness as an excuse to get out of doing some unpleasant chores. Maybe I just wanted a good reason to get away from some responsibilities. Equally plausible was that the virus sapped me of my will and caused my lethargy. Occasionally, a pep talk from my wife helped, but mainly nothing made a difference. For a week I was content to stay in bed watching hours upon hours of television, something very unlike me. Only when my illness was correctly diagnosed as Legionnaire’s Disease and treated did I return to myself.

If I couldn't tell the difference between "can't" and "won't" about myself, how nearly impossible to tell about another. But this is the kind of judgment we do make about those who depend upon us.

So consider a mother, Karen, who has limited time to take care of her children and one is more needy than the others, the other two being an average and kind child, the other a creative but difficult child. There are three people who are reliant upon her in varying degrees. She feels responsible for all and has responded to them by giving each an equal amount of time.

Karen could have reached her decision as to how to divide her time and attention for one of two reasons: out of sheer despair in trying to find a better way to handle the demands or a belief that fairness means absolute equality.

From one point of view, an equal division of time between all concerned is unfair. For example, Karen probably would not think that the best way to feed her family is by giving each an equal portion of food. Some people need to eat more than others, while some have higher metabolism rates. Likewise, she may also choose to reward one with a treat because he or she helped in a special way.

It is unfair to treat people differently for arbitrary reasons, such as simple dislike, but there may well be good reasons to treat people unalike as a matter of fairness. Or she could give more attention to the child with the greatest needs, as defined by deprivation.

These are difficult, nearly impossible choices, but choose we must. Society has to decide who needs special care and what the trade-off will be in order to provide that care. And the political question is whether those in need will receive a helping hand from private parties or from the government.

 

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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