Column on Moral Responsibility and the Poor

Moral Responsibility and the Poor

Tibor R. Machan

Two central dogmas of contemporary liberalism are that the rich are to be blamed for all our ills and that in the end all people are the same and no one is more or less worthy than anyone else. Blaming those who are not so well off as others is unjust because they are not well enough socialized to be ambitious and diligent.

At the same time, those who are well off get a lot of moral criticism for failing to be generous, kind, charitable or giving. Indeed, they are so bad that they need to have their wealth reduced by way of heavy taxation–not just the familiar progressive kind but whatever else the politicians and bureaucrats with this line of thinking can manage to extort from them. (Remember, taxation is extortion. It is the legacy of the feudal era, the kin of serfdom.)

Not only that but even those who stand up defending the wealthy are morally guilty, deserving of scorn and contempt, not civilized discourse about the matter. I know this quite well since I have been standing up against extortion for decades now. For me it isn’t a matter of whether a wealthy deserve their wealth–I don’t know the bulk of them so I cannot tell–but whether anyone is justified it doing such extortion. (I may not deserve my good health or pretty face but this doesn’t justify anyone levying a tax on it!)

The liberal attitude about morality stems, in part, from widespread scientism, the view that science has invalidated morality, made it something bogus like astronomy has made astrology bogus. Extrapolating the empirical scientific method to everything else of interest to human beings achieves this distortion.

Everything is not subject to the experimental method–for example whether faking research is ethical isn’t. And this is the beginning of the confusion and obfuscation–those who are championing the abolition of morality are just as morally ticked off with those who distort their ideas as anyone else is with bad conduct. They become moralists, all of a sudden, never mind that no natural science can show there is anything amiss with faking research, with distorting anyone’s views, etc.

So from the git-go the effort to abolish the moral perspective fails. But what then about denying to those not so well off a moral criticism? Is it right to hold that the poor or disadvantaged cannot be held morally responsible?

That would be rank dehumanization. These folks are not invalids or infants but full human beings who for whatever reason lack substantial wealth. But that doesn’t mean they could not be guilty of acting irresponsibly. All bona fide human beings are subject to moral assessment, usually by those who know them well but when the conduct is evident to us all, to anyone aware of how they are acting. It doesn’t take intimate knowledge of a terrorist to know that what he or she is doing is contemptible. Or of a child molester or cheat.

In the realm of economics, also, that some people refuse to make the effort to lift themselves out of poverty is quite subject to criticism. Or that despite being poor, they keep producing children they cannot care for and then then dump on the rest of society as if others were the parents.

But if all this is true, then all this blaming the rich needs to be seriously reconsidered. Maybe the rich–or at least most of them–are the good guys, having worked hard or deployed their skills and talents wisely so they’d end up well enabled to carry on in their lives.

And all this also implies that the public policy debate about who is to be held responsible for housing bubbles, becoming debt ridden and unemployed and such needs some serious revision. Instead of penalizing the rich, perhaps most of them ought to be praised and held up as models for the rest of us. And the poor ought not to be let off so easy when they come under scrutiny. As Herbert Spencer observed,

“Sympathy with one in suffering suppresses, for the time being, remembrance of his transgressions….Those whose hardships are set forth in pamphlets and proclamations in sermons and speeches which echo throughout society, are assumed to be all worthy souls, grievously wronged; and none of them are thought of as bearing the penalties of their own misdeeds. “(Man versus the State, p.22)

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