Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kant and the Homeless

I consider this the third, and for the moment final, installment in my series on Kant's categorical imperative. The first dealt with call center employees and the second with romantic relationships, now I shall address the homeless; a topic that has long been on my mind.

For those who do not want to read my previous posts and are not familiar with Kant's caterogical imperative, a refresher is in order. How I most often hear it phrased is that we are to at all times treat other people as ends in themselves, never purely as a means. What this means to me is that we are to be aware that each human we encounter is as complexly motivated as we are, and out of respect for their moral agency interact with, rather than manipulate, them.

Rewind back to last August, as I visited my beloved Oregon. I was wandering the streets of Portland one lovely afternoon when I was addressed by a homeless man lying against a building. Because I think it is rude to simply ignore talk explicitly directed at me, and it violates the categorical imperative as I use the ignored to expedite my current project by ignoring, rather than engaging with, them, I stopped to hold a conversation.

Eventually he seemed to want a hand getting to his feet, and I obliged. Here I am unsure how satisfied I am with my decision, although it was a well lit hour of the day I think it compromised my safety. I guess I would do the same again, but I wouldn't be so bold as to encourage others in this path. Once he gained his feet he maintained a hold upon me, and did nothing menacing or harmful, but I found myself quite uncomfortable. Since he showed no sign of recognizing my discomfort, nor of ending the conversation, I begged leave with the notion that I had to hurry on toward my destination. As this was not quite true, I was running quite ahead of time in order to simply wander the town, here I violated the imperative.

My question, and I don't have a firm answer, is what ought I have done? Bluntly expressing my disinterest in continuing a conversation seems rude, something I try to avoid in general, but especially when in the grasp of a man of questionably sound mind. Can I justify violating the imperative on account of the man's diminished capacity?

It seems clear that our polite interactions are greatly predicated on a set of shared social habits. When one member of an interaction seems oblivious to the sub-contextual messages of the other, the preconditions for polite exchange begin to erode. And here I believe I have answered my own question, as I too feel like I often am missing a layer of information that somehow others interpret instinctively, and I would prefer to be told when I misstep as a result, rather than manipulated into proper behavior. So, I probably ought not to have lied to the nice homeless man, oh well.

One final note, considering the topic yesterday of ethical caring. I find it quite wondrous that, when interpreted through the categorical imperative, Kant's ethic agrees so well with a personal ethic of care. On one hand Kant is often seen as the epitome of universal rationality, and on the other hand is the very particular and personal ethic of immediacy, yet they seem completely in accordance on how we ought meet our fellow humans as we encounter them.


Karen said...

1) The first thing I wondered was if would have been just about as uncomfortable if the exact same story occurred only with a non-homeless man instead of a homeless person. My first guess is that you probably would have been. Additionally, if it had been a woman of the homeless or non-homeless variety, you probably would have had far less, if any, anxiety. My point is, I doubt that you were uncomfortable because he was homeless, but perhaps I'm wrong about that.
2) I think that it is alright to prioritize your safety highly. However, it does seem like you were safe here. (Or, at least as safe as you are when you are a foot away from any person you don't know.)
3) I wondered two things about your homeless man. First, did he grow up in a way that he didn't learn the social norms that most of us know and/or is he able to understand them? Second, maybe he doesn't get much human touch, and it might have been a big deal to have the contact when being helped up. Perhaps he was simply appreciating touch.
4) Finally, it is too bad that our society decides to stigmatize homeless people as menaces to society. I think that most of them are probably as harmless, if not more so, than the rest of society.

Kenny said...

1) Yes, if a mentally disturbed and somewhat dirty person who had a home grabbed a hold of me in the street, I would probably be similarly uncomfortable. To be honest, in the moment I was much more uncomfortable than nervous about my safety, and a woman might make me even less nervous about safety, but I probably would have been equally uncomfortable.

2) True, but paranoia is sort of habitual in our society.

3) I am not in the habit of asking strangers their life's story, so I do not know.

4) Yes.