William Booth’s Cab Horse Charter was both a vivid rebuke and challenge to the society of his time and unfortunately this remains equally valid today. Drawing a sharp comparison between the way working animals are treated and the plight of the poorest humans, Booth made two salient points:
- When the horse is down, he is helped up, and
- while he lives he has food, shelter and work.
These simple illustrations continue to function as important prompts to the nature of social work in The Salvation Army. However, I particularly want to focus here on the Cab Horse Charter as a framework for examining the moral nature of choices that people make.
Let’s begin with the subject of food. There are numerous ways in which the food that we choose to eat represents certain ethical choices. Is this chocolate or coffee a Fair Trade product? Are my eggs ‘free range’? Is the tuna ‘dolphin friendly’? Renowned philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer makes a compelling moral argument for vegetarianism. These are the kinds of choices that most of us have the opportunity to contemplate on a regular basis.
Many people in the West will cringe at the idea of eating dog or cat meat, but this is an important reminder that our choices are frequently shaped by culture and often by socio-economic conditions. I heard recently of some research that showed that in poorer suburbs, fresh fruit and vegetables were frequently more expensive than fast food. Another piece of research was claiming that inadequate nutrition in pregnancy and childhood so constricted the potential for human development that it further entrenched people in multi-generational poverty. Opportunities for education and greater financial capacity clearly open up a wider range of choices and therefore a greater moral responsibility.
It has also recently been established that we produce enough food globally to feed everyone. So why are nearly a billion of us suffering malnutrition and hunger? Because we haven’t yet learned to share. Those of us at the top pay the price through obesity, body image issues and ‘affluenza’ but the price is much higher for those at the bottom end of the scale. We can be quick to judge the moral consequences of the spread of AIDS in places like Africa, but we don’t often pause to wonder how poverty and hunger might constrain the kinds of choices available to people.
What about shelter? Have you faced the choice about whether to buy or rent your home? Have you had some choice about the suburb that you live in? We have acknowledged that for there to be more than 100,000 homeless people in Australia is a national obscenity, that no one should be homeless in a country as affluent as ours. However, this number pales by comparison to the millions that live in inadequate slums in the poorest countries of the world.
I’ve also heard it said that some people choose to be homeless. This is partly true. Some people may choose to live on the streets because the alternatives available to them are unthinkable. This also should cause us to pause and consider what kind of society we are living in when sleeping in a park is evaluated as the safer, better choice available to someone? Once more, when we really understand those factors that limit the options available to a person, their choices become clearer.
Finally, let’s think about work. I can count myself amongst those many privileged people who’ve chosen more than once to leave a job for something better paid, with superior benefits and working conditions. Yet I know many people who’ve never had the opportunity to make such a choice. I know people who’ve never had a job and probably never will.
I also know people who have raised their primary income through prostitution. How do we begin to consider the moral dimensions of such a choice? I think it’s fair to say that there are some people who would claim that even if there were other opportunities available to them, that they would choose to be involved in ‘sex work’. However I think it’s also fair to say that is not the vast majority of those who find themselves in this work. Rather it’s the result of being constrained to choose between a few bad options.
Having looked at these three dimensions of poverty and moral choice, I need to say that I don’t think that our moral responsibility is always negated by systemic powers beyond our control. I think that everyone, regardless of the range of choices available to us, is responsible for how we make those choices. But I do think that before judging others, we need to take the time to genuinely put ourselves in their shoes and understand better why they make the choices they do. And regardless of what we think of others’ choices, like the Cab Horse charter says ‘when a horse is down, he is helped up’. We don’t let people fall behind because we don’t like why they stumbled.