A Philosopher's Blog

How Much Can We Expect?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 10, 2011
Herman Cain

Image via Wikipedia

While philosophers differ a bit on this matter, it is generally accepted that a moral theory has to impose reasonable requirements on people in regards to moral behavior. As such, it is a mark against a moral theory to require too much from people. This seems sensible: while some people are moral saints, a moral theory is supposed to address the mass of humanity rather than the saints. As you might imagine, thinkers are divided regarding what counts as reasonable. A similar sort of approach is often taken in regards to laws. After all, a law that expects far more than the average person can endure or provide would be an unreasonable law. In both the moral and legal realms the key question is “how much can reasonable be expected of the average person?”

A similar sort of question arises in the context of economics in regards to what we can expect of people in terms of being financially successful in the face of challenges. Recently, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain claimed that the poor and jobless are to blame for not having a job and not being rich. Presumably Cain’s answer to this sort of question is that the poor and jobless should be expected to be employed and apparently even rich and a failure to do so is their fault and not due to other factors (like a recession). Cain has, of course, blamed the liberals for destroying jobs and this would seem to be inconsistent with his other view (namely that the unemployed are to blame for their unemployment). However, perhaps these two views can be made consistent by blaming the unemployed for being unemployed and for enabling the liberals to destroy jobs-thus making the poor excellent scapegoats.

Being sensible, I do admit that some people are unemployed and poor through their own choices and actions. There are people who, for example, prefer alcohol or drugs over employment. There are also people who never took the effort to gain the skills needed to get a job. It seems reasonable to expect that these people change their ways if they wish to be employed.

However, most people seem to be rather eager to get jobs. This is proven by the fact that when jobs open up, the responses are often overwhelming (for example, think of all the people who applied when McDonald’s recently had a major hiring event). Job fairs are always packed and people are trying all sorts of ways of getting jobs-even the media is giving unemployed people a chance to pitch themselves for jobs on the national news. Most people want to work and most people do not want to be poor. When people I know have faced unemployment, their first response is to try to get a new job. As such, the lazy fellow who wants to be poor and unemployed is not a member of the majority, but does provide a convenient straw man for certain people to bash as a representative of the majority of unemployed. The vast majority of people want to work and it seems reasonable to expect that of them.

Of course, many people cannot find jobs (especially certain minorities) despite their efforts and their qualifications. What, it is fair to ask, should be expected of such people?

Cain’s view seems to be that they should be expected to find jobs (and also become rich) and any failure to do so is their fault. But, is this a reasonable expectation?

One obvious point of concern is that thanks to the misdeeds of certain people in the financial sector, the economy is still in rough shape. While Cain is willing to say that these people had some role in the troubles, his view is that they can no longer be blamed because this is 2011 not 2008. However, the impact of 2008 (and before) clearly remains. People who cannot get jobs because of the recession would largely seem to not be at fault. Expecting people to easily find or create their own jobs under such conditions would seem to be asking more than the average person is capable of achieving. The fact that some people are able to do so does not change what can be expected of the many. To use an analogy, the fact that I have students who could do well if I taught my undergraduate classes at a graduate level does not entail that I should expect the average student to be up to that challenge.

Another point of concern is that companies have not been hiring (despite being flush with cash) and have often sent jobs overseas and/or downsized. Presumably the mass of workers cannot be held to blame for these practices. As noted above, it seems unreasonable to expect the average person to easily overcome these challenges.

A third point of concern is raised by the Republicans and Cain himself, namely that Obama and the liberals have been destroying jobs. If this is true, then it would seem that at least some of the unemployed are not too blame. Unless, of course, we want to blame the unemployed for the liberals and Obama. This, I suspect, would play well on Fox.

Not surprisingly, people like Cain will point to examples of people who arose from humble origins and became rich. Such people are, of course, often worthy of praise and serve as examples of what exceptional individuals can do (with some luck). However, our general expectations of what average people can do should not be set by the rare exceptions but by the capabilities of the average people. To use an analogy, the fact that some folks can run the marathon in close to two hours does not prove that we can expect average people to do that. Rather, we can expect average runner to run an average time.

One of the main dangers of the “blame the poor” ideology is that it can be used to “justify” reducing or eliminating social safety nets and opportunity enablers (such as student aid). After all, if the unemployed are entirely to blame for their unemployment, then it would seem to make no sense to offer unemployment benefits. If people are to blame for not being rich, then it would seem to make to sense to offer poor students Pell grants and other aid-after all, they should be rich enough to afford Harvard and, if not, it is their own fault.

Naturally, it is possible to err in the other direction and provide unneeded support. However, the greater harm would seem to stem from not assisting those truly in need than from allowing some who are not in need get a little free cheese.

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15 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 10, 2011 at 7:05 am

    Mike, shouldn’t you at least *try* to understand the point Cain was trying to make? If you Google “unfilled jobs” you will find dozens of articles like the one below. Wasn’t Obama trying to make the same point when he said we were going “soft”? Studying Art History instead of Engineering?

    Microsoft: Thousands Of IT Jobs Going Unfilled

    Software maker wants Congress to raise cap on green cards so it can import more hi-tech help.

    By Paul McDougall, InformationWeek
    July 29, 2011

    Despite the fact that the national unemployment rate is hovering above 9%, hi-tech companies are finding it tougher than ever to fill all of their open positions, a Microsoft official said.

    “Filling our talent need remains a serious challenge,” said Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith, in testimony this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security.

    In cloud computing, WAN optimization is a necessity.
    Discover how to address network limitations to successfully implement a cloud-based system.

    Smith said that as of May, Microsoft had 4,551 job openings–including 2,629 computer science positions–but it’s taking the company up to 65 days on average to find qualified workers for open spots.

    Smith said the problem facing Microsoft and other tech companies has two elements. First, the U.S. educational system is not producing computer scientists and engineers in sufficient numbers to meet domestic demand. “The unemployment problem in the United States is also a skills problem,” he said.

    The number of computer-related bachelor’s degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities fell from about 60,000 in 2004 to 38,000 in 2008, said Smith, adding that 60% of individuals who graduated from an American educational institution last year with a Ph.D in computer science were foreign nationals.

    Smith said that although the overall unemployment rate is higher than 9%, the rate for IT workers in the U.S. is 4%, below the government’s 5% definition of full employment. “What is clear is that our country is operating with a dual unemployment rate.” Microsoft this spring provided $6 million to help launch Washington STEM, a privately funded organization that aims to boost student achievement in science, technology, engineering, and math in schools in Washington state.

    URL: http://www.informationweek.com/news/windows/microsoft_news/231002904

    • WTP said, on October 10, 2011 at 8:26 am

      TJ, it’s unreasonable to expect Mike to understand what you’re saying. He already sees other points of view. He doesn’t need to justify his failure to try to understand them, because it’s not a failure since he already sees them. Get it?

      Mike, still not interested in discussing the fundamentals of economics? Or do you already understand them well enough as it is?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 10, 2011 at 7:03 pm

      Well, it seems fairly straightforward. Is there a nuance in his claim that I missed?

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 10, 2011 at 8:04 pm

        What did Obama mean when he said we had gotten soft?

        • magus71 said, on October 11, 2011 at 6:55 am

          Yes, Mike. Please explain the nuance in Obama’s statement. Only the elite understand and abhor cliche’ so I’m sure Obama was being clever and new.

    • Anonymous said, on October 11, 2011 at 12:04 pm

      Couldn’t MS PAY to train people to fill the spots they need filled? This is just ANOTHER instance of a company’s sense of entitlement, get workers who know everything the company wants them to know without having to pay for the training.

      • WTP said, on October 13, 2011 at 6:21 am

        Most tech companies do pay for training and retraining. People just aren’t interested in doing the basic work in math and science in high school that would make them capable of further education. And note that society (which includes corporations/stockholders and the individuals that run them) has already paid for people to learn these fundamental basics in high school. I personally have taught introductory tech classes that my company offered to students from local high schools. Often seats went unfilled. I wouldn’t say attrition was high, per se, but it was higher than one would expect.

        Also note, the companies do pay for the training of their workers via the higher salaries that they pay them. You appear to have a fundamental misunderstanding of economics and human nature.

  2. A J MacDonald Jr said, on October 13, 2011 at 2:15 am

    Work is defined as:”human activity for the purpose of providing for the needs of life and especially for its preservation” (Rerum Novarum). Work is at once personal and necessary. It is personal because it is activity of the person, an intelligent and free creature, superior to every other earthly creature. Hence, the dignity of labor cannot even remotely be compared in the productive field to any activity whatever, whether of animals or of machines. Moreover, work is necessary because it is ordained “to provide for the needs of life.”

    Unfortunately, the dignity of the worker and the necessity of work were misunderstood by humankind over the course of centuries. Christ rehabilitated work and the worker. The later owes everything to the Divine Redeemer; not merely goods of supernatural life, but also of natural life. We speak of manual labor as that which requires the exercise of physical energy.

    Manual labor, and the mechanical arts in the vast Roman empire at the time of Christ, were practiced almost entirely by slaves, so that manual labor became equivalent to servile labor, i.e., slave labor. Slaves were not regarded as men but as beasts, or, worse, as machines, as chattels. They were subjected to the most exhausting labor without any renumeration. Their only compensation was a very coarse and scanty living, just enough to keep up their strength that it might be employed to keep up their strength that it might be employed in new and endless toils. The slave had no rights before the law. He was the property of his master, who used him as he pleased. He could hire him out, or sell him to anyone, and even put him to death. Indeed, there were many citizens who hired out their slaves just as horses, beasts of burden and vehicles are hired out today.

    Christ rehabilitated the worker, by preaching one Divine Fatherhood, the universal brotherhood of humankind, and the natural equality of all peoples. This doctrine lays the axe to the root of the evil tree of slavery by condemning every substantial difference between people. Expounding the teachings of the Master, St. Peter exclaims: “God is not a respecter of persons.” (Acts 10:34). And St. Paul says: “There is neither bond nor free.” (Gal. 3:28).

    The stupendous example of Christ proved to be even more efficacious than his teaching. The Son of God became “the carpenters son” (Matt. 13:55). Furthermore, he himself became a carpenter, a fellow-worker of his foster father (Joseph). The Evangelist Mark, tells us that when he preached for the first time in Nazareth, his native town, his fellow citizens who had always seen him at work in his shop: “And when the sabbath was come, he began to teach in the synagogue; and many hearing him were in admiration at his doctrine, saying: “How came this man by all these things? and what wisdom is this that is given to him, and such mighty works as are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary? And they were scandalized is regard of him.” (Mark. 6:2-3).

    Throughout the centuries, the teachings and example of Christ brought about a profound and universal renewal of society. In a society full of idlers, the Church taught from the outset that work is a duty. St. Paul, in his letter to the Christians of Thessalonica, wrote these significant words: “If any one will not work, neither let them eat. (2 Thess. 3:10). One must not, however, exaggerate the meaning of these words. The apostle of the Gentiles does not mean to speak solely of manual labor, but of any work, moral or intellectual, of any occupation whatever that may in any way be truly useful to humanity.

    The Church taught that work is not only a duty but an honor. She always championed the dignity of manual labor. She constantly recalled, in a special way, the example of Christ and of the Apostles, and in that way she contributed to the abolition of slavery, which is one of her most notable social achievements. The Church has always taught that work is not only a means of support, but also of expiation and of sanctification. It is a means of life, both material and spiritual. Indeed, what is sanctity after all but the imitation of Christ, and how does Christ present himself to us but in the garb of the workingman?

    In modern times the Church, has more than once presented against the abuses of capitalism, which exploited labor by considering it as merchandise, to the detriment of the dignity of the worker. “Religion teaches the owner and the employer that their working people are not to be accounted their bondsmen; that in every person they must respect their dignity and worth as persons; that labor is not a thing to be ashamed of, but an honorable calling, enabling people to sustain their lives in a way upright and creditable; and that it is shameful and inhuman to treat people like chattels to make money by, or to look upon them merely as so much muscle or physical energy.” (Rerum Novarum).

    Against the abuses of the capitalistic system, the Church likewise vindicated the right to work. In fact, “The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to fail therein is a crime. It follows that each one has a right to procure what is required in order to live. To the personal duty of work imposed by nature, there follows the corresponding right of each individual to make the means of providing for his own livelihood as well as for that of his family.” (Rerum Novarum). Work, therefore, is something sacred, like life, for which it provides the means.

    See: http://ajmacdonaldjr.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/the-social-principles-of-the-catholic-church/

  3. WTP said, on October 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Uh-oh…Herman Cain’s screwed the pooch now:


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 13, 2011 at 8:22 pm

      Whoops. 🙂

      • WTP said, on October 14, 2011 at 5:57 am

        You know, from most people I would understand what that means. Is that “Whoops” Cain with sarcasm, “Whoops” without sarcasm, or “Whoops” ABC reporter’s bias is showing?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 14, 2011 at 9:34 am

          Wow, you are a man who is always looking for a fight. Let me clarify:

          “WTP, that was pretty funny. Thanks for posting the link.”

          Follow up comment:

          “Well, looks like we’ll have to pick up some Mormon Vanilla because they’re out of Black Walnut.”

          • WTP said, on October 14, 2011 at 9:55 am

            Yeah…OK…still not clear. Pretty funny as in “look how low ABC News reporters will sink to create a controversy over essentially nothing” or pretty funny as in “look what a fool Herman Cain is”?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 15, 2011 at 6:38 pm

              Um, how about this: “I found an amusing irony in that his flavor analogy turned out to be with a flavor that was, in fact, a ‘flavor of the week’.”

              How is that?

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