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.