Can You Spare Some Change? The Moral Argument of the Beggar

By Nicholas Alahverdian
When a beggar asks a passerby for money, a litany of thoughts may congregate in one’s head. Indeed, it is up to the passerby to act in the right way, or in a way that tends to promote happiness, or in the wrong way, or in a way that promotes the antithesis of happiness. But whose happiness matters? To the passerby, it may be their own or it may be that of the beggar.
On the contrary, one could “reject all established morality while believing to be an objective truth that it was evil or corrupt”. At what point does the practice of freely giving money upon request with no effort on the part of the beggar become evil and/or corrupt? What does the beggar have to lose?
Through the lens of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, especially considering the existence of pleasure and the absence of pain, the foundation of morality would suggest that a passerby giving money to a beggar on the street is actually the right thing to do. Objectively, it may be the right thing to do and may cause a pleasurable and altruistic experience. But what of the approach which considers the moral framework that strives for pleasure and pain whilst eliminating the devastating impact of animalistic tendencies, specifically ridding one’s community of panhandling and squalor?
If a person uses his or her higher faculties, it is completely within reason to suggest that Mill would reject the idea that succumbing to the requests and/or demands of a panhandler is the right, moral, or ethical thing to do in every single case. Consider the circumstantial and/or prima facie evidence which may or may not be apparent upon being asked for money… Does the beggar have marks on his arm from injecting himself with heroin? Does his breath sting one’s face with the pungent scent of cheap alcohol? Does the beggar have any stated intention of what he or she will do with the money? All of these questions are essential and imperative when considering whether or not catering to the request of the beggar for a bit of money is actually catering to his higher faculties or his lower faculties.
So would Utilitarianism endorse the general act of panhandling? Perhaps, but not before considering the aforementioned. Now, looking through the concept of Cultural Relativism advocated by philosopher John Leslie Mackie, we are presented with the quandary that standpoints are equally privileged and no standpoint is uniquely privileged over any other. Mackie advocates the viewpoint that all moral claims are false since they assert characteristics that are “ontologically queer” cannot be perceived by normal empirical means.
The characteristics of goodness and altruism can indeed be attributed to the act of one giving his or her money to the beggar, but when viewed through the lens of the argument of cultural (or moral) relativism, the giver becomes trapped in a moral dilemma since there is no hierarchy of what should take precedence. The same with the beggar, who stands at a crossroads of ethics: is his financial dilemma, whether it be due to lack of work, a drug habit, or gambling, significant enough to jeopardize the happiness of others to the point of soliciting donations from unsuspecting passersby.
Thus, we arrive at a crossroads ourselves: how would Mill respond to the appeals of the beggar? And what about the notoriously blunt Mackie?
Mill, as an advocate for seeking for pleasurable experiences throughout one’s life by exercising a variance of faculties, both higher and lower, would adamantly advocate that there is no uniform approach to approaching a begging panhandler. One must contemplate the subject’s situation, demeanor, plea, and other characteristics; proceed to analyze the facts in accordance with the begging panhandler’s statements; and finally use his or her higher faculties to come to a complete and wise determination of how he or she will respond – all in a matter of seconds. “Can you spare some change?” never seemed so complicated.
Mackie, alternatively, would prefer a comparably self-serving result wherein the begging panhandler is ignored, or worse, interrogated. The dialogue that would ensue would be a microscopic analysis of the history of haggling as opposed to inventorying the needs of the begging panhandler since, again, the “ontologically queer” characteristics that seemingly advocate for moral righteousness (i.e. goodness, care, altruism, etc.) cannot be perceived by normal empirical needs.
Mackie’s argument depends upon the stance that no one situation is more important than any other. In fact, the argument would be so convoluted that he would walk away with an extreme sense of frustration that he was held up for far too long.
In conclusion, the best way to address the situation, or, rather, the ideal way to deal with the situation is to employ the analytic and rational foundation of establishing the needs of the person in question.
Mill allows for flexibility in one’s thinking in his Utilitarianism philosophical approach, whereas Mackie would exact a nihilistic blow to the panhandling beggar. Mackie’s approach does not go over so well ethically and morally because there is no grading system or analytical approach that would allow a passerby to shift the mirrors to see where the smoke was coming from.
Put another way, the passerby has literally seconds to establish the history, background, factual synopsis, and prima facie evidence that needs to be assessed in order to allow a solid moral framework to be established. At that point, it is unquestionably a more robust approach to figuring out whether or not giving a begging panhandler money is the right thing to do according to one’s higher faculties.
Mackie’s philosophical approach is rigid, invariable, and irrationally stringent. The ethical and moral approach to understanding the needs of a fellow human being are better suited by Mill’s intelligible and compassionate, yet practical, approach. It is only through this practical approach that a reasonable resolution can be reached.
Works Cited and Referenced
Rachels, James. The Right Thing to Do.
New York: McGraw Hill, 2012. Print.
Moral Relativism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Date Accessed: 24 August 2016.