Ethical Reflection Paper
University of Louisville
Kent School of Social Work
I: What do you think causes poverty?
When examining causes of poverty historically, it is easy to make connections based on cause and effect. For example, it is easy to attribute the stock market crash of 1929 to the period of poverty in the United States leading up until WWII. However, the existence of poverty is not explicably linked to events or isolated to the past. Poverty exists as one of the most prevalent and pervasive contemporary human problems. So, what causes poverty? As an anthropologist, my answer would be the relationship between ideology and power. Dominant ideologies form the baseline for consensus in almost every society. It is important to understand ideologies that constitute the normative baseline are a social construct of the dominant group, meaning they are not innate or fixed. They can be changed. I believe that historicism is responsible for all social and cultural phenomena, including poverty. Similar to many human problems, attempts at addressing poverty should ask what social and cultural structures allow poverty to exist? Poverty is a consequence of power imbalances and socially constructed inequality influenced by ideology. It is a human condition that operates with homeostatic functions (unique ideology), sustaining and perpetuating the “culture of poverty”. It is important to note that merely identifying the root cause of poverty addresses only one aspect of the problem. Although imbalanced social structures are responsible for creating poverty, the “condition” of poverty, as well as the ideologies it produces must also be understood and addressed in order to end the “cycle of poverty”. It is necessary to take a holistic approach when addressing poverty as a human condition and be able to view cause and condition as separate, but equal concerns. Anthropologist Oscar Lewis created the term “culture of poverty” to show how poverty conditions ideology. He argued that ideologies learned in childhood perpetuate the cycle of poverty across generations and consistently identified four factors that sustain the “culture of poverty”: marginality, helplessness, dependency, and inferiority. Individuals born into poverty are conditioned to believe they do not have the ability to be successful. It is important to understand that this theory is based on larger social and cultural factors rather than on the individual. The culture of poverty is more a state of thinking, a set of beliefs, as opposed to a state of being (Lewis & Farge, 1959). II: Application of Utilitarianism, Deontology, and Rawls’ Distributive Justice Arguments
In this section of the ethical reflection paper two items set forth in President Obama’s agenda aimed at reducing poverty in the United States will be argued from three ethical frameworks. These items include raising wages and investing in children. A: Raising Wages
According to Michael Sandel, utilitarianism, a consequentialist form of moral reasoning formulated by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, locates morality in the consequence of an act or the state of the world that results from the thing you do (2011). It sees our actions as ways to make the world better. The objective of utilitarianism is to maximize utility, or happiness, as exemplified by the guiding principle, “the greatest good for the greatest number” (Jimenez, 1998). From this perspective, raising the minimum wage would result happier, more fulfilled employees. For an employee, the ability to earn a living wage would increase their job satisfaction as well as their productivity, subsequently decreasing the company’s rate of turnover as well as any associated costs of employee turnover. Deontology argues for action out of duty. A categorical form of moral reasoning formulated by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, this ethical framework locates morality in certain duties and rights and views consequences as morally irrelevant. “Immanuel Kant says that insofar as our actions have moral worth, what confers moral worth is our capacity to rise above self-interest and inclination and to act out of duty.” Michael Sandel simply states, “The moral value of an action depends on the motive – do the right thing for the right reason”(2011). As mentioned by President Obama, “under current law, a full-time worker with two children earning minimum wage will still raise his or her family in poverty.” (Boteach, 2013). This account maintains that every individual has the right to earn adequate wages to support themselves, arguing for a moral obligation on behalf of workers currently receiving minimum wage benefits and the federal government of the United States to respect the dignity of their citizens as human beings by offering a morally acceptable “living” wage that would allow for the individual to rise above the poverty level. Moreover, allowing the market to determine workers wage benefits would not be acting in accordance with the duty to act. Rawls’ Distributive Justice theory, developed by modern American philosopher John Rawls, maintains each society enacts a framework of laws, institutions, and policies, resulting in unequal distributions of benefits and burdens amongst members of society (Lamont, 1996). Future consequences society faces, rather than the moral duties of individuals are the primary concerns. According to this model, a living wage should be enacted as a tool to reduce income inequality. B: Investing in Children
Deontologist argue that education is a basic human right essential for the exercise of all other human rights (The Right to Education, 2014). Therefore, investing in early childhood education is our moral obligation. Failure to provide educational opportunities increases the risk of poverty. However, a Rawlsian perspective would argue investing in children by increasing expenditure on childhood education in an effort to reduce poverty would be an investment in human capital that would benefit both the individual and society over the course of a lifetime.
Boteach, M. (2013, February 13). Top 5 Solutions to Cut Poverty Proposed by President Obama in State of the Union Address. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
Lamont, J. (1996, September 22). Distributive Justice. Retrieved September 15, 2014.
Lewis, O., & Farge, O. (1959). Five families; Mexican case studies in the culture of poverty (p. 19,20). New York: Basic Books.
Sandel, D. (Producer). (2011, March) Harvard University [Episode 1]. Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? Podcast retrieved from http://www.justiceharvard.org/2011/03/episode-01/#watch
The Right to Education | Education | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (n.d.). Retrieved September 14, 2014.