Homelessness in the United States

637 words | 3 page(s)

Homelessness in the United States has increased significantly within the past few decades: “According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the number of homeless families has increased in 31 out of 50 states since 2008” (Martin, 2011). With this increase, numerous moral theories regarding homelessness have also emerged, showing how “the homeless who walk among us are painful reminders that we are failing on a range of social and moral issues” (Martin, 2011). One moral theory relates to the principles of Karl Marx, whose “theory of alienation” asserts, “capitalism and its effects strip us of our most natural instincts to do what is right and treat others and ourselves with dignity and respect” (Martin, 2011). A good example of this occurred in the 1980s when several major manufacturers in the United States were shut down, resulting in enormous homelessness throughout major urban centers. Karl Marx would view homelessness as the direct product of greed, and he would hold society and those in power responsible for homelessness. His morally acceptable solution would require society to abolish private property and ownership, allowing for equal distribution of goods and services to all of society’s members.

A second moral theory relevant to homelessness is the virtue theory, which is based on ancient philosophers’ works, including Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics (Burkam, 1999, p. 79). This theory places the blame on society for the treatment of the homeless, and it highlights the intolerable conditions that homeless people live under: “It is the condition of not being acknowledged as belonging to society. Although in some technical, theoretical sense, these people share the same rights as everyone else, in practice we act as if they do not even exist” (Burkam, 1999, p. 79). This practice is “appalling,” as “membership in the community is a necessity for human existence” (Burkam, 1999, p. 79). This theory argues that exclusion of the homeless from the community is not only unethical, but that it also “denies a person the possibility of participating in a form of life in which ethical judgment takes place” (Burkam, 1999, p. 79), which sets a dangerous precedent for society’s ethical norms. Therefore, according to this theory, the homeless should be integrated within society and not ignored; the “Virtue Theory strongly mandates the support of these people through the exercise of the virtues of liberality and justice on the part of those who are ethically sensitive” (Burkam, 1999, p. 81).

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A final moral theory relevant to homelessness is psychological theory, which stresses the influence that a person’s development has on the likelihood of future homelessness. A detailed study examining 162 adolescents and young adults revealed that “while for institutional youth a conventional level of moral reasoning was associated with lower levels of delinquency in four domains of deviant behavior, no such association was found for homeless youth” (Tavecchio et al., 1999, p. 63). In other words, homeless younger people suffer from “a lack of moral internalization, with affect and cognition not being integrated” (Tavecchio et al., 1999, p. 63). Proponents of this theory would place the blame for homeless youth on these youth’s parents, since “a restrictive and affectionless parenting style” characterizes these young people’s upbringing. To remedy this issue, parents should be more cognizant early on and recognize the risk factors that increase the chances of future homelessness Overall, different moral theories offer different perspectives on homelessness, and elements of each theory put into practice would like help solve, or at least minimize, homelessness in America today.

  • Burkam, K. (1999). Homelessness, virtue theory, and the creation of community. The Ethics of Homelessness: Philosophical Perspectives. Abbarno, J. M. (Ed.) Amsterdam: Rodopi. 79-89.
  • Martin, C. (1 May 2011). Homelessness is not just about housing. The American Prospect. Retrieved from: http://prospect.org/article/homelessness-not-just-about-housing
  • Tavecchio, L. W. C., Stams, G. J. J. M., Brugman, D. & Thomeer-Bouwens, M.A. E. (1999). Moral judgment and delinquency in homeless youth. Journal of Moral Education 28.1, 63-79.

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