I don’t often make hard promises about how you’re going to feel at the onset of an article, as that’s something that’s hard to predict. However, I advise you to grab a drink before sitting down to read this article, as I am going to give you one fantastic spit-take moment.
Here we go.
YouTube served the following video as a recommendation.1 I’m happy to report that Extra Credits, the channel, looks pretty cool, focusing on areas that I love, such as science, history, science fiction, and videogames. It’s unfortunate that this video was the first one I watched.
The above video gets almost everything wrong.
The first problem is one that plagues society as a whole: the overvaluation of the care ethic.
I’ll link an article for deeper reading, but the short version is based on Moral Foundation Theory (MFT). MFT postulates that there are five psychological foundations of morality:
Jonathan Haidt, one of the authors of the theory, gave a TED Talk in which he presented studies that showed that conservatives weight all five ethics roughly equally, while liberals mostly care about the care ethic and fairness, and care much less about the other three.
I would be unsurprised to learn that there’s a third kind of person that could be described as a “super-liberal,” who in addition to devaluing loyalty, authority, and sanctity, also forgoes fairness. Thus, when presented with any kind of situation, the automatic moral response is to ask whether the actions that took place were kind or not.
You can see that playing out in the video, where the number one concern is whether or not people are being kind to homeless people, even if that is not in their, or society’s, best interest. The most explicit example of this happening is at 5:04 in the video, where the narrator fawns over someone cutting an anti-homeless device off of a bench.
It is an imminently kind thing to do, if you’re only considering the homeless people.
It is also completely illegal.
If we’re only talking about the care ethic and kindness, and we come away with the conclusion that it’s okay to commit a crime, I think we might need to broaden our moral consideration. I would like to bring in the fairness ethic, but in order to do so, I’m going to first talk about design.
Everything is designed with a function in mind. Benches are prominent in this video, so we’re going to work with those, though I think the logic can be extended to many of the other areas.
Benches are designed for people to sit on them, usually for a short period of time, such as when a person is tired of walking or waiting for someone or something.
Homeless people tend to sleep on benches. And not just at night, but in the day too.
This prohibits the intended use of the bench from taking place as people can’t sit on it. It also lowers the bench’s efficiency. Where two, three, or four people could have sat, one person is sleeping.
Furthermore, homeless people don’t pay taxes, and the benches in question are paid for by the government, which is funded by taxes.
It seems unfair that one group of people should have privileged access to a publicly-funded resource if they don’t pay taxes, don’t use the resources in the way they were designed, and prevent people who do pay taxes from using them in an appropriate manner.
It is unkind to move them off the benches, but it is unfair to let them stay.
I also feel the need to point out that it is not the benchmaker’s job to prevent or address homelessness. It’s to design a bench that people can use.
Likewise, it’s unlikely that the department that installed the benches would be tasked with addressing homelessness. Blaming them for treating the symptoms of a problem that they are neither equipped for nor tasked with solving is unfair and unjust.
The narrator of the video does point out that homeless people are disproportionately targeted by hostile design. This is probably true.
What he doesn’t explore is why that might be, which is quite relevant to the discussion.
Homeless people are about 5.5 times as likely to be dependent on alcohol as the general population, and 2.8 times as likely to be using illegal drugs. They’re also between 5 and 6.25 times as likely to have a serious mental illness relative to the general population.
So, they’re not targeted because they are homeless, but because, statistically, these people perform antisocial, illegal, and dangerous acts at a much higher rate than the general population. The discomfort homelessness causes is grounded in fact.
These numbers also suggest that these are people in terrible need of help, something they’re not going to get while they continue to live on the streets. These are problems that are going to require extended care and monitoring, which can’t be given as long as a person stays away from the shelters.
Making it easier for them to do so is no kindness at all. It’s perhaps the worst thing you can do.
Remember that it’s a violation of their civil liberties to just round them up and intern them. Unless they are caught committing a crime, they have to come in voluntarily. And logic dictates that people who voluntarily try to get better will be more successful. Making it easier for them to survive outside of the support system sets them back.
I’m not really defending Seattle. It’s long been alleged that the city buys homeless people plane tickets to Hawaii, turning a bad life in an awful climate into a bad life in a nice one.2 I’m just saying that we should give them crap for the things that matter, and not the things that don’t.
There’s one more thing that I want to address here. I’m going to directly quote the video here:
“Unpleasant design devotes large amounts of money to allow us to go about our pleasant lives and blissfully ignore problems, allowing those in charge of solving those problems to simply sweep them other the rug instead of confronting them or actually trying to find a solution. It takes resources that could be used to actually address the issues and spends them instead helping us put those issues out of mind. It’s pretty unconscionable.”
This is patently untrue.
Seattle is called out in this video, and perhaps justifiably so, but did you know that Seattle spent more than $195 million dollars on homelessness last year?
I really don’t care how much money you spend on bike racks and benches in order to affect the behavior. At the end of the day, you’re spending a few thousand dollars on those projects. Not doing them and transferring the money to fighting homelessness wouldn’t make a difference at all.
In fact, despite having the third largest homeless population in the United States, Seattle spends almost $17,000 per homeless person.
What’s really unconscionable here is being so radically uninformed about a topic that you make wild claims about things you don’t understand and clearly haven’t researched.
It’s not that I don’t want to help homeless people. But I want our policy to be based on facts and not feelings. And ultimately, we do more kind things when we know that our policy is aimed at bringing about the best possible outcomes.