When I was growing up, not far from New York City’s Bowery, which in those days was lined with soup kitchens and flophouses, my daily walk to elementary school took me through a park frequented by homeless people. From an early age, I would wonder, “Why are they there in the street and not me? What holds me afloat when they have sunk so far?” The Quaker milieu of my childhood (in the gendered lexicon of the time) had taught that “all men are equal.” Yet in many obvious ways this was manifestly not the case. How do we make sense of notions of justice that presume a human equality so absent from actual experience?
Reaching a more politically critical age, I came to think that my childish inability to understand poverty revealed a distinctly middle-class American naiveté, an inability to think beyond the individual. Rendering society or economy invisible, this ideology suggests that homelessness, like the condition of poverty in general, is at best a glitch within a mostly reasonable world—or worse, the result of individuals’ bad choices (a conclusion to which “behavioral economics” still risks leading us today, as I have written about elsewhere). And, one might conclude, if poverty is something the poor have brought on themselves, then it need not unduly concern the passerby.
Having spent the subsequent decades in large cities and college towns, where hard sleeping is difficult to miss, I can’t shake the question: “Why are they there in the street and not me?” Once, in the heat of adolescent argument, I exclaimed that people sleeping in our streets should matter to us because “We’re all in the same boat,” only to be told, “That’s communism!” I still occasionally ask friends how they deal with that most visible face of unequal lives. One replied that he carries loose dollar bills to hand over to beggars so he doesn’t have to think about it at all. A prosperous lawyer told me that she explained to her young son, when he too posed my childish question, “We’re just lucky.” A true and honest response in its way—at least it avoids taking credit for one’s position in the world. Most disappointingly, when I asked a moral theologian whose own university town is thronged with street people, he could only shrug his shoulders.
The homeless, of course, are an extreme case of a more general set of questions about the distribution of goods and our care for others, what was called in the eighteenth century the “moral economy” and which I have previously discussed. Stripped of the modifier “moral,” today’s concept of “the economy” is, in historical terms, relatively recent. Invisible, it must be postulated. But it can provide an Archimedean standpoint from which to see the world in a certain light—although it can thereby render other things invisible, explaining away both contingency and politics. It invites us to take up a third person stance, a position outside ourselves, in order to place our own particular circumstances in the context of large-scale forces and long-term outcomes. Certainly that stance yields real insights and benefits. At the same time, by demanding that we take the long view, it can undermine the situated claims coming from the first person perspective—for instance, of those whose jobs must be sacrificed for the sake of economic efficiency, or whose mental health care loses out to tax cuts.
But there is more than one such Archimedean standpoint. Consider again the Quakers’ egalitarian slogan. By the time I was an adult, and had thoroughly absorbed the truism in secular terms, I had long since forgotten the crucial clause that makes its truth unassailable for the faithful: “all men are equal in the eyes of God.” Given the obvious differences of condition and capacity among people, this proposition must posit a transcendental standpoint from which those distinctions vanish. To imagine what is seen by “the eyes of God” is to take the third person stance, beyond human limitations. The distant viewpoint is totalizing rather than partial, objective rather than perspectival, and, sometimes, disinterested rather than engaged. At the same time, as the notional equality of all humans suggests, it can prompt the ethical and political demands of moral economy: that justice requires an empirically unequal world be brought into alignment with that invisible equality. (Of course, some religious traditions see people as properly arrayed in hierarchies—but then secular meritocracy can do so as well.)
If the God’s eye viewpoint is only a metaphor when applied to the totalizing abstractions of sociology, economics, or, say, Marxist analysis, a more literal sense underwrites some versions of moral economy. Many religious traditions propose distributive responses to inequality through charity and alms. Although their underlying principles and procedures vary widely (Islam, for instance, distinguishes between obligatory and supererogatory giving; Buddhist donors sustain the voluntary poverty of monks), they share certain general features. One is that they bind unrelated people together across their disparate economic circumstances. Another is that they address a question that secular thought often finds hard to answer: why should I care about inequality? If all people are equal in the eyes of God, then the believer may find the demands of justice affirmed by a principle more unassailable and less fallible than the merely human reasoning behind Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative or Utilitarianism’s calculus, as I have argued previously.
Now, a common criticism of religious charity and alms (to say nothing of, say, prosperity gospels) is that they don’t address the structural or political sources of inequality. But religious traditions of moral economy sometimes do attempt this-worldly reforms, like the banks studied by Bill Maurer and Daromir Rudnyckyj, which try to observe Islam’s prohibition on interest. In doing so, they commonly ask, “What is the basis of economic value?” If the question is not always religious, even secular responses often take a metaphysical turn. Whether the ultimate source of value is thought to be gold, land, or labor, the assurance it offers turns on an ontological claim: that source is something real. The question commonly appears as semiotic anxiety: to what does money refer? For many reformers, the answer leads back to the question of justice. If money could only be securely and indexically grounded in the real sources of value, then the economy would be fair. For only then would there be no undeserved wealth, unlike, say the spurious gains of the gambler, usurer, or rent-seeker, and therefore no undeserved poverty.
To be sure, few secular observers today think that returning to the gold standard or banning usury will solve the problem of distribution. But the question of value persists. And removing “God” from the third person perspective doesn’t eliminate the question of justice. Many religious traditions propose (if rarely with success) that membership among the righteous, the chosen, the elect, the pious, the saved, or the tribe—even one’s mere humanity—should be sufficient to warrant others’ care and guarantee one’s due place within the economy. The scriptural assertion that “the poor you will always have with you” leads back from the God’s eye perspective to the second person of address, “you,” and its partner, the first person plural, “us.” And these pronouns bring us back to the street, where the most visible of the poor challenge the passerby to ask: do you count as one of us?