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The ethics of living in an unjust world.

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Last week M. LeBlanc at Bitch Phd wrote about the latest battle in the War against the homeless–Chicago cracking down on “continuous riders” just as the cold of winter settles in. Like M. LeBlanc and Bitch PhD, I was surprised and frustrated by the tenor and content of the comments, which went in one or both of the following directions, either talking about how it’s unpleasant to share public transit with homeless people, or helpfully pointing out that allowing the homeless to ride the MTA continuously through the night was a poor “solution” to the homeless problem. I wasn’t surprised by the sentiments themselves, just that they were so prominent amongst the commenters at that site, from whom I’d generally expect a bit more sympathy.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a bit more about this, and about why I’m bothered as much as I am by the “this is not a good solution” kind of response to this. It’s a dynamic that feels very familiar to me. Obviously, M. LeBlanc wasn’t trying to argue that allowing the status quo (namely, that homeless people shouldn’t be kicked off trains in the middle in the night in the dead of winter) to continue constituted some sort of brilliant public policy solution. Nor did I take her to be arguing that such a policy had no negative effects. Although she was opposing a particular policy initiative, I didn’t take her post to be about public policy solutions at all. Instead, she was expressing a position on the ethics of living in an unjust world. A good thing about progressives is that they see specific social problems as things to be fixed, and they like debating good ways to fix them. This is all good, but I think sometimes it’s used as an excuse to avoid the ethics of living in the unjust world we live in. Homelessness is a problem that can be ameliorated through a bunch of good public policy initiatives, and they should be debated, and the best ideas should be tried. But we should resist the temptation to let these conversations replace challenging questions about what we must do and not do in the here and now, in light of the persistent injustices in our cities and our world.

I have a feeling this dynamic in political conversation has frustrated me before, but oddly I can’t recall good examples, it’s more just a sense of deja vu. I’ll try and flag examples of this tendency and elaborate on the point of this vague post in the future as I spot them.

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