Judging, or Explaining, the Homeless

Judging – or Explaining – The Homeless

In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow wrote the following in the book’s preface:
“In general, I have tried to avoid labeling any of the women as mentally ill, alcoholic, drug addicted, or any other characterization that is commonly used to describe – or, worse, to explain – the homeless person. Judgments such as these are almost always made against a background of homelessness. If the same person were seen in another setting, the judgment might be altogether different.”
I find this quote about the homeless women that Liebow writes about in his book fascinating. The women who Liebow writes about would generally be considered normal if they happened to have a home, he explains. Their drinking, drug use, poor tempers, and other characteristics are used to explain away their homelessness, and as the quote above hints at, to excuse people from having to feel bad about them or to excuse people from having to help them.
People have trouble fathoming homelessness, and it becomes easier to blame the homeless than to blame society or their own actions that may have contributed to the homelessness of others. If another person’s homelessness can be explained by that person’s particular shortcomings, then the problem of homelessness can be dismissed and the homeless themselves can be ignored until they correct their own problems.
Liebow shows that this idea is a myth. The women he spent time with became homeless for a variety of reasons, but the poor characteristics used to define their homelessness generally were not that different from the poor characteristics of normal every-day people who have jobs, families, and homes. We all hear stories or have known professional people who do drugs, successfully retired individuals who drink excessively, or leaders and business owners whose behavior make us question their sanity. However, because they have homes and don’t need social assistance, their behaviors are dismissed. It is only when someone needs help, when someone has lost a home, that we suddenly judge them based on drug use or apparent mental instability.  As Liebow’s quote shows, this can seemingly be more of an excuse for a person’s state of need, and a disqualifying factor for our concern, rather than a real reason why someone is in the state they are in.
Explanatorily Basic

Explanatorily Basic

Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind is written more for an academic audience than a popular audience, and as a result it is rather dense and dives into some specific arguments with a lot of nuance. As an example, Cassam asks whether there is one type of epistemic vice that is more basic than another, or than any other, and takes the time to explain exactly what he means when he says that a vice might be more explanatorily basic than another.
Cassam writes, “A trait X is more basic than another trait Y if X can be explained without reference to Y, but Y can’t be explained  without reference to X. In this case, X is explanatorily more basic than Y.”
Ultimately, Cassam doesn’t find any evidence that any given epistemic vice is more basic than another. Epistemic vices are something that we do, and we can characterize each epistemic vice by a patter of thought that contributes to a certain behaviors or traits that obstructs knowledge. To characterize someone with a trait that is defined by an epistemic vice is simply to say that they are someone who often engages in that pattern of thought. According to Cassam, all epistemic vices are things that we do regardless as to whether or not we would normally describe ourselves or others by a vice, and therefore there is no reason to think that one epistemic vice is more basic than another. They don’t refer to or explain each other, they instead reference patterns of behavior and thought that we can engage with regularly or in particular instances.
While this idea is a bit obscure and fairly complex to think through, I think it can be a helpful way to look at the world. I believe that systems thinking is important within organizations and within our general lives. If we observe problems or situations that could be better, we should look for solutions and new structures that would improve the problems we see. In order to do that well, we should have a way of identifying root causes. We should approach not just the symptoms of the problems we see, but approach the overall structure to understand what causes the negative things we wish to prevent or avoid. Cassam’s definition for what would make an epistemic vice more explanatorily basic than another is part of a systemic and structural approach to the kind of problem solving that I would advocate for.
A root cause should be more explanatorily basic than the negative aspects that flow from it. When approaching a problem or a decision, we should ask whether the things we are focused on can be explained directly, or if they can only be explained by reference to other factors. If we can explain them without having to reference other problems that contribute to them, then we may have identified the root cause that we are after. Making a change at that point should influence downstream actions and consequences, helping adjust the structure of the system that lead to the issue we want to solve.