A lot of my writing lately could be misread as me making excuses for people who have made poor decisions and failed to be good citizens. I have been writing about the homeless and those who face chronic evictions, arguing that their failure is in many ways a larger failure of society to provide a system that will maximize human well-being and provide a reasonable floor from which everyone can rise. I have been more critical of those who dismiss the homeless and chronically evicted as lazy or morally deviant than I have been critical of those who cannot maintain a job, housing, or the support of friends and family. The reason I have been so critical of those who have, rather than those who need, is because I think we focus too much on ourselves, our own wants and desires, and our own challenges. We don’t think about ourselves in relation to a larger society, at least not in the United States we don’t do enough thinking of ourselves and our dependence on others.
In his 1993 book about homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow writes, “trying to put oneself in the place of the other lies at the heart of the social contract and of social life itself.” It is important that we think about others rather than only think about ourselves. If we only think about our own problems, if we only think about what would make us look cool, and if we only strive for our own goals, then we will fail in our obligations of the social contract. We have to think about the other people who are in our community, what they need, what their problems are, and how all of us can be part of a solution. We also have to think about the negative externalities that our actions produce in the world. What Liebow writes in the quote above is that the heart of a democracy relies upon all of us coming together and thinking not just about ourselves, but about others and about society.
I’m not saying that individually we all need to be more charitable, altruistic, and to give more of our time and money. I’m saying that we need to think more about others, and as a collective need to invest in institutions that make it easier for us to uphold the social contract. I would argue that recently we have invested in institutions which focus us inward, away from the social contract. Social media asks us to say something about our own lives, streaming services all us to focus our entertainment on our own preferences at any minute, and our current work expectations drive us to long hours so that we can own bigger and better things. The institutions which push us to be more communal have fallen to the side, requiring greater commitments from those involved, and scaring away those who would otherwise look to be involved. As Liebow explains, we need to think about others to be socially responsible and address collective problems, and this requires a shift away from our individual focused mindsets.