Taking advantage of people’s poverty

I read in the paper recently of an incident where the wealthy son of industrialist and his friends were about to enter a Los Angeles restaurant. Outside the restaurant was a homeless person and this person offered the homeless person $100 to pour a can of soda over himself. The homeless man did so and the crowd of rich people laughed uproariously at this, paid him, and went on their way.

This story infuriated me, as I am sure it will to most people who hear of it. It seemed that these people were humiliating the man, taking advantage of his poverty for their warped sense of what is amusing.

But at some level, I feel that I am contradicting myself. In earlier postings I have said that we should not concern ourselves and interfere with what consenting adults do. And in this case we have what seems, at least on the surface, to be a purely consensual transaction between two adults. The homeless man was not forced to pour the soda over himself. He did so because he wanted to obtain $100. So one can view this as saying that he was paid for a job. And as things go, there are a lot more disgusting things that one can be asked to do than pour a soft drink over oneself. In fact, as a society, we pay lots of people do things for us that we would shrink from doing ourselves. We pay them to go into sewers, to execute people, clean public toilets, etc. and we do not feel repelled by this. So why did I find this particular story so repellent?

Perhaps it was because we consider the homeless man is in too weak a position to freely give consent. After all, $100 was a lot of money to him. To offer very poor people what is to them a lot of money in return for doing acts that we would not do seems to offend our sense of fairness. But it is not only poor people who can be tempted in this way.

Many years ago, I saw the film The Magic Christian starring Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr, with the former as a millionaire who enjoyed seeing what he could get people to do out of greed. What the film argued was that people at any level of society would do almost anything, even wading through a disgusting mixture of urine and excrement, provided the price was right.

At that time I thought that the film was an overly cynical representation of human motivation but now I am not so sure. Some of the shows currently on TV seem to indicate that money and fame (however fleeting) are enough for many people to overcome their normal sense of propriety and self-respect. It is a disturbing thing to ask oneself the question as to what one might be willing to do if the price were high enough. This is why I feel that it is so important that everyone be paid a living wage and have the minimum living requirements of food, clothing, and shelter, so that they are not forced to trade their dignity in exchange for these basic necessities of life. If they do have the basic necessities and are yet willing to do things in exchange for further riches, then that is up to them.

But clearly the homeless man was not in that position and perhaps the reason we are so repelled by this story is that there was no redeeming purpose at all for the action, unlike the situation where people do jobs that society requires but which we might find personally distasteful. Here the whole point seemed to be to flaunt rich people’s power over the poor and to gain enjoyment from the humiliation of another human being.

But what constitutes humiliation is also tricky. What for one person is a humiliating act is for another person a chance to proudly flaunt their lack of concern for society’s expectations and mores. If the homeless man thought there was a market for his actions and decided to be entrepreneurial and launch a career by offering to pour soda over himself to anyone who would pay, would the action now become respectable, just another job that many of us personally would not do but is otherwise acceptable? After all, some comedians are willing to have pies thrown in their face as part of their act. And reality shows like Fear Factor show that people are willing to do the grossest things just to be on TV. The only difference between these things and the homeless man story seems to be that the homeless man was poor and the event was spontaneous, not planned and scripted.

It seems like all these questions come back, in some essential way, to the issues of justice as fairness as the only sound basis for constructing society. Under those conditions, the only power that one person has over another is that freely given.

But the soda-pouring episode still angers me.

POST SCRIPT 1: End of the road for intelligent design creationism in Dover?

It seems like all the candidates for the Dover, PA school board who advocated teaching intelligent design in their science classes were swept out of office on election day yesterday, to be replaced by other candidates whose platform was to shift IDC into an elective comparative religion course.

POST SCRIPT 2: How we were lied into war

A recent episode of Hardball gives a summary of how the White House, together with Judith Miller of the New York Times, created the sense of fear that enabled them to sell the attack on Iraq. The video clips of the members of the administration brazenly fear-mongering by invoking mushroom clouds is something to see. These people are quite shameless.

POST SCRIPT 3: Telling the truth gets you in jail

Eli Stephens writes the story of two generals. One, Colin Powell, made a speech full of lies at the UN to justify the attack on Iraq. He now walks a free man, giving speeche,s and collecting huge fees.

Another Iraqi general Amer al-Saadi was put in solitary confinement in an Iraqi jail for nearly two years and it is not clear if he is still there. His crime? Telling the truth. He was the Iraqi scientist and liaison to the weapons inspectors who denied that Iraq had any weapons of mass destruction or WMD programs.

Perhaps al-Saadi’s biggest “crime” was that he called out Powell on his lies at a time when the US media was swooning over Powell’s performance at the UN. As Stephens says:

In particular, he derided Powell’s assertions that Iraq attempts to hide secret information by keeping it moving in vehicles driven around the country.
“‘All of that is fiction,’ he said. ‘It is simply not true.’
“Saadi described Powell’s approach as a ‘a deliberate attempt to undermine the credibility and professionalism of the inspection bodies by making allegations which directly contradict their assessments or cast doubt on their credibility.'”

Calling Powell a liar? Unforgivable.


  1. Joshua Terchek says

    First, this is my first time posting on your blog, although I read it quite regularly.

    I have given a lot of thought to Reality TV and shows like Fear Factor, but have quite a different take than you. Parallels can be drawn between many of these shows and various social scientific experiments (which are in fact somewhat famous). Perhaps most relevant to this discussion are Milgrim’s study on conformity, the Robber’s Cave experiment and Zimardado’s Stanford Prison Experiment. Summaries for each can be found in the links below.




    I connect these experiments and reality TV for several reasons. Reality TV utilizes a person in authority who usually pressures (through coercive measures, be it money or remaining on the show) to get people to do what they normally wouldn’t. Many of these shows also often pit two teams against one another in extremely competitive circumstances, where you just don’t lose, but are removed from the show entirely (and consequently your social group).

    While it would be nice to say these are well established scientific principals regarding human behavior, there hasn’t been replication of these studies. The reason being no IRB would allow these studies to be conducted on Human Subjects due to negative outcomes human subjects would face.

    Just a few of my thoughts on the subject.

  2. says

    This reminds me of something we see in the literature regarding sexual misconduct. Can a person freely give consent if coerced? In the sense of the poor man on the street, I think we can extend the definition of coercion to factor in his physical need for clothing, food etc. This man cannot give true consent or even act upon his own freewill, when to refuse the offer goes against his instinct to survive.

    To offer fair wages so that on one is forced into such choices I think would be ideal. But in addition to that, how do we teach morality, so that those with the power to offer $100 for such acts wouldn’t think to do so, but would instead spend that spare $100 more charitably?

    Anyone who reads your posts knows that neither religion nor law are up to the task, so how do we spread such ideals?

  3. Andrew Witte says

    Law would work, except it’s too entangled with politics lately.

    So would religion, if there weren’t such petty hatred between the adherents of different religions.

    Can these problems be solved? Maybe.

  4. says

    Cool’s question is tough. Can one force people to act honorably? And if one could, should one do so? I think the answer to the former is probably no.

    One thing that might work is shame, the shame that comes when the people around you do not approve of your actions. Would that person who offerred $100 to the homeless man do such a thing again if his friends had not laughed but had turned away in disgust? At the very least, he might have had to find new friends and that gets tedious after awhile.

    I think people takes their cues from what is considered acceptable by those around them.

  5. Anonymous says

    Mano, great post -- the issue of coercion is one of my new favorite problems. How bad must the alternative be for a “choice” to count as coercion?

    Your idea of providing “the basics” for people so that they don’t feel so pressured to acquire money is well-meaning but, I think, missing a crucial point about human choices. What counts as a basic need, from the perspective of one faced with such a choice, does not depend solely on what one needs to survive, but also on what one needs to maintain or acquire a societal status that he finds acceptable. For instance, an indoor toilet is not a biological necessity by any means, but it is considered so basic to our way of life that those in our country who do not have it are presumably mocked, and I could easily see such a person performing all kinds of degrading acts for the sake of moving one or two notches up in the social hierarchy. (Think of it as sacrificing short-term happiness for long-term happiness -- a noble choice, even!) I believe that power, too -- the kind that comes from some degree of respect from your peers -- is a basic human need.

  6. says

    Yes, any line that we draw is necessarily arbitrary. We may never agree on what is enough. But I think that we may be able to agree on what is definitely NOT enough, and that includes the present situation.

  7. Barry says

    Excellent debate. I think the problem with this example is the amount of money involved. I say this not out of ignorance, for I’ve dealt with enough homeless to speak from experience, but from a “laizzes faire” point of view.

    If the sum of money offered had totalled over six figures, something that would literally turn the homeless man’s life around, it would be a different story. Hopefully we can agree that $100 wasn’t going to pull this man out of the gutter and restore balance to his life. I believe that in this instance, he was simply performing a task for entertainment purposes and getting paid for it. Do I think it was *right?* No. But I don’t really think it was wrong either.

    The point of emphasis is coercion. Had this homeless man been on death’s door and someone offered the chance of surviving the night for humiliating themselves, *that* would be coercion, an agreement made under duress. Again, I would assume this $100 didn’t save the man’s life, so I’d be skeptical of saying he was coereced simply because he was offered money.

    Am I being coereced by my employer to show up every day? If I didn’t, I would lose my job and end up on the streets. I certainly wouldn’t choose to sit at this desk for 8 hours a day if they weren’t paying me. I made the choice of my own free will because I was able to weigh the consequences of my actions. Just as I’m sure the homeless man thought to himself “Man, that $100 will keep me from picking through the dumpster tomorrow -- is that worth being sticky for a few hours?”

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