Beggars in Spain contains one of the most important questions, IMHO
, to be answered. It may be asked of the citizens of the United States
who live in wealth far above the rest of the world. It may be asked of college graduate
s whose intellect and learning outstrips most of the planet. It may be asked of anyone who stands in an elite
position. That question is, "What do we owe the beggars in Spain?"
At the end of the quoted section, I discuss a bit of the answer to this question. One should compare Nancy Kress' answer with Ayn Rand's answer. They are opposites on the spectrum.
The following passage, from the book Beggars in Spain, explains the significance of the question. The exchange is between two of the Sleepless, children who have been genetically modified to never have to sleep. As a result, they have many significant advantages over other people, not the least of which is 24 hours a day to operate. This leads to academic, athletic and financial advantages. Leisha Camden is the daughter of one of the world's richest men. Tony is a fellow Sleepless, the son of middle class scientist parents. Tony is building an armed sanctuary to protect the Sleepless from the racism of the Sleeper majority. Leisha protests the withdrawl.
Tony: "We're not giving up. Whatever we create can be freely traded: software, hardware, novels, information theories, legal counsel. We can travel in and out. But we'll have a safe place to return to
. Without the leeches
who think we owe them blood because we're better than they are."
Leisha: "It isn't a matter of owing."
"Really?" Tony said. "Let's have this out, Leisha. All the way. You're a Yagaiist -- what do you believe in?"
"I believe in voluntary trade that is mutually beneficial. That spiritual dignity comes from supporting one's life through one's own efforts, and from trading the results of those efforts in mutual cooperation throughout the society. That the symbol of this is the contract. And that we need each other for the fullest, most beneficial trade."
"Fine," Tony bit off. "Now what about the beggars in Spain?"
"You walk down a street in a poor country like Spain and you see a beggar. Do you give him a dollar?"
"Why? He's trading nothing with you. He has nothing to trade."
"I know. Out of kindness. Compassion."
"You see six beggars. Do you give them all a dollar?"
"Probably," Leisha said.
"You would. You see a hundred beggars and you haven't got Leisha Camden's money. Do you give them each a dollar?"
Leisha reached for patience. Few people could make her want to cut off a comlink; Tony was one of them. "Too draining on my own resources. My life has first claim on the resources I earn."
"All right. Now consider this. .... What if you walk down a street in Spain and a hundred beggars each want a dollar and you say no and they have nothing to trade you but they're so rotten with anger about what you have that they knock you down and grab it and then beat you out of sheer envy and despair?"
Leisha didn't answer.
"Are you going to say that's not a human scenario, Leisha? That it never happens?"
"It happens," Leisha said evenly. "But not all that often."
"Bullshit. Read more history. Read more newspapers. But the point is: what do you owe the beggars then? What does a good Yagaiist who believes in mutually beneficial contracts do with people who have nothing to trade and can only take?"
"What, Leisha? In the most objective terms you can manage, what do we owe the grasping and nonproductive needy?"
"What I said originally. Kindness. Compassion."
"Even if they dont't trade it back? Why?"
"Because..." She stopped.
"Why? Why do law-abiding and productive human beings owe anything to those who neither produce very much nor abide by just laws? What philosophical or economic or spiritual justification is there for owing them anything? Be as honest as I know you are."
Leisha put her head between her knees. The question gaped beneath her, but she didn't try to evade it. "I don't know. I just know we do."
Kress' answer eventually comes down to something similar to John Rawls
' Distributive Justice
. This is the idea that, since any of us could, in the blink of an eye, occupy any given position in society, it is in our best interests to make decisions to benefit the lowest in society so that when we end up there, things aren't so bad. The idea is that by continually helping the bottom rung, the entire ladder gets moved higher.
Ayn Rand's answer is closer to Ronald Reagan's Trickle Down Economics. Writing in Atlas Shrugged, Rand believes that if those at the top are free to achieve their maximum potential, they will create wonderful opportunities and those below may step into those opportunities. Rand predicates her thoughts on the idea that all men/women are NOT created equal, that there are people who are inherently better than others and these will always be at the top of society. Kress recognizes that not everyone is created equal, but Kress argues that merely because one is superior to peers does not mean they end up at the top of the dog pile.
From a strictly ethical standpoint, the only valid motivation for both these authors is a selfish motivation (although Kress works hard to phrase it less harshly). Anyone may choose to be magnanimous beyond their ability to reasonably give -- for example, the person who gives away all their money, not just their surplus or sacrifices their life to save another -- but there is no ethical compulsion to do so. There may be a moral compulsion -- i.e. some religious or other external force that adds additional requirements to the system.