Being human is tough.
We're subjective creatures, as are all other animals. Yet unlike our fellow primates with whom we're closely related, us Homo sapiens possess a strong capacity for objectivity -- seeing the world from a perspective largely, though not completely, distinct from our personal viewpoint.
Many social problems are difficult to perceive clearly given the often-blurry double vision that comes with our twin capacity for empathetic subjectivity and detached objectivity.
Homelessness is one such problem.
I got to thinking about this after finishing a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel today, The View From Nowhere. Nagel is more famous for his "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" essay, but this book addresses some of the same questions surrounding objective and subjective views of reality.
In a concluding chapter, Nagel says, "So the absurd is part of human life."
He isn't talking about absurdity in the sense of ridiculousness. Rather, it is the consequence of people being capable of seeing things both from inside our own mind, and by extension the minds of others, and allso from a more objective view from nowhere.
Understand: both perspectives are part of being human. The challenge -- and the absurdity -- arises from the need to simultaneously grasp the individual and the universal; the personal and the impersonal; the intimate and the public.
Here's an excerpt that gives a flavor of what Nagel is speaking about.
Morality is a form of objective reengagement. It permits the objective assertion of subjective values to the extent this is compatible with the corresponding claims of others. It can take various forms, some of which I have discussed.
All of them involve, to one degree or another, occupying a position far enough outside your own life to reduce the importance of the difference between yourself and other people, yet not so far outside that all human values vanish in a nihilistic blackout.
OK, those words aren't transparently clear.
Nagel, being a philosopher, often engages in philosophy-speak. However, his central thesis strikes me as indisputable. We are subjective beings who strive to see things as much as possible from an objective perspective when the situation demands it.
The situation of homelessness, for example.
Here in Salem (Oregon), City officials are struggling to find an approach to this problem that is both compassionate and realistic. Homeless camps on both public and private land near Wallace Marine Park have been removed recently. A "sit-lie" ordinance that would prohibit sleeping/camping on sidewalks during the daytime is being considered.
Two public forums on the ordinance have generated a lot of debate and discussion on social media. Advocates for homeless people see the ordinance as a heartless attack on vulnerable individuals who already are struggling mightily. Supporters of businesses see the ordinance as a way to keep downtown welcoming to everyone.
Good arguments can be made on either side.
This is especially true when individuals convey what it is like to be a homeless person or a business owner from their personal subjective point of view.
My heart goes out to someone who is forced to live outside through no fault of their own. My heart also goes out to someone trying to make a living from a retail store who sees customers going elsewhere because of homeless people and their belongings being so apparent on downtown sidewalks.
Today's homelessness debates remind me of my health policy work back when John Kitzhaber was president of the Oregon Senate. Kitzhaber, a physician, spoke forthrightly about the controversial subject of health care rationing.
A 1990 Washington Post story, "Rationing Medical Care," told the story of Coby Howard.
A blunt kind of medical rationing began three years ago in Oregon.
It started a movement that could sweep the country.
In July 1987, trying to stretch dollars for care of poor Medicaid patients, Oregon legislators voted to stop funding many organ transplants -- cost, $65,000 to $250,000 apiece. They voted, instead, to use the money to give basic health services to 400 more women and 1,800 children.
Four months later, a 7-year-old boy with leukemia, Coby Howard, was denied a $100,000 bone-marrow transplant and died.
Told to "smile big," he had stood before TV cameras to help raise $60,000 toward the operation. But by the time a medical center agreed to accept that sum for the surgery -- the transplant that might or might not have saved his life -- he was too sick for it.
Coby Howard was a victim, the media told the public, of health care rationing. And he became a symbol of an emerging era in which Americans, like it or not, must face the fact that no government, no employer, no insurer, no individual can afford to pay for everything medicine can do.
This was a collision of the subjective and the objective, the emotional empathy felt toward a boy needing a bone-marrow transplant and the stark reality that if limited public money was spent on the transplant, others would go without basic medical care such as prenatal services.
Homelessness and health care rationing obviously are different issues. Still, the difficult-to-bridge gap between our subjective feelings about an individual who needs help and the more objective nature of what Nagel calls the "view from nowhere" is still very much alive in today's debates over how to address homelessness.
I don't have an answer. My goal in this blog post is simply to talk about the issue from a perspective that, while philosophical, also is distinctly real.
Ralph Crawshaw, a psychiatrist I worked with in my role as publicist, and then executive director, of Oregon Health Decisions (a bioethics organization), liked to say, "Society must decide." He was speaking about health care rationing and death with dignity. The same holds true for homelessness.
I understand the passion of those who feel strongly about this issue, whether from the viewpoint of individuals lacking a home or the burden homeless people impose on others. Somehow we have to strive to listen to all viewpoints, recognizing that there isn't an easy way to come up with broadly acceptable policies in this area.
Life often is absurd, as Nagel correctly says. While living in, and as, this absurdity, we have to find ways of moving forward in as clear-sighted a manner as possible.