Jesse Kedy, BUAD 392

Homelessness and the Sadhu: Deontological Duties and the Band-Aid Solution
The following is a brief opinion essay on Bowen McCoy’s, The Parable of the Sadhu. Before reading this essay, it would be helpful to read the case (click here for a link to the case). After analyzing the case facts, this essay argues that it does have some relevance to the way Americans should respond to the troubles of its homeless population and that there is a vital lesson to be learned. This story involves several heterogeneous parties, including the sadhu, McCoy, Stephen (the anthropologist friend), the porters and Sherpas (including Pasang, their leader), four New Zealanders, four Swiss, and a Japanese hiking club. Each individual had his or her reasons for being there. Each was also guided by a unique set of beliefs and a moral character, developed over the course of his or her life. Because different cultures have different notions of right and wrong, it is impossible to judge the moral worth of each person’s behavior in relative terms. The only way to do so is using a universal code of ethics or one’s notion of what each of them should have done. Using a universal code, it is clear that they should have all ensured the sadhu’s well-being. Choosing the latter requires a further analysis of the facts. McCoy was a Morgan Stanley executive on a six-month sabbatical. He had spent three months in Nepal, mostly climbing. Although he felt strong, he had suffered from altitude sickness years earlier at a height lower than the current summit; he was concerned about making the pass. This was his rationale for continuing the climb and assuming the sadhu would be cared for. At the time, he claims this was an easy decision, requiring little thought; therein lies the problem: McCoy did not think enough. When he encountered the Swiss later on, he was told Stephen was just behind and that the sadhu was fine. Instead of at least waiting for Stephen, McCoy decided to accept their claim, instead of reasoning that their top priority was also to reach the summit and that the sadhu would have kept them from doing so. Stephen was rather concerned with the group’s duty to the sadhu.1 Although he had some difficulty at 15,000 feet2, he gave the sadhu some of his clothing (at 15,500 feet). Further, he remained with the sadhu after the Swiss moved on, asked the Japanese to lend their horse for the sadhu’s benefit3, and asked Pasang for porters to carry the sadhu to the nearest town.4 It seems as if Stephen saw the group’s responsibility as a

1 2

Instead of only feeling personal guilt, he also felt anger that others did not help. Which later developed into altitude sickness 3 They refused, although they gave him food and drink 4 He also refused, as he was concerned with the greater (teleological) good of the group.

© 2006 Jesse Kedy

Jesse Kedy, BUAD 392 deontological duty to help. His thinking in terms of group responsibility may explain why he did not do more himself – as an individual – and why he did not accompany the sadhu to the hut. Several other factors must be taken into consideration. First, after a New Zealander carried down the sadhu and left, that group was no longer relevant. That is, they could not have been part of McCoy’s deliberation. Second, although Pasang refused to have the porters carry the sadhu to the village, they did carry him part of the way and point out a nearby hut. Third, the sadhu, having likely chosen the harder route and not to wear much protective clothing, was aware of the risks. Thus, the blame does not lie with any one individual; it lies with the collective group. This parable does have normative relevance for how Americans should treat the homeless. First, this is a classic example of diffusion of responsibility; the more people in a group, the less responsibility felt by each individual. Those who adhere to Rand’s individualistic philosophy claim that people should pursue their own well-being, bordering on the claim that the homeless are lazy. Another issue is inconvenience.5 Helping homeless people is time-consuming. Most people, however sympathetic, find it hard to part with their time, which was not something the hikers could replace. Perhaps the most important issue here is that of suppressing symptoms, and not addressing the root problem. McCoy and others believed that by increasing the sadhu’s comfort, they had done their duty; the same is the case when people toss spare change at the homeless. Many Americans, as individuals, do not realize that solving the problem of homelessness requires more than “band-aid solutions”. Building shelters, for example, while driven by good intention, supports homelessness; every shelter built will have homeless people to fill it. America needs to adopt a more utilitarian, teleological view and set a goal to reduce the causes of homelessness, rather than merely suppressing its symptoms and effects on the rest of the nation. George Bernard Shaw put it well when he said:

"The great secret… is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: In short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no thirdclass carriages, and one soul is as good as another."


i.e. “What right does an almost naked pilgrim who chooses the wrong trail have to disrupt our lives?”

© 2006 Jesse Kedy

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