Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
No Cover Image

Does the Law Morally Bind the Poor?: Or What Good's the Constitution When You Can't Buy a Loaf of Bread?

R. George Wright
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 228
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Does the Law Morally Bind the Poor?
    Book Description:

    Consider the horror we feel when we learn of a crime such as that committed by Robert Alton Harris, who commandeered a car, killed the two teenage boys in it, and then finished what was left of their lunch. What we don't consider in our reaction to the depravity of this act is that, whether we morally blame him or not, Robert Alton Harris has led a life almost unimaginably different from our own in crucial respects. In Does Law Morally Bind the Poor? or What Good's the Constitution When You Can't Buy a Loaf of Bread?, author R. George Wright argues that while the poor live in the same world as the rest of us, their world is crucially different. The law does not recognize this difference, however, and proves to be inconsistent by excusing the trespasses of persons fleeing unexpected storms, but not those of the involuntarily homeless. He persuasively concludes that we can reject crude environmental determinism without holding the most deprived to unreasonable standards.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-7052-8
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    What are the pros and cons of living in a broken trash compactor? The advantages are actually many and substantial. The danger of electrocution, for example, is less than that of sleeping near a 600-volt electrified train rail. The chances of being hit by a stray bullet are less than in some housing projects. Of course, one must not too quickly generalize about such matters. A housing project resident might reduce the risk of unintended gunshot wounds by such expedients as sleeping in the bathtub.

    We should not overlook some of the less obvious advantages of the broken trash compactor...

  4. chapter one Does the Constitution Morally Bind the Poor?
    (pp. 7-39)

    This chapter explores a crucial, but largely undiscussed, problem in American constitutional jurisprudence. The problem is not difficult to state: Many Americans live through remarkable deprivation and disadvantage. Their stories differ widely, but common elements include inadequate nutrition, desperate poverty, sheer physical danger, or even homelessness. It is nevertheless widely assumed that such persons are morally obligated, or generally morally bound, by the United States Constitution. Much of the Constitution does not impose direct duties of compliance on ordinary citizens. But it is still assumed that the poor, along with others, must work within the established constitutional framework. Further, they...

  5. chapter two The Progressive Logic of Criminal Responsibility and the Circumstances of the Most Deprived
    (pp. 40-101)

    We know that the pull of gravity differs on the earth and on the moon. Can the pull of moral and social gravity also vary with place, even within what is nominally the same society? This chapter will argue that it can.

    Legal systems have long assumed that humans, unlike the beasts and the angels, are commonly able to become whatever they wish. In particular, the law typically requires moral responsibility for criminal acts. Except in narrow standard categories of exceptions, as in cases of insanity, defendants are assumed to bear moral responsibility. It has been assumed as well, however,...

  6. chapter three Desperation and Necessity: Les Miserables on Trial
    (pp. 102-174)

    Let us suppose that the argument of the previous chapter was utterly mistaken. Even the most severely deprived persons could then be said to typically bear moral responsibility for their criminal acts. Of course, standard defenses, such as self-defense and insanity, might still be relevant. A severely deprived person, though morally responsible in all relevant respects, could still be legally excused or justified in exerting reasonable and necessary force to discourage a stranger’s unprovoked, life-threatening attack. And a severely deprived person who happens to meet whatever standard the law sets for the defense of insanity would, presumably, on that ground...

  7. conclusion
    (pp. 175-178)

    At the beginning of this book, we met a person who lived, disastrously, in a temporarily broken trash compactor. This book has tried to redeem some legal space for such persons.

    It is difficult to be entirely satisfied with current thinking about poverty, obligation, and responsibility. Wide ranges of people accused of crime and immorality deny their responsibility on various ingenious grounds. Everyone seems to have an excuse for every behavior. Naturally, the citizenry eventually wearies of this. Many citizens and officials take nearly universal obligation and responsibility for granted. This sometimes results in what their critics commonly refer to...

  8. notes
    (pp. 179-184)
  9. bibliography
    (pp. 185-216)
  10. index
    (pp. 217-220)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 221-221)