Are anti-begging laws a moral thing?

A 40-year-old man caught begging in Delhi and sentenced to a year’s rehabilitation was left off after the judge took a lenient view, a report by wire service PTI said on Saturday. It’s a example of how, sometimes, morality and the law might clash.

The judge Ajay Kumar Jain freed the beggar after giving him a week to fulfill a bond of Rs 200 as a surety that he won’t hit the streets again.

The judge did what was legally the right thing to do: booking an offender (since begging is an offence under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959). Was it also the morally right thing to do?

It’s a complex question, really. The judge did what was morally right when you consider that he was performing the core duties expected of him, which is upholding the law and punishing offenders.

However, viewed from an ethical plane, it may not be all that morally desirable to ask a beggar to give up what inevitably is his only source of income, much less make him cough up an unaffordable fine.

By implications, it is possible to argue that the beggar’s right to life had been violated. It hinges on begging. According to Article 3 of the UN’s The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. Click here

To beg is to suppress one’s esteem and dignity for the stupendously difficult task of living. Beggars beg because they haven’t broken the basic barriers of survival.

Begging may eventually become a habit and, therefore, hard to give up but it will have nearly always started off on a life-threatening, desperate note. It is the last resort to escape hunger; not that begging will return enough money for a sufficient meal.

Some may creatively mimic hunger and privation to beg because it is an effortless way to make money. But should it matter to the law as long as passersby willingly throw a coin or two at them?

Yet, the vast majority of beggars are poor even in terms of skills to earn money in return for productive work.

Begging is one of the few vocations in the world in which the subject cannot take minimum pride in what he does. A cobbler may feel proud of his expertise in polishing shoes, for instance. A beggar can take no such pride in his work. What is there to brag about in begging?

Punishing a man for such an undignified activity, undertaken purely for survival, may evoke what is often known as the “moral criticism” of the law.

This brings us to a contentious issue of how to reconcile law and morality. This is a well-known dilemma since “even in small homogeneous societies that have no written language, distinctions are sometimes made among morality, etiquette, law, and religion”. [Gert, Bernard, "The Definition of Morality", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed).]

Philosophically, the question of morality has been understood variously, from a set of basic values that should dictate human behaviour to religious values, such as Christian morality. But what’s the morally right thing to do is not often discussed.

The morally right thing to do depends on the context but it will invariably involve a certain degree of human touch to our actions. It will uphold life, not death; common good, not common harm; and above all, a sense of fairness in our dealings.

This sense of fairness goes beyond what is merely just. I use it in its widest ethical sense. So, one’s actions do not become fair simply because one is truthfully discharging one’s duties. The judge, for example, cannot be blamed for upholding a draconian law. At the same time, some laws may lack a sense of ethical fairness because they are primarily aimed at creating public order albeit at a human cost. A good law harmonizes the two.

Law may or may not have a moral basis because it largely concerns with what is deemed acceptable to the state from the point of view of public order.

Laws are written rules, with provisions for punishment, whereas morality is really a open choice left to the individual. For example, an extra-marital affair or even a sexual relationship outside marriage may not be illegal (barring in countries that outlaw prostitution), but it will certainly not be considered a morally desirable thing to do.

Yet, laws are often based on morality. It is both immoral and illegal to steal, for example. But when the law clashes with moral standpoints, it is sometimes sought to be changed to conform to wider morality. Therefore, our laws to protect animals from abuse. Philosopher Dworkin strongly recommends law to based on morality.

Charity or alms-giving to a beggar is often considered a pious act from a religious perspective. In Islam, it is one of the five central articles of a Muslim’s faith. In Hinduism too, people are expected to oblige a bhikshu, or a wandering sage who depends on charity.

Anti-begging laws would be found wanting if they don’t mandate the state to provide rehabilitation or promote alternate sources of income. Only then can there be a sense of fairness, which is the morally right thing to do.

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