Yanyan asked:

Twenty-nine year old Debora Rodriquez is a militant member of Brazil’s landless movement the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) which is battling for redistribution of under utilized land to as many as 4.8 million landless families. Recently Ms Rodriquez made a decision to appear in an upcoming Brazilian edition of Playboy, photographed in the nude. Many fellow members of the MST are highly critical of her decision, believing that it will tarnish the Movements image. Some other members (apparently) do not have this concern, but believe Ms Rodriquez should contribute a portion of the 18,000 she will earn to the MSTs efforts on behalf of impoverished Brazilian farmers. Ms Rodriquez says she will use the money to buy a home for herself and her two children, aged 11 and 9, as well as other things the children need. Currently Ms Rodriquez and her children live in a tent at a settlement organized by the MST.

Is Ms Rodriquez’s decision morally justifiable? If so, why? If not, why not?

Answer by Craig Skinner

An interesting story. I presume it’s true. If so, I applaud the efforts of MST and hope they achieve the redistributive justice needed to allow millions to lead a tolerable life.

As for Ms R, my conclusion is that she made 3 decisions, all morally justifiable, although the third showed tactical ineptitude and/or lack of generosity.

Let us deal with each decision:

1. To be a militant member of MST

I take ‘militant’ to mean uncompromising and outspoken (rather as Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist) rather than including terrorist activity. Presumably, she gives of her time and of herself to MST, and so MST has no right to demand more of her (though they might want more).

Her decision here is morally justifiable, indeed admirable.

2. To appear in Playboy

I applaud her. If I had the chance to appear nude in Playboy, and be paid for it, I would jump at it. Sadly, Playboy makes no such offers to old men. She has clearly kept her looks, despite her having two children, so good luck to her. As regards tarnishing the image of MST, I can say little since I don’t know what its image is. I belong to several respectable professional, business and leisure organizations, and none would have its image tarnished if a member posed for Playboy. I suppose if she were a nun, the image of the Catholic church might be tarnished, but even here the effect would be negligible compared to the severe tarnishing from revelations of paedophilia in clergymen. I imagine some of the many who are ‘highly critical’ are other women who are jealous because their looks aren’t good enough for Playboy, and some others are men complaining of exploitation of women and of pornography, but enjoying Playboy in private as much as anybody else.

She has not failed in any duty, contravened anybody’s rights, harmed anybody or disrespected her own humanity.

Her decision here, both to appear and to accept payment, is morally justifiable.

3. To keep all the money for herself and her children

Beforehand, she was a poor person asking for distributive justice. She stood to gain from redistribution. A rich person, who stands to lose by redistribution, but nevertheless campaigns for it, might be said to be more admirable. So we might ask, now that her earnings make her one of the ‘rich’, at least relatively so (enough for a house and other things), is she still keen on redistribution, which now entails her giving rather than taking? Apparently she has changed her tune, preferring to keep what she has rather than give it to poorer farmers.

But it isn’t clear that this is immoral.

She has (at least) two moral defences.

(a) she has special responsibility towards her nearest and dearest. Most people would agree that she has more responsibility for the welfare of her own children than for other children. We can anchor this ethically by saying that the fact that a child is well-treated by its parent is a moral good over and above the fact that it is well-treated. And of course the actual arrangements in most societies assume that parents, not others, have primary responsibility for children’s welfare. Ms R is such a parent.

(b) she earned the money honestly and it is hers to spend as she wishes (most people would do the same). She already gives her time and efforts to MST. How much giving is needed to be moral? Surely giving until one is as poor as those receiving is unrealistically extreme. At the very least the giver needs to keep enough to maintain her and her children’s health, and her work capability, so that she can carry on the good work. Some extreme consequentialist views (eg Singer) maintain that giving should continue so long as the gain to the recipient exceeds the loss to the donor. This would entail that donors and their children be reduced to half-starving so long as there are other children starving who could be helped.

I feel that Ms R can be defended on these grounds so that her action is not immoral.

Many poor people who win the lottery find that they lose their old, poor friends (who are envious of their new wealth and want some of it), whilst failing to make new friends among the rich (who look down on them). I suspect there is an element of envy in some members of MST.

However, you say there are calls for her to ‘contribute a portion’ of her cash. So people recognize that it is fair enough for her to keep some of it for herself and her children.

I think she has missed a trick here. Even on egoistical grounds, she might have been better to keep enough for a modest house and no extras, giving the rest to MST (shows solidarity, keeps her reputation, less bad feeling). Also, she might have been more generous of spirit, and given something simply because the others needed it.

In conclusion, I think Ms R’s decisions were morally justifiable, but could have been improved by an extra dash of generosity of spirit or tactical awareness.