The American Priority: The Homeless vs. Stray Pets

This topic submitted by Cat Fincun and Brian Forrester on 5/2/06. [ Human Nature Team: Cat Fincun and Brian Forrester-Section: Cummins/Wolfe]


While examining our society in America one might ask why there is such a gap between the classes. The “American dream” promotes the corporate consumer economy. Individual success is well rewarded and is what most Americans strive for: the race to the top. In that race, however, some people fall behind and land in the gutters, among the strays.
Our question continues to ask, should we pick these poor souls up again and give them another opportunity? We want to know whether society believes that the homeless are homeless because of their own faults or other outside problems; and if society is willing to help these people based on the cause of their position. Is this treatment better or worse than that of domesticated animals?
We hypothesize that it is in human nature to have more sympathy for animals than for our own species. We predict that we respond to certain social factors: social hierarchies, religious teachings, and personal identification through social acceptance, that contribute to attitudes towards the homeless, as well as, why we feel obligated to help abandoned, domesticated animals.
America’s culture is ‘me’ based which detracts from the holistic thinking of ‘us.’ Everyone is trying to be an individual. When everyone is working for the group, there is no celebration over individual success. People come to America to start over. So, individually everyone is working towards the same goal, which also means everyone must work for themselves if they want to get a head. (Tropman 126) This is congruent to personal identification; American society says work the hardest for yourself, supporting the community is not part of this identification.
Because of this want to be the best, people become skeptical of helping those who fall behind. This social hierarchy makes people believe that some are better than others. This leads to negative stereotypes that support this hierarchy. Putting other people down helps to reinforce those feelings of being better. Stereotypes of the homeless contribute to people second-guessing the use of their charity. Feelings of being ‘ripped off’ or ‘being had’ make people feel skeptical of the good will. This lack of approval and skepticism of homeless morality leads to hate and negative stereotypes. People are constantly pressing on to get more. (Tropman 128)
An emergence of a universal standard came about in the early 19th century. People realized the moral problems of abandoning our own species to live without basic needs. However, it was a stressed achievement because its worth was defined by the productive capacity of the project. There were limitations to receiving public reform based on the availability of family. The government believed that if an individual had family available it was their responsibility to take care of their kin. (Katz 14) The elite group of the upper class began to classify everything and made decisions of the underclasses and defined homelessness. These fabricated definitions contribute to the continuation of homelessness as well as street crime. As if the underclass were a disease and homelessness one of the symptoms. (Gans 61)
America has separated the poor from the upper class from preconceived notions and stereotypes that suggest that individuals of the upper class are an elite group of
people. Sympathies are based on the innocence of the victim in such a position. The innocence of the poor and homeless is questioned. Is this why stray animals are a matter for concern?
In the beginning God made man in his image and gave to Adam the command over all living things. “Now, of all the parts of the universe, intellectual creatures hold the highest place, because they approach nearest to the divine likeness. Therefore divine providence provides for thee intellectual nature for its own sake, and for all others for its sake.” (Regan 57) Saint Thomas Aquinas elaborates on this and says that although animals are capable of the locomotion of humans they do not have the intellect and that is what allows us to govern and care for them. (55) “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind. The lower animals cannot even apprehend a principle; they obey their instincts,” (109) Aristotle suggests the truth in conceived hierarchies. This continues to play an influence on the minds of society in the way they interact with themselves and with animals.
Aquinas also suggests that humans look after animals for individual justification and rationalization. “And if any passages of Holy Writ seem to forbid us to be cruel to dub animals, this is either to remove man’s thoughts from being cruel to other men…or because injury to an animal leads to the temporal hurt of man, either of the doer of the deed, or of another…” (59) By correcting our faults we behave properly in other methods. Therefore we may be treating other humans wrong (homeless) but we have a rational explanation that at least we are contributing to the greater good by taking in stray animals.
Mary Midgley places the responsibility on culture. She suggests that man is a ‘product of his culture.’ Humans develop over time and learn to behave in accordance to their culture. “What we take to be man’s instincts are just the deep-dug prejudices of our own society.” (Regan 93) In this definition of human behavior Midgley blames the individual for who they eventually become. She says that humans can be blamed for all their deficiencies and be assumed to stay the way they’ve become. Through this viewpoint we can assume that society believes that homeless are there on their own accord. Because they ran themselves into the gutter they deserve the consequences for making such bad decisions. (94)
In times that we are striving for equality there is a reality to understand. People don’t want equality. “When we say that all human beings, whatever their race, creed or sex, are equal, what is it that we are asserting? By whatever test we choose, it simply is not true that all humans are equal.” Peter Singer says that we, as humans, vary in many respects just because of our many varying differences as people. “In short, if the demand for equality were based on the actual equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality.” (Regan 150) Liberation movements try to make their group rise higher in the hierarchy chain of position. Most people are looking for respect and recognition for being just that, people. In actuality they really just want their group to be at the top of that chain. Some extreme examples are Nazi Germany, Hitler rising Germany back up from their disastrous plummet in Europe after WWI , The religion wars in the Middle East between the Palestinians and the Iranians, The United States issues with Native Americans and African Americans, Rowanda’s conflict between that Hato and the Tootsie.
However, domestic animals are outside of this humanity debate. “Pets are companion animals; they are quite different from wild animals that are not domesticated, that cannot live among human beings but can survive on their own: most pets could not live without our assistance.” (Hills 220) Aquinas supports Hills with his connection to religion. “It would seem that irrational creatures also ought to be loved out of charity. For it is chiefly by charity that we are conformed to God. Now God loves irrational creatures out of charity, for he loves all things that are, and whatever he loves, he loves by Himself Who is charity. Therefore we also should love irrational creatures out of charity.” (Regan 119-120)
The assumption that homeless people are capable of taking care of themselves is a major factor in society’s opinion of the group. Stereotypes of addictions and careless actions, laziness, and dependency on welfare give the majority of homeless and the poor a bad reputation. Animals, unable to perform the same actions as humans are not judged in the same manner.

Literature Discussion


Our cultural system has sustained values that we need to succeed to show our worth in our society. The paradigm of our society is to commit ourselves to get ahead, achieve, take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way, and always be responsible for us. We become fearful that our society may possibly lack in these commitments and start to fear the lack of control that we strive so hard for. There then becomes a hatred for those that aren’t keeping up with the rest of the group. This encompasses our societal lack of caring for the impoverished and especially the homeless.
There is a societal emphasis on creating universal standards that force a stress and need to achieve. In much of the public sector there came demands to standardize and give examinations to find the competence of individuals. People are now judged on their worth and merit based on their ability to meet a bureaucratic standard, and their ability to perform certain tasks. The children of our society are characterized by their abilities to accomplish the standardized criteria. We created a social psyche that rewards were not to be handouts just on the basis of family, friendship, or some other relationship. Rewards were to be earned, if people weren’t able to keep up to the public standards then they were to be dropped off and categorized accordingly.
“We hate them not because they are us (“We have met the enemy, and he is us”), but because they could be us, or will be; because they represent features of the open society in operation we do not like; because they represent a truncation of opportunity and costs coming home to roost; and because we need their resources for our own use and feel guilty about it. Poverty is the embodiment and the realization of our fears.” (Tropman pg 4)

We feel that the poor are threatening to us. This distrust has been formulated as a result of our society being so self-absorbed. We focus too much on our desire for personal ownership. We are then lead to a diminished focus on others. Our generation has turned itself from caring about the collective community to caring for the individual and those closest to them. We have turned ourselves to uncaring beings that now have a lack of approval, sympathy, empathy, and understanding for others.
Our society is like a game of musical chairs where once the music stops those that are left standing get kicked out into the cold. There is a pool of individual all looking for seats in our society and, just like in the game of musical chairs, are will to knock any one out of the way to achieve their goals. Those that are impaired in some way are at an automatic disadvantage. I use the simile of musical chairs to demonstrate the numbers of homeless people that we have left behind because of their psychological or physiological disadvantages. The strong and the fast are those that succeed and the grossly disadvantaged are disproportionately present in the game, and are no longer players. This same thing is present in our society. There once was a time where we were able to care for those that had the disadvantage. Now it has turned into a cutthroat game where the losers are left to suffer on there own.
In the 1980’s when homelessness really began to emerge. People began a dichotic view of the homeless. The two positions taken were that the homeless were regular people just like me and you and had just fallen on hard times. This group felt that the homeless were well adjusted people that were just in the midst of suffering the consequences of a breakdown of means to reach the convectional structure of our society. The other group took the stance that these homeless individuals were people with severe mental health, substance abuse, or behavioral problems. This side felt that the homeless had been put to the streets because of policy reformation of prisons, and mental health institutions.
While both factions were trying to figure out this dilemma the economic structure of the time had become much more aggressive. The time came to where it was all about necessitous behavior and it didn’t matter what was happening to those in need. The resources available to those in need were slowly depleting thus a downward poverty spiral formed. Two trends came about which worked as a cycle that was completely detrimental to the impoverished. As the white-flight ended in the early to mid eighties there was once again a desire to live within the city. As gentrification began to rejuvenate the cities infrastructure and appeal there became a shortage of low income housing. Upon that same time there were an unprecedented number of those in need of low income housing, and the numbers continued to rise. If our economic ventures hadn’t become so distorted with the capitalistic dream of owning the world instilled in the minds of our society there would have potentially been a way to solve this problem. Michael B. Katz stated the following in terms of the positions of the impoverished due to the economic times.
In affluent times, even the defective carried along on the general stream of the community prosperity, becoming self-supporting. However, when the economic horizon turned less rosy, when the needs of the necessitous times demanded the utmost functioning ability of adequately developed human individuals, just then these sub-normals were unable to keep up the pace and pushed out of the main stream of citizen activities to settle as social flotsam along the shores of the back waters of our community… and became a potential or actual sociologic liability.”

There is now a social exchange that has turned into social exploitation. There is a separation between us and them and we have taken the upper echelon. There is a hierarchical class system that flows from the top down. Power is transferred from the top level and passed down. Each level gets to take advantage of those bellow them for the purpose of exploitation for their greatest gain. Thus our class system has created that bottom tier, the homeless, to be the blunt of this exploitation. We have come to exploit these individuals to the point of having “bum fights”, where two homeless men fight with each other and to the victor a very small return, all for entertainment of those on a higher tier.
Homelessness has now become a social reality with policies placed to help the homeless cope with their problems. With this new reality there is an established phenomenon where the homeless are beginning to become more dependent on the structural forces that are in place. In order to solve this crisis there needs to be a political task to recognize that homelessness is not just one isolated crisis, with one independent solution. People are becoming homeless because of their economic situations, their demographic characteristics, their disabilities or addictions, or even possibly their childhood histories. There are too many factors that interrelated with this crisis. Policies must be put in place that addresses all the sociological, economical, psychological and historical issues that are the all encompassing source of homelessness. If we continue to ignore this problem and these people we continue to be the fallacy of our humanity. Homelessness now needs to be recognized as a growing failure of the structure of our society, and these issues need to be dealt with.

We treat animals different from ourselves. They are considered to be part of a different level of consciousness and are therefore below our stature. Or at least this is the common thread of thinking in our Western world. Before we can compare our treatment of homeless to that of our domesticated cats and dogs we must first look at how we view them and how we feel they must be treated and cared for.

We are autonomous beings. In other words, we are self governing. We are able to recognize our desires and reflect upon them. In this process we weigh the pros and cons of such desires and can control these urges if in the end we find that our desires are ultimately inhibiting on our personal self worth. (Hill 74)
When someone is caught breaking the law we consider them to behaving dishonestly and in position for criticism. That person will ultimately be punished because they had the opportunity to review such actions but in the end chose to commit a wrongful act. Ultimately they should have known better.
Drug addicts and kleptomaniacs are incapable of self governing. They have gotten to the state in which they cannot control their actions. Their minds and bodies make them behave in ways that gets them what they need. For addicts the initial behavior got them into such a vicious cycle. People look at them and blame them for their initial choice in behavior.
Animals we must look at differently. “Animals are not autonomous we ought not to treat them as morally responsible for their actions.” (77) Their actions are based purely on evolution and biological instincts and behaviors. Hills compares chimps to Bonobos and says that we cannot rightfully praise the peaceful behavior of the Bonobos until we can blame the chimps for their violent behavior. Therefore, we cannot start to rank animals based on moral behavior because they respond to instinctual sets of behavior traits without the reflexive capacity.

“To be a member of a moral community, you need to be able to assess how you should treat others and to alter your behavior on the basis of your assessment. Most humans can do both, and it is because of this that we hold them morally responsible for what they do. It is only morally responsible people who are apart of a moral community.” (Hills 94)

We do not consider animals part of this moral community of humanity. Although animals do partake in their own moral communities, they are separated into the laws of their own species and behavioral traits. Vampire bats, although possibly altruistic in their behavior, we may relate to our own behavior. Every night vampire bats go out and eat, however their metabolism is so high, that if they do not eat even for one meal they will die. So after giving out a distress signal a lucky hunter of the night will regurgitate into the dieing bat’s mouth. This action is supposed to be a reciprocal act. If the group notices that one bat is living off of the charity of the group, the bat will be left to die.
This is somewhat similar to human behavior. Often times we will help out other members of our group. But after constant unmoral behavior we give up on them. They are left for lost. This is a common belief of the homeless. Welfare has proven not to get people back on their feet; it has become a means for people to stay floating off of the system. (Hills 77)
We house train pets to obey a set of rules. When they behave according to the rules we set down we consider them good vs. naughty. But the pets are not complying to these rules based on their own judgment, but because of the reinforced behavior that comes with compliance. Children on the other hand learn our social rules on how to behave in the same way, but they develop to learn why we have rules and what they mean. (Hills 94) For the most part, we treat our pets as children who never develop, although this may not be the thought process when interacting with our pets, but it is the mentality.
However, with regards to our pets, their continual need for our care is expected. We feel guilty when we’ve been gone all day and the dog hasn’t been let outside, or taken for a walk. We understand that these are basic needs of the animals and we comply to them to keep them happy and healthy. We take animals to the veterinarian to further check on our pets’ health. Why do we do this? These pets were not born into our family (for the most part) we picked them off the street and gave them a home. We do expect one thing from our pets: companionship.
“Pets are companion animals; they are quite different from wild animals that are not domesticated, that cannot live among human begins but can survive on their own: most pets could not live without our assistance. Perhaps this reliance of pets on humans generates a special relationship between humans and animals.” (Hills 220)
Charles Darwin said, “A dog is the only thing on this earth that luvs you more than he luvs himself.” Animals are great reciprocals for our love and attention. They show such appreciation and satisfaction from companionship. People are less likely to show such unconditional love. Often times, acts of kindness are met with undeserved reactions from many people. No matter what, your dog will give a wag of the tail for being looked at. A person demands greater efforts to show appreciation. (Regan 73)

Proper Care of Animals and What it Means

“Our duties towards animals are merely indirect duties towards humanity…by doing our duties to animals… we indirectly do our duty towards humanity.” (Regan 122)
-Immanuel Kant

Again we compare our actions towards animals on a social level; we understand that actions towards animals must behave synonymously as their actions towards humans. Our indirect duties that we perform to humanity are played out through our behavior towards animals. Through this mentality we can avoid the help that humans need.
Proper treatment of animals is beneficial for our day to day lives. If living with a pet we can train them to do useful activities, i.e. fetch the paper. However, in order for them to perform these tasks properly and well they must be trained reasonably, exerting violence isn’t a very productive way to train an animal. Through culturally training ourselves to be kind to animals and take proper care and treatment of them we tend to behave more universally benevolent towards other domesticated animals. (Hills 100)
Sometimes human behavior that is violent towards animals can reflect upon their personality. Children who torture animals as they grow up become cruel in doing so, because they are doing it for no apparent reason other than the pleasure they get out of it. Chances are the child will grow and pick on smaller children and other people weaker than themselves. These cases are rare, most often you see children playing harmoniously with their pets. (Hills 105)
Animals must be nurtured, and are unable to take care of themselves in our civilized world. Therefore we must nurture them to keep the lowest levels of humanity nurtured. The people then who are not taking care of their basic needs have done so out of improper actions. Their status in society is thus because of their own failings and to rectify that they must prove their self-worth and empower themselves.

In America nearly 70 percent of citizens are urbanized and over half of those own pets. The Strands explain that we have just recently been utilizing the benefits of domesticating animals. Nearly 99 percent of our time here on Earth has been spent in hunter gatherer societies. In the last developments of our society, ever since the beginning of agriculture, we have taken on the idea that we are superior to the natural world and have claimed dominance over all other living creatures, as well as those things not living. (Strand 3)
“In the Western system, humans and animals do not have equal rights. In the ‘Golden Rule,’ the term others is not exclusive, but it does mean humans first! And this belief is part of Western thought even among people who have never been inside a church.” (Strand 8) We have uncovered this much. Animals and humans are not considered equal. Animals rank below humans in the chain of power and position, although animals that we possess as pets may be considered in greater importance than other animals. Animals are therefore treaded with a separate set of rules from humans. In some respects we abuse our self-given power over them. However, when speaking of cats and dogs, our human companions, we treat as children: un-autonomous creatures that follow our rules and live off of our grace.


50 surveys questioning attitudes towards the homeless
50 surveys questioning attitudes toward stray domesticated animals
100 oxford community members: residents and students


At our place of employment, La Bodega, we issued our survey to our customers. The purpose of the surveys was to support claims found in our literature research on the perspective people have regarding homeless and domesticated animals. We split up the survey so that one asked questions regarding the homeless while the other about animals. This was done to get answers that were not swayed by information regarding the other subject. Oxford is not a bustling metropolis however, and our exposure to these problems is minimal. The survey was taken by a diverse genealogy as well as sex. We were not selective in collecting our surveys.
The information that we gathered from our surveys was collected and we used the results to make specific comparisons between answers. The information was used not for its statistical results but for an analytical correlation to gather an understanding of the public’s general view.


The results concerning homeless was somewhat ambiguous however supported our predictions. While 57% of people had a humanitarian belief that no person is better than another, 39% agreed that homelessness is a part of our class structure, and 16.7% strongly agreed. Combining to show that there is a total of 55% of our society tested feels that there is an obvious lower tier in our class system. How is this view possible if no individual thinks that some people are better than others? Our survey continued to show that people believed that homelessness was a problem, but when it came to action no one was willing to take responsibility. 42% of surveyors agreed that homeless should be helped out of their condition, but only 5% answered to personal contributions being a preferred solution. Institutionalization was voted upon by 65% to be a proper method of rehabilitation through a 52% agreement of governmental funding. This is congruent to our argument that people aren’t concerned about the less fortunate because they are focused on their own life goals.
The question is whether this attitude is based on the idea that people cause their own misery. When asked if people were homeless because of their own failings people were all over the board. No one person strongly agreed that homelessness is caused solely on personal mistakes. People seemed unsure of the realities of homelessness because 41% responded ambivalently when asked if the homeless were capable to help themselves. From this information we may infer that people realize that there are many contributors to homelessness and that those who are homeless were the victims of these maladies.

We found in our results from our animal survey a greater concern for animal wellbeing. Animals were found to be innocent by nature by 44% of respondents. In effect this could be the reason why 65% believed that animals are held in higher regard than our homeless. In fact 62% also believed that strays were on the street because of human abandonment, which is something completely out of their control. We wondered if there would be much concern based on the idea that humans are above animals, but the general consensus, when asked, turned out that 41% believed that animals are equal in stature to humans compared to 35% who disagreed. Congruently we found that 52% didn’t believe that animals are helpless and are in need of human care.
The results concerning how strays should be dealt with revealed interesting results. Our survey delved into the question of personal responsibility, asking whether pets were acquired through pounds or from other means. The results implicate that shelters are important institutions to be implemented 51% agreed that we should have such centers. It seems to be an important aide as well as successful because the majority responded saying that household pets are more often adopted than purchased through stores or breeders. In addition 81% believed the best method to support such facilities should be implemented through private organizations. Overall the results reveal strong personal involvement instead of leaving it up to decisions made by the government.


Set out to answer when and where we direct our charity. Our initial hypothesis stated that because of our social structure homeless are left to their own devices while we take a greater responsibility in helping stray animals. We found that our predictions were generally correct. Although people recognize that the homeless need help, the level of personal responsibility is minimal and the general attitude is geared toward governmental facilitation. However, just as we predicted, the personal involvement and concern towards animal welfare is much higher. We are more willing to spend our hard earned money and time on creatures of innocence that on unpredictable humans who may never find the power to support themselves. We are autonomous by nature and have the capacity to support ourselves, we are expected to. Animals are not, and it is in this regard that we expect to take care of them to no fault of their own.

Cited Works

Gans, Herbert J. The War Against the Poor: the Underclass and antipoverty policy. Basic books, New York. 1995
Hills, Allison. Do Animals Have Rights? Icon Books, Cambridge, UK. 2005.
Katz, Michael B. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: a Social History of Welfare in America. Basic Books, New York. 1986.
Mital, Anuradha. Peter Rosset. America Needs Human Rights. Food First Books, CA. 1999.
Regan, Tom, Peter Singer. Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey.1976.
Strand, Rod. Patti Strand. The Hijacking of the Humane Movement. Doral Publishing, Wilsonville, OR. 1993.

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