A story by Carl Anthony (used with permission)
A man with a good job and comfortable life who lives alone feels like his life lacks meaning. So, he decides to do something radical. Every Friday after work he invites some of the homeless people he sees every day to his modest apartment for a warm dinner, and listens to whatever they have to say. This provides food, warmth, and human contact to his guests, and some social connection and purpose for him.
Things go well. The guests become real people to him, with names and incredible stories, and far less scary than they once were. There is even hope that this might, in some way, help one or two get off the street: ideas are sparked in conversation, connections are discovered between people they know, and the more they see each other as human beings, the more they renew their own faith in humanity.
From time to time things go missing from the apartment after these Friday visits, but this was to be expected, and is nothing compared to the man’s original worst fear of people lining up day and night in front of his door asking for handouts.
But then, he starts to see a pattern. People from a certain part of the city, who dress a certain way which he can now discern, appear to be stealing far more than the rest. What should he do? He is torn, because any solution he can think of on his own feels like it will be unfair to someone.
Alone in his apartment, he finds it hard to sleep.
This is where the story ends. The parallels to both everyday situations and current events are obvious, but in philosophy it can be nice to stick with a simplified version of a situation as a laboratory to test ideas.
At first I wondered, what was unfair about just continuing the Friday dinners and simply ignoring the losses, but then I considered the host, and how unfair it can feel when we think that someone is taking advantage of us.
So, my breakdown of his options was as follows:
- Do nothing. Things can be replaced. People are more important.
- Keep an eye on those you suspect, or everyone, so no one has the chance to steal.
- Search suspected guests, or everyone, before they leave.
- Stop inviting those who seem to steal more frequently.
- Cancel the Friday dinners.
All good laws, rules, and policies find the best possible balance between the prevention of harm, and the limitation of freedom. The extremes of either (trying to prevent all possible harm, or trying to limit all freedom) are positively suffocating to both society and individuals.
But, all of my options fell flat with me. We start with a risky action, done with good intentions, which initially improves the well-being of all involved. Then, after the negative actions of a minority, we end up having to decide which innocent party will suffer most in the future. Why do all the most obvious options result in punishing someone who is innocent?
It is like our choice only revolves around choosing who gets the short end of the stick:
- the host, who covers the losses;
- some or all of the “good” guests, who lose their dignity when they are watched or searched; or
- innocent members of the so-called “bad” group which seems to be taking advantage of the situation.
All choices can lead to bitterness over time, which can then result in drastic action by normal people who are just fed up. For example, if the host takes all loses upon himself, he might eventually see the whole thing as pointless and cancel the Friday dinners, despite all the good that has come from them.
Maybe we could create some sort of chart to measure the economic and emotional cost of all the options, and try to choose the best one based on that, but we often can’t even agree on how to measure such things. Everything is either too “coldly rational” to represent a human being’s actual experience, or too “emotional and subjective” to be useful in more than one specific scenario.
I was at a loss to find a better strategy for handling this situation, and started to feel pessimistic about the similar but more complex versions of this problem we face in everyday life. But then, as I struggled with the title of the story, the Ungrateful Host, (not the Ungrateful Guests), I wondered if I had missed something completely.
This may be just my interpretation, but the man starts off alone, and ends up alone, and there is no good reason he should be. He was ignoring the great resource of the community he had become a part of, and by seeing himself as alone he was throwing away an opportunity.
Here, all parties involved could be active subjects in the conversation, but we often reduce people to objects of the conversation: people to be dealt with, punished, protected, etc. In this story, the homeless people might have had a unique insight into the situation, explained things with a new perspective, and even provided some innovative solutions.
Maybe the best thing would have been to find a way to talk to the guests, to ask them for help, and to fight relentlessly for all voices to be heard in a fair way (also no easy task). This is the opportunity the host missed, and though it seems a bit harsh, maybe that is why it is he who is “ungrateful”.