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 everyday situations and current events are obvious, but in philosophy it can be nice to use a simplified version of a situation as a laboratory to test ideas.
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, because after the negative actions of a minority, we end up having to decide which innocent party will suffer most in the future.
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 of these choices could lead to bitterness over time, and even drastic action by normal people who are just fed up, including the host, who might just get sick of the whole thing despite all the good things that have already happened.
We could create a chart to measure the economic and emotional cost of all the options, but then the challenge is “measuring” factors like emotional cost. 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.
Why is the host ungrateful? The man may start off alone, but there is no good reason he should end up alone. He is ignoring the great resource of the community he has become a part of, and by seeing himself as alone he has placed himself above the rest.
Here, all parties involved could be active subjects in the conversation, but he is reducing them to objects: people to be dealt with, punished, protected, etc. In this story, the guests may have a unique insight, be able to explain things with a fresh perspective, and even provide some innovative solutions.
This is the opportunity the host missed, and though it seems a bit harsh, maybe that is why it is he who is “ungrateful”.