What Would I Do?

ethicaldilemmaIt was right in front of the frozen pizzas. I turned and she was right there, well within my discomfort zone.

“I hate to bug you but do you have twelve bucks? I’m up here from Georgia and need a brake job for my car and that’s how much I’m short and it would really help me a lot.”

Being a good person is extremely important to me, but I also worry that I’m overly naïve, that I’ll be ripped off, or, even worse, that in my desire to do the right thing I’ll do the wrong thing. It’s the kind of dilemma most people wrestle with, and while there’s always a voice in my head that says I should err on the side of caution and throw a couple of dollars to someone who just might go and spend it on a nineball bag of methamsmackolaine or whatever’s popular on the streets right now most of the time I just mumble that I haven’t got any cash on me. And the fact that most of the time this is true does ease my conscience just a little. In the past I’ve even seen homeless guys standing on corners with signs that say, “Why lie? Want beer” And I’ve had friends who pulled over and gave those guys a couple of dollars.

“They were being honest and that should be rewarded,” my friends say. Oh, thanks a lot for further muddying the moral waters there. Now I feel guilty for not giving those guys money even though I’d feel just as guilty for giving them money. I want to help the homeless. I’ve done volunteer work for homeless shelters. And yet I still don’t know whether giving someone on the street a little money is the right thing or the wrong thing to do. It’s easy to look back on mistakes I’ve made, times when I could see the end result and how and where exactly I screwed up and say, hey, if a situation like that ever comes up again I should do the opposite, or at least something different, but it’s a lot harder to know what to do when I’ll never see the consequences.

And this isn’t helped by TV shows that set up these kinds of dilemmas and ask people, “What would you do?” and catch some people being really good and embarrass some people who get caught behaving like jackasses or just being silent bystanders, which may or may not be worse than being a jackass because all that’s required for jackasses to succeed is for good people to do nothing.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t on camera, or at least potentially on a TV show, because that sort of thing only seems to happen to people who live near major TV studios. Not that it even occurred to me that I might be TV fodder because I was too busy doing ethical calculus in my head. Ethical calculus is even harder than regular calculus because there are so many more variables and with regular calculus you at least have a chance at getting the right answer, although I’m so bad at math anyway I don’t even know where to start with a calculus problem. I wonder if the possibility of being on camera so much ever alters anyone’s behavior, sort of like the Heisenberg principle, but then physicists tell me that’s a gross misinterpretation of the Heisenberg principle. And I can’t tell them I can’t even begin to understand calculus so physics is light years beyond me, but that’s another story.

I did have a pretty cool chemistry teacher. I wonder what became of him. Source: Wikipedia

The ethical calculus started with the woman herself. Nicely dressed in white jeans and a pink top, with bleach-blonde hair she clearly wasn’t homeless. But did that mean her story was likely to be any more true? The store was a pretty good distance from the nearest car repair place. It wasn’t a huge distance, but there were other stores closer to the car repair place. Why’d she choose one so far away? And I have no idea how much the average brake job costs, but what kind of car repair place wouldn’t spot someone twelve bucks? Maybe she’d collected money from other people in the store, since it seemed like an oddly specific amount, and that made her story seem a little more believable. But then I wondered why she drove several hundred miles without a credit card or a cell phone to call someone back home who could help. If she were obviously poor that would have explained it, but she wasn’t.

Written out it seems like I was frozen there staring at her like a tree frog for about three and a half days but the truth is it was only about ten seconds before I stammered out that I didn’t have twelve dollars. This was technically true, but technically true is also technically lying, since I think I had five dollars in my wallet that I could have handed over, but before I could do any ethical calculus weighing feeling guilty versus feeling ripped off she was gone.

On my way out I passed her holding hands with a guy the size and shape of a large whiskey barrel. With his other hand he was holding a cell phone to his ear and I overheard him say, “Yeah, we’re fine. We’ll see you soon.”

Had they gotten the rest of the money? Did she even really need any money? Was I part of some bizarre psychological experiment? I was still turning these questions over in my mind a couple of hours later when I got a call on my phone.

“Hi. This is Carl. I’d like to talk to you about your recent computer purchase.”

I hung up without having to do any ethical calculus, but why is it so much easier to spot a scam when it’s not staring you in the face?

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  1. TwerlaP

    It’s tough. I’ll give money if I have extra, but sometimes there’s an instant distrust-of the person or the story. I hate feeling suspicious or cynical, but I don’t want to be a sucker either.
    When I first got out if college, I took a job as a store manager until I found something in my field. There was a woody gully behind the store, and a guy and girl were living in a little pup tent down there. I got to know them bit by bit. They were both friendly, both college grads, both occasionally very articulate. They just preferred their booze and drugs. If I gave them money, they Always bought booze. There was mcD’s across the street, and after the manager assured me they don’t give back cash, I always bought a bunch of $5 gift cards for them.
    At the time I was about a half a house payment from homeless myself, so why judge?

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      They would also fall into the category of people who were honest. It seems like a sad situation for them to have been in, but they weren’t hurting anyone, and perhaps they were happier living outside of society as we know it. It was really nice of you to give them a way to get food instead of booze and drugs, though.

  2. kdcol

    This is a tough one. I’ve gotten to where I’ll just automatically spit out a “No.” Then I find myself bothered by my abruptness, but then again, how else would I have handled it? Would it have been better to give a little money? Usually I really DON’T have cash. I swear, Gerald and the boys must be able to sense when I have even a little bit of cash on me. One of them will hit me up EVERY time.

    Your story got me thinking about the time a (most likely) homeless guy asked for a dime so he could pay the entire amount for a coffee or something like that. Sure, I have a dime. I went to dig in my wallet, and then I guess he realized he should have asked for more. Really, dude? He started hinting that he wanted more. I’m like, “You just asked for a dime.” I’ll cough that whole uncomfortable situation up to being in my naive twenties. But it really put me off.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It is really tough, and as I was writing about it I surprised myself with the realization that the fact that the woman didn’t look homeless–she and the guy she was with were both clean and nicely dressed–made me more suspicious than I would have been if they’d obviously been homeless. If they’d obviously been homeless I would feel guilty about not helping them in some way. As it is I’m not sure what to feel because it was so strange to be approached for money by someone dressed like they could afford a brake job for their car.
      Twenty or thirty years ago it wouldn’t have seemed so strange, though, because I would have understood people could get stranded without a way to reach anyone they knew. The guy, though, had a cell phone.

  3. Gina W.

    Ugh, I’ve had similar encounters and it’s awkward whether you give or don’t give any money. When I was in college a homeless man asked a friend for money while she was walking on campus. The guy told her that he was hungry and needed money to buy food. Upon hearing that my friend said, “Oh! I didn’t eat my lunch today. You can have my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” She went to rummage in her backpack but the guy said to her in an angry voice, “I don’t want your damn sandwich!”. Which struck us both as hilarious and so it became a funny phrase we would occasionally throw out. So obviously the guy wasn’t really hungry, which I guess was a good thing.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It sounds like a good thing, but I guess he wanted money for alcohol or drugs. Maybe he should have taken the “Why Lie? Want Beer” approach. A guy once approached me asking for some money to buy a cheeseburger for his wife because it was their anniversary. It was sad and I didn’t have any money to give him, but I also wanted to tell him he was overexplaining far too much.

  4. Margot

    Yuck. There is just no way to feel like you’ve done the right thing in that situation, is there? It’s nice for me to realize, however, that there are others out there who overthink things as much as I do. In fact, if and when I start my own blog I may just call it “Overthinkers Anonymous” unless you feel I’d be ripping you off.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That would be great–I wouldn’t consider it a ripoff at all. We overthinkers need all the help we can get, and clearly it’s a common problem.

  5. Spoken Like A True Nut

    I solve this dilemma by simply never having cash on me. It’s not a deliberate solution, just a lack of foresight that always seems to work in my favor.

    Although I admit I am a bit hard-hearted in situations like this. During my years as a cashier I had more than one customer who was short on funds try and bully me into paying their difference out of my pocket in the name of “good customer service”. It was extremely off-putting and just ended up making me unwilling to give money to anyone.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It’s amazing that we now live in a world where regularly not having cash is an option. It does make dealing with these sorts of situations a little easier, at least in practical terms.
      I never worked as a cashier so it surprises me, but also doesn’t surprise me, that people would ask for money at the checkout, but what’s mind-blowing is that they’d use “good customer service” as a ploy. I could imagine a lot of “I’ll pay you back” and “times are hard”, but “good customer service” implies it should be part of your job to give out money.

  6. Ann Koplow

    I often invite people to let go of the concept of “right” and “wrong” regarding the past, Chris, but I don’t know if that’s helpful in this instance. But I’m considering getting a bracelet that says WWCD.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I think I’ve always believed that I need to remember the past, especially those times I feel I’ve made a mistake in order to avoid making similar mistakes in the future, but without dwelling on or being burdened by emotion over things I can’t change. It’s easier said than done, though–like Alice in Wonderland I give myself very good advice but don’t always follow it.
      Letting go of the concept of “right” and “wrong” regarding the past is something I’ll now add to my collection of good advice I should follow.


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