The Price of a Quiet Conscience Grows Ever Higher

By Gordon Marino
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 14, 2005

At a red light, a guy comes up to your car window with a sign that reads, "Out of work -- please help me buy a meal." Do you keep looking straight ahead as though you were watching the last out of the World Series, or do you open your window and wallet?

In a philosophy class I taught last semester, we ended with a discussion of whether there is an obligation to help panhandlers. With an exception or three, most of my budding ethicists argued that the money would be much better spent in supporting programs.

One young Socrates allowed that there was nothing wrong with dropping a coin in a cup as long as you do not kid yourself about the fact that you were doing it to make yourself feel good. I countered that just because you feel warm and fuzzy after you dole out some change, it does not follow that you doled out the change to buy the good feeling. "Yeah, yeah," groaned my cynical first-year students as the bell rang, ending our discussion.

Not long after the chalk dust had settled, I took some lessons on this subject in the City of Brotherly Love on a business trip.

Maybe the psychological backdrop of my small Midwestern town created an exaggerated effect, but it seemed that every corner in Philadelphia was home to someone who was homeless.

Truth be told, if it weren't for a couple of generous relatives, I don't know what I would be doing today. Having a job, home and family seemed like a piece of dumb luck, so it was easy to step over the pothole of imagining that the folks haunting the doorways had gotten their just deserts.

In my better moments, I wanted my life to be the open hand that had been extended to me, and so whenever I was accosted, I tried to offer a little aid. Maybe I had a bull's-eye on my back but one fellow wheeled up behind me on a bike and frantically explained that he had just lost his job. His daughter had asthma and needed medication and could I possibly help.

"Gotcha, I'm sorry," I assured him and reached into my wallet for a couple of bucks.

A tall, well-clad man in shades overheard our conversation, and when the coast was clear, he shook his head at me and remarked, "You should have told the bum to get lost."

"But what if he was telling the truth?" I protested.

"Yeah, and what if Santa Claus really lives on the North Pole," my would-be moral guide laughingly replied.

It did not, however, take long for things to get psychologically sticky. Coming back from a bookstore where I bought some gifts for an old mentor, I came across a middle-aged guy in a green coat and an Eagles cap. He was sitting on the sidewalk in front of a doughnut shop.

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