When panhandlers ask you for change, do you ever wonder if they plan on buying liquor? Listen to Patrick Lawrence, who's crouched in his parka in front of the Vie de France cafe' on K Street NW:

"I admit I'm an alcoholic," he says. "Anyone in my situation, they'd be drunk too."

Lawrence says he sometimes sleeps in abandoned buildings, and sometimes on a bus in Farragut Square provided by the city for the destitute. At his feet is a sign: "Homeless, Cold and Hungry. Please Help. God Bless You."

"I make enough," Lawrence says, "to get something to eat and drink." It doesn't look like he's collecting much today. It's lunch hour, and the flow of pedestrians is fast and furious. Any that inadvertently glance his way immediately look elsewhere. If it gets any colder, Lawrence plans to get off the streets and check into a 90-day dry-out program. After that, who knows? At least it will be warm.

It's possible that Lawrence is a typical panhandler. Then again, it's possible he isn't. No comprehensive surveys are conducted of people asking for money in the streets. Some want funds for liquor, some for food, perhaps a few hope to accumulate enough to buy drugs. Some are mentally ill. The vast majority are probably homeless. An unscrupulous minority no doubt see panhandling as a simple way to earn some cash.

As reasons differ, so do methods. Sometimes they extend a hand, sometimes they hold a sign, sometimes they place a cup near where they sit. Occasionally, the request becomes a demand, and the potential giver will feel threatened. On one fact most observers agree: There are more of them than there used to be. Since panhandling is not illegal, however, there are no statistics to confirm or deny this.

A few cities are cracking down. Merchants in the Lake Merritt district of Oakland, Calif., got fed up with what they describe as a growing number of aggressive and belligerent beggars. "It got to a situation where panhandlers wouldn't let people out of their cars until they were paid off," says Walter Harmon, a local business owner who spearheaded the campaign. Area stores put up signs asking shoppers to "please say no" to requests or demands for money, and suggested donating funds to charity instead. The result: The beggars were driven out of the area.

In Seattle, a panhandling ordinance went into effect two months ago. Begging with intent to intimidate is now a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a maximum fine of $500. And in Atlanta, a proposal was debated last year to make loitering and panhandling illegal in the downtown commercial district.

In the District of Columbia, there are nowhere near those levels of concern, although the moral question remains. "Got a quarter?" When confronted by this plaintive request upon exiting the Farragut North or McPherson Square Metro stations, most commuters seem to have one of two reactions: They give money because they feel pressured, or they don't give money and they feel guilty. Either way, it's not a happy experience.

To give or not to give? Several philosophers and scholars were asked this question. Generally, they said there was no inarguable reasoning to support either course of action.

"The case of the panhandlers is an obvious example of a general problem: whether handing over cash to someone, whether in a street or a government program, is actually going to help or hinder him," says Stuart Butler, the director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and coauthor of Out of the Poverty Trap: A Conservative Strategy for Welfare Reform.

"Obviously if you give a dollar to someone on the street and that person goes and buys some cheap liquor, you're not helping. Generally, if you want to help people of that variety, it's better not to give money in the street, but to give the same dollar to one of the shelters or organizations that help them."

This all-encompassing view is presumably shared by many pedestrians. However, Judith Shklar, professor of government at Harvard and author of Ordinary Vices, an examination of contemporary moral conundrums, argues that finer distinctions should be made. "I don't think you can have a general rule on a question like this," she says. "If he's obviously drunk, the answer is obviously no. If it looks like somebody who clearly needs a meal, I would say yes. But I think your impressions of what his needs are have to govern it. It's a needs question, and there are no general rules for needs."

In a snap decision, of course, you can't know with any accuracy the true needs of a panhandler. "You may make a mistake," Shklar admits, "but at least when you give to a person, you know he's really getting it. You see the need and do something about it. With an organization, the money may be going to maintaining the staff ... And then there is the giver. What does it do to your own character to be harsh of heart? What sort of person are you if you're so calculating you can't part with a quarter?"

For Judith Jarvis Thomson, a professor of philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the liquor isn't the point. "If they were going to spend it on drink, then my heart goes out to them more," she says. "People who ask me for a quarter don't tend to move me much. I don't know why I should give them a quarter. What's a guy going to do with a quarter?"

Her view is this: Give or don't give, as the desire strikes you, but don't confuse this with proper charity. "I distrust this thing of handing out to whoever asks you on the grounds that he looks dirty. You ought to give charity more sensibly than that."

Accordingly, she says, "I have a tendency to give a quarter if I have it in my hand, but not if I have to dig in my wallet. I don't, on the whole, feel guilty. I feel guilty when I see someone sleeping in the street. And then I feel I haven't contributed to the system in such a way as to keep him off the street."

Garrett Hardin, professor emeritus of human ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Exploring New Ethics for Survival, takes the hardest line. "I don't have strong enough and settled enough moral feelings about this to condemn anyone, but I won't give to panhandlers myself. My strong feeling is it should be an institutional solution. If we all became suddenly generous this way, we wouldn't do what needs to be done: Work out a better answer."

Hardin adds that he once went to India for 45 days, and is "proud of the fact that I didn't give any beggar a single rupee. If you give to one, you find all of a sudden there is a whole bunch. I felt India's problems were so large that nothing that I could do could possibly make it better, and I wanted not to be bothered all the time I was there. I wanted to see the country, and not just hands outstretched."

His ideal solution is a form of workfare. "Anybody who will do some sort of work will be assured of minimum welfare. It's hard to arrange, there's all sorts of difficulties, but it's still what we should be trying to do. Then it becomes a charge against the whole community, and my share is paid in the form of taxes, which are uniform, instead of these variable donations, which are not systematic at all."

The problem with this, contends Ruth Marcus, a professor of philosophy at Yale and a past chairman of the board of officers of the American Philosophical Association, is that the same principle could be applied to charity in general: don't contribute because there ought to be other societal methods of helping these unfortunates.

"It's an argument that is very theoretical, but quite vacuous," she says. "It's a long-range projection, and meanwhile you're faced with hungry and homeless people, and they need help. I don't see why having someone starve in the streets will be a greater catalyst to welfare than the simple fact that they're out there begging. That should be enough to suggest there should be some better solution."

Activist Mitch Snyder once spent nearly a year out on the streets with the homeless. When passers-by would give money, he says, "they gave much more, too. They acknowledged these homeless were human beings, and that they had some concern and care for them -- even if on a superficial level. When you offer someone something when he has a hand out, you're saying, 'I care about you as a human being.' "

In spite of the fact that Snyder's own Community for Creative Non-Violence can use donations, he doesn't believe the best solution is to give money solely to organizations -- "even if it's us. If you want the biggest bang for your buck, you should give people the money directly. For you, the returns are far greater than they would be if you gave to the most humane and efficient group in the world."

By definition, he says, if you're panhandling it's because you're desperate. Young or old, healthy or sickly -- he makes no distinctions as to who is deserving. If confronted by a panhandler, he advocates this response: "Try and remember how you felt on Christmas Eve, when everyone was sitting around opening presents. The world gets a whole lot nicer that time of year. Remember what you felt then, and let that determine your response."

James Fishkin, a scholar at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, is author of The Limits of Obligation. In the book, he argues that our notions of obligations break down when challenged with too many cases. It's a theory that has exact application to panhandling.

Fishkin starts with this analogy:

Suppose you could save a human life at minor cost. You're walking to work, for example, and you come upon a child drowning in a puddle. You could save the child at the cost of getting your clothes dirty. Wouldn't you feel morally obligated to do that, even if there were lots of other people who saw the child struggling but just hurried on? It would seem a lame excuse to say, "I didn't bother to save her because no one else did."

Okay, you rescue the little tyke. Wouldn't anyone? But suppose you keep walking, and there's a second drowning infant. The fact that you already saved one kid isn't a plausible excuse for letting the second one drown. And after you save this second child -- and who wouldn't save her? -- what do you do when you come upon the third victim?

"This is not an imaginary situation," comments Fishkin. "It faces all of us all the time, if we only bother to think about it. You could easily justify, in effect, spending all of your time pulling children out of drowning pools -- giving all your money to the homeless, or working full-time for any number of good causes, or giving every cent in your pockets to panhandlers. But the accumulated sacrifices would in total amount to something heroic, something beyond the call of duty. Yet each step is required, and to deny those principles at any point would seem insensitive, terribly hard-hearted, and indefensible.

"If there were only one child drowning or only one panhandler, then the total demands would be trivial, and there wouldn't be any philosophical and very little empirical problem ... It's the large number of cases that causes the problem."

Surely there's a gray area between being heroic (giving all your money) and being cynical (giving none)? "There may be a middle ground, but there's no clear basis for distinguishing it," says Fishkin. "You're easily led down a slippery slope. You can give and feel guilty for not giving enough, or you can not give and feel guilty. And if you don't give at all and don't feel guilty, you've probably got a lot of moral blinders on."

You were expecting an answer? There is no answer.

With panhandling, as with so many other areas, New York leads the nation. Sometimes people ask for money there, sometimes they demand it, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Inhabitants of the city evolve certain rules: Never make eye contact if you don't intend to give anything. Never give to anyone younger than you. Never give to anyone who might beat you up.

Even when you sift out the obvious cases, a heartbreaking number of people remain who want and need your change. Listen to the testimony of one young New York professional, and what she encounters on her 13-block walk to work each morning:

"An average of four or five people actually will ask for money, and more have signs. On days with nice weather, you can be asked on every block. I live in an okay area -- Third Avenue and 25th. I suppose there's neighborhoods where there's not as much panhandling, but I'm not aware of any place there's none. There's a little old lady who asks me for pennies to buy coffee, there's women with children, an older man who says 'God bless you' even when you don't give him anything, young men who curse ...

"I've crossed the street to get away from people so I won't have to feel guilty. Some people take more cabs. I just walk faster. I also walk around with change in my raincoat, so I have it ready. And you get good at looking away. It's very hard if someone's really down and out to stare them in the face and not give them money. If you don't look at them, they're not as much of a person."

Keep in mind that this is going on at the tail end of one of the longest peacetime booms in U.S. history. If the economy sickens, could the ranks of panhandlers everywhere do anything but grow? Will every city look like New York?

"One of the benefits, if you like, of someone asking you for money in the street is it makes you think about the issue," says the Heritage Foundation's Butler. "It can concentrate people's minds."

Stanford's Fishkin adds that "if you start thinking about this kind of thing seriously, you may go crazy, may become a hypocrite, or may wrestle with some very hard moral problems. But you can never go on and live as you did before" -- even if it's just realizing you're tolerating some kind of fundamental inconsistency between the morality you subscribe to and the way you act.

Billy Cole, a reflection of that inconsistency, is out on K Street. He has his possessions in two Safeway bags, and is using a bright pink blanket as a cape. He moves down the block rapidly, threading his way among the pedestrians. "Got 35 cents? Got 20 cents? A quarter? Got a dollar?" he chants. The people move away.

"I lost my check. I'm trying to get some money together to get down to North Carolina to pick up a check," he explains. "Think I'll make it?"