Deep Thoughts

Trust Your Neighbors

June 24, 2017

Multiple Pages
Trust Your Neighbors

I hesitate to show myself in a good light—it seems so much more honest, somehow, to confess to being a complete swine—but the other day I did something that was comparatively good, morally speaking. I feel rather proud of it, in fact, a pride that is no doubt a sin in itself: By having done something good I am not claiming to be perfect, therefore.

My good action followed hard upon a careless driving mistake that I’d made. I drive but seldom these days, indeed as little as possible, for overhearing other people’s conversations on buses and trains is much more interesting than the banality of one’s own thoughts in a traffic jam, or the drivel on the radio. Somehow even the banality of people’s conversations is more interesting to me than that: I like to plumb its depths (or shallows). A lot of it seems to relate to medical matters—prostrate glands, cardiac hearts, that kind of thing.

Anyhow, as I was maneuvering my car from its parking place on my street, I scraped the car parked in front. It was not an expensive car, and it occurred to me that to have to have it repaired might place a considerable burden on its owner. That was hardly the point, of course: By carelessness I had caused damage to someone else’s property, and therefore had the duty to make it good, whether the owner was rich or poor.

“I said that she sounded honest, but I daresay that Mr. Madoff sounded honest.”

After a very brief struggle with myself, I decided to leave a note on the car giving my telephone number; and sure enough, the owner (who was a neighbor whom I did not know) called me later that day. I apologized to her: After all, it is a nuisance to have one’s car repaired even when someone is paying for it. She was very understanding about it.

I said I would pay her personally: I did not want to put her to the trouble of dealing with an insurance company that would either demand three estimates for the work before allowing it to be done or force her to employ the company’s preferred local repairer (an excellent recipe for corruption).

I told two of my neighbors what I had done, partly so that they might think well of me. Overall, I really felt rather the better for having had the little accident and behaved so well, even though it would cost me a pretty penny for a few seconds’ inadvertence: The whole episode gave me a spring in my step, and I began to feel that, far from having inconvenienced the owner of the car, I had conferred an inestimable benefit on her.

The first neighbor I told said that it was just as well I had owned up: “For,” he said, “you never know who might have been watching, and there might have been cameras about.” There might indeed have been: These days, almost everything seems to be recorded on film. Attending murder trials (as an expert witness), I have been surprised by how much of daily life takes place under the beady lens of closed-circuit television. We are all film stars now, whether we know it or not.

It is also true that there are lots of people who like nothing better than a good denunciation, and are ever on the lookout for an opportunity to indulge in their malignity. It combines the pleasure of harming someone with that of being a good citizen. It kills two birds, so to speak, with one stone.

However, to have acted out of fear of capture would have been a dishonorable reason for doing the honorable thing. I am not sure that I believe in the Kantian categorical imperative—in fact, I am almost sure that I don’t—but in a case like this, the decent thing should be done for its own sake rather than from fear of doing the indecent one. Without a number of ad hoc exceptions, a purely consequentialist account of ethics is implausible—as is one that takes no account whatever of consequences.

My other neighbor had a different reaction. It was all very well, he said, being honest, but how did I know that the owner would be reciprocally honest, and would not use the occasion not only to have her car repaired but to go on a luxury holiday at my expense? I said that she sounded honest, but I daresay that Mr. Madoff sounded honest. He, Mr. Madoff, could hardly have succeeded if he had not.

So my neighbor thought that I was being naive. Most people in these circumstances, he said, would take advantage of the opportunity to make a profit; perhaps they would get another repair that needed doing, and ascribe the cost to the repair of the damage that I had caused. All that I—who had spent a large portion of my career among criminals, and who had traveled in several civil wars and had made reflections on evil my favorite reading—could urge against his argument was that the owner of the car sounded nice on the telephone and did not give me the impression of being someone who would try to cheat me.

In fact, I wanted to put even the thought that she might do so out of my mind, for it was a useless and destructive thought. It would burrow into my mind, as I was told in my childhood that earwigs burrow into your brain upon entering your ear. Since there were earwigs in the grass, you had to learn to disregard what you were told if you wanted to lie down or go to sleep on the lawn, which I often did.

I have succeeded in putting the thought that my neighbor will treat me dishonestly from my mind, in the sense that I do not for a moment believe it to be true. For me, the owner of the car has behaved as honorably as I: for example, by not claiming compensation for the waste of time and effort I have put her to, and which I would not be in a position to refuse.

I remember that Doctor Johnson says somewhere that it is better occasionally to be cheated than to trust no one. The paranoid person will occasionally be right, but he will never find equanimity.

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