monday's moral dilemma

Yesterday in a parking lot I parked next to someone whose car wouldn't start. They had, what I estimate to be, almost absolute zero mechanical knowledge. -at least of Honda Civics, so I offered to help. Hood up: everything looked in order, even the battery. So they thrust the key in my hand and said, "You try." So I did. I climbed in and put the key in the ignition.

Here's where it gets interesting. When I push the key into the ignition, it wouldn't go in, so much so that I questioned whether or not it was the right key. The key cylinder looked pretty chewed up, too. The radio was missing; a tangle of wires hung through scraped up plastic, and there were odd signs of neglect: junk here and there in odd places, things out of place in the car. It didn't take long for me to realize the problem was not the battery, but the shift-lock - a connection between the ignition and the shifting mechanism that keeps the car in (P)ark so that you can't start it in (D)rive and run over someone accidentally.

As the engine fired up and the person drove away, I identified the nagging feeling tugging at the tiny bell inside my mind: was this a stolen car? I have no way of knowing, but the possibility was disconcerting. Now I don't think the person I helped stole the car - that seems highly unlikely since they couldn't start it. Perhaps the car was stolen from them! I know first hand how crappy that is. But it did cause me to pause for a moment and wonder: what if I did aid someone driving a stolen car? Were my actions morally right or wrong? What is the Mind of Christ in such a thing?

On the one hand, I acted out a desire to be kind and hospitable, but it is possible I helped someone perpetuate a pretty strong wrong: I enabled some people to gain from their crime. I don't think I did anything wrong, but rather helped someone in tough spot. Short of finding the pink slip, I can't guarantee the ownership of anyone's car, so my aid was founded upon some pretty basic assumptions of trust and humanity. I tried to help a stranger, and they must take responsibility for the rest of it.

What struck me about this is that it is the same line of thinking we use regarding homeless people at freeway off-ramps: "I won't give them money because they'll spend it on booze." Now, for whatever reason, giving money, as opposed to the time and knowledge, seems more morally ambiguous to Christians here, as if it is too great a power to be given away to people who don't seem to be as adept at money management as we are. There are some differences in the situations - the person in the car has had a kind of "normal" life interrupted momentarily, while the homeless person lives an interrupted life, but sometimes it feels like we get a funny kind of paternalism about helping homeless folks, as if we really know best and understand their moral fiber better than they themselves.

In the end, I've decided to "give when asked" like Jesus taught (Luke 6:30), even if I do become responsible for 40ozs that the homeless person buys. For me it's a Pascalian wager - it seems more likely that I in my middle class anesthesia will ignore the homeless and less likely that I will contribute to the drug addictions of the suffering on the street. And even if I do, at least we can say that we're in it together. When I just roll on by at the stoplights, it seems to me that I reinforce the desparate isolation and separation between the haves and have-nots.

What do you think?


  1. I think morally, the concern over the other person's actions indicates that we are considering more than what the "good" thing is to do. I'd bet that personal guilt is a stronger motivator in such situations. If we don't help, we feel guilty for letting another suffer. If we do help the other do something bad, even without our knowing, we feel guilty for enabling the situation to occur. If we ignore the situation, we can wash our hands of guilt.

    Acting out of what is "most likely to occur" is usually a bad option because it makes us vulnerable to surprise (and economic collapse). We do not know what will happen in the future, so the best we can do is try to manage the effect of our actions.

    Aside from all of that, I don't think you should feel guilty for something you can't even check. You did what you thought was the right thing to do and helped someone. If the world was without sin, we wouldn't have to worry about people doing wrong. Even though the world is not perfect, I do not think we should let fear of wrong doing stop us from doing what we believe to be the right thing to do.


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