A Philosophical Discussion

I’d better get all the mileage out of the Million Writers award that I can, since the voting on the top story is up on July 17. I’m going to cheat a bit, though, with how I talk about Kelly Shriver’s “The Ethical Dilemma of a Sandwich Down the Pants.”

This is a fun story. After a would-be thief at a convenience store shoves a sandwich down the front of his pants, and the cashier who thwarts him returns it to the cooler, the people in line have a shared experience:

“Since the down-the-pants-wich perches on the top of the pile, the taller guy grabs it. An electric feeling goes through the line. Nobody looks at each other. We are terrified of stymieing the purchase.”

But rather than talk about this story’s technique, I want to discuss the philosophical discussion it inspired for me.

Given the scenario of an attempted theft of a convenience store sandwich, conducted in the manner Shriver describes, I have several questions:

1) There is probably nothing actually wrong with the sandwich. It is not a health risk. I, however, wouldn’t eat it, unless I was starving. In what way is the sandwich actually tainted, and why wouldn’t I eat it or serve it to a guest?

My attempted answer: In situations in which I am not starving, part of what makes food appetizing is the image I build up around it. At a fancy Italian restaurant, I’ve got a lot more emotional investment in the idea of the food than I do at a convenience store, but, even at the convenience store, I basically want to believe the food has traced a clean path from wherever it was made to my mouth, and a detour down the pants of a grubby fellow interferes with this.

2) Given that it seems nothing is actually wrong with the sandwich, is there really anything wrong with letting someone eat it? It seems true that the sandwich is only tainted to someone who knows where it has been.

My attempted answer: My sense of etiquette insists it’s not OK to let someone else eat the sandwich, because I wouldn’t eat it myself. The idea that “what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him” seems to be in opposition to what etiquette dictates.

3) Throwing the sandwich away when there was a (probably starving) person who wanted it seems wasteful and fundamentally wrong. Letting someone else eat it seems to go against the rules of etiquette. Letting the thief have the sandwich is questionable because it seems to reward his act of theft. Is there a correct course of action?

My attempted answer: At first I thought the cashier should just let the man have the sandwich and be done with it. But that is stealing from the company, and I’m looking for an entirely ethical action. That said, I think someone or some group of someones needs to buy the sandwich and give it to the man. This solves most of the problems, though it does seem to reward the act of stealing. I decided that the act of stealing in this case needs to be taken as a request for help. This is problematic, because it doesn’t seem right to always reward stealing. However…

4) I can imagine myself purchasing the sandwich for the man in the scenario described. On the other hand, if he showed up in the store and didn’t try to steal, instead turning to the people in line and asking them to buy him a sandwich, I’m not so sure I would respond to that. Why do I think I would buy him the sandwich after it’s been down his pants, but not if he asked for the sandwich before putting it there?

My attempted answer: It must be that I’m pushed to buy him the sandwich by the full ethical dilemma of recognizing that the sandwich shouldn’t be wasted but that it isn’t really fit for anyone else to consume. Somehow, being presented with a request from a hungry man isn’t enough to get me to act, while wanting to protect others from eating a mysteriously “tainted” sandwich is.

This line of thought disturbs me, since it takes me right to the discomfort and confusion I feel when faced with beggars. Though Shriver’s story is lighthearted, I think it intends to raise these sorts of questions. The real value of the story is that after the humor wears away, the questions the story contains don’t prove frivolous at all.

I have trouble answering these questions, and would welcome any thoughts you care to share in the comments.

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