Doing the Good

I was walking home the other day, when I came across a car with its boot open. I'd noticed from a distance that it was open, and upon reaching the car had come to the conclusion that it had been left this way unattended; in the distance that it had taken me to reach the car the owner hadn't appeared to remove items, or to shut the boot.

As I drew near I looked inside, finding that it was relatively full, with various items. I was surprised that all this stuff hadn't already been taken by opportunist thieves.

At this point I was distracted by a guy in the distance shouting to me; he must have seen me slowing down to look inside, and, though I couldn't make out exactly what he was saying, I presumed it was something about taking something from the car; he had a smile on his face and seemed to endorse me helping myself. He walked on, and so did I.

I'd been walking for a few minutes when it suddenly struck me as absolutely absurd that I hadn't closed the boot. I quickly made my way back to the car and to my relief everything was as it had been; all of the stuff in the boot was still there. I slammed it shut and continued on home.

Reflecting on incident, I was struck by why it had taken me so long to identify and do the right thing. I think there are a few reasons.

Transgressive Moments

To shut the boot involved a slight transgression, in that I was compelled to step outside of my world and into someone else's. In other words, this incident had been thrust upon me; it wasn’t part of the fantasy I had, until this point, been living. It seems transgressive incidents like these can come in many forms; from the unimpinging (such as this) through to the more affecting (like being mugged, witnessing a violent crime, and so on). I was compelled to react to a moment that was unrehearsed, and for which I was unprepared; this is perhaps the crux of the transgressive moment - a compulsion to act outside the range of your normal repertoire.

Because the thoughts and actions involved were relatively foreign to my day-to-day vocabulary, my reaction was not instantaneous, and I walked on. Only after a moments thought did I realise the right, and obvious, course of action.

Capitalist Thinking

The prevailing attitudes and values of capitalist society engender a certain mode of thought, especially when it comes to ideas like property. Capitalism, in theory at least, allows us the freedom to master our own fate; every individual can try his luck – his is the risk, and his the gain. In allowing us this freedom, it also pits us against each other, and we all become potential competitors for capital.

The idea of competition engenders a prevalent attitude of hostility, and ‘every man for himself’ becomes the unconscious dictate. If he has that, then the inevitable implication is that I do not (unless, of course, I have the same model …). Psychologist Erich Fromm talks about the affects of capitalist society upon man; “His relationship to his fellow men, with everyone a potential competitor, has become hostile and estranged; he is free – that is, he is alone, isolated, threatened from all sides.”1

In an atmosphere like this our attitudes toward another person’s property may become uncharitable, especially if we feel that we have been badly treated by the system. Fromm goes on to say, "In all social and personal relations the laws of the market are the rule. It is obvious that the relationship between competitors has to be based on mutual human indifference."2

To protect a stranger’s life is one thing, but to protect his property is another, especially within an environment that encourages a climate of indifference. It may be that, if only unconsciously, capitalist thinking – the way of thinking that we are surrounded by in this country – leads to questionable ethics regarding the property of strangers (‘stranger’ as synonym for ‘competitor’).

In this instance, I don’t think this mode of thought consciously affected my actions, but it may have slowed my reaction on an unconscious level. Why protect another man’s property - his booty? It is, after all, every man for himself.

Fear of the bad

In closing the boot there was a chance that my actions could have been misinterpreted, had someone been observing. I was walking along with my bike, and so the car was clearly not mine. To touch the car – to touch another person’s property without asking – is an encroachment, albeit a very minor one.

We seem to be very afraid of encroachments. There are undoubtedly a myriad of reasons for this, not least the various sensationalist scare-stories that provide daily fodder for the media, and the ensconcement of this media within a capitalist system that, as we’ve touched upon, ferments such stories. We are increasingly led to fear one another, and this inevitably leads to distance.

I was afraid to have my actions misinterpreted because I did not want to be seen doing the bad; in other words, I didn’t want it to look as if I had committed an unethical act (theft, vandalism, etc). I was, again perhaps only unconsciously, so afraid of being seen as doing the bad, that I hesitated to do the good.

An environment of fear creates distance, and makes it harder for us to act. If we are so afraid of being conceived as doing the bad, then it is likely that we will also miss many opportunities to do the good; an unfortunate outcome that I, through initially walking away, almost helped embody.

1 Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom, p.54
Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom, p.102


  1. Interesting analysis - are you aware of Darley and Latane's Bystander Apathy work (relatedly; social loafing)? If you don't already know it, the case of Kitty Genovese has always been compelling to me.

    The impact of the other man (even though he was at a distance) was probably a lot greater than you would anticipate..

    Relatedly; Asch's Conformity experiments & Milgram's Obedience work.

  2. Would a personal code of ethics - that is, a code resulting from a series of thoughts and decisions that I could call my own - help to override the influence of factors like the other man?

    In other words, to take an ethical stance is to in some way combat the impact of some of the reasons given above; you are in some sense rehearsed ...

  3. It is not enough to be aware of an ethical idea; you must think it through and in doing so take possession of it; give it weight.