The Book of Good Living: The Social Minimum

I’ve struggled for a long time to figure out the simplest way to say this, and never gotten it down to a short formulation. But here it is at last, I think:

It’s not your job to cater to others. But you DO have to live your life in such a way that they’re not forced to cater to you.

Unpacking this brings out a lot of little specific rules such as:

Don’t pee on the toilet seat, forcing the next guy to wipe it off before he can sit there. Don’t park in the supermarket entryway, forcing others to walk around you. Don’t stand obliviously with your friends in the middle of the corridor, forcing others to slither to get past you. Don’t walk away and leave your basket so it blocks the supermarket aisle, so others have to move it to get past. Don’t drop your garbage on the sidewalk, or onto the side of the highway, where someone else will have to pick it up. Don’t park blocking the road. Don’t throw your gum in the urinals. Don’t flip your cigarette butts onto the sidewalk. Don’t leave your shitty diapers on the bench at the park. When you get out of your car and go into the mini-mart, turn off your loud-ass music. Don’t stand smoking in the doorway so people either have to breathe your smoke or go out of their way to avoid you.

I’m extremely conscious of the needs of others as I move through my day. I don’t want to get in anybody’s way, or inconvenience them. I don’t want someone to have to pick up after me. I don’t want my life to be a WEIGHT on others.

No, I don’t make an effort to vanish in other people’s shadows. I’m certainly conscious that I deserve my share of our common time, space and resources, but I try to be generous and unobtrusive in my use of it.

This is a pretty ironclad cultural rule with me, and I think a lot of us. I’m not sure just where I learned it, but it seems sound and broadly applicable. I have a hard time seeing how anyone could think it a bad thing.

Yes, we meet people every day who either don’t know it or don’t care about it, but they really come across as either children or assholes, don’t they?

We don’t absolutely have to donate to charity, or adopt a homeless pet, or — bearing in mind that not everybody is up to it — even stop and render aid at the scene of an accident. But if we’re talking the bare minimum each person has to do to maintain a genteel workable society, this is it.

  • Eli

    It depresses me every time I’ve heard someone say something to the effect of “Why can’t I smoke where ever I want? No one owns the air,” as if that’s that same as no one else needing the air but them. And this isn’t a complaint about smoking, just the apparently belief that if someone else doesn’t personally own something, they themselves can claim it and do whatever they want with it, and their actions don’t impact others.

  • This is pretty closely related to a problem which, in my limited experience, doesn’t get addressed well enough in discussions about ethical theory. That problem is, working out the difference between what is morally good, and what is morally required.

    • Is there a difference?

      • Something like working overtime so you can give the extra money to charity would generally be seen as morally good. Does that mean it’s morally required, as in mandatory for all of us?

        • id say no; it was a personal choice to do so, and the only obligation was imposed from within. The act of giving freely has been turned into mandatory tithing, and not everyone likes being told to give until it hurts…

          • I think most people would agree, but it’s a bit difficult to explain why. Most moral theorising seems to concentrate on determining what is good or bad, but not on the difference between what’s good and what’s required. Maybe it’s just my ignorance of philosophy showing itself, but I haven’t seen much about this problem.

          • I think the key to that is the phrase “morally required” rather than mandatory. The layers of good and mandatory are endless, and the older we get the more layers there are.
            Good and Bad are concepts, and hard to hang onto in a heavy wind, since concepts are just that. One man’s idea vs another’s.

            “Good” and “required” almost seem to have nothing to do with one another, since good is good no matter who does it, but required is only as good as the people who indulge.

            Again, you may see your donation to the Sisters of Mercy as ‘good” especially since it was something you did on your own hook, and at a fair amount of self sacrifice and effort. No one made you do that. But what happens if someone comes along and says that one of the conditions of this job is going to be overtime (mandatory) and all of the money you make there will be given to a charity…whether you want it or not Your choice in the matter has just evaporated, as has the goodwill you felt doing it.

  • Kittens McTavish

    That can backfire on you, though. I used to, when I arrived at work for my evening shift, walk quietly to my desk, not saying anything to my co-workers, who had on headphones or were otherwise busy, so as not to disturb them. Months and months later, one of them decided to finally tell me they thought I was rude and anti-social for not greeting them every day when I arrived.

    Sometimes you can’t win for losin’.

    But this article resonates with me; I also live in a way that doesn’t cause annoyance or inconvenience for others. If only everyone would!

  • Befuddling

    I hold doors open, say hello, try to remember names etc. But if a few people are congregating in a corridor and I need to get through, I am quite loud in my “excuse me” (again, using polite words). What goes for the workplace also applies in supermarkets – if you’re blocking the aisle, I will make you aware of it.

    On the subject of smoking, I used to and my wife still does. We made a decision when we first purchased our home that we would not smoke inside. We have stuck to that decision, and it makes a great deal of difference to the environment regardless of whether you are a smoker. I have been in smoker houses, and even as a smoker they… stank! Any sensible and reasonable smoker knows that their habit causes air pollution and discomfits others – and will take appropriate steps to minimise their affect on people around them.

    It is all simple manners, and part of being in a community. When I do encounter a smoker who does not have them, I will drop all social niceties on the assumption that they have no idea what they are.

    • Hank Fox

      Re: blocking the aisle. If it’s one or two people, I say “Gonna slip past you” in a polite voice and they always move.

      A couple of times at highway rest stops, when I’ve been in a hurry and come up on one of those clumps of people blocking the way, I’ve said (big smile, loud official-sounding voice), “Would all of you in this area just continue to block the fucking walkway?” Mainly it’s a joke, but I’ve gotten a few shocked looks. And I notice when I come back that way they’re all gone, or moved off to the side.

      • all it is, is common courtesy. over and over. Yes, please, no, thank you. May I play through? Can I help you reach that stuff on the shelf? Dont grab, shove, or shout.

        it also works in the other direction. In these days of ‘women’s rights” many men have been shouted at for holding the door, or asking if they can help…when they do, I always say thank you. And sometimes hold the door for them. =)

        And manners isnt always about doing the politcally correct thing: a few years back I was at a bookstore, browsing the open shelves outside the store: apparently a nice youngish man thought I was getting ready to go inside, so he bounded up the steps, swept the door open, and smiled. I figured, why not. So I smiled back and thanked him and went inside. As soon as he was out of range I quietly went back outside and left =)

        But all those things that were mentioned are things we should do all the time–automatically– to leave the world a bit nicer or more efficient for the next person. Some of us do it without thinking, the way some people leave the messes behind for us.

  • Son of Liberty

    We are all in one way or another forced to pay taxes which fund social programs that cater to others. Become a hermit and maybe you can avoid all the hurt feelings.

  • James Guillory

    Wouldn’t it be nice if businesses followed this rule? The EPA would be out of work.