Today I was taking BART into San Francisco to go to work, as I do every day. As our train pulled away from the West Oakland station, a middle-aged black man entered our cart, demanding ‘scuse me. ‘scuse me. A blue acoustic guitar was slung across his back and he carried a plastic bag in his hand. There was not much room for anyone to move, but he pushed his way through to the middle of the cart. He sneezed a couple times (literally right behind me). Then he put down his plastic bag, filled with dollar bills, and swung his guitar around to playing position.
The man yells, “Excuse me folks. My son was hit by a drunk driver, and I need money for my son. He was 12 years old and he was hit by a drunk driver in the Marina. I appreciate you listening and that you would at least have the patience and kindness to clap at the end of this song.”
He then played a rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine… and honestly, it wasn’t terrible. In fact, the moments in which his voice cracked only added to his pitiful and tragic character.
We pulled into Embarcadero station, and he asks for anything we could spare and after he again recounts that his son was hit by a drunk driver, I couldn’t help but question the man’s story.
But then I thought to myself, does it matter?
Here is a man, who is in need, asking for help, because of a tragic event. As a person deciding whether or not to give this man a dollar, does it matter if the story he is telling is true?
Let me now walk you through my stream of consciousness on the matter at hand.
Here are a few scenarios in which I am certain that yes, it does matter if the story is true:
If we were looking at distributing a scarce resource, I would say yes, it does matter.
If we were looking at an opportunity cost, I would say yes, it does matter.
Would I give all of my money to someone who needs to pay hospital bills for their child, or would I give all of my money to a drug addict? The answer would obviously be to pay hospital bills.
But this is not the situation at hand. Regardless of the reason for the man’s need, he is asking for help, and the result of the situation will be (in my case) that I give him $1. In the sense that the end result for me (that I am one dollar poorer), it doesn’t matter.
I don’t need this dollar. I want to give it to the person who is asking for it, simply as a response to a request.
Does knowing the true outcome of the dollar matter? Whether or not the man has a child who has been hit by a drunk driver, I will never know the outcome. I will also never know if he has actually taken this dollar and put it towards medical bills. So. there are at least two major opportunities for this man to stray from what he is presenting in this economic exchange.
I don’t think knowing the outcome of the dollar matters in my decision making process because I am giving not for the outcome. I am inclined to give because of the emotional response I had to this man who is obviously in need for some reason. Whether his story is true or not, I do know that the man is in need.
And would I feel better if the story was true? Not necessarily. That would mean that this man’s innocent son was hit by a car, in which case $1 would not help this man’s situation significantly.
If the story isn’t true, then the man may buy drugs once he gets off the BART train. Though I don’t intend to support an addict’s habits, at least he doesn’t have a 12 year old son who was hit by a car.
I don’t necessarily enjoy being lied to, but would I give $1 if he was honest about wanting money for drugs? No, I don’t think so. So I am at least partially invested in the reason for the need and the use of the dollar.
So the situation I find myself in, is that there is a man who is in need in front of me, and I am having an emotional response to this, because of the story he told me, that may or may not be true. I am trying to decide if I should give him a dollar.
I will probably never see this man again, I have no personal connection to him, so I could take that $1 and donate it to an organization that provides services to low-income or homeless populations. But figuring out the most utilitarian way to use a dollar is not my dilemma. Sure, if I was abstractly trying to determine how to best use a dollar to benefit a homeless person, then I would abstract my intent to the larger problem I wanted to contribute to, and I would give my dollar to an organization that I trusted to carry out my intended purpose of this dollar.
But that is not my dilemma.
My dilemma is: does it matter to me, in this moment as I am trying to decide whether I should give this man who is in need a dollar, if this man’s story is true?