This appeared in today's New York Magazine's The Ethicist column:
Once a week I pick up donated bakery items and deliver them to the food bank to be distributed to needy families. One morning I helped myself to a box of doughnuts. The following week I took some cookies for my grandson; then it was a pecan pie, etc. Is this wrong? There seems to be plenty of food for the needy. Marjorie S. Desimone, Lansdowne, VA.
I see where this is going: first you swipe a few doughnuts, then it’s a whole pie and before you know it you’re shooting it out with the cops at a Sara Lee factory. It’s an old, old story. Here’s one way to think about it. Suppose you were collecting cash for this same charity: would you help yourself to a few bucks if there were still “plenty” for the needy? If it’s wrong to take a wad of $10 bills, why is it right to take a wad of doughnuts? (Do they come by the wad?) I admire your work for the food bank, but you should stop skimming pastry.
Here’s another way to think about it: If you didn’t know the answer, you wouldn’t have asked the question. It is often said that if you feel uneasy about your conduct, you’re probably doing wrong. But is that so? The proddings of the conscience are unreliable. Some people have a hypersensitive conscience and feel guilty about nearly everything. (Hence all those jokes that, in different versions, Jews and Catholics tell about themselves.) Other people do appalling things and sleep through the night untroubled. There’s no consistent calibration of the conscience; feelings are not a reliable substitute for thought. That’s why therapists flourish. And columnists proffering ethical advice.
BUT WAIT A MINUTE>>> Both Marjorie and the Ethicist miss something here that offends me to the very core. We are just so unaware of our own priveldge. It's not that I'm immune to this anymore than poor Marjorie. We all struggle with wealth and as someone pointed out to me this week, most people think that they just need to earn 20% more to be ok. That figure goes across the economic divides and contributes to our horrible lack of understanding of the reality of poverty in America (or anywhere else in the world). Like so many of us, Marjorie thinks that she needs a little bit more so she takes what is free.
Now, there is something strange in her logic. After all, isn't it a little insulting that she's asking this question at all? Isn't it a problem that we are not concerned about the charity offered to the needy? Suddenly, there are too many people giving to the needy. They have enough?? And yet, they are still needy. But, we need to have a box of donuts and a pie. Because the needy have enough. What happened to our own sense of charity? Whatever happened to loving the neighbor?