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Campsite Ethics

James Leech on the dilemmas of being a campsite philosopher.

(The story so far: four philosophers on a walking holiday in the Lake District arrive very late at a campsite having got very lost. Next morning they realise that they can get away without paying the campsite fee. Should they sneak off as quickly as possible and save themselves the money for future pleasures or should they seek out the owner and pay their dues? Moral dilemma or open-and-shut case?)

John Stuart Mill unzipped the green door and stepped, blurry eyed into the clammy, wet morning. Plato and Aristotle already had their tent down and were devouring small cakes for breakfast. It was an unfeasibly early hour and no-one else was stirring on the huge camp site.

Mill was followed by Glaucon, who had been packing his sleeping bag. “No one’s around,” said the newcomer, vainly trying to flatten down his rebellious hair. “And,” he added, a faint grin playing round his lips, “since we arrived so late last night, if we pack up quickly and go we won’t have to pay the camp fees. After all they are £3.50 each.”

Silence fell on the group as they pondered Glaucon’s daring suggestion (Plato and Aristotle were actually trying to convert pounds to drachmas). “Come on,” he asked, “What do you say?”

After a pause Mill spoke up. “Well, it would certainly be to our advantage to avoid paying, but we have to consider the wider implications. To be sure, if the four of us don’t pay no-one will be harmed and we will be happier. But if everyone refuses to pay the campsite will have no money to provide the facilities of which we have taken such fulsome advantage, and so the owners would go bankrupt resulting in the closure of the campsite and loss of these facilities as well as a place to put up a tent legally. A great deal of unhappiness would then be caused which would far outweigh the benefits to us of saving £3.50.” He paused for breath. “However, even if only a minority followed our example and avoided paying, though that minority would benefit, the lack of revenue to the owners would force them either to raise the fees or withdraw some of the facilities they have put in place. Thus, the majority who do pay would be disadvantaged, admittedly to a lesser degree than if the campsite was actually shut, but again the benefits to the minority would be outweighed by the problems that non-payment would bring to the majority.”

Glaucon clutched his ears. “So, you’re saying that we should pay on the principle that the advantage we gain through not paying is less than the advantage that would be gained if everyone was honest?”

“Yep. The happiness of the mass of campers, not to mention the owners, may not be affected by the loss of £14 this morning, but taking the principle that actions should be concerned with the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the loss of £3.50 to each of us is less than the potential loss of the campsite if everyone put their personal happiness before the happiness of the greatest number. However,” his eyes grew crafty, “There is a way that could permit us to walk out without paying. Some people have fiddled with my ideas and come up with a division between Act and Rule Utilitarianism. Rule Utilitarianism is what I’ve just outlined, where any decision is already made according to the principles of Utilitarianism without reference to the circumstances. Act Utilitarianism means that any decision you make is not only dependent on the fundamental basics of the theory, but is also connected to the circumstances you find yourself in. For example, today, though not paying the campsite fee may, in a hypothetical long term, cause unhappiness in greater amounts than it brings happiness, we don’t know that it will happen. However, we do know that not paying today will leave us more money for the pub on Saturday and that this non-payment, on its own, will not unduly harm the happiness of the greatest number. In this case, our not paying brings happiness to us and does not affect anyone else, particularly as no one knows we’re here, and so according to Act Utilitarianism, we should pack and go as soon as possible.”

“So, is that a yes or a no?” demanded an exasperated Glaucon.

“Er – I dunno. I’m going to clean my teeth while I decide whether I’m Act or Rule today.”

As he wandered off Glaucon turned to Plato. “What about you?”

The Greek drew in his breath sharply. “ I don’t like this idea. It’s typical of you, Glaucon, to bring your curse of dishonesty and injustice to a simple situation. It’s quite plain that we should pay the fee without questioning.”

“Why is it?”

“You remember my explanation of the tri-partite soul? Obviously not. Well, you recall, I decided that there were three parts to the souls of man: Reason, The Appetites and what I call The Spirited Part. The Appetites are the basic animal drive like hunger, thirst, desire for sleep etc. The Spirited Part is a sort of awareness of dignity, a kind of self-respect and pride in oneself. Reason is the faculty which gives us our humanity – it is lacking in animals, as the other two are not – and it is the capacity to make careful decisions based on consideration of all factors involved. Reason and The Appetites are often opposed to each other because The Appetites are blind desires which ignore things like potential danger or immorality whereas Reason helps us to avoid these things. The Spirited Part is often allied to Reason in these struggles because to throw oneself at the mercy of one’s desires is to ignore one’s self respect.

“A human being should heed his reason which calculates all factors for him, before his Appetites which are blind. He should keep all of these things in balance – to deny completely all the demands of The Appetites would be to starve to death, but he should first see whether his reason concurs. To ignore Reason continually is to create an imbalance in the soul, giving The Appetites free rein and making the man revert back to an animal-like state. Your suggestion, Glaucon, is to heed The Appetites’ greed, particularly in relation to beer, coupled with the Spirited Part’s dislike of the subservient manner in which we have to hand the money over. Reason is isolated, but it reminds us of the points Ol’ J.S. made earlier concerning the fate of the campsite, the dangers if we got caught trying to sneak away and the dangers to our own souls should we allow The Appetites to swamp it in this way. To say the least, not paying is unjust, and in my view justice is an extension of maintaining the correct balance in the soul. Injustice strengthens The Appetites against Reason. For the sake of our souls I think we should be just and cough up.”

“I guess that’s a no, then,” muttered Glaucon.

“Aristotle, how about you? You’re often in disagreement with misery-guts there.”

One of the greatest thinkers in European history stopped scratching his beard and addressed himself to the problem. “Hmm. I don’t know that evading the camp fee is as necessarily wrong as Plato thinks. While the use of reason is important the question to ask is to what end you are aiming when you escape without paying.”

“To go to the pub on Saturday.”

“Why? Will it make you happy in the long-term?”

“Depends who I meet.”

“But what if they catch us sneaking out? What if we get done for non-payment of rent? We’ll all have criminal records, and the long-term happiness of our lives will be set back. Would we be doing ourselves good (in the Greek sense of being successful, goodlooking, well-bom and rich) if we left without paying? I think that’s debatable. The likelihood of either course having a long-term effect through outside influences is small (happiness at the pub is too short-lived to be counted in the long-term assessment of real happiness) so we have to consider the effect this evasion is going to have on us from an interior point of view. I have always said that in order to gain a characteristic, since we are born without any at all, we have to force ourselves into acting it out until it becomes part of us. For example, to become, say, generous, one must commit generous acts until it becomes second nature. Here we have to consider our honesty. I believe we have all become reasonably honest, trustworthy and therefore more successful (because we are trusted) through committing honest acts. However, if we commit a dishonest act, surely we are stepping on the road to dishonesty? This doesn’t mean that we will become dishonest straight away, it is a gradual process, but we have to be careful dishonesty does not become a habit. If we regard long-term happiness, eudaemonia, as the end goal of all our actions, externally, except in exceptional circumstances, what we do is not important. Internally, our honesty, while not quite at stake, would be slightly undermined if we just walk out now.

“Another factor to worry about is whether, by paying, we are being TOO honest. Just think, – if we were perfectly honest all the time, how many people would we offend by saying what we really thought. Complete honesty can be as dangerous as lying to our hopes of leading a eudaemonious life. A balance should be struck between the two, the Mean of honesty, which is decided by each individual both as a general principle and according to the circumstances. The Mean exists in all characteristics and actions except for things like murder which are totally wrong and shouldn’t be contemplated by a potential eudaemon.

“So, are we being too honest? I doubt it. £3.50 is blatantly too expensive, but in the interests of maintaining our honesty, if nothing else, I say we should pay, not that it really makes much difference either way.”

So it was that when the camp warden came round for his money Plato and Aristotle paid up and attempted to explain why they had two two-man tents for two people. Glaucon and Mill were still in the wash room. Glaucon, ever cynical, had been unconvinced and had decided not to pay. Mill couldn’t find his toothbrush in his wash kit and was still looking, but he was glad he didn’t have to decide what kind of Utilitarian he was, particularly before a Saturday night at the pub.

© M. J. Leech 1996

James Leech is an A/S level philosopher at Newcastle-under-Lyme School

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