At the dinner table of the Beeminder family, who had generously invited me to stay with them during my recent travels, I accidentally took the butter knife for my own. As an indirect result, the knife of Danny and Bethany’s daughter Faire was accidentally conscripted as the butter knife, leaving her with none, so she complained. Bethany offered her own knife as a replacement. But Faire didn’t accept this solution. She clearly felt strongly about it, she even raised her voice, and she refused to be satisfied with a stopgap solution that deprived someone else of a knife. Her true objection wasn’t that she herself lacked a knife, but that it was unfair for a person at the table to lack a knife. She demanded a systemic solution. The situation was resolved when I noticed my extra knife and gave it to her in recompense - because this was a fair solution.
Her indignation was a profoundly moral one, and it reminded me of a story of my own moral indignation.
I don’t think my behavior was entirely reasonable, but the impulse is one I’m proud of.
I’d gone to a restaurant with friends. We handed the waiter a credit card before inspecting the bill, but when they brought back the credit card slip for a signature, we found that two items on the itemized bill had prices higher than those on the menu. Apparently we were given an older copy of the menu. I was somewhat annoyed for having to ask them to rerun the card with the correct amount, but more annoyed that they hadn’t bothered to keep the menu accurate - that I was dealing with the sort of place that might charge their less attentive customers more than agreed, that I was living in the sort of world where I couldn’t rely on the honor of someone I was transacting with not to overcharge me, where I had to be vigilant against that, or be a sucker.
We asked them to correct the charge, but they said only the manager, who was not present, was authorized to do so. Nor could they give us a cash refund of the difference. Now I was furious. Again, not because of the few dollars, but because of what it implied about the restaurant. I didn’t and don’t think this was a deliberate attempt to defraud. It seemed much more likely that this was a genuine error. I was furious because this was a business that couldn’t be bothered to put in the basic work not to accidentally cheat their customers.
I resolved never to go back, of course, and tweeted about it to warn others. In response to that, someone from the restaurant offered to pay me back for the difference, which I accepted. But that didn’t make things right. I was, and am, still somewhat sad and angry about the whole thing, these many years later. I’m surprised at how strongly it affected me at the time (I was pretty angry, out of proportion to the material consequences of the incident, in a way that may have been unfair to the restaurant), and how it still affects me now.
What did I want? Well, I wanted the thing never to have happened - or, having happened, to have been set right once I made my initial complaint, before I left the restaurant. I try not to complain publicly until someone’s had a chance to resolve something privately and missed that chance. (Better still might have been to email the restaurant after I left, to give the management a chance to respond directly, before going public with the complaint.) I wanted them to be motivated to resolve the complaint before the prospect of bad publicity came up, instead of setting up a system where, in the restaurant, there was just no way to resolve it. But I do think there’s something they could have done afterwards that would still have made me feel better about it. They could have promised to inspect all their menus, and update the ones with out-of-date prices. That would have made me feel as though my true complaint was taken seriously - taking an action to avoid being the kind of business that accidentally cheats their customers in the future.
Why did this not occur to them? Why did it not immediately occur to my tablemate’s parents that she was objecting not to lacking a knife, but to the unfairness of the perceived system where knives are not reliably allocated to everyone by default, and grease gets reallocated to the squeaky wheel? Why do people feel it natural to assume that our objections will be resolved with “I got mine”? Perhaps their anticipations are rational, because some cases are genuinely not worth doing anything but making an exception for, or because most of the time people are angry, it’s because they’ve been hurt this time, not because of injustice in the abstract, of systems that do not take good care of people without constant interference.
On the other hand, perhaps that isn’t true. After all, some people are deeply, truly Faire.
Thanks so much for writing this! I just came across it again and thought I'd add an excerpt from the email exchange with Faire about it:
Hi Faire! Ben was so impressed by something you said at dinner the
other day that he's writing a blog post about it. 🙂 I told him he
should identify you by name. Especially because your name fits the
story so perfectly. We call that "nominative determinism" -- when
someone acts in a way that's very fitting for their name. Like you
being so fair! (Or Cantor being a singer, for that matter.) Anyway,
here's the draft of Ben's blog post. He wanted to get your permission
to talk about you. I figure you're probably fine with that since
you're already pretty famous on the internet, but it's nice to get
Faire's reply: It is okay with me. It was a lot of fun to read your blog post.
I was also going to mention that at Beeminder if we have a bug or screwup on our end that results in us charging someone too much and the person notices it before we do (even if we were also totally going to notice it) then we refund twice the amount. It makes me pretty mad when a business thinks it's sufficient to merely redress the error in the cases that the customer notices it and just keep the money in every other case!