A friend once told me a story about her train journey. It was a short story but it had it all – hangovers, awkwardness, the elderly, pregnancy, puking, and the delicate diplomacy of the train seat. So obviously I felt compelled to pass it on.
The story also contains a complex moral conundrum, a kind of Rashomon effect, that changes based on how you look at it. After the story I’ll go into it in a bit more detail and, in case you’re wondering, there will indeed be diagrams.
My friend – let’s call her Sandra – was on an early morning rush-hour train to work. But the night before she had stayed out late drinking beer. Quite a lot of beer, in fact.
So she was feeling pretty grim while clinging to the overhead rail on this crowded, stuffy, swaying train. Things got worse as the journey went on and before long she was fighting the urge to be sick.
Eventually this urge got the better of her so she visited the toilet where nature took its course. Unfortunately nature wasn’t too discreet. Upon emerging from the toilet, it was clear from the looks on their horrified faces that the other commuters had heard Sandra vomit.
Then an old lady sitting nearby looked at Sandra’s stomach, which was still slightly bloated by the aforementioned beer. She put two and two together and came up with five.
“Poor you”, she said. And then, with warm, conspiratorial sympathy: “How long has it been?”
The old lady thought Sandra was pregnant! Without thinking, Sandra decided to style it out. “Oh, about six weeks”, she replied while gently rubbing her belly.
“It’ll get easier dear – trust me”, said the lady.
Sandra smiled bravely. She thought the exchange was over, but it wasn’t. A young man sitting nearby suddenly stood up and offered up his seat.
Once again Sandra did the easiest thing and kept her lie going. Thanking the young man, she sat down next to the elderly lady and, her hangover now mixed with a growing sense of shame, wondered what the hell had just happened.
The moral analysis
At first glance it seems that Sandra is in the wrong. Hangovers may be bad but we don’t give up our seats for those who overindulged the night before. Sandra’s deceit wins her a privilege she doesn’t deserve, so she’s obviously the villain. Right?
But if you look beneath the surface it’s not so clear-cut. Between the three people involved there was a brief but intricate interplay of cost and benefit. Here’s how you might visualise it:
The old lady actually receives a benefit through having inspired a good deed. And the young man’s seatlessness is offset by the benefit of having done a good deed. Yes, these good deeds were based on a lie – but does that matter?
Imagine Sandra chose not to lie, and instead told the lady that she was in fact extremely hungover. Although this would have been more honest the dynamics of the situation would still have been problematic:
Sandra’s honesty would have caused the elderly lady the deep embarrassment that comes with incorrectly assuming a woman to be pregnant – an embarrassment that was spared by Sandra’s lie. The awkwardness caused all round would have left everyone worse off, so maybe honesty wasn’t the best policy.
While Sandra’s motivations obviously weren’t noble, her actions gave two people the chance to be good citizens and no-one suffered as a result. So did Sandra make the right choice after all? Or should she rot in commuter hell for what she did?