A plea to housemates


in Psychology, Rants

A supposed value of the Boy Scouts is to leave every place they visit in better condition than when they arrived. ‘Better’ is the critical word here. This is not a matter of walking into the ruins of a depraved binge and bringing it to Martha Stewart’s standards. Rather, it’s about the courtesy and precaution where, regardless of the state in which you encountered a room or a counter-top or a sink or a shower, you depart only when it is in a state marginally better than when you arrived. Wash a fork and put it on a drying rack; wipe away the hair from the edges of the tub; empty the odorous waste bin.

Wilkins Micawber, in Dickens’ David Copperfield illuminates a related point:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.

The applicability of this to living with housemates is clear. Doing just a little bit of damage to the state of a shared facility – leaving the detritus of your shaving around the bathroom sink, adding some unwanted food to an overflowing garbage can – produces an effect out of proportion with the seriousness of your contribution to the mess.

People function largely through some conception of social license. They judge their behaviours less with reference to logic, external and abstract questions of morality, or personal moral codes than by the immediate responses of people nearby to what they have done. In this way, every little contribution to shared filth is interpreted by everyone sharing the space as license to do the same and worse.

Life is generally unkind to those who live by the dictum I am suggesting. Once you realize that the single empty cup sitting unwashed in the sink is an invitation to leave the burned pot full of failed tomato sauce in the same position, you will be endlessly cleaning up the messes of others. That said, it has always been the fate of the least filth-tolerant in any living situation to do more than their share for hygiene and, furthermore, if you can convey this basic ethical framework to the people around you (both words and your good example are always necessary), it’s possible a few souls can be rescued from the reckless socially-reinforced worsening of the quality of life for all.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan May 31, 2015 at 3:22 pm

Well put Milan,

I wonder though if we could add a thought on the social moral codes of spaces, in addition to the personal codes that you focus on here. You start to get at this with the emphasis on good words and good acts, and I think this is definitely the right place to begin. One thing I’ve come to believe is that, as humans, are are probably more imitative than we are conscious of. I wonder also, however, if it might be helpful to encourage a feeling of collective belonging, from which sentiments of collective responsibility might follow. This is undoubtedly difficult living in a society where the majority of non-married individuals see living alone as an ideal. Perhaps this excessive valuing of solo habitation is an the extension of the Enlightenment ideal of freedom, which is expressed by Immanuel Kant in the short piece “What is Enlightenment” as a binary between deciding for yourself (“freedom”) and letting others decide for you (“tutelage”), which leaves little room for the very real phenomena of mentorship in moral progress.

To put it more simply, I think we’ve come to the point where we experience the need to encourage others to adopt a moral framework which is consistent with the flourishing of all as a pure burden. And I think this probably not good, because it means that those who are trying to make things better might corrode their own good will by feeling resentment in their attempts to improve (can I say that?) others. Personally, I don’t experience it as a burden to engage in activities where the aim is to institute social moral codes in a sub-group through a variety of strategies (which include good words, good acts, but also thematization and theorization of the set of relationships, taboos, obligations, etc). I experience this as a fundamental aspect of living together with others in the para-families of student residence/student house life.

I realize the principle you are coming to here isn’t specific to shared living arrangements, and I think that’s really important. In all the contexts where leaving the world slightly worse than you found it extends by compound interest to misery and destruction, I think it’s something like we experience our attempts to “[rescue] a few souls … from the reckless socially-reinforced worsening of the quality of life for all” as a joy. Not a burdensome left over from someone else’s sub-ideal moral upbringing, but as an opportunity, like any other opportunity, to turn the spiral of the world towards the good and the beautiful.

But, on the other hand, maybe Ireland’s just been turning me into some kind of anti-Enlightenment Platonist.

alena June 1, 2015 at 2:14 pm

I could not agree with you more, only you said it much better than I could.

anon June 7, 2015 at 12:12 pm

This isn’t always true. If you always want things cleaner than your roommates, you will engage in a lot of cleaning just for your own benefit. Leave them alone, and they will settle down into a messier equilibrium, not keep getting worse indefinitely.

alena June 8, 2015 at 4:59 pm

Why can’t people just clean up after themselves, at home, in nature, every where? Nobody does well in a dirty chaotic place and it is simply arrogant to expect others to do it.

. June 9, 2015 at 12:41 pm

Equally tricksy is “moral licensing”, the phenomenon whereby performing a virtuous action provides you with a self-righteous inner glow, leaving you feeling justified in performing some less virtuous action – even if the damaging impact of the latter far outweighs the benefits of the former. This is surely endemic in “ethical living”: if you feel so good about yourself for recycling paper that you take an additional long-haul flight each year, your commitment to the environment has straightforwardly made matters worse.


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