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.