Just Say No Thanks to POS Panhandlers

Thursday, May 02, 2024

Image by Patrick Tomasso, via Unsplash, license.
Miss Manners tersely addresses a reader's question about a polite way to respond to the point-of-sale panhandling that has become so common today. Notably, the reader is being subjected to donation requests on every visit to a grocer he visits almost daily!

The reader is completely correct on etiquette grounds that this practice is rude due to the "implication that one is being miserly" and because "Some people who would like to give generously are simply not in a position to do so, and shouldn't feel embarrassed."

Miss Manners's response jibes with this, as well as the fact that the store apparently also doesn't even notice regular donations:
Does this not seem to you like an inordinate amount of time to spend worrying about something to which the sales staff, the store manager and the other customers are not paying the slightest attention?

On etiquette grounds, both are spot-on, but the elephant in the room neither mentions is: Why would not making a donation appear 'miserly?' And, more to the point: Why do the charities concerned feel the need to constantly hector busy people not quite on their guard -- in order to chisel a few pennies from them every time they turn around.

The short answer is: altruism -- the idea that sacrifice to others is a moral ideal, and that we owe our time and money to those who happen to have less.

It would be suicidal to follow this code consistently, but it is so widespread that almost everyone equates it with the idea of morality, treating such actually virtuous activities as production and trade as if they are outside the scope of morality.

In practice, this means that on a psychological level, most people end up trying to buy their reputations or even their feeling of virtue, guiltily making one donation or doing one "good deed" at a time along the margins.

And they feel up to the task of defending their time and money only on big matters, when it would obviously be detrimental to their well-being to make a given donation or commitment. (And even then, many still feel the need to be able to explain their reasons to other people, as if their own wishes or well-being aren't a good-enough reason.)

To top it all off, since morality is a subject fraught with guilt and regarded as outside the realm of reason, most people have neither the desire to think about it, nor imagine that they can, anyway.

This is what is so morally objectionable about the practice Miss Manners discusses: Pocket change isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but giving up is held up as a moral ideal. In the moment, almost anyone who hasn't given the subject much thought will feel some combination of guilt, social pressure, and weariness (It's only eighty-three cents...), and cave in.

It is this sleazy reliance on unearned guilt that makes POS panhandling not just rude, but reprehensible.

This strikes me as the exact opposite of morality, and of the benevolence that should motivate charitable giving, and reminds me of the following quote by philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand:
It is altruism that has corrupted and perverted human benevolence by regarding the giver as an object of immolation, and the receiver as a helplessly miserable object of pity who holds a mortgage on the lives of others -- a doctrine which is extremely offensive to both parties, leaving men no choice but the roles of sacrificial victim or moral cannibal. A man of self-esteem can neither offer help nor accept it, on such terms.
Any charity worthy of donations should appeal to actual generosity and goodwill, and make the best positive case for itself to those most inclined and able to help it. For a charity to do the opposite -- as so many do today -- makes it suspect in my eyes.

Having made a negative case against this practice, let me also make a positive one: By refusing to donate at cash registers, you are making a small stand for your right to your own life and everything you have achieved, big or small.

The best way to do this is with a polite, guilt-free, and firm, No thanks! every time you are asked. (This shows consideration for the cashier, who may have to ask as a condition for employment.)

You are not only withholding an undeserved moral sanction and financial windfall to a group of people who are thoughtless at best, you might actually also help others who see this do the same with your example. A nice extra of that last is it potentially helps others in a truly benevolent and non-self-sacrificial way.

-- CAV


Pokyt said...

I disagree on both fronts.

Secondly, "Miss Manners" is completely correct and whoever's writing in needs to get out of their own head a little, because that's the only place where any guilt or shame is coming from here. People choose not to donate in front of me all the time, and I could go either way depending on what I think is appropriate at the time. The only reaction I've ever gotten either way is a quick "thank you" if I say yes. If it was common to get some other reaction, then I think you'd have a point, but that simply isn't the case. No one cares whether or not you donate to charities when you're buying groceries.

Altruism does play a role in this person's letter, but that's limited to their own psyche. At least subconsciously, they feel guilty for not donating to charity, and that insecurity has caused them to feel victimized by charities that are doing nothing but existing, and store clerks who couldn't care less. Also, regarding the charities, saying that they're doing something wrong by accepting donations from grocery store checkout lines is pretty silly. It's not as if they're extorting anyone; they're trying to raise money and that's an efficient way to do it. There's nothing wrong with that.

Gus Van Horn said...


I appreciate your posting your differing interpretation of the reply as more along the lines of quit worrying so much about what other people think. That is a valid point, but I would add that it is precisely because of the cultural influence of altruism that so many people are afflicted with such emotional difficulty standing up for themselves -- along with explaining why it is so "efficient" to rake in change this way, despite the fact that so many people find it annoying.


Pokyt said...

"...it is precisely because of the cultural influence of altruism that so many people are afflicted with such emotional difficulty standing up for themselves..."

That's fair to say, and I did even consider making that exact stipulation in my comment, which from the "secondly" in the first paragraph you probably can tell I rewrote a bit. However, making aspersions about the charities because of this is something I still take issue with. I guess I'd call it "reification" if that's not too offensive to someone of your (our) ideological persuasion.

That someone may feel pressured to donate to charity because of a larger societal says nothing of the practices of any charity organization whatsoever. It's important to remember that if someone acts contrary to their rational self-interest, regardless of any ancillary factors that may influence that action, the fault still lies with them. Just as a morbidly obese man dying of a heart attack isn't the responsibility of McDonalds or a culture where people tend to eat too much of it, it's not the fault of Kroger or Johns Hopkins Children's Hospital that the person who sent the letter has no balls.

If they are acting against their own self-interest, then they are the immoral actor and they are the one deserving of scorn.

Gus Van Horn said...

I can see not necessarily casting aspersions on a charity for taking advantage of a bad cultural precedent in the same way lots of businesses, thanks to the culture's saturation with pragmatism or investor pressure do the same, such as with jumping on the woke or "clean" energy bandwagons.

I can see the argument that it isn't necessarily sleazy pre se to ask for donations at the point of sale, but given the dominant view of charity in our culture and how common it is for people to be susceptible to being shamed over not donating/how eager to take advantage of this some can be, I feel comfortable saying that most of the time, it is sleazy.

And yes, anyone who bows to this kind of pressure shares some of the blame. Sure, but when someone grows up being taught that altruism is good, being encouraged and pressured to be an altruist by all comers, and likely not having even heard of a rational alternative, it would take a prodigious effort to even figure out why or how to resist.

There is good reason it took an Ayn Rand to challenge altruism on a fundamental level, and those of us who know about her have to work to not be smug agout it.