The Morality of Ringing a Bell

"Synthia, I want your opinion on something," said Quiana.

"You will have it."

"Is it wrong to enjoy ringing a bell?"

"Pardon me?" said Synthia.

"I said," said Quiana, "is it wrong to enjoy ringing a bell?"

"I heard you the first time," said Synthia irritably, "but I presume the question is prompted by some context you have not yet told me, a context I would need to know to provide you with the best answer I can give."

"There's a fast-food place near the campus," Quiana explained, "and next to the door, there's a bell that you can ring by pulling a cord, and a sign that says, 'If Your Visit Was Swell, Ring the Bell.'"

"And I suppose you're telling me that you go to this restaurant solely for the purpose of getting to ring the bell?"

"Maybe not solely, but yes! I can't think of any other situation where it would be socially acceptable to ring a bell in public. But here, the sign asks you to do it, and that makes it okay." She frowned. "Except," she added, "I even ring it on the occasions that my visit isn't swell."

"In your defense," said Synthia, "the sign doesn't suggest that you shouldn't. Otherwise it would have said, "Ring the bell if and only if your visit was swell."

"That's nice of you to say, but you know as well as me that interpreting the the English language if as a material conditional is at least problematic, especially given that there's no special reason to expect that the sign-writer understood propositional logic."

"True. But why would it be wrong to enjoy ringing the bell?—you must have a reason to suspect as much, or you wouldn't be asking the question. Is it that you don't want to reward the restaurant for ruthlessly exploiting your love of bells?"

"No, just the opposite! I'm worried that I'm being exploitative! The bell has a clearly-defined purpose: to let the employees know that your visit was swell."

"I think they'd prefer a tip."

"Of course. But the managers didn't give them a tipjar; they put out a bell, and I'm using the bell for spurious purposes! Isn't that wrong?"

"Quiana, I don't know why you bother asking me about your moral dilemmas; you know I don't have the kind of respect for Authority and Society that you do. I could walk you through costs and benefits: benefits to you of ringing the bell, possible costs to other diners who don't want their meal interrupted by a bell, mild appreciation of your apparent appreciation on the part of the employees, benefits to the restaurant owner for patronizing their business—but none of these observations will help you, because your morality isn't about facts that can be observed or computed from things that can be observed. Your morality is based on finding the 'correct' interpretation of verbal rules you read or heard. But if there isn't a uniquely preferable interpretation, if the words fail to capture the structure of reality, you get an unresolvable dilemma."

"And that's the reason you can't answer my question?"

"No, that was my answer."

4 thoughts on “The Morality of Ringing a Bell

  1. This was fun and, unlike most of your other posts, understandable, but unfortunately I have no particular need to read things I already agree with completely.

  2. When you say my writing is not understandable, do you think it's because of bad writing, or because of esoteric subject matter (e.g., math)? The former I should like to fix, the latter I expect is unfixable.

  3. is what i enjoy doing wrong?
    i approach the bell deceptively, seeming to casually head merely for the door that it's positioned adjacent to.
    upon reaching adequate proximity, i quickly but surreptitiously grab the cord and suddenly yank it in such way as to maximize the abruptness and volume of the ring, thereby startling everyone, including the employees who are otherwise accustomed to expect a ringing bell.
    finally, i complete 2 or 3 of such yanks in rapid enough succession that the entire sequence of such loud and sudden rings plays out within less than a second.
    people often look mortified, and the employees take a moment to recover from the shock before delivering their perfunctory "thankyou" for the "compliment".

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