June 07, 2004

The Ethics of the Mundane

WILLIAM GRIMES, the former restaurant critic of The New York Times, has written a thoughtful and only quasi-snarky essay looking at the morality of spending princely sums of money on dining out. It would appear that some of Mr Grimes' readers were regularly inspired to extreme passion when reading his reviews, and as such condemned him for spending to excess; Mr Grimes responds that he felt not one jot of guilt.

Nor should he have. We have no doubt that Mr Grimes worked very hard to gain his position at the Times, and we salute him for his achievement. Besides, while we have no knowledge of how the Times compensates its food critics, we'd still be quite surprised if any of the money he spent was actually his own. For a Times scribe is well-paid, but not well-paid to the point where he could afford to spend hundreds of dollars per evening on dinner. Furthermore, Mr Grimes does live in metropolitan New York, which means that his check goes considerably less than ours out here in the provinces.

In any event, we must say we generally agree with Mr Grimes' rationale:

The first is utilitarian. The food that goes into my mouth comes out of someone else's. In this Malthusian view, the total food supply is seen as a large pie. Rich people push forward to the table and cut big slices for themselves, leaving their poorer fellow citizens to slice the pie thinner and thinner until, in the end, the truly desperate fight over a single cherry. On an international scale, it is greedy Westerners who load up at the expense of everyone else ....

... There is something amiss in this reasoning. Disparity of incomes and national wealth might or might not be unjust. I'll leave that to others to sort out. But the $500 Manolo Blahnik shoe, the $50,000 car or the $3,000 television set is not, in and of itself, a wrong. And I'm willing to bet that a thorough audit of my impassioned letter writers would turn up one or more of the aforementioned items. For the record, I drove a Honda Civic to many of my dinners, rather than an S.U.V., which means that any potential food guilt should have been prorated by a formula calculating miles per gallon saved. I might also point out that restaurants employ people.

The second objection to fine dining is moral. It boils down to this: It is all right to enjoy food, but not too much. It is all right to eat out, but not to spend too much money doing it. There are two moral impulses intertwined here, the ancient prohibition against gluttony and the more modern Puritan objection to indulging pleasure for its own sake. Add to this ethical cocktail a twist of American pragmatism, the belief that money not spent usefully is money wasted. And what can be more useless than several hundred dollars applied to a six-course French meal that lasts four hours?

Why, eating the French meal in France, of course. Oh, wait. Mr Grimes was asking a rhetorical question. Never mind.

Anyway, we thought Mr Grimes' essay quite interesting, and especially so since he fails to mention a third potential objection to dining out at fine restaurants. Namely, that doing so does have the potential to breed a real nasty behavioral hybrid in people: that strange cross of gluttony and lust and pride that crops up in folks once luxuries become staples. No, really, it's true. Remember that scene in The Screwtape Letters when Screwtape is describing the man's mother, and going on about how nothing is ever good enough for her? There's too much food or too little of it, no one can make a good poached egg anymore and so on? The same behavior, we would argue, can become ingrained in anyone once they do it enough.

Now, we do not intend that as criticism of Mr Grimes' essay; he was the food critic for the Times, and as such it was his job to make judgments. We merely wish to note that for the typical citizen, there is a larger difference than one might think between praising something which is far and away the best in its class, and denigrating something because it does not come up to an inordinately high standard. That, of course, is where the spiritual danger lies, for that latter path leads to lust and gluttony and self-conceit and all sorts of other evils. Also, it's crass.

As an example of this, we would present one traveler's review for a hotel at which we are staying on our upcoming vacation. This negative review was published on a Web site which deals with travel bookings; it came as a surprise to us, as we had stayed at this hotel before and found nothing wrong with it. This is not to say that we thought the place was an oasis of luxury either, but quite frankly, you're not going to get that for $65 per night.

What, may we ask, was Margaret G., of Boston, expecting when she checked in?



Submitted by: Margaret G., of Boston MA USA; October 26, 2003
Date of visit: 10/03
Traveler's Favorite Destination: Paris
Traveler's Rating: (one out of five smiley faces)

This was the worst hotel I have ever stayed in. The driveway has a plywood hand-lettered sign directing traffic. Open the doors to the lobby, and breathe the scent of commercial disinfectant. The hallways have greasy carpet smelling like the Thai restaurant on the first floor. The stairways are littered with overflowing wastebaskets. Our room smelled so badly of smoke that we had to leave the window open all night. I put a towel over the bedding to keep the smell of tobacco in bedspread away from my nose. My request for a non-smoking room was denied.

Best Feature: Location

Needs Improvement: Cleanliness, maintenance

Amenities rated on a 1-5 scale: Rooms, 1; Dining, 1; Public Facilities, 1; Sports/Activities, 1; Entertainment, 1; Service, 1.

This hotel is good for: Students.


We're sorry, we just don't get it. What, was Margaret G. of Boston expecting a quaint little college inn, or a bed and breakfast? Was she expecting a bidet in the toilet? For God's sakes, it's a cheap motel by the freeway, whose prime virtues are 1) it's by the freeway, 2) it costs $65 per night, and 3) fancy extras like blankets and an alarm clock are thrown in free. Also, we suspect the management won't mind if we stumble in three sheets to the wind and throw up in the bathroom, at least as long as we leave a decent tip for the housekeeper.

Really, now. We can assure Margaret G., of Boston, that this is not the worst hotel ever. Oh, no. We remember one lodging establishment where we actually put furniture against the door while we slept; and another motel in particular, which was fine except we misjudged its location, and found ourselves wondering if the sounds we heard from off the premises were gunfire. Those were grim experiences. This place is not grim. Rather, it does the job: clean room, clean bath. That's all one needs. As such, we're going to enjoy staying there no matter what.

But we do not mean to end on a down note; we just think that folks like Margaret G. of Boston ought maintain some frickin' perspective when it comes to these types of things. It is a good rule for living life -- or at the very least, it makes life more enjoyable.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 7, 2004 12:35 AM | TrackBack


Perhaps, as a smoker, you do not understand the hell which we non-smokers are faced with whenever we attempt to find a non-smoking room. Contrary to popular belief, SMOKING is not a God-given right. Breathing clean air, however, seems to be. Additionally, it's in the Constitution -- life, liberty and whatnot.

Anyway, I have no time to go into it now. Suffice it to say that a clean, smoke-free room should be the MINIMUM you get at a $65/night motel. Clean sheets would be nice too. You claimed the place WAS clean, and yet from her description, it clearly was not.

You, sir, should expect higher standards.


Posted by: Matt at June 8, 2004 10:07 AM


What was that old saying about the right to extend your fist ends at my nose, something to that effect? :-D

I also recall something about guarding against the tyranny of the majority. In any event, I should not have to remind you, a legal scholar, of the following:

Primus. No one has to stay at any lodging establishment against their will. They can go somewhere else if they are not receiving proper service; and in this case, given the locale, that is not a difficult proposition.

Secundus. When making hotel reservations in future, you may wish to specifically request a non-smoking room. On many travel sites, such as the one I use, this can be done with the push of a button. I am sorry, but I do not see how this compares to suffering the eternal tortures of the damned, which include everlasting fire, boils, brimstone (whatever that is) and watching reruns of "My Mother the Car."

Tertius. In that vein, I more than understand the "hell" which non-smokers go through, as I have made several attempts to quit smoking in my day. I can assure you it is even worse for a reformed smoker to encounter smoke than a non-smoker. That said, if you are uncomfortable with smoking, you have every right to politely ask the smoker to extinguish his or her cigarette. You have done so with me, for instance, although if I recall correctly you made a big scene by waving your hands back and forth and saying "Ewwwwwwww!", you Puritan, you.

Ultimus. As a former resident of Los Angeles, I do agree with you that smoking is not a God-given right. However, neither is breathing clean air. That said, the owner of a lodging establishment does have the right under the law to offer rooms which are all non-smoking, all smoking, or a mix of both. As this hotel does have non-smoking rooms, I would deduce the travelers in question failed to make their request known to the innkeepers beforehand, and then pitched a royal fit when they arrived at 11 pm to find all the non-smoking rooms had been taken.

As I said, I stayed there before and found the place fine, both in terms of the exterior and interior; these comments were arbitrary and capricious. Either that or Margaret G. visited on a very, very bad day.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at June 8, 2004 09:04 PM