Room at the inn

There’s an example by the philosopher Michael Slote used to illustrate an issue with consequentialism. A family has broken down outside a hotel. There are empty rooms available, and so the manager kindly offers them a meal and a cabin for the night at no cost.  Not the best room, but a perfectly good room. If the manager was a maximising consequentialist, then the optimal thing to do in order to maximise welfare would be to offer this family the best room available. But we would mostly agree that what the manager did was just fine, in fact more than fine: kind and thoughtful, and by giving them a perfectly adequate room for the night, no more morally need be done.

It’s an example that comes up quite often in tutorials and in students’ essays: it’s a pretty good example, really, for illustrating what seems perfectly reasonable, although of course there are various possible explanations available for why we think the actions of this hotel manager are perfectly reasonable. (For one thing, it occurs to me that there are good utilitarian reasons to think that having dreadfully luxurious rooms in hotels is unlikely to add very much if at all to the general welfare, and may well detract from it.)

But when students talk or write about this example, it’s not those issues that my mind turns to. It’s to another occasion when my family suddenly needed somewhere to stay for the night. We did have a holiday cabin booked, but we couldn’t get back to it. We couldn’t get back to it because the Tasmanian police had put a road block in the way: it was in the middle of an area sealed off to the public whilst the Port Arthur gunman Martin Bryant was under siege at the Seascape Cottage bed and breakfast (not that the police actually told us that at the time – as far as we knew, he was still on the loose somewhere in the local area). Together with many other people, we’d been holed up at the hotel on the Port Arthur site, milling about anxiously and waiting to see what was going on. Those who needed to get back to Hobart were eventually told that they could get through by the back road. But there were others like us who were just trapped. The police told us that we had to stay the night at the hotel.

For those of you who don’t know the geography, at Port Arthur we were pretty much trapped in a tiny little peninsular. Even had the police allowed us back to our cabin, it would have been sheer madness to return – it was a  little wooden hut in an isolated area of woodland in which as far as we knew, Bryant was on the loose. It was the hotel on the site or nowhere.  So we stayed at the hotel.

I have always felt rather ashamed at my amazement at what happened next. We were under police orders to stay where we were. It happened to be a hotel, a commercial business. It could have been a school hall, a church, a private house, anything. I suppose we could have just kipped in the car, but with a gunman on the loose with a holdall full of semi-automatic rifles, that did not seem like a recipe for a sound night’s slumber. We had to stay in the hotel. So stay we did, along with many others. And the hotel, quite unlike the hotel in Slote’s example, didn’t even give us discount. They just charged us full rates. Despite the fact we were under police orders to stay there, and despite the fact that we, like everyone else, was in some reasonable fear of our lives, given, as I mentioned, that Martin Bryant, who had shot and killed numerous people (later determined to be 35) was still free, and still had all his guns with him. By guns, I mean semi-automatic rifles, as I mentioned before. An entire holdall full of them.

The hotel managers had a right to charge us, I suppose. But I am still amazed that they just stood there and charged us full rates. After all, it was hardly a holiday destination of anyone’s dreams. What might the brochure say? ‘Spend the night with us while police helicopters fly low overhead, lie quaking in your bed listening for the sound of gunfire and hoping that the police really do know where the gunman is, and from time to time, as you peep out cautiously through the curtains, enjoy a momentary view of our splendid surroundings.’ Hmm.

I can only suppose that in the horror of the moment, the staff just went through the motions and did what they always do. And on reflection, it probably fitted in with a consequentialist scheme of things, unlike the actions of Slote’s kindly hotel manager.

Paula Boddington

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