Posted by: Andrew G | February 5, 2010

Moral Duty and the Neighbours You Don’t Know

I’m going to distance myself a little from the topic. Here’s the situation:


You go to feed your friends’ cat. Let’s say it’s a favour while your friends are on a trip. In the process of letting yourself in, filling the bowl for Mitsie and sorting mail, you notice voices on the other side of the wall start to rise in volume. There are thumping noises as though heavy furniture is being moved about. There is barking. The voices get louder and are filled with umm, rather undelicate language. The voices become more and more heated. The voice of a child is then heard and you think it strange considering it is a weekday morning. There is a slam of a door as someone leaves. A truck is started outside and then quickly driven away.

You haven’t really been introduced to your friends’  neighbours. You know from your friends that this does happen a lot.

You can feel the tension, but there is no specific evidence of abuse or violence. For all you know the couple may be in the process of separating, or it may be that these people just live their waking days seeking arguments.

I understand the legal duties involved, especially when violence is witnessed. But, at what point do you take that step and get involved? I realize this is a bit heavy for a Friday, but it’s on my mind.

Is it a good move to knock on the door, introduce yourself and ask if everyone’s all right? Should you offer to take the kid to school? (wow, that last question is actually kind of creepy, come to think of it).

Or, is it a moral duty to not get involved? Apathy is a justifiable answer in some situations.

Where do you stand on this? Or, when do you act?

[images from]



  1. Andrew:Good to hear you trying to work out some sense of the good deed and why we might try to do that helpful thing to the neighbour. Being the neighbour is perhaps one of most difficult things to be because sometimes the neighbour is very close and other times the neighbour is very far away. But the why is more the challenge for me. What motivation is there to practice a kindness or a generous act towards anybody as a friend or as a person in great need? Should one look for some kind of return on the kindness and what would the reward be for our action?

    Eccleciastes 11:verse 6 is my favourite passage about giving. It basically suggests that we should just do it as responsible act without too much reservation. Cast your bread upon the waters and it will not return to you empty… whoever observes the wind will not sow, and whoever regards the clouds will not reap etc. etc. The results of our generosity and response to giving of ourselves has to be left with God for we cannot fathom the possible results.

    I actually talked to a fellow Christian recently who seems to be convinced that if he does his Christian thing well, his reward will be to go finally to heaven. Why does there have to be any reward at all and why can’t we just do for the sake of doing and the good that is in doing? I do believe there is a reward of a personal nature for just having been involved and having accomplished something we feel is worthwhile.
    Jim Gilchrist

  2. Argh! You just couldn’t resist getting the bible in, could you? 🙂

    I think you’re onto something here, in that doing a good deed should be the reward in itself, rather than worrying about how it will be evaluated or how it will work out nicely (selfishly) for yourself.

    That passage always puzzled me — why are we throwing bread onto the sea, or onto water? It sounds like an old catch-phrase or something that maybe the ancients used. But in all fairness, I don’t want to eat soggy bread.

    So, I’m still not sure what to do here. How far involved should someone get into the domestic squabbles of neighbours? Can someone remain uninvolved and still be doing ‘the right thing’?

  3. If it were me, I’d knock on the door, but rather than ask if everything is alright just introduce myself:

    Hey, I’m so-and-so, just thought I’d let you know I’m watching the neighbor’s cat while their gone, so you wouldn’t think a creepy person was just loitering around your friends’ house. Let me know if you need anything when I’m around.

    If things seem suspicious, you can always call a squad car at the local police station to swing by. Keep it anonymous as a “concerned neighbor” or whatever.

    Abuse happens, and it should be stopped and often it isn’t because people don’t know its happening or don’t want to be nosy when they know that it is.

    But be warned, you should be sure whether or not there is abuse. I know that my neighbors probably think my husband and I are either crazy or abusive! And we are not. We are very loud people with three very loud dogs. There’s always something yelling over some noise to reach the ears of the person at the other end of the house. There is always a dog have “beagle psycho hour” and running in laps around the house until something is knocked over and broken. Its a mess! But if someone knocked on my door – I would not be offended. I’d laugh and say, “Oh no, that would be the pitt bull acting up again.” Or “That would be my husband yelling at the playstation for cheating again.” I’m not sure that everyone would be so inclined to laugh it off and invite you in for tea though.

    Those are my two cents. 😉

    I also agree with Jim’s post. He’s quite right.

    Also, thanks for stopping by my site? What brought you there? Was it merely the lure of Vonnegut?

    • Hey, thanks for dropping in, Anakalian!

      My brother and sister-in-law got a beagle years ago. What a loud dog in such a small body!

      I guess that’s the important point here, eh — “I’m not sure that everyone would be so inclined to laugh it off and invite you in for tea though.”

      We can’t really know what reaction we’ll get, or what hot water we will get into…

      I’ve been playing around a bit with the connection between the words ‘community’ and ‘communication’. I think it’s possible to still have privacy but also have an open communication line with neighbours. I just don’t know where the balance is.

      Oh, and I’ll talk to you again about Vonnegut on your site…

      • Maybe you should try putting together a BBQ for your street, just to get to know the people around you. Texas is overly friendly, so we’re on pretty familiar terms with all our neighbors on both the streets we’ve lived on. When my husband and I first moved back down to Houston from Dallas our neighbor was waiting for us to pull the U-Haul into the driveway – he’d been hanging out with my parents until we got there. We pulled in at midnight, he helped us move in until four a.m. and then fed us dinner he had put into the crock pot when he’d found out he’d have neighbors moving in that night. The whole street used to get together, block off the roads and have BBQ’s and parties about once a week. For Halloween those that had little kids even pitched in together and got a moon walk for the day. We’re still friends even though we’ve moved to the other side of the neighborhood. When we moved into this house, I had presents on my doorsteps from the people across the street, another lady brought me brownies. After Hurricane Ike we were even more cozy as we were all forced to share meat before it went bad, share generators with those who didn’t have them, and help each other clear the roads of debris. Just a few months ago we had a rain party. One of my other neighbors set up a tiki bar in her driveway and poured cocktails and made dinner – we all hung out under a huge garden umbrella for hours chowing down on BBQ and fried corn and drinking margaritas. And we’ve all got each other’s numbers saved in our cell phones in case we see any suspicious behavior (like something that might lead to a break in at someone’s else). But once again, that’s the south for you.

      • Hi again An,

        You know, I’m jealous. I think you southerners have the right idea. Community is so important.

        Around here, it’s just not the right time for a BBQ. Snow and wind make it too troublesome (north of the border here 🙂 ). But, the idea is great.

        It’s funny, but your comment kind of reminded me of my childhood (of course, minus the tiki bar and drinks…). My very early years were spent in places with populations under 2000 people. It felt like everyone knew me. All the kids hung out together and there was a feeling of community. I haven’t felt that since childhood really.

        There are other factors here, of course, but there is something so genuine and right about just being neighbourly to neighbours.

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