Is mooching immoral? (or, What Aristotle has to say about your roommate who can’t make rent)

Joey the mooch

We all know a mooch: the coworker who borrows a dollar and never pays it back, the friend who invites you to a bar and can’t pay their own tab, the first date who orders the lobster-stuffed, caviar-encrusted filet mignon and doesn’t even offer a lil’ la chatte in return.

Anyway, I was recently fuming over a mooch when I thought: Why am I so pissed? I mean, I knew this motherfucker was worthless, so it’s not like what they did was a surprise. And that led me to a bigger question: Is mooching immoral? I mean, is my moral outrage even justified? Well, to answer that question, we’ll first need to cover the typology of moochery.

a typology of moochery

In my 35 years of inexperience, there are three kinds of mooches: the parasite, the basket case, and the perpetually impoverished.

The parasite is familiar to most of us from Law & Order reruns, from George R. R. Martin novels and maybe/unfortunately from isolated incidents in our personal lives. I worked with juvenile delinquents in my early 20s and with growed-up inmates in my late 20s, so I am passingly familiar with these scurrilous scoundrels. A lot of these folk have antisocial personality disorder–they’re sociopaths. They will gleefully take your last dime, and they won’t feel an ounce of pity or gratitude. The way they see it, the world and everyone in it owes them. They’re special, and we’re not, and the fact that we don’t see it just flabbergasts the shit out of them.

Basket cases, on the other hand, are crazy bastards who live on their own fucking planets far too far away to register the sarcasm in your voice when you say, for the third time in a month, “Nah I don’t mind paying for your lunch again. I realize how hard it must be keeping track of your wallet what with all the wife and kids and pets and social obligations you don’t have.” These folks tend to have a schizo-effective or autism diagnosis or some variant thereof.

The perpetually impoverished is the last of this beatific tryptic of buffoonish bums. Think Joey from Friends. Think Norm from Cheers. Think that 30 year old guy whose parents evicted him who solemnly swore on the courthouse steps to appeal the judge’s poorly-reasoned and nonsensical decision. These aren’t necessarily bad people, they’re just utterly incapable of holding down a halfway-decent job, and we kind of love ’em for it. Please, take my money, and show me once again your astonishingly extensive and paraphilia-filled collection of Family Guy incest porn.

an anything-but-exhaustive axiological examination of the morality of moochery

Having perambulated the psychedelic planes of the land of the mooch, we can now tackle the meta-ethics of mooching. That is to say: Is mooching immoral; and, if so, why? Honestly, I think it depends on the type of mooch. This is mostly because I’m an apathetic relativist less interested in the rectitude of one’s actions than in their potential impact on my own life.

Let’s just get this out of  the way: I don’t give a hoot about the perpetually impoverished. Did Chandler resent Joey for never making rent? Did every single person on Seinfeld resent every single other person on Seinfeld for constantly trying to get over on them? Of course not! Who could hate a lovable mug like that? Besides, this mooch comes by his moochery honestly: If you have a drink with Norm, you already know he’s not paying.

In all seriousness, the lovable, perpetually impoverished mooch brings us to an important point: Not every mooch is a mooch. What I mean is, in this life, not every payment is in-kind. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that “one ought to distribute more out of friendship to each person, though not more of the same thing, but to the superior more honor and to the one in need more gain, since honor is the reward of virtue […] but gain is what is helpful for need” (1136b). In other words, your broke-ass friend might get more free meals from you than you from her, but she might show you more love and consideration than you will ever return.

So, what about basket cases? you might ask. They’re batshit crazy. Can we really fault someone’s inconsiderate behavior when they spend half their day asking Kenneth, what’s the frequency? Honestly, this one perplexes me. On the one hand, they’re unabashed assholes. On the other hand, maybe it’s not their fault, and maybe I feel bad for them. My best judgment is to reserve judgment but also to stay the hell away and tell them noli tangere me.

The parasites are another matter entirely. The more you let them take, the more they feel they deserve. There’s really nothing redeeming here. They’re unapologetic. They’re calculating. They’re voracious. These fuckers are vampires. Of this type, Aristotle writes, “but friendship for use is full of complaints, since people who use one another […] always want something more, and believe they have less than what is due [since] those who do favors are not capable of supplying all the things the ones who get them want” (1162b).

in sum

So that’s it. That’s our discussion of the mooch. Is mooching immoral? Ehhh, who’s to say? Ultimately, from my perspective (and, perhaps, Aristotle’s), the morality of the matter is irrelevant. No one knowingly gives to someone who gives nothing in return. Maybe you didn’t expect money, but you expected something. Your moral outrage is really just your little pity party for not getting a return on your investment. Mark that one off as a loss, and learn your lesson. And, for fuck’s sake, stop whining, and read some Aristotle.