Hospitality in Our Modern Times

By Sophie Cloutier

Historically, hospitality has been part of every culture and religion and served to guide how we welcome strangers. It is like a golden rule for all civilizations.

For example, hospitality is in the Bible where God tests the goodness of believers by sending angels disguised as beggars asking for hospitality. God rewards and saves those who answer the needs of strangers. 

The ancient Greeks regarded hospitality as a sacred duty: a tribute to Zeus. They were obligated to welcome anyone knocking on their door and provide them with the best necessities they could.

Reflecting on the traditions of hospitality can help us improve our immigration policies to make them more inclusive and welcoming. Such reflection reminds us of our duty to care for people in need.

The stranger also has a crucial ethical function as he enables us to become more conscious of our customs and habits.

When surrounded only by people who think and act like us, we are unaware of our behaviour and cultural habits.

The stranger disrupts the normal course of things and opens up the possibility to call into question our behaviour and customs. By inspiring us to ask how and why, the stranger moves us to evaluate the morality of our practices.

Through exchange with others, we can learn new ways of doing things and improve old ways. 

Dialogue between cultures initiates a process in which cultures civilize themselves. In this sense, the practice of hospitality generates not only knowledge of others, but knowledge of us.

Spanish philosopher Daniel Innerarity regards hospitality as an anthropologic category that characterizes human beings as fundamentally receptive creatures.

What concerns us more than what we do, is what is done to us; what happens to us is more important than what we do voluntarily. Why? Primarily because our lives contain more unexpected things than things for which we actually plan. 

Moreover, it is in the course of unexpected events that our true moral character is revealed. For instance, in a romantic relationship, we will better know our partner when confronted with unexpected incidents.

Life is partially made by our voluntary actions, but mostly by events unforeseen. Within the ethics of hospitality, Innerarity proposes an ethics of annoyance, an ethics that guides us in dealing with what upsets us, what disturbs us.

Innerarity uses the figure of the unexpected guest. The midnight visitor symbolizes all that is unexpected in life, like falling in love or getting sick. Indeed, no one puts cancer on their agenda; sickness is the midnight visitor who disturbs our daily life.

In the midst of the unforeseen and the strangeness of life, we must cultivate receptivity and openness. We need to be attentive to hear and see the enticements of the world and to transform challenges into opportunities.

Nonetheless, welcoming the other requires time and so we need to make time for unexpected incidents.

But our fast-paced society ceaselessly produces new technologies and various innovations, all propelled quickly by information networks, challenging our capacity of adaptation. 

More than ever we are confronted by the strangeness of the world and tormented with feelings of insecurity. We could try to protect ourselves from the strangeness, but that would probably require withdrawing from modern society. Or we could practise hospitality and learn to welcome the strangeness.

Xenophobia, the fear of the stranger, is not an essential characteristic of human beings; we are not by nature afraid of otherness. We could become curious and generous, open and receptive to the unknown.

Sophie Cloutier is associate professor in the School of Public Ethics in the Faculty of Philosophy and co-director of the Research Centre in Public Ethics and Governance at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.