Morality Chutzpah

When had English class turned into Philosophy class?

Jamie sat in his desk in silence as he listened to the others' open discussion on the morality of murder. He must not have been paying very much attention previously, for he had no idea how such an inane discussion had come about, but he suspected that it must have either begun as a question posed by his teacher, who seemed to be unusually enthusiastic, or as a comment thrown by Claira, who was disturbingly maudlin.

His teacher, Ms. McKeachie, was asked what she would do in the given situation. Jamie listened carefully, knowing that he would be able to discern the discussion topic from her answer.

"I, as a teacher, care for my students. I would die to protect all of you!" said McKeachie with an excitability that was so characteristic of her usual self that Jamie did not laugh at such words as he usually would. "If I had a gun and a crazy gunman came in here and started shooting you down like this," she continued, her voice high-pitched and her gun-shaped hand pointing down the semi-circle curve of seated students, "I would shoot and kill the gun man!"

Jamie wondered why his teacher was being so dramatic about her answer when it was the obvious course of action for the situation. Resuming his disinterest with the topic but curious to know the responses of the others, he slumped back in his seat and scanned the facial expressions and body language of his classmates.

Claira, in her seat a couple of desks to the right of him, was treating the entire class to a fantastic display of stereotypical stressed indecisiveness, cheeks flushing, hands wringing and all, that greatly amused and confused him. He wondered why she was so distressed. He wondered when she would find her words and explode with sentimentality. He watched her warily.

Claira's outburst, when it came, came with earnestness, an earnestness validated by the haphazard improvised fashion in which she expressed herself, that he was impressed despite his disagreement with her reasoning.

"I can't morally justify killing another person in any context," she said, her voice shaking in such a way that he suspected that her voice would have broken had she been male. "So I don't think that I could… no, I couldn't shoot the gunman. But if I had a gun and I didn't do anything, then I would be letting the others die and that would mean that I'd be indirectly killing them, and oh, do you know what I mean?"

Jamie thought that maybe she was the only one having trouble accepting the concept of indirect murder because of her emotionally clouded mind. He was anxious for her to settle down; the unpredictability of the situation due to her instability made him nervous.

"I think, actually, I don't know how I would really react in such a situation, but I would hope that, I would hope that I would be able to stand in front of the gunman," she continued falteringly but with an increasing conviction that relieved Jamie and assured him that she was calming down, "and say 'Please. Kill me instead.'"

Jamie was distinctly reminded of the legend of the crucified Jesus on the cross, a thought that was intensified by Claira's plaintive look, outstretched arms, and stringy hair, droopy with her noble, naïve, and not quite well-reasoned intentions.

He supposed that he should feel grateful that Claira presumably felt what she said. She was to the right of him and if the hypothetical gunman really did shoot down the room starting from the right side as everybody seemed to be assuming, she would go before him to try to martyr herself. That he felt no such gratitude as might be expected of him, however, did not surprise him.

Instead, he wondered how the gunman that had shot down a college in a front-cover news event of a few days ago – an event that had, no doubt, started the current class discussion – would have responded if there had been a Claira at that college.

If the Claira had even enough time to make her proposition and the gunman had been willing to listen, both extremely unlikely possibilities, he supposed that the gunman would have laughed in sincere amusement and shot her, still smiling at her affectionate naivety.

Jamie wanted to reach over and pat her on the head, but he raised his hand instead.

"Claira makes an interesting point," he began out of politeness, "but what meaning would her death have to a gunman who is almost definitely a psychopath?"

Jamie took special care to enunciate, hoping that it would give his argument a hint of professionalism and help his case to end this debate. He was not even sure how this discussion had even become a debate when there was only one reasonable course of action. Everyone else in the class was acting as though there was a solution to this scenario to be picked from a set list of multiple choice options when in reality, there was really only one option for each individual. It just so happened that his was the most applicable.

"Considering that Claira has no way of knowing that her actions will discourage the gunman from killing any more people, if she puts herself in the way of the gunman as he is trying to kill someone else, her death just becomes collateral damage. If the standards of the best possible course of action is one that reduces the number of lives taken, why should Claira not shoot the gunman when whether he dies or she dies" he said, nodding his head towards the door where the hypothetical gunman would come in and towards Claira respectively, "the number of deaths is the same? If she shoots him, she can have solid conviction that the gunman won't kill anyone else. If I had a gun and the gunman came in, I would shoot without a second thought as long as I was thinking straight. It's pretentious to care about matters of morality when lives are at stake, and although Claira's martyrdom is very noble in theory, it's still risking the lives of the others on a gambit."

He was very careful not to say "obviously" in any point of his argument to preserve its sophistication and his own maturity. Settling back in his seat, he resumed his scanning of the others' responses.

Brett and Jack were nodding thoughtfully at his words, and Jamie thought about how they had nodded to what Claira and some of the others had said and felt a mild contempt. He looked down and away from them and tapped his fingers on his desk, wondering if the class could now move on.

"Then you would be a murderer!" said Gong, his Chinese accent growing stronger in his worked-up state. "You would be the same as the gunman!"

Jamie looked at Gong. To him, Gong, sitting in the desk chair that he was too big for, appeared to be a child in an adult's body.

"But you would be saving more lives if you killed the gunman," said McKeachie, almost beseechingly.

"If you didn't kill the gunman and you could have, and the gunman killed some other people, you would be indirectly killing the people that the gunman killed. That would be passive murder."

Like a bull persistently shaking off a rider, Gong shook his head of common sense. Jamie sat up and watched his newfound spectacle, glancing at Claira from time to time to see how she was coming along.

"No. That's not murder," Gong said, his tone suggesting nothing but the firmest rigidity. "That's just something that you couldn't control. Murder is when you actually kill someone. As in, you ended their life!"

Jamie thought Gong's blind insistence was wonderful.

"The gunman is bad because he kills so you would be as bad as him if you killed. Murder," he continued, emphasizing the word as though that would somehow worsen the meaning, "is wrong no matter what context."

In the brief moment of silence that followed Gong's response, Jamie saw Claira's expression, which was now torn, take on a hint of hysteria. He felt a slight resentment towards Gong.

Several of the members of the class who had been previously silent joined in the discussion, backing Jamie's standpoint, but Jamie did not notice his success in the face of the unmoving Gong. Gong's mindless chutzpah seemed inflexible. In how many different ways must the same point be expressed for Gong to at least acknowledge the possible merit in killing the gunman to save the others?

Jamie was less disappointed that his argument had not worked on Gong than he was curious as to how a person could be so blockheaded. It was so excellently exhilarating. How long would it last?

Jamie watched on, fascinated, as his fellows lined up to face Gong and fell, one by one, in failure.

But his fascination was touched with an increasing sense of frustration.

Perhaps it was the mangling of grammatical structures and dismal pronunciation, or the ridiculousness of the sight of the six-foot Gong scrunched in the compact student desk, or perhaps it was his own exasperation that made the physical details more piquant for him, but a feeling of savage incomprehension overtook him as he listened to Gong's argument.

As the others sat, defeated, some gaping and some smirking, Jamie felt like breaking something, slamming down on his desk, crying with vexation. He was so incredibly impatient with the progress of things. He simply could not follow Gong's line of thought. In his wild desperation to understand, he wondered if Gong's dogma came from his background of a Communist government. Looking at Ling, the class' other native Chinese student, he angrily cast off his theory in slight disgust at himself when he saw that her expression was as confused as the others.

Jamie knew that he was not right and Gong was not wrong, simply because there was no right and wrong to this subjective situation, but he could not comprehend how a person could so blatantly reject another's point of view with no backing except strong belief. He gripped the end of his desk and stared at Gong, as a person looking down over a cliff grips the railing.

"Whoa! Alright, settle down!" said McKeachie, sounding privileged that she had to even give out such instructions at all. "We could go on about this all day, but we must be moving along. That was a good discussion, though. I'm glad that you guys were all so interested in this!" she exclaimed, looking positively thrilled.

Gong made no sign that he had heard McKeachie's words and neither did Jamie, both still firmly immersed in their own ideologies. Jamie could forgive Claira. Gong, however, he could not. Jamie hazily followed his teacher's instructions to take some notes on what she had on the board, still stunned by Gong's wall of opposition. When the class was over, he left the classroom, wondering how he was to deal with such polarity in ideology as this in his life.

Years later, in his college philosophy class, Jamie learned of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher who believed in a difference between duty and inclination in morality. Instantly, in the midst of the lecture, Jamie was transported to his English class with Gong. Gong, who was his Chinese Kant, and felt a tremendous desire to meet him.

If they met, he would remind Gong of the gunman situation in English class and he would hope that Gong's viewpoint had not changed since then as his own had not. And he would not try to understand or emphasize or persuade, but would be satisfied in keeping enough control and amicability to not kick him in the balls. That, in the end, was all that could be expected of either of them.