17 Years Later

The classroom was quiet save for the occasional shuffling of papers. Professor Harris was tapping away on his laptop as the class of forty or so college students sat scattered across the theater-style seats facing him. Most of the students in the class had their heads down, racking their brains in an attempt to recall the dates, names and technical terms the quiz was demanding of them. But not Johnny. Johnny had no idea how to answer question twenty and had begun looking around, noticing the pretty redhead to his right had already filled it in.

“John!” The professors’ voice startled the whole class. “What are you doing? Keep your eyes on your own paper, please.”

John had been caught red-handed. He felt a familiar contrarian streak rise up in him and knowing his teacher encouraged open dialog in the classroom, John decided to fall back on his lifelong habit of iterative interrogation.

“Why?”

“Why?” Professor Harris looked incredulous. “Because copying someone else’s answers is cheating.”

“But I’m just trying to get a good grade without studying so hard.”

Muffled laughter broke out around the classroom. Professor Harris remained un-amused. “Yes, that’s called cheating and its not allowed.”

“Yeah, but why?”

“Why?” The professor leaned back in his chair. “Because cheating is wrong. You know that, John.”

“Maybe it’s wrong. But what I’m asking is why it’s wrong.”

The professor’s face softened as he recognized that John had picked now, of all times, to launch into one of his infamous lines of questioning. The teacher’s first instinct was to shut it down because of the pop quiz underway. But John’s prodding nature had proven a valuable heuristic in class this semester and the unconventional professor decided to lean into the teachable moment.

“Well, for one thing, John, if you get good grades by cheating you will not have honestly earned them, right? And you will not have learned anything, either.”

John shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t mind, as long as I end up with good grades. What makes it wrong to make good grades by copying someone else?”

“It’s wrong because it’s a form of stealing. You’re taking what isn’t yours.”

“Is it really stealing, though? She still has her answers and will still get the grade she earned. She hasn’t lost anything.”

Professor Harris sighed. “It’s wrong because it’s dishonest and those grades won’t mean anything if you cheated to get them.”

“They’ll mean something to me.”

“But they would be dishonest grades.”

“Maybe. But is it really wrong to be dishonest if no one else is hurt and it helps me get the grade I want?”

“Of course it’s wrong, John.” Professor Harris rose to his feet and stepped out from behind his desk. “When people learn you’re dishonest they won’t trust you. And when your future employers find out you never really learned what you were supposed to here at college you could be fired.”

John thought for a moment. “Okay, I can see how the consequences of dishonesty might be a loss of trust or maybe the loss of a job. But ultimately I get to decide whether I want to be trusted or employed more than I want the benefits dishonesty can bring me. It’s just a personal preference, not a moral issue.”

“Trust me, John. It’s not good to be a dishonest and untrustworthy person. Life will be a lot more difficult for you.”

“That’s what I mean. I might prefer to avoid making my life more difficult than it has to be, but that’s just my personal preference. And we all know dishonesty can make things easier sometimes; like copying someone else’s answers rather than studying for a test. So it becomes a personal preference, really. Or maybe a question of risk. But I still don’t see where morality comes into it.”

Professor Harris thought for a moment and pivoted on his line of reasoning. “Okay, let me put it this way: it’s morally wrong because cheating, stealing and dishonesty ultimately hurt other people.”

“Why is it wrong to hurt other people?”

“Because pain and suffering are bad.”

John shrugged. “Not always. Sometimes pain is a good thing, like when you work out really hard, or when someone suffers pain while recovering from a life-saving surgery.”

“Alright, I’ll clarify: needless pain and suffering are bad.”

“Who decides which pain is needless and which pain is necessary? The person in pain or their fitness instructor? Or their surgeon?” John cocked his head playfully. “Or their serial killer?”

The professor smiled as he removed his glasses and sat on the edge of his desk. “Alright then, how about this: inflicting pain and suffering on another person against their will when there is no ultimate benefit to that person is wrong.”

“Why is that wrong? Animals do it all the time. They kill other animals to protect their territory or to eat them—which obviously doesn’t benefit the animal they hurt—and we don’t say their behavior is immoral.”

“First of all, let’s keep this conversation on the topic of human pain and suffering.” The teacher was starting to wonder if he’d made a mistake when he chose to indulge John’s line of questioning. “My point is that inflicting pain and suffering on another person against their will is wrong because it ultimately damages society and by extension the human species. Imagine if everyone went around cheating, stealing and hurting everyone else.”

“Sounds like the animal kingdom to me!” A smattering of chuckles broke out around the room. “Okay, kidding aside, I have to say I feel like you just keep kicking the can down the road. I‘m trying to ask if there is an ultimate foundation for human morality. What is the logical ground for your claim that it’s morally wrong to damage our society or our species?”

The professor sighed. “Come on, John. You know it intuitively. You live in this society and you’re a human being. Damaging those things would be like burning down your own house.”

“True.” John nodded. “But some people burn down their own houses for the insurance money. And, sure, that might be unwise and illegal, but at the end of the day if someone is willing to make a significant sacrifice in an attempt to achieve what they see as an even bigger benefit, who are we to tell them they’re wrong? The same thing goes for society; if I’m willing to cheat, steal and hurt people in an attempt to gain an advantage for myself, my actions might be called unwise, or inefficient, or illegal. But why is it morally wrong to bring my society to ruin?”

“Because it negatively impacts human flourishing.”

“Why is it wrong to damage human flourishing? On what basis are you making that statement?”

“On the basis that contributing to the end of the human species is a bad thing.”

“What makes it bad? Isn’t the human species going to die out eventually anyway?”

“Yes. But you’re accelerating the process unnaturally. You’re stealing life and freedom from other people.”

“Hold on. I’m accelerating the death of the human species by allegedly cheating on this quiz?” At this, the entire class, including the professor burst out laughing.

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