The young graduate student stood in a ray of light at the front of the lecture hall, motes of dust eddying around him. He hadn’t said a word since he entered minutes earlier. Two dozen undergrads sat in a rough semicircle, some with pens poised over writing pads, others reviewing their reading assignment. The makeshift professor, about thirty years old, wore grey vest and trousers (not pants) somewhere between khaki and squash green. He was the only one in the room with skin darker than paper. He had never taught a class before.
Malcolm Worthy took a plunging breath, looked up at the young, white faces, and began. “You have all at this point met Socrates, I trust. You have also met Euthyphro of Prospalta, a seer of ancient Athens. This brings us to the famous Dilemma. Who wants to summarize it for the class?” Several arms shot into the air. “Yes.” He nodded at a young man.
The student lowered his hand and said, “The question is whether G-d loves piety because it’s pious, or whether piety is pious because G-d loves it.”
Professor Worthy stared at the student like he was a suspicious green fleck on a loaf of bread. “Where are you from?”
The blonde, square-jawed kid blinked in surprise. “Rhode Island, sir.”
“A veritable wasp hive,” boomed the professor as he rested his elbows on his lectern. “I assume that paganism is dead in Providence.”
“There aren’t many polytheists there. No druids or shamans?”
“No witches or gurus?”
“So I think that when you phrase a question shared by Socrates and Euthyphro, a prophet of the ancient Greek religion, as a question about G-d, you’re involving your own experience with priests and pews in Newport in a philosophical question that has nothing whatsoever to do with you. Am I correct, Chadwick?”
“My name is Lesley, sir,” said the student, his face drained of blood.
“Irrelevant,” said the professor. Lesley fell silent. “The original Dilemma involved what the gods, that’s gods plural, desired unanimously. But since you brought it up,” said Malcolm, eyeing the New Englander with kindness. “The Euthyphro Dilemma, in Lesley’s adapted form, is a fundamental issue for monotheists as well, and has earned the attention of some of history’s greatest minds. Now, let’s see if we can approach the underlying challenges…let’s split the room. Divide. Those who think piety is absolute, sit to my,” he thought for a moment, “left. Those who think G-d is absolute, to my right.” There was a general shuffling of papers and scraping of seats as the students rearranged themselves into two surprisingly equal groups.
“Let’s see who’s open to some edification,” said the professor. Pampered idiots, he thought.
“I hate heels,” said Natalie into the phone cradled against her shoulder as she pulled on leather pumps. She watched the store’s other patrons, a mother and daughter, pick through a kids’ sneakers section awash in pink plastic. Natalie’s own mother taught her early in life that style and comfort were not, in general, exclusive. Except in high heels.
“Must be tough being the female,” said the phone in Roger’s voice, sarcasm intact. “Paid to fly around the world, eat in the finest restaurants, and speak sweetly to powerful men.” As always, she could hear the clacking of a keyboard in the background.
“Not always sweetly,” she said absently and stood up. She grimaced in the precarious footwear but did not lose her balance.
“I yet again dive the dumpsters of humanity while you shop in boutiques,” complained the hacker, last syllables crackling with contempt.
“One hundred dollars’ worth of petty cash says you have never shopped a boutique in your life.”
“Nat’!” said Roger. “You ought to know it’s the principle of the thing!”
“‘Principle of the thing’ sets my ego detector on edge,” she offered. Should have taken up hacking, she thought. Roger gets to work barefoot.
“You don’t believe in principles now?” he asked. He loved to dance in for a conversational jab and pirouette to a new topic before she could pin him. “I thought you work for the Good of mankind-”
“Hey,” she hissed. “You shouldn’t say that, even on a secure line.”
“It’s way more suspicious than the angry whispering,” he said, punctuating with a vicious strike to his Enter key.
“If I had no principles, would I subject myself to ancient Chinese foot binding?”
“People torture themselves all the time, no principles required,” said Roger. “Or maybe you haven’t run into any self-loathing. Who could hate himself in a three-thousand-dollar suit?”
“You could have nice clothes, you know,” said Natalie. “All you have to do is ask.”
“These people ask,” spat Roger. “You can’t spend five minutes in a hacker chat without twelve high-school kids asking how to steal. And when I ridicule them they try to cover up their fearful leeching with bad humor.”
Natalie rolled her eyes as she left the shoe department. “You know that you’re a high-school kid in a hacker chat room, right?”
“Yeah, but I’m not afraid.”
“He’d be happy to get you some nice clothes. You wouldn’t be stealing. A friend can still give a friend a gift, can’t they?” She rifled through power blouses. She needed something that said ‘I can destroy you.’ Classily.
“Friends don’t let friends take things for free.”
“Had a lot of friends, have you?”
All she heard was typing, a pleasant rhythm to her ears.
“You think,” said the professor, nose-to-nose with Lesley, eyes glinting, “that if I murdered you right now, it would be wrong only because an omnipotent being said so?”
Logically, the student knew that the proposed murder was merely a rhetorical device. Logically. “If that being created the world, He gets to make the rules, right?” said Lesley.
Malcolm rounded on the students behind his back. “Why is he wrong?”
“He’s wrong because if he’s right, there’s no such thing as objective morality,” drawled a woman with carrot-colored hair and angular glasses.
“No,” said the professor. “He’s saying that the desires of an absolute being determine absolute morality. It doesn’t get more absolute than that. Now, if-”
“It’s a self-contradictory position,” said the woman.
Malcolm took a breath to calm his nerves. “What’s your name?”
“Jackson, Mississippi, professor.” Malcolm heard some man snickering behind his back, and Amanda shot a look over his shoulder that could pierce bulkheads. “Is my birthplace relevant?” she asked.
He stared at her, face unreadable and heart soaring, and said, “No. I’m sorry. You were interrupting?”
“I was, before I was interrupted,” she said with a coy smirk. “His position is contradictory. If you don’t believe in a piety above G-d, then there’s no reason to serve Him in the first place.”
“There can be no worth in choosing to obey G-d’s commands if the only possible motivations to do so aren’t pious. If you have righteousness and sin before you, there is no compelling reason to choose one over the other. You’d have to already have chosen righteousness to choose righteousness, and that’s impossible.”
“Lesley?” Malcolm called out. “Any thoughts?”
“No, sir,” he said, puzzled.
“Really? Well, how about we tell her this: If there is morality without G-d, then G-d is limited, beholden to a deity of his own, and isn’t G-d at all, is he?”
“Not a problem,” said Amanda. “I don’t believe in Him anyway.”
“But do you believe in man?” His eyes fixed on hers. Green, he thought.
“In woman, at least,” she said.
“Fair enough. So either you think that there is some kind of true morality divorced from a deity, or you think that there is no absolute morality and man – sorry, woman – must decide for herself what is right. If you claim the former, you have to explain how you are privy to this secret information; the latter, you don’t really believe in right and wrong at all.”
“What do you believe, professor?” asked Amanda.
“I believe that if you wanted easy answers, you should have stayed in Jackson,” he said as he stepped away from his students toward his desk, where his briefcase waited, lunch within. “Read the next hundred pages, for next time,” he said to the class as they began to filter out.
Amanda smiled to herself as she stepped into the California sunshine.
“Mister?” repeated the boy. He was about to punch his sister for his ball when the smelly old man said they shouldn’t fight with each other. Normally, an adult’s words wouldn’t earn Cody’s attention, but the man’s words reminded the eight-year-old of his father’s, kind and amused. Weird. Even weirder, he looked like a homeless guy, but he wasn’t on the street. He had a dirty plastic chair and sat next to an ATM in the little store and was, like, a million years old. When Cody asked why he shouldn’t fight with Dana, the old man got the same look in his eye Cody’s father got when he talked about the army, and didn’t say anything for a while. “Are you okay?” he asked. He took a cautious step closer to the ATM and tried not to breathe the miasmic hobo air.
The man jolted like he just woke up, and smiled. Cody stepped back. “Where are you parents?” he asked.
“My father’s next door,” said Cody.
“Would he want you to fight with your sister?”
“No, but she took my ball!”
“What’s more important? A happy dad or a ball?”
The kid stared.
“Your father loves you. You should try to make him happy.”
“He’s not here,” said Cody. Homeless and dumb? “And she took my ball. It’s mine.”
“Yeah, but she thinks-” he paused, and scratched at his ragged hair. “You know what? You shouldn’t punch your sister because it’s wrong to punch your sister.”
“Oh. Why didn’t you just say that?” asked Cody. He wandered off to browse the toy section.
Malcolm shook his head, bemused.
“You’d hope congressmen would be smarter,” said Roger into his headset as he scanned stolen credit card offers online.
“He was just trying to help. We both know he’s not the problem. He’s-”
“The victim of a system?” asked Roger gaily. It was an invitation to reopen an old argument of theirs. If she picked up the gauntlet it was all over; a conversation of at least four hours terminated by mutual declarations of hatred and furious hanging up was sure to follow. Roger desperately wanted it.
He could practically hear her eyes lock with determination as she said, “Yes, he-”
The sound of a rude pipe bursting roared from her phone so loudly she had to hold it away from her ear. She brought it back in time to hear “-we don’t believe in systems!”
“Now, now,” she said, as she finally rang up her new purchases, “there are some types of what could be called systems that we certainly-”
“Nat’,” he said, quiet, deflated. “I can’t believe it…someone’s…”
“What?” she asked, as her chest dropped into her stomach. She never heard Roger sound so scared. “What’s happening? Are you alright?”
“Gotta go,” she heard, followed by the tone of an empty line.
Roger recoiled from his laptop screen, rolling halfway across the room on his chair as if a snake lay on his desk. His IRC window was open, and on its bottom line, the toxic words:
“EvilHunter: Tell me about the Good, Roger.”
“You can trust me, Willie,” said Mr. Bell, school counselor, as he shut the door to his office. “Want to tell me what’s on your mind?”
“Am I in trouble?”
“No, but, honestly, that’s kind of why your teachers are worried about you. You’re not paying attention in class, but you’re not goofing around with your friends, either. They think you might have something on your mind. It’s my job to check that you’re okay, man.” Mr. Bell sat on the edge of his desk and fiddled with a Rubik’s cube. The teacher was in his early thirties and wore a bright purple shirt, dark tie, and black jeans. He and Willie had never spoken before.
“How does it work? I have confidentiality and stuff, right?”
“And stuff,” nodded the teacher. “As long as no one’s gonna get hurt, including you.”
“It’s nothing serious, Mr. Bell, it’s just-”
“Okay,” said Willie. “Have you ever met anyone who’s…different?”
“See, that’s the thing. I don’t really know. He just was.”
“Well, tell me about it.”
“I was in a convenience store a couple of days ago, after school. Buyin’ Doritos.” Mr. Bell’s eyebrows rose infinitesimally, but he said nothing. “There’s this homeless guy who’s been staying there, and he…talked to me.” Willie had been about to say ‘knew my name,’ but an instinctive distrust of teachers from deep in his brain censored the detail. Mr. Bell waited. “He said that no one decides for me. That was the main thing, I think; I can’t remember all the parts. But he said that no one is responsible for me except for me. Not economics and not politics, he said, but I don’t know what he meant. He was so…different, somehow.”
Mr. Bell rested back on his palms and glanced at Willie’s file from the corner of his eye. “Is your mother okay?” asked the teacher.
“She’s alright,” said Willie.
“I’m glad to hear that,” said the teacher. Though he knew they would discuss all sorts of things over the next half hour, Joseph Bell already yearned for the moment when the student would leave his office and he could search online for a list of local convenience stores.