THREE LITTLE MORAL STORIES
Three moral vignettes have stuck with me for decades. The first two are from my undergrad years at NU.
I took a “social psychology” auditorium-sized class from a big handsome charismatic man. The discipline was so new that it was a little undefined, but it seemed to be much informed by Skinner’s stimulus/response ideas. The prof showed us movies of white rats being “conditioned.” They were in cages with grid floors that could be electrified. This made the desperate rats jump and tumble in a lively set of antics. Everyone laughed.
Without warning the prof had the projector shut off and the lights brought up. We were confused. He launched into a blistering speech about life and compassion. Somehow it sounded like he’d been reading Frankl or Schweitzer. Some were in tears over the pain of white rats. Where are those people now, when we talk about hungry children?
The other moment was in basic biology but not the big lecture — rather the smaller lab groups where we did dissections and microscope work. A hanging skeleton was in the room, probably real. It was a cold day and the grad student adjunct was late. So we dressed the skeleton from our shared wardrobe of warm accessories. Very funny,
Again we were surprised when the returning teacher ripped into us for lack of respect for a formerly living human. I thought of him recently when a doctor organized a paying group to watch him dissect a corpse he had bought. Not a pauper off the sidewalk, but a respectable man whose family thought they were donating him to science.There was no particular reason except the “frisson” and making money. We are a culture fascinated by the dead and especially skeletons.
The third example, at least on the surface, is not so dramatic. It was 1972, a record-setting harsh winter that trapped the Brownng teachers in their classrooms. I had brought a sleeping bag, a camp mattress and a pillow and kept them in the closet for the nights I slept there on the floor.
I’d gone down to the ottice for something, leaving the class on its honor. These were good kids, leaders, but they were as bored and ready for mischeif as anyone else. When I opened the door to come back in, one of the girls had my sleeping bag unrolled on the floor and was in it.
One of the boys, not a bad boy but a dynamic athletic boy, was kicking her. Maybe he thought the sleeping bag was making the kicks harmless. It was not.
I was outraged. I took off on a harangue about the powerful attacking the helpless and linked it to Nazi Germany for some reason. Maybe that’s what we were studying. I was as vivid and passionate as I could manage to be.
These two, the girl and the boy, were friends, achievers. But what I saw in that boy was a craving for violence, a sensation of having escaped restrictions, an irrational desire to attack— even kill. “Proud boys” stuff, peeling back the human to the pre-culture, pre-moral mammal, pack behavior. The kids were fascinated. Now and then someone would suggest, “Let’s lock the door so you can tell us the truth about life.” Strange idea for a school that the door would have to be locked to tell the truth.
I fear that these considerations: compassion for all creatures, respect for human life, and control of violence, have been lost, or at least de-valued. Because no money value has ever been assigned to them.