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The Not-So-Omniscient Narrator.

3 Aug

August 3, 2011

One of last week’s Imponderables touched on a matter of ethics and morality, which brought me back to an Imponderably silly college class I once took.

As a product of education classes, I can tell you with authority that the one thing education classes do not prepare you to do is educate. I went to Brooklyn College, and what you are about to read aside, it is a very good school.

Take this class for example. The professor posed us an ethical question. This is the question he wanted to ask: “A stranger comes up to you and offers you $1,000 to drive his car to the Bronx. Do you do it?”

This is the question he asked: “A stranger comes up to you and offers you $1,000 to drive his car to the Bronx. No one will get hurt, it isn’t illegal, and there is no way you can get into trouble.” In that situation there is no dilemma, it is silly not to say yes.

Right away I knew he blew it. I also knew that he didn’t. So I did what I usually do in times like this. I sat back, crossed my arms, and waited for the fun to begin. It didn’t take long before the questions started rolling in.

“Did the stranger tell us that we wouldn’t get into trouble or are you telling us?”
“I’m telling you.”
“But in the situation, how are we supposed to know that we wouldn’t get into trouble?”
“The stranger told you.”
“Why should we believe the stranger?”
“I’m telling you to. He’s trustworthy.”

I had mentally checked out of this course weeks ago. It was nothing but textbook BS that I knew would have zero relevance to the real world, and looking back on it, I was absolutely right. But this was interesting.

“But how do we know the stranger is trustworthy if you aren’t there telling us?”
“Let’s say, for the sake of the discussion, that you have omniscience and you KNOW that he is telling the truth. There is no possible way that anything bad can happen.”

I had a sarcastic grin on my face and I managed to catch the eye of one or two others who had a similar look, but the shocking part was that most of the class was intensely, seriously interested in this nonsense.

“OK then. Case closed. Take the money, drive the car to the Bronx.”
“But what if something goes wrong? What if you hit a child, or a wheel falls off and you die?”
“You said nothing would go wrong. You said there was no possible way”
“But I can’t tell the future. You can’t predict what might happen.”
“Yes we can! You said we were omniscient!”

This was getting good. I really wanted to know how the professor was going to get out of this. I thought they had him.

“You are only omniscient about the stranger. You can’t omniscient the future.”

Aside from the fact that he actually said “you can’t omniscient the future,” the most ridiculous part of the whole stupid thing is that he has somehow limited a limitless ability. So he feels you can be omniscient about the veracity of a total stranger, but your omniscience can’t enable you to see the future. And even though your omniscience has already told you that nothing can go wrong, you should not trust it. So omniscience can not only be limited but also untrustworthy. Seems like a lousy ability to me.

He continued. “You know that the stranger is telling the truth. He intends to give you the money. True. No one will get in trouble. True. The car being in the Bronx will not be a problem, and neither will it not being in Brooklyn be a problem. It doesn’t have illegal plates and unless you drive through a red light the police don’t care about you. No one gets hurt.”

Pause.

“On the other hand you can’t see the future. Do you drive the car to the Bronx?”

There were a couple of hands raised very hesitantly. Five or six students said yes, under those bizarre, illogical, and impossible conditions, they would take the money and drive the car. As I said, I had already checked out so my hand stayed safely on my pen where it busy writing nasty things about the professor in my notebook.

“How many of you don’t drive the car?”

Some hands immediately shot up, and little by little most of the class said no, that in a fictional situation that could only be beneficial to them and harmful to no one, they would not drive the car for $1,000. The professor was satisfied and was about to move on. I am not sure what he thought he proved, but he certainly thought he proved something.

One of the sane students whose eye I had caught earlier caught mine and said, God bless her, “Professor, I don’t understand.”
She went on. “This is supposed to be an ethical question. What are the ethics here?”
“Well, it is a question of morality, really.”

Endgame. He had nowhere to go.

“But there is no moral problem here. You aren’t stealing the car. There is no crime being committed, no harm. At worst the problem is that you can’t know what might happen in the future. You may as well ask if I should go to my next class because I may trip on the way over.”

At this point the professor did the thing that no education class tells you to do, but every teacher learns it on their first day. He turned the question over to the class. “Who would like to explain this?”

Someone did and tried to explain that it came down to a choice of doing the right thing, but wasn’t quite able to explain what the right thing was, and had no way of explaining why driving the car was the wrong thing. I’m sure that most of the people who said no either had a knee-jerk reaction or simply said no because that was the answer the professor wanted. And what are the ethics of that?

The conversation petered out very quickly after that.

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