Tuesday, October 18, 2005

America: a country of second chance

Beyond the game theory
ND Batra
From The Statesman

Life is more than a game theory. Sometimes it is an act of faith. In the USA, a person can have another chance to get out of his sordid past and start a new life. It is indeed a country of second chance.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger, now California Governor, was fighting for the gubernatorial race in a recall election in 2003, the Opposition dug up dirt and uncovered his father’s Nazi association in Austria, his native country. Yet the California electorate decided to put his European past behind and elected him Governor of the most dynamic state in the USA. Game theory couldn’t have explained the electorate behaviour.

Once upon a beautiful day at Morehead State University, a school nestling in the rolling hills of eastern Kentucky and Daniel Boone Forest, I was teaching an undergraduate class when I heard a gentle knock at the door. As I opened the door, I saw two cops standing ramrod and one of them, after politely apologising for the intrusion, said they would like to speak to one of my students, Gary (name changed). Is he there, he asked authoritatively? It’s a drug inquiry, the other said. I was shocked and puzzled. Should I turn in one of my students to the cops, or make a plausible excuse for his absence? The classroom, unlike a temple or church, is not a sanctuary; but nor is it a public forum. It is a place of awakening and certainly my students were awakened that beyond the world of textbooks there is another world.

I returned to the class and closed the door behind me. The students, most of whom were girls, devoured me with their inquisitive and anxious looks and after a moment of “Pinteresque pause” I asked Gary to leave the classroom. He looked at the window but understanding his drift I said, no, go from the front door.

After two weeks of absence Gary returned, presumably on bail, and asked me if he could do the makeup work and continue in the course. As per university rules, it was for me to decide whether to allow him to return to the class after such a long unexcused period of absence. By this time, the campus learned the truth about Gary, and I felt that it wasn’t exactly like allowing a confessed killer to sit in my class; nonetheless, it was somewhat of an ethical dilemma.

Most people think that ethics is about what’s right and wrong within a given moral system into which they are born, but it is more than that. Ethics sometimes is about making a choice between two equally competing values or between two wrongs, and choosing the lesser one in compelling circumstances. Consider for a moment the ethical dilemma of a doctor who has two equally desperate patients and both likely to die, but he has only one kidney available for transplant. What should be the basis of his decision when the Hippocratic oath enjoins him, “First do no harm”? His decision however sound logically would let one of them die.

I begin my Fall semester law and ethics class at Norwich University with the ethical dilemma posed by Immanuel Kant, the renowned and influential 18th century philosopher. If a man with a handgun knocks at your door, asking about another man who is hiding in your basement and with whom he wants to settle an old score, what would you do? Will you let him in and drag the man out to be shot, or tell a lie to save his life? Both killing and lying are morally wrong according to Christian morality, the framework in which my students have been growing up.

Whatever post-modernists might say, I think moral relativism is a worst form of immorality. But what was my moral framework under which I made the ethical choice to let Gary sit in my class, in spite of his dubious past? Although I was brought up in a Hindu family where karma, compassion and truth were regarded as the highest virtues, the superstructure on this foundation has been that of Western secular humanism. And when Gary confronted me with the ethical dilemma, I recalled Oscar Wilde’s notorious words: “The difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Gary would have a future if he completed his education, but if he were dismissed from the university he might become a drug dealer and harm society and self-destruct. I wasn’t bargaining like a game theorist.

Norwich University, a few years ago, faced an ethical dilemma about the presence of Indonesian military-sponsored students in its military college. The American people used to watch on television the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military against innocent people of East Timor (before their independence) and some in the media accused the university of unintentional complicity. Should the university have let the students continue in the programme hoping that they would return to Indonesia as good citizen-soldiers in service of their country rather than killers of the innocent? A private university depends upon the public goodwill and must be accountable for its actions, including its investment decisions and foreign collaborations. The university gave the Indonesian students a chance and let them continue hoping that they would do good to their country when they returned.

So when I look at the face of a student sitting in my class, I do not think that one day he might become a Unabomber like Ted Kaczynski; or an Islamist terrorist. I hope my students would become proud and successful professionals, parents and responsible citizens as most of them do. Teaching like marriage is an act of trust, which must be built and rebuilt daily with the hope that tomorrow would be better.

1 comment:

  1. The example of Immanuel Kant reminds me of a quotation by an Englishman whose name I have forgotten that ‘if I have to choose between betraying my country and my friend, I hope I have the courage to betray my country and not my friend’. Prof. Batra could you kindly elucidate?