Sunday, May 20, 2012

Moral and Money Dillemas (FilAm Star, May 18, 2012)

Suppose for the moment that you are very well-off if not exactly rich per se. You’ve worked hard and honestly to earn your wealth and you are now smelling the roses of your admirable labor. You have just about anything that anyone else could possibly want materialistically-speaking: a big house, two expensive luxury cars (for which you have a driver), nice clothes, and a bank account that is above the clouds.

Also suppose that you have a beautiful and devoted wife and a preadolescent son (about eight or nine years old) who you dote on and hope one day will follow in your footsteps. In short, everything is peachy-keen for you; you couldn’t ask for anything more. Until one day an unimaginable experience comes to pass. You get a telephone call informing you that your son has been kidnapped. As to be expected, the kidnapper tells you that he will kill your son if you do not pay him what amounts to the entirety of your fortune.

Being the good father that you are, you don’t hesitate to decide that you will do whatever it takes to save your son. You will pay the ransom even if it means financial ruin for you and your family. But then a miracle takes place—you see your boy walk into your house unfazed and unharmed. Happy endings all around, right? Wrong. The kidnapper calls back to tell the father that he mistakenly took the driver’s son—who is of the same age—instead. Remorselessly, the kidnapper demands that the father pay up anyway, for the same promised fate awaits the driver’s boy.

What would you do if you were the father? Sacrifice your wealth for the son of a menial employee or gamble with the boy’s life and hold on to your money, the money you slaved over to acquire not only for yourself but for the welfare of your family? Is there is a right or wrong answer here? One answer would be to pay off the kidnapper—anyway, money can be replenished so the argument goes—and save the boy. The other would be to refuse to cave in to the kidnapper’s demand and—otherwise you and your family would suffer financially so another argument goes—maybe, just maybe the kidnapper will have been bluffing. Tough call either way.

This Catch-22 scenario comes from a 1963 Akira Kurosawa film “High and Low.” Many times I have used this what-if setup to ask people what they would do in such a situation. The answers I received varied according to individual personality, attitudes, and circumstances. What is more important though than attempting to divine a “correct” answer is to learn something about the person from the answers they give. You might say that, depending on how someone responds to the “High and Low” dilemma, you could determine to a certain extent how materialistic someone is; which is of more value to them, their money or a child’s life? This is not simply resolved no matter how you answer it.

There is another predicament-filled film titled “The Box” in which a young, average middle-class couple is offered one million dollars tax free and no questions asked if they press the button on a mysterious box. The catch? Someone they don’t know will die as a result if the money is accepted. They will never be told who will die. The husband and wife try to rationalize it out before accepting the money; the one who dies might be a bad person who deserves it. Then again, it might be an innocent, a child perhaps, who is tragically divested of this life because of one push of the button.

The not-knowing aspect of “The Box” story gives it moral weight. The “High and Low” example’s moral suasion comes from knowing exactly what the choices are and what their consequences probably will be. These two timely moral conundrums go up against what we, in our asymmetrically commodified society, are both encouraged and indoctrinated into believing. That is, that money is the decisive barometer by which the good and meritorious are separated from the bad, the ugly, the dumb, and the meek. Before you tell me to take a hike and go live in the street with the homeless, see how you would answer these dilemmas.


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