Honest or Shameless

AT BEANS ’N’ Such Coffee Bar, Claudia tore open a package of sweetener and added it to her coffee, along with nearly half a cup of half-and-half. “You asked the barista to put a tall cup of coffee into the next size up cup,” Lucia observed. “Why did you do that?” Claudia stirred her coffee, replaced the lid, and dropped several more sweetener packs into her purse. “It’s called a ghetto latte,” she explained.

“Why pay an extra two fifty when I can add the milk myself?”

“What about the creamer for other customers?” Lucia worried, looking around to see if they were watched. She felt proximity guilt. “They have lots in the back. They expect people to take it.” She and Lucia sat down in oversized armchairs near the window. “Oh my god, Professor, if I could tell you what I just experienced!” she said intensely. “I was in the Grocery Outlet on Third, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. There was this mother and a father with two little girls of maybe five and seven years old. They were all literally stealing. The father was putting things in his jacket pockets. The mother was putting them inside of her big purse, and the little girls put stolen stuff in their own little backpacks. I couldn’t believe that they were so calm about it. In the end of all of that, they paid for a few things and left the place like the most honest people on earth.”

Lucia shook her head regretfully. “How sad that those parents are already instilling such horrible vices in those poor little kids. Soon they will think that they are doing the right thing because their parents are very proud of them for following their direction.”

They sipped their coffees pensively, momentarily in their own thoughts. Lucia set her cup on the table between them and began, “You know, Claudia, lately I have been thinking of developing a scale from one to ten that could actually measure our sense of integrity and honesty. The number 10 would be the mark for the highest and best conduct going down as the conduct deteriorates from honesty to dishonesty, and in the case of your recent experience from honesty to thievery.”

“That sounds interesting. Who would do the rating? I’m not sure I trust the government to do it,” Claudia said. “And would you take into account parental influence, peer influence, that sort of thing?”

“You would have to factor in the very education that children receive from their parents or guardians,” Lucia said. “As you saw, those two poor little girls are growing up believing that stealing is good because when they steal they receive praise and reward from their parents. And those same parents tell them to be sure no one sees them not because stealing is wrong, but because they can be caught. According to David Hume, all our knowledge is fundamentally empirical. That is to say, everything that we experience leaves physical or ideal impressions in our brain.”

Claudia listened intently, considering all Lucia said. “Then, Professor, in the case of these little girls, if they continue on this path, it is going to be very difficult for them to learn that to steal is a vice and that honesty is a virtue because this behavior is engrained. Am I right, Professor?”

“Absolutely right, Claudia. You have been paying attention in your psychology classes.”

Claudia asked, “Could we say that those little girls will never know how to be virtuous?”

“No, Claudia,” Lucia responded. “No, there is always hope. But, unfortunately, all of those impressions from bad habits that they have been acquiring never will be forgotten. But, they could be substituted if the children have an epiphany that their behavior is wrong and then look for redemption while in search of a better life.”

Seeing her friend and student puzzling over the broadening ethics question, Lucia said, “Let me give another example. Imagine that yours truly, Lucia, is invited to give a conference at one of those big eastern universities, and before the audience comes in, I want to make sure that the projector works because I have to use it in my seminar. So I go and check it out, and while I test the equipment, I discover that in that classroom, there are three identical remote controls. I only need one, but I remember that the remote in my house has gone missing. And I think since the university has three, no one will miss one if I took it because they still have two. And they probably have more in an equipment room, and they probably expect people to take them. I haven’t had time to go buy one. When I carry my own projector to Kat’s Café, I always have to make the changes manually, and I make people sit there and wait for me to make those mechanical changes by hand. To have this additional remote control would solve many of my problems. Claudia, all of my internal talk has resolved into an idea. That idea has only one purpose, and that purpose is for me to possess that remote control. That means that, besides the empirical knowledge that we accumulate as we learn more and more from experience, we also have the power of the idea before it becomes the chosen action.”

“That’s not you at all,” Claudia said, somewhat appalled at Lucia’s self-description. “How did reason form the idea of taking the remote control?”

“Rene Descartes said: “We are all born good but capable of evil.” Lucia grinned.

“What?” Claudia exclaimed.

“From the greatest German philosopher of the eighteen-century, Immanuel Kant, I have learned that before the experience is the idea, and before the idea is the intention of the idea. That means even though I may not have walked to the classroom with the intention of stealing the remote control, I did walk in with the potential of being a thief. Because, according to Kant, before the idea, we find the analysis of the idea. Knowing this theory and knowing how it works has helped me never to say again, ‘Oh, I don’t know what got into my head’ or ‘I don’t know why I did it’ or ‘the devil made me do it.’”

Claudia snickered with the recognition of herself in those statements. “Claudia,” Lucia asked, “have you ever seen a TV drama with a big strong man is threatening his little, fragile woman?”

“All the time.”

“And have you seen how she cries and cries, totally hopeless? Then, from one second to the next, she uses all the energy that she accumulated, and she slaps the man with all her might, and then a second later, she cries even more, saying, ‘I am sorry, I am sorry. I don’t know what got into me, I am sorry!’ Kant would tell us that the little woman, capable of slapping that big man, is also capable of killing him, given the right opportunity.”

Claudia became very quiet, considering her own dark thoughts. She went back to the condiment station and returned the extra sweetener packs. Resuming her seat, she asked, “What can we do with those moments of rage that sometimes get to us?”

“There is always ‘the intentionality of the idea.’ That is to say, we must be aware that, given the opportunity, we are capable of doing anything. And this is why, if I have become aware that I am capable of stealing the remote control, I am also capable of making several different choices. But I don’t have to become a thief and then say, ‘I have no idea why I stole the thing since I have never stolen anything before.’ So, Claudia, according to Hume, we know that we have our knowledge thanks to our experience.”

Taking a sip of her coffee and finding it cold, Lucia realized she had gone on for some time. She asked Claudia if she wanted anything else, and when Claudia didn’t, she asked the barista how much a warm up cost. The friendly young man replied, “No charge. Let me get that for you.”

Upon returning, Lucia asked, “Claudia, do you speak another language?”

“As a matter of fact, I speak a great deal of French.” Claudia smiled, adding, “And I am also learning Italian.”

“Then you know how difficult it has been for you to learn what you know. That is to say how difficult it has been to accumulate that learning experience in order to produce knowledge. But then, before that knowledge, we always find the intention of the idea to acquire it. This knowledge is based on the willingness to do or not to do a certain thing. This willingness is precisely the intention that propels our action. Right between the intention and the action we have infinite instants to rescue the goodness and honesty in the intrinsic choice of that particular idea, the real reason we do what we do. Claudia, do you remember Socrates’s most famous quote?”

“I do, Professor, ‘Know thyself.’” Claudia felt a good deal of pride.

“That is correct, my dear Claudia, to ‘know thyself’ means to know oneself inside and out, always keeping track of the real reason for which we think, we say, and we do — everything.”

Lucia drained the last of her coffee. She took Claudia’s empty cup and hers and dropped them in the refuse container. “I hope that those two little girls you saw have the opportunity to know that they were born with freedom of choice. For the time being, I am not very optimistic because they are being manipulated and brainwashed by their very dishonest parents. I hope that as they make progress at school with the best of civic education, they may realize the difference between moral and intellectual virtues, and little by little, they may get to the point of knowing the difference between better or worse, good and evil.”

“Me, too, Professor. Me, too.” The women embraced affectionately, and Lucia went on her way. Glancing back at the barista, Claudia saw he was giving her a disapproving look. She mouthed, “Sorry,” to him and made a private vow to never again order a ghetto latte.


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Muchas Gracias for taking the time to read this chapter of my book There Is Always A Choice. I will be posting new chapters every week. If you would like to purchase the book, a copy is waiting for you on Amazon.com.