And this is why we need to teach ethical theory in schools
Posted by metaphorical on 22 June 2008
GLASS OF MILK
One day, a poor boy who was selling goods from door to door to pay his way through school, found he had only one thin dime left, and he was hungry.
He decided he would ask for a meal at the next house. However, he lost his nerve when a lovely young woman opened the door.
Instead of a meal he asked for a drink of water! She thought he looked hungry so brought him a large glass of milk. He drank it so slowly, and then asked, ‘How much do I owe you?’
‘You don’t owe me anything,’ she replied. ‘Mother has taught us never to accept pay for a kindness.’
He said, ‘Then I thank you from my heart.’
As Howard Kelly left that house, he not only felt stronger physically, but his faith in God and man was strong also. He had been ready to give up and quit.
Many years later, that same young woman became critically ill. The local doctors were baffled. They finally sent her to the big city, where they called in specialists to study her rare disease.
Dr. Howard Kelly was called in for the consultation. When he heard the name of the town she came from, a strange light filled his eyes.
Immediately he rose and went down the hall of the hospital to her room.
Dressed in his doctor’s gow n he went in to see her. He recognized her at once.
He went back to the consultation room determined to do his best to save her life. From that day he gave special attention to her case.
After a long struggle, the battle was won.
Dr. Kelly requested the business office to pass the final bill to him for approval. He looked at it, then wrote something on the edge and the bill was sent to her room. She feared to open it, for she was sure it would take the rest of her life to pay for it all. Finally she looked, and something caught her att ention on the side of the bill. She read these words ..
‘Paid in full with one glass of milk’
(Signed) Dr. Howard Kelly.
Tears of joy flooded her eyes as her happy heart prayed: ‘Thank You, God, that Your love has spread broad through human hearts and hands.’
There’s a saying which goes something like this: Bread cast on the waters comes back to you. The good deed you do today may benefit you or someone you love at the least expected time. If you never see the deed again at least you will have made the world a better place – And, after all, isn’t that what life is all about?
Now you have two choices.
1. You can send this page on and spread a positive message.
2. Or ignore it and pretend it never touched your heart.
If you don’t get “inspirational” spam like this at least once in a while, you lead a truly blessed life. Meanwhile, I’m sick, not so much of the spam, as the stupidity, bordering on turpitude, of the specific message.
Are we being exhorted to emulate the young milkmaiden’s example because it is virtuous and right, or because we will be repaid just when we need it the most? Is there moral reasoning that goes beyond the pragmatism of simple self-interest?
Christians labor under a similar confusion — Christ’s own messages give mixed signals at best. Should do good things for their own sake, or in order to ascend to Heaven? The argument for our very belief in God’s existence wallows in the same mudbath of unclear thinking. Leaving aside its circularity, we’re told to believe in God else we suffer the eternal fires of damnation. Pragmatism, nothing more.
Dr. Howard Kelly, as far as we can tell, had no inclination to alter his patient’s bill except for her being the person who was generous to him when he was in need. Indeed, that’s essential to the story, because if he routinely wrote down large bills, then the actions of this story become unremarkable, or at least, the story would be entirely about Kelly’s saintly nature, and not the unnamed patient.
How much better a story it would be if Kelly didn’t recognize the name of the town, and had written a hundred times in the past on bills, “Paid in full with one glass of milk,” and this one time — unbeknownst to him — it was read by the woman who gave him the milk.
As it stands, either the story has no point, or Kelly’s actions don’t provide an example we ought to emulate, or—and this seems to be the real message—we ought to take a slightly longer-term view of our own selfish best interests.
Somehow, I don’t think that’s the lesson my erstwhile spammer meant to teach. But his blatant moral confusion shows that he needs a lesson of a different sort anyway—day 1 of Ethics 100, wherein we learn the difference between things that are inherently good and those which are merely good as a means.