What If’s for a New Moral Code

David Denby, in his nonfiction work, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World*, writes about a professor of philosophy from Columbia University who is smoking in a subway terminal. A police officer approaches and demands he put out his cigarette.

“What if everyone smoked?” the cop asks.

“Who are you, Kant?” the professor replies.

The policeman, mishearing “Kant” as something else, hauls him off to jail (250).

But the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and the police officer are correct. If everyone smoked in the subway terminal, the air would be unbreathable. If everyone littered, we would all live in filth. If everyone cheated on his or her spouse, families, and, in time, society would fall apart (262). And the real kicker. If you hurt someone over whom you have power, then you yourself can be hurt by someone more powerful, n’est pas? What goes around comes around, right?

So, I decided to play out Kant’s moral imperative to its logical end. If the “haves” want something, then I can want it too. Here, then, are my Kantian revisions to the standard moral code.

  1. What if every mom posted how exceptional her children are on Facebook? “Johnny wins Gold for getting ‘C-’ on algebra final!” If I get twice as many “Likes” as the mom whose kid scored the winning touchdown, do I dilute the power of the “Like” as it relates to breeding and parental prowess?
  2. What if the lower 90 percent oppressed the top 10 percent? “Sorry, kid, but we don’t accept three-sport athletes or Prom Kings to any fraternity on this campus, though you’ll still be subject to hazing. It’s a rite of passage.”
  3. What if beauty was only skin deep? “Seriously? You think all you need are blue eyes and a bombshell body to pose for Playboy? Here. Take this personality test. We’ll call you if we’re interested.”
  4. What if music and art were valued as much as sports? “Record turnout for Lincoln High School’s fall musical surpasses football playoff game by 220 percent! Said Sam Gilcrist, who enjoyed rave reviews in the role of Townsman #4, ‘What can I say? Artists are the new athletes. Now, on to my Homecoming Coronation!’ Quarterback Tim Mason added, ‘Me? I couldn’t hold Gilcrist’s bassoon strap!'”
  5. What if size did matter? “In choosing her winning partner, the Bachelorette said, “I want a man with a big brain and a bigger heart. If he has small hands and a size 8 shoe, all the better. He knows how to use his tongue. That’s what I call a trophy husband!”
  6. What if women were valued for their mind? “This just in: the entire shoe industry plummeted 250 points on the Dow and NASDAQ as investors learned consumers are no longer buying high-heeled shoes. In related news, American Medical Association reports substantial improvement in women’s spinal health.”

What are your what-if’s? If you could change what society values, what would you propose? What struggles have you or your child experienced that could be alleviated if able-bodied peers followed a different moral code? I welcome your what-if’s!

*Simon & Schuster, New York, NY: 1996.

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