The Thin Grey Line

It was a beautiful February afternoon and three friends were waiting for their orders at a café.

“Are you serious?!”, Rahul exclaimed loudly. Everyone in the café stared at him for a second. Leaning in, he whispered with palpable embarrassment, “You can’t agree with the fact that the Joker should’ve been killed by Batman, right?” 

Aman, a rationalist at heart, quickly interjected, “You tell me, how am I wrong? He could have saved the city from a lot more pain just by doing such an act!”

“You’re impossible! The movie got it right, tell him, Winston!”

After having a number of incredibly boring classes, Aman, Rahul and Winston had decided to enjoy the lunch break by treating themselves with a warm meal from their favourite café outside of the college gates, the perfect place to cool off and relax.

Winston, a silent listener to the ongoing conversation laughed and after a moment replied, “Guys, this just sounds ironic to me. You think of morality as a binary concept but, to be honest, it’s never really like that.”

Rahul inquired with much confusion, “What do you mean?”

“Let me put it this way. Have you heard of the Baby Hitler paradox?” asks Winston.

Rahul replied, “No, what’s that?”

“I think I have,” said Aman, “I read some article about it on the internet, the one about killing Baby Hitler, is that the one you’re referring to?”

Winston with a shine in his eyes replied, “Exactly Aman, but there’s more to it than that. If we could travel back in time when Hitler was a baby, would you kill him and save the world from Hitler?”

“Of course!” replied Rahul. “I would be saving everyone from World War II! So much pain and suffering caused by his actions, the Holocaust and the millions of deaths all could’ve been avoided just by killing one man.”

“So, you want to keep the Joker alive, but don’t mind killing Baby Hitler?” questioned Aman, “Ironic, isn’t it?”

“Look, Hitler is a mass murderer all right!” Rahul exclaimed again. “If I could save the world just by killing a baby, I would definitely do it! Anyway, the Joker is a fictional character, he doesn’t really count.”

“How cruel would it be to kill an innocent baby, who hasn’t committed any crimes yet?” said Winston in a soft voice. “How are you any different from Hitler when you decide to kill a baby? A great philosopher named Nietzsche once said that a person fighting a monster should not become a monster himself, which was Batman’s philosophy as well.”

Rahul was more than happy when the food arrived as it finally took the focus off of an overly philosophical conversation that he had hardly understood.

After thinking about it for a moment, Aman added, “Since you’ve brought up Hitler, it reminds me of a few instances that took place before and during World War II. I was watching this documentary on the war, and it got me interested in this sort of stuff. The British thought of themselves as champions of democracy, fighting the invaders and tyranny, but at the same time they had colonies all over the world, including India and South Africa, where apartheid was prominent.”

Rahul jumped at this chance to speak, “And we showed them the hypocrisy of their actions by fighting for the freedom from their oppression, that they are the true villains!”

“That’s not what they think,” Winston said, “To them, they have given the gift of democracy to all their colonies, and united a nation, deeply divided based on caste, religion, and race.”

“That is somewhat true,” said Aman after surfing about the matter over the net, “India was a bunch of warring kingdoms before the British had arrived to take over. You can’t exactly say we were one nation. While I myself don’t agree with that idea because of the way they exploited our country for years, it can be seen in that way in their perspective. Like they say, history is written by the victors.”

“I don’t follow guys… It’s confusing, to be frank,” said Rahul, being puzzled by the ongoing discussion.

Winston sat up straight, thought about it for a moment, and said, “Rahul, consider morality as Schrodinger’s Cat. Since the box is closed, we cannot exactly say whether the cat is alive or dead. That means the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. Morality is like that, it can be both right and wrong, yet neither black nor white, it is like agrey areaThe world revolves around this grey area.”

Aman, trying to help out, asked, “Can you explain this, Winston, in easier words? You’re being a bit too philosophical.”

“Okay, um, let me put it in this way,” Winston paused, and said “Is it okay to do something that you know your parents won’t allow or be happy with, like hanging out with your friends after the curfew, relationship etc?”

Rahul interrupted, “Yes, sometimes, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do anything, ever. I mean, us teenagers are supposed to be rebellious right?”

Winston replied, “For me, to answer the question, I have to first decide whether it’s a moral or an ethical question. If I say yes, it becomes a moral question since I’ve decided according to my set of values, which are my morals. If I say no, it’s an ethical question as the decision has been made considering the set of values of society, which is ethics and it is something that my family upholds. That is where the problem lies, I think.”

Aman interjected, “How exactly?”

Winston replied, “Ethics is always decided by the community, and hence, it is subjected to both time and nature of the said community. Virtue in ethics is always decided after considering all the prevalent vices. It changes with time. Therefore, something that was wrong some time ago may now be right, and vice versa. Also, virtue is always different for various cultural settings. Values in rural areas could be different than those found in the city and again, vice versa.”

There was a moment of silence after what Winston had just said. Everyone was trying to digest all the information that passed through while looking at their untouched plates. The deep discussion had left its mark on the participants, especially Rahul.

Rahul broke the silence, “I think I understand now… But doesn’t this justify all the violent things in the world? Aren’t violent and unjust acts such as I don’t know, police brutality, rape, and other inhumane crimes justified by this thin grey line? What is the difference between us and the terrorists?”

After a well thought about analysis of the question, Aman replied, “Morality and ethics aren’t that different, certain personal perspectives are what differentiates them. Anything that goes against the values that we have been taught as humans which invites anarchy can never be justified.”

Winston then said, “At the dawn of civilization, humans realized that order was necessary in society and that is how the genesis of ethics took place. I agree with Aman, since respect and dignity for humanity is what makes us human.”

Rahul was exhausted after the entire conversation and quite surprised how an argument about something which seemed as trivial as the Batman versus the Joker turned out to be deeper than he had thought, and how it became so complex in such a small amount of time. He looked at his wristwatch and exclaimed, “Guys! There’s only 5 min left to our lunch break! We haven’t even touched our plates!”

“I’ve lost my appetite,” Aman groaned, who was tired as well, and replied sarcastically, “You guys can eat my lunch. Your words of ‘great enlightenment’ were satisfying enough, Winston.”

“Wait wait, I have one final question.” said Winston with a smile on his face.

“This better be the last question,” said Rahul gritting his teeth, a bit irritated since there was barely any time to continue this conversation.

“I second that,” followed Aman, feeling similar emotions.

“Yes, I promise,” said Winston, “If my words of ‘great enlightenment’ were true, you guys have to pay the bill, but if they’re false, I’ll pay the bill. Now tell me, who’s is going to pay the bill?”

Rahul took a moment. The entire discussion flashed before his eyes, and he finally understands what the answer must be. He replied, after jumping out of his chair and as an answer to the question, they ended up splitting the bill.

Rohit, Shlok and Yugandhar

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1 Comment

  1. Such a deep philosophy delivered so smoothly and elegantly 😍

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