The two sat across from each other, teapot between them, a cup in each hand. Brock’s countenance was craggy, filled with all the lines one might expect of a map of local rivers and tributaries. Caleb’s skin was smooth. His childlike face held a relaxed open expression. They were the same age.
“And that is where you are wrong, my friend,” Brock said, sipping his tea.
“Oh? Yet you conceded my point that all human life is of equal value,” Caleb calmly replied.
“Broadly of equal value. But, even conceding this, I can prove your philosophy flawed.”
“Do go on then,” Caleb said, sipping some tea.
“Would you jump in front of a bullet in order to save a random child?” Brock asked.
“Why is that?”
“Feels like the right thing to do,” Caleb spoke with an unshaken certitude.
“Oh? Yet don’t you provide to charity? And doesn’t that charity that saves others’ lives? Don’t you walk the world as an obnoxiously good moral avatar? If each life is of broadly equal value, or even of fully equal value, then the expected benefit of saving the one child would be a net negative if it is you who does the saving.” Brock said.
“Perhaps in my saving the child it will grow up with the example and lead a more moral life, themselves willing to sacrifice for others,” Caleb said.
“My friend, I find it highly unlikely that they could be transformed to the extent of yourself. Even if it was possible, you are trading a probability of one hundred percent for a probability decidedly less than that.” Brock said.
“Are we to talk in morality or math? Futures are uncertain, so the clearest path is to always take the moral action when it is laid in front of you.” Caleb said.
“You act as if uncertain means something that it does not. We might not know for sure, but we can at the very least make our decisions based on the more likely expectation. What can morality mean other than performing that action which is expected to lead to the best outcome overall?”
“That is truly unnatural. Perhaps you can think that, conceive of it. But can you live it? With love for all in your heart guided by feelings of that love, that is a path that allows for such calculated actions to happen with a greater frequency than those who calculate them. Do you not agree?” Caleb asked.
“Perhaps, I will concede under my model of the world you benefit it more than I. And yet, it is so often a torrent of water on already well-watered flowers whilst others fail to bloom in drought. If not for our discourse in the past, do you not agree you have turned your attention to less obvious but more dire problems? The good I do, I primarily do through you, yet this is much good indeed.”
“And for these things, I thank you, friend. Yet just because I water the plants of a distant drought-stricken neighbor does not imply that I do not, or should not also tend to my own garden.” Caleb said.
“Yet if your objective is to maximize the flowers you help to flourish, it is far better to ignore your own garden.”
“Can one add together infinities? Cold, lifeless. That is your view of morality, my friend. It no more spurs a man to moral action than a calculus textbook. Morality is an action, not a thought. If thought inhibits action, it may be clever, but it will never be correct. By your own admission, that which is moral is that which leads to the best outcome. Do you not agree that if both of us were to have a disciple, that mine would end up the greater source for good?” Caleb said.
Brock sighed, getting up. “Well, dear friend, I simply wish you prioritized yourself more. For the good of the world and myself.” The two shook hands as he left the door. Childhood friends, going to the same schools, colleges always taking turns as gold and silver rank. While Brock was competitive, Caleb had always been simply curious. They met for tea every week midday Saturday.
Saturday, February 27th, Caleb was walking to Brock’s place as it was Brock’s turn to host. The air was still cool, yet it already had started to bear a hint of the promise of summer. No doubt he would supply some truly exquisite tea, as he always did. Caleb saw a carefree boy playing. He smiled. The boy looked at him, and Caleb made a funny face. The little boy made one back. They both laughed. The boy took a ball out of his pocket, throwing it up in the air and catching it, then looked at Caleb for approval. Caleb gave the boy a thumbs up and a playful wink. The boy threw it up in the air again, this time higher. His gaze fixed on the ball as it fell, and he ran into the street. Caleb yelled, but the boy was too focused. A car was coming, no time to stop. Without thinking, Caleb pushed the boy out of the way of a speeding car, its brakes squeaking in a futile attempt to stop in time. Caleb has displaced the boy, receiving the boy’s fate.
So it goes.
At home, the boy’s parents rubbed his head and plied him with ice cream.
“You must be more careful in the future, baby.” The mom said, kissing his head and holding him close.
The dad looked pensive at his son, a mix of anger and relief. He turned to a servant.
“Make sure to find out the name of that man.”
The servant nodded.
“He was a nice man,” said the boy. “Where is he now?”
“Gone, son, but it’s okay. You’re okay.” Turning once again to the servant. “Make sure to send him flowers.”
“Can we go see?” the boy asked.
“Now, darling,” the mother said, running her fingers through his hair. “You are far too busy. Remember, you have a piano test coming up. Besides, it is better if you just forget the whole thing.”
“No,” the father said. “It is important he remembers it. It will make for a wonderful personal statement.”
The boy would go on to get a degree from Yale Summa Cum Laude and became an investment consultant. He would often tell the story of the man who saved his life at parties. Everyone agreed. It was a great story.
To balance his missing friend’s effect on the world, Brock began donating in his place. He told no one of this as he had no one to tell.
Brock died alone in his sleep.
He awakened in a familiar room—the tea shop from his old college days. There, sitting across from him in a warm maroon sweater, was the face he could never forget. The only person Brock had ever managed to truly love. The extent of that love only revealed by the crushing implosion of absence.
“Took you long enough.” Caleb smiled. He was young again, not that he ever seemed to age too much. Brock looked at his hands, no longer worn and cracked. Tears welled in Brock’s eyes. Caleb hugged him gently.
“Where are we? What is this?” Brock said.
“This? I suppose it is only and exactly what you make of it. Tea?” Caleb asked, picking up the teapot and pouring it gently.
Brock held back his sobs as best as he could. Was heaven real? It didn’t feel like a dream, and yet he didn’t remember any dreams that did. There was so much detail he touched the teacup. It was hot. He tasted it. It tasted like the tea Caleb prepared. Whatever it was, it was a preferable alternative.
“Come on, old friend,” Caleb said. “Don’t you turn all sentimental now. It will throw off our balance.”
“It was long, hard, miserable. After you left.” Brock’s hands were shaking.
“Because there isn’t enough of you to live for yourself. For someone so analytical, you can be awfully silly. An engine needs fuel, a mind predicated on how needs a goal. You took my goal, and yet you performed it as an echo.”
“The world was just so gray, the people unidimensional, predictable.”
“People do have that aspect to them, yes. But that isn’t all of almost anyone. Perhaps that is all most are comfortable to show.” Caleb sipped his tea. “I was right, by the way.” He smiled.
“How, how were you possibly right? He never reflected deeply upon the nature of your sacrifice. I followed the boy from a distance through life. I saw a speech he gave once. He had the nerve to bring you up. He told the story like I am sure he did thousands of times before. He used it just like he used every other conception of goodness, in the ordinary way. In the selfish way. In the cynical way. In the way that would have me labeled cynical for pointing out just how cynical it was. To mouth one set of beliefs while acting in another secure in the knowledge that anyone who pointed out the hypocrisy would be shunned. Are you still pleased?”
“Yes, I am rather pleased,” Caleb said. “I chose what was best to do in that moment and did it. That is all anyone can do. The boy was then allowed a lifetime of opportunities to do the same. It might be true that he espoused virtues in a primarily self-serving manner. But, perhaps some of that virtue was made genuine. By those who wished to imitate his success or else, someone not as skilled in spotting hypocrisy as yourself. His life not yet finished, no doubt positively impacted and will impact many, despite how pure or impure his subconscious intentions might have been.”
“I would not trade a single beautiful red rose for a bushel of plastic ones.”
“Even if the boy did become a singular plastic rose as you put it, It doesn’t matter. It was my decision, not his. Everyone has value. It is not us in the position to judge. Besides, when I said I was right, I wasn’t referring to the boy but yourself. In the end, it wasn’t your rationality that spurred you to action but your affection towards me.”
Brock sighed and took a sip of tea.