Sunday 25 September 2016

Reasonably honest

I wrote recently about a group of students who returned $41,000 to an old lady whose stash had been 'mislaid' by her children. I guess I would have done as much if, as in that case, it had been easy to locate the owner.  And I don't rob old ladies as they leave the Post Office on pension day. But I'm really not too exercised about finding the rightful owner if something valuable 'falls into my lap'.  As a small example I found a fish-box on the beach last weekend. It is marked Property of Mulloy & Co, Dublin. I have no intention of returning it to the rightful owners, although I might do so if it was a Dunmore East company that is more conveniently close to where I found the thing. But Mulloy knows where I live if they want to collect.

I've had occasion to express a loathing for the priggish thinking of Immanuel Kant who imagined that there were certain absolute rights and obligations and any transgression against these is to be avoided. There is a famous Kantian Dilemma scenario set in a police state. You can find it in Michael Sandel's Harvard Justice Course. You are getting ready for bed and open the front door to let the cat out. As you stand there admiring the moon, you hear footsteps slapping down the darkened street, the hall light illuminates a slice of the roadway, in which the owner of the footsteps suddenly appears. He cries "They are after me" and barrels past you to hide in an upstairs room of your home. You close the front door and follow your uninvited guest to find out whaaaat's happenin'. Before you're half way up the stairs, there is a knocking at the street door. It is the Staatssicherheitpolizei asking if you have seen an escaped prisoner. Kant's position is that, as lying is wrong, you may not answer this question in the negative. Some other sinless moral solution may occur to you but for me, with a relative Utilitarian [multiprev] moral compass, a straight denial is here the lesser of two evils. It's just easier.

In 1967, when my father was retired [without the option] from the Navy at the age of 50, he didn't have enough of a pension to support a wife and three teenage children getting an expensive education [multimultiprev - story of my life] and so he started sending out CVs and job applications. Most of these jobs traded on the fact that, as a naval officer, he was he was the cliché of righteously honest and having a sense of honour . . . he even owned a ceremonial sword. Accordingly he applied for many positions such as the Bursar of a college attached to Durham University. Eventually, he landed a much more lucrative post - at a princely £3,000 pa - trading on his knowledge of the military politics of South America: in one of his last naval postings he'd led a good-will RN flotilla round that continent and knew all the naval attachés at all the embassies.

He was honest, and honourable, my Da; but he was also flexible and reasonable and somewhat forgiving of trasgression. He had after all been in charge of the welfare and discipline of 700 men at sea and on shore leave and realised that flogging, clap-him-in-irons and keel-hauling were just ineffective. I hope I've taken on some of that sort of belief system. Anyway, a good few years earlier in 1951, shortly after they'd got married, my parents went skiing in Switzerland. It was only a handful of years after a crippling if victorious war and the UK was in hock to the eyeballs to international bankers and the USA for all the equipment they'd purchased and lease-lended from Uncle Sam. Certain items [rashers!] of food were still rationed until 4th July 1954 as a belt-tightening exercise and there were strict controls on the export of currency. Nobody was allowed to take more than £25 out of the country. Money went further in those days but you couldn't have much of a holiday in Switzerland on £5 a day. My father told his newly wife that it would be a career disaster if he, a serving naval officer, was caught bilking the exchequer when they passed through Customs at Dover. So my mother was given the stash in two bundles - the legal and the rest secreted in the lining of a packet of biscuits. They missed their connexion in Interlaken and had to find a hotel room and some dinner and those unexpected requirements needed to be paid for

"Where's the money" he asked.
"It's in a packet of biscuits in my attaché case" she replied.
"Where's the case, then?"
"It's in transit, I checked it through to Wengen with the other cases"
"Well, dammit, I'll have to find a Gents, and take out the £20 I have stuffed in my sock"

I doubt if the phrase "victimless crime" had been invented in 1951, but that is what my esteemed father was perpetrating against the state which he served. After a long and troublesome war - both my parents had been in uniform and seen their friends shot and blown to smithereens and drowned - they deserved a holiday. If a bit of finagling with the folding money meant an extra grenadine or another Swiss pastry then who was to deny them? Kant would not have approved but he was a) dead and b) German.

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