A Thought Experiment: The Saviour and the Philosopher
by Jai Chakrabarti
It’s the middle of the night and someone knocks on your door. Turns out it’s the police. They don’t have a warrant, but they believe the fugitive they’re searching for is inside your house. You know this to be true. Earlier in the day, the fugitive, as the police refer to her, crawled through your garden window. You made her soup – a split pea was all you could muster – and cleared enough space in the walk-in-closet in your bedroom so that if anyone were to knock, even in the middle of the night, she would have somewhere to hide. When the policeman asks where the fugitive is, do you lie?
The answer for most of us is obvious: yes.
The German philosopher Emmanuel Kant argued that to follow the moral law we would have to out the fugitive. Not doing so would be to perpetuate a society where lying would become the de-facto standard. In other words, we’d have to universalise lying. And what kind of world would that be, where everyone speaks untruths, where fact is impossible to tell from fiction? Say, for instance, you weren’t sure what is fake news and what wasn’t, if everything that came through is full of a restless doubt. How much progress would we make as a society?
The problem with ethical laws is that there’s usually a thought experiment that makes the originating philosopher seem like a brutish, heartless academic.
After World War II, the most common iteration of this thought experiment was to replace police with Nazi and to replace fugitive with Jew. At that point, the lines become more starkly drawn: few of us would imagine ourselves to be the kind of people who’d let the Nazis into our house to arrest an innocent person.
This tends to be a kind of oversimplified salvo against Kantian ethics, though; Kant died in 1802 and may not have accepted the Nazis as a source of authority, which immediately absolves us of the need to commit to any universal law. What’s more, Kant lived an ordinary life in ordinary times. He spent his days in an old town on the north-eastern edge of Germany. He was known for being the aloof bachelor who took his walk at the same time each day and sat by the same lime trees so regularly that you could set your clock by when he arrived and left.
Janusz Korczak lived an extraordinary life through the worst of times. He was an educator and ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto during the German occupation of Poland in World War II. During the most difficult parts of the occupation, Korczak made up stories to buoy the spirts of the children. He invented an imaginary planet and pretended there was more food in the pantry than the little there actually was. When the subject of Treblinka came up and rumours began to circulate about the horrors in the camp, he kept the children away from that truth. On multiple occasions, his influential friends offered to help him out of the ghetto and into hiding, but he refused. He would not leave his children. Korczak was beholden to a different moral philosophy, one that roots itself in self-sacrifice for the greater good of the community.
A few years ago, I had the chance to visit Korczak’s orphanage in Warsaw on a cold day in January. There weren’t any Jewish children there, and the interior had been updated from when Korczak ran the place. I remember a boy with a shaved head who smiled at me; outside, the snow continued to fall. Soon there’d be close to a foot of snow on the ground, and even in my first proper winter coat, which I’d purchased for this trip, the cold would stay in my bones until that night when I chased it down with a liquorish vodka.
The second of my weddings happened in Kolkata, the first being a Jewish wedding in Los Angeles. One of the guests at our wedding ended up staying on after the festivities had ended to serve at Mother Teresa’s orphanage. His dear friend had recently taken his life and his work at the orphanage became a kind of penance for the absolution he hadn’t been able to provide. In exchange for cleaning toilets he was given a respite from the hammering guilt.
The story of Kant that survives today is that of the mechanical philosopher, the one who’s dry to the bone, unable to see beyond the chains of reason. Newer biographies suggest a more playful version, the man who in his youth frequented parties, desired the love of two women, but was too poor to ask for either’s hand in marriage. Once, this younger Kant drank so much he couldn’t find his way home.
Maybe, if he hadn’t been so poor, if he’d married and had children, Kant would’ve written a different kind of philosophy, but that’s not the history that we’re left with.
There’s an ethical theory that we know Korczak would likely have been familiar with during his days being part of an underground university in Warsaw: everything is a moral choice – getting up in the morning, brushing your teeth, hitting snooze on your alarm. As tempting as it might be to think of ethics in universal terms, as Kant did, in the course of our lives, the choices inevitably become situational and highly contextual.
So let’s go to the child who arrives at the orphanage in January of 1941 and to Korczak who has to decide whether to let that boy in when his orphanage is already full, when rations have been stretched thin for weeks. Korczak opens the door to welcome the child. On the other side of the world, Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa, opens the door to a classroom full of children. In a few years, a great famine will grip Bengal, killing almost three million people, but on this morning a child is welcomed into the convent with its old, upright piano, with its mouth of chipped keys, while another child is welcomed into the ballroom of the house on Krochmalna Lane in Warsaw, which is big enough to stage a play with nearly everyone in town.
As for the police officer who came to knock at your door, he’s long gone. The fugitive is back in her bed, and even if your heart is racing it feels like the choice you made was right and good, at least until morning.
About the Author
Jai Chakrabarti’s short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and has been anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, and awarded a Pushcart Prize. His nonfiction has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Writer’s Digest, and Lit Hub. Chakrabarti was an Emerging Writer Fellow with A Public Space and received his MFA from Brooklyn College. He was born in Kolkata, India, and now splits his time between Brooklyn, NY and the Hudson Valley. A Play for the End of the World is his first novel.
The photograph is in the public domain. Korczak can be seen standing fourth from right, second row from the top.