Recently, New York Times Magazine columnist Randy Cohen, aka The Ethicist, was interviewed on NPR’s radio show On Point with Tom Ashbrook. Mr. Cohen writes a column, in which he responds to various questions and moral dilemmas that people send to him. He is also the author of the book “The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations”. One of the question he mentioned on the radio show was, “Can I bring my own snacks to the movies when the theater says no outside food is allowed?” While initially his answer had been, “No”. He admitted that he changed his answer to that particular question, to a resounding, “Yes, of course you can”.
His understanding that not everything that we think is wrong, is necessarily wrong, got me to thinking about some of the morally questionable choices that I have made. When I was in the fourth grade, one of the subjects was Reading. For this subject we’d read books, report on them, and so forth. As part of the reading assignments, we were required to keep track of our reading. This was accomplished through weekly reading-cards. On which we’d write down the days we read, the number of pages, and the time taken. A parent’s signature was needed on the card, to verify that we had, indeed, done our required reading.
Being that I’m a writer, you might guess that I was doing my required reading. Heck, there was a Book-It program, sponsored by Pizza Hut, which offered free pizza to students that did a certain amount of reading. I had every motivation to do my reading, and I had no problems with it, whatsoever. I enjoyed it quite a bit. However, I did have a problem with something else, and that was remembering to get my mom to sign the reading-card. I simply never remembered to do it, and I literally mean never. I think my mom may have signed the first few, but after that I forgot. I should also mention that my mom worked all day, so she was gone before I woke up to get ready for school, and she was pretty much in bed by the time I got home, so I didn’t want to bother her with signing something.
I recall the first time I wasn’t able to obtain her signature. A reading-card was due that day. I was sitting on my bed before school. My mom was already at work, and I was thinking to myself, “How am I going to get this signed?” I’d done the reading, I just didn’t have the signature. I was thinking, as kids do, that I was going to be in big trouble. Looking back on it, I realize that I wouldn’t have been in trouble at all. Of course I didn’t realize that as a kid, and I didn’t want to do badly in the the subject of Reading, so I had to turn the card in signed. Naturally, I did the only logical thing to do. I signed it myself.
I didn’t sign my name, of course. I went ahead and looked at one of the previous reading-cards, noted how my mom’s signature was formed, and forged it. I remember vividly how bad my mom’s signature was, well not necessarily bad, but it was very illegible. For that reason, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to scribble something on my reading-card. Her name is Elizabeth, but she’d sign the cursive E so that it almost looked like a W. That was the primary element I used in copying her signature. I made the E look like a W and sort of scribbled out the rest of it.
Well, I was caught. Not red-handed by any means, but I was caught. Some weeks later, after several forgeries had been made, My teacher, Mrs. Bankhead, called me to her desk. She had the reading-cards in hand. I don’t know how smug or worried I might have looked, but in that moment I knew that she knew that I had forged the signature. To my satisfaction, she did not directly ask if I had forged the signature, instead she asked what my mom’s name was. I told her. She looked down at the card, nodded to herself, shook her head. I thought about pointing out how there was an E there, but I said nothing. I suppose she expected me to confess my crime, but I didn’t say anything, and that was it. I went back to my desk.
In many ways, I flat out lied to her. I knew she knew what I’d done, and there was nothing she could do about it. After that, I had to forge all future signatures, so that the signature wouldn’t suddenly change. I’m sure she knew I was doing this the whole time.
I didn’t feel bad about it. That’s why the interview with Cohen got me thinking about this. I believe the reason I didn’t feel bad, was because, in my mind, I had completed the assignment. I’d done my reading. To me it didn’t matter who signed the card. As far as I was concerned, the forgery wasn’t really dishonesty. It was a matter of practicality. The reading-card needed a signature, so I put one on it.
When I was in tenth grade, my math teacher, Mr. Jensen, told us students, “When you grow up you’ll find that the world is grayer and dirtier than you can imagine.” I always remembered that. It often seems that ethics are something that have to be interpreted. Moral judgments, in many cases, are difficult to make. I never wanted to believe what Mr. Jensen had said. I thought there should be a clear distinction between right and wrong, but looking back on that experience in fourth grade, I’m really not so sure. I suppose all that one can do, is try to understand how their decisions will affect others, then go with their instinct. That’s, key I honestly don’t know if I was wrong to sign that reading-card. I don’t think so. And, admittedly, if I needed a reading-card signed today, and didn’t have anyone to sign it, I’d sign it myself, all over again.