The Relativity of Theories

“Is your life worth more than a bee’s?”

Every semester, Professor Morton opened his Intro to Philosophy class with this question. He’d been doing it for so long — had it really been 27 years? — that he knew exactly how the discussion would play out.

Knee-jerk exceptionalism of the “human lives are worth way more than bugs” variety would be delivered by the backwards-hat frat bro, this year occupying the middle seat in the back row. The request for clarification — as in, “What exactly do you mean by ‘worth’? Whose terms?” — would come from the mousey blonde in the front row with everything on her desk arranged at right angles. The adamant “NO” would issue forth from the crunchy granola couple who would stop coming to class right after the mid-term and who might drop out of Whiteside University altogether. (Professor Morton no longer followed up on the students who abandoned his class.)

Using that “NO” as a jumping off point, he would lead the class through a series of thought experiments designed to “liberate the mind from ingrained thinking” and “recalibrate what it means to live a good and valuable life.” The discussion was supposed to be open-ended, conclusion-free and full of surprises. But after 27 years, there were no more surprises left for Professor Morton. In fact, he had less and less energy to play devil’s advocate against the patchouli-scented pair arguing in favor of the bees. After all, bees categorically dedicated their lives to making the world a better place. They followed the rules, worked together, and — aside from the occasional sting-induced death by anaphylactic shock — did no harm. Best friends with flowers. Totally self-sufficient and self-sustaining. A resource-based economy par excellence. The conclusion Professor Morton was having trouble shaking was that a bee’s life was actually worth 10,000 human lives (or at least 10,000 Professor Mortons). And that the great shame was that each bee had but one stinger with which to eliminate allergic humans. And that the bee would also die in the process, ripped violently apart, torn asunder, altruistic even as an assassin. This hurts me just as much as it hurts you.

From a desk somewhere near the left aisle of the lecture hall: “There’s way more bees than people, right? So doesn’t that make people more valuable?” To which Professor Morton dutifully brought up the scarcity dialectic. “So, since there are fewer Americans than there are Chinese, are American lives worth more than Chinese lives?” An under-the-breath “totally” from frat bro in the back row. “And the uncontacted indigenous Awá tribe of the Amazon in Brazil, of which there are only a few hundred surviving members — are they then among the most valuable lives on the planet?”

The mousey blonde picked up the thread: “It’s like when animals get put on the endangered species list. We finally start to care about them and stuff …” — her confidence and volume trailing off in equal measure. Sympathetically shooing away the crickets, the granola girl attempted to change course. “Maybe we’re, like, all equal. Bees, plants, humans, platypi. You know, interconnected pieces in a cosmic jigsaw puzzle.” Ah yes, right on cue. The cosmic jigsaw puzzle, aka God’s grand and mysterious plan, aka laissez-faire fatalism. “So, Hitler and the noble platypus — on equal footing, each performing a vital function in the grand scheme?” Professor Morton knew it was a dicey proposition invoking the führer as a rhetorical straw man. Apoplectic fits had been known to ensue. And of course the potential black hole that was a discussion of free will. But not on this day, not with this class.

The air conditioning wasn’t working in Stern Lecture Hall, and even though the windows were open, the faint early-September New England breeze matriculating across campus seemed to be intentionally steering clear. The air in the room was stale, stale, stale. So, too, the material. This was the point in every first class when Professor Morton had begun reminding himself that he was engaging a roomful of 18- and 19-year-olds and that they should be forgiven for not being able to snap him out of his midlife crisis, career crisis, crisis of conscience.

It had been five years since he had managed to seduce any of his female students. (Previous assignations had always occurred after the semester was over, and only once when a grade adjustment hung in the balance.) He used to be able to discern on the first day of class exactly who among his charges would be thrilled by a heavy-breathed hump session on his office desk and who might require a clandestine visit to his houseboat on the Charles River to be properly fulfilled. Miss Right Angles would have been an ideal candidate for the former scenario. (The demure ones were always the most sexually transgressive in his experience.) That is if Professor Morton been a decade younger and 30 pounds lighter.

Purely out of nostalgia for his former self — and to enliven an otherwise rote teaching performance — he decided to resurrect his move. The move began as a way to heighten, absorb and transition through the kind of lull that was happening right now and also, if timed correctly, to bring his opening lecture to a dramatic conclusion. The move had materialized innocently enough, a bit of play acting introduced in his fifth year of teaching, meant only to entertain himself, and with no ulterior motive. He had discovered its seductive qualities by accident, and was henceforth as enthralled by its power as its intended targets.

The move began with a close-eyed, light-footed sashay, followed by a half pirouette to face the front wall, his back to his students. Hold for a half second, complete the pirouette at twice the speed of the first half-turn, then WHAM, clamp hands down violently on either side of a seemingly random desk (though far from random) — in this case, the mousey blonde’s desk, her pale pink skin being the whole point of the dusty choreography. Twenty-two years’ worth of muscle memory served Professor Morton well.

With the most physically challenging part of the move out of the way, he peered directly into the mousey blonde’s eyes and asked, at a volume intended to connect with the entire class while piercing the heart of the female form less than a foot away, “Are you a good person … or a bad person?” Hold the room, hold her gaze, make her wonder if she’s really expected to answer. Then, just as her lips begin to part (or a tear starts to glisten in the corner of her eye), stand at full height, take a few steps back and intone, “I want us all to think about that for Thursday’s class. You are dismissed.”

The move used to kill. It used to send his classes out into the world crackling with the electricity of newfound perspective. An audible hum, a palpable charge. Instead, among the shuffling of papers and zipping of backpacks, Professor Morton discerned multiple ping-ponging scoffs between a handful of students and on the face of the mousey blonde a look of embarrassment (inwardly directed) quickly transitioning to disgust (aimed right his way). No surprises. This was his new normal.

For Professor Morton, to be a bee was not to be . No matter how much he wished to swap places, to pull a freaky inter-species Friday, to trade in his slumping, sagging, fleshy form for a tiny, furry, perfectly cylindrical black and gold model, to undertake mission-critical pollen sorties, to live among a swarm of equals, to become interchangeable and indistinguishable, to know his role, his place, his purpose, to serve a higher power, to contribute to the greater good, to have the ability to lay down his life in one inspired act of violence protecting those he loved, he could only entertain the daydream for so long. Professor Morton knew his life was not worth more than a bee’s. And it stung. Boy did it sting.