Moral Ambiguity at the Dinner Table

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With the family all around the dinner table, I asked my 8-year-old daughter Casey what she'd done in school. She had exciting news: She'd attended the first session of a class for advanced young readers. There they'd read a short story on a single piece of paper.

"It had a moral," she said, with important-sounding emphasis on the word.

A moral! Let's hear it, I said.

It went like this: A shepherd was tending his flock, and a wolf snuck up and stole one of the sheep. He was taking it home to his lair to eat it, when a lion came along; he knocked down the wolf and took away the sheep.

The wolf said, "Hey, you can't just steal my property like that!" And the lion countered with something to the effect of, well, how is it your property if you stole it from someone else?

At this point I'm thinking about Russian privatization, with oligarchs as the wolf and President Vladimir Putin as the lion. So I'm suddenly, to my surprise, a little curious about the moral. Maybe there's some ancient wisdom worth considering here.

So what was the moral, Casey?

Casey frowns, then says, "The moral was that it's bad to be the wolf and to steal things."

That doesn't sound right. What about the lion? Is it OK to be the lion and steal things from the wolf?

Now Casey is really frowning; she can't remember; she sits there, ketchup on her face, a half-eaten hamburger clutched in her hands, growing cold, while she thinks. (Yes, a hamburger -- and no, we don't eat them all the time! It's probably the second hamburger she's had all year; quit your stereotyping of us poor Americans!)

"The moral was something ... There was ... No, it was, like, two things, something like it's evil to do it once and evil again."

I'm guessing that's a garbled version of the old saw "Two wrongs don't make a right."

But instead, to tease her, I interrupt to say, "I think the moral is, 'It's good to be the lion.'"

"Yes," my wife Svetlana chimes in, "it's always good to be the king."

No, no, Casey says impatiently and crossly, but now my wife and I are competing with our own morals: The moral is that, if you're going to steal something, don't dawdle on the way back to your lair -- hurry home. The moral is: It's the lazy shepherd's fault.

The moral is: The lion and the wolf ought to join forces and divvy up all the sheep in the flock.

The moral is: Once you've stolen the sheep from the shepherd, you should cash out as quickly as possible and park your money offshore where the lion can't go.

"I think," pipes up the 5-year-old, Emily, who's been silent so far, "that maybe ..."

Long, important pause.

"... maybe, the lion is taking the sheep so he can give it back to the shepherd."

Parental groans all around. "Emily!" cries Svetlana. "Where are your Russian genes?"

"Don't you know that when it's snowing out," Svetlana continues, "if your neighbor asks you for snow, you should tell him 'No!'" (Svetlana is technically a Ukrainian khokhlushka.)

But Emily stands her ground in defense of the lion.

She's also a fan of President George W. Bush; it drives her poor parents crazy.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, writes the Daily Outrage for The Nation magazine. []