What atom told you so?

          Professor A. T. Heist peered over the top of his glasses and across the desk with a disconcerting look at Christian, whom until very recently he regarded as his star pupil…despite his name.
          “Look,” he said, barely controlling his anger, “I called you into my office to try to reason with you. You’re a bright kid. You’ve got a promising future. Your interaction in the class has made the semester interesting, not only for the other students but for me as well. But this is simply unacceptable.”
          “I still don’t understand why.”
          The professor slumped back in his chair, the exasperation obvious.
          “All right, one more time,” he said at last. “And I’ll try to make it just as plain and clear as I can.”
          He leaned forward and glared at Christian through narrowed eyes, pausing for dramatic effect. And then in the most authoritative tone he could muster, he said, “You can’t do this!”
          He emphasized the “can’t” by pounding the desk with his fist. Receiving the brunt of the blow was Christian’s term paper, which looked as if it had a lost a fight with a red pen.
          “Yes, you have already said so, Dr. Heist. But again I have to ask, why? It’s one thing to tell me I can’t; it’s another thing to explain why.”
          “Because it’s wrong, that’s why. You can’t copy someone else’s work and claim it as your own. That’s plagiarism.”
          “I’m aware of what it’s called, Doctor. But why is it wrong?”
          The professor slumped back into his chair again and looked at Christian doubtfully. “Do you really expect me to believe you don’t understand why it’s wrong?”
          “Look, Doctor, I have enjoyed your class and I’ve learned a great deal. I have to admit that when I was first told I had to take a philosophy course I was a bit uneasy. Philosophy had always seemed so abstract, but you really made the subject come alive for me, and so far it’s been my favorite class. It’s revolutionized my thinking.”
          The professor did his best to suppress a satisfied smile. He enjoyed the role he played as the enlightener of the young. He saw himself as a sort of secular savior, leading his students out of the darkness of the unexamined life. He had always felt a special pity for students from religious homes, whose poor benighted parents had passed on to their children the superstitions of the premodern world.
          He found Christian to be a particularly interesting student. He had had many other religious students before, but none quite like Christian. Christian participated in class discussions far more often, and far more thoughtfully. He was surprisingly confident in his convictions. The professor could tell from the beginning he was going to be a tough nut to crack. But Christian was too bright not to be convinced by a cogent argument, and the professor was sure that with a little patience he would eventually come around.
          Nor was he disappointed. Throughout the semester Christian showed he clearly understood the materialist philosophy. Much better than the other students, even those who had embraced it. Indeed, he wondered at times if Christian understood it better than he did himself. On several occasions, in class discussions and writing assignments, Christian fleshed out the implications of the philosophy more fully than he had done himself.
          Yet for all this Christian stubbornly persisted in his religious beliefs. That’s why the professor was so pleased when he read Christian’s term paper. The nut appeared to have finally cracked. Christian seemed to write as one who had embraced the materialist philosophy.
          It wasn’t until a day or so after he read the paper that the professor began to feel uneasy. There was something vaguely familiar about it. He hadn’t noticed it at first. But it came to him over the weekend. A line he had read somewhere before. A familiar phrase here. An expression there. He re-read the paper. His suspicions were heightened. He did an internet search to make sure. There it was. Christian had copied word for word the substance of a fairly well-known essay from a philosophical journal, added his own introduction and conclusion, and turned it in as his own work.
          The professor was disappointed and angry…
          “Have you not taught us, Doctor, that matter is all there is—no god, no soul, no spirit—just matter and energy?”
          “Yes, of course, that’s the essence of materialism. But let’s not stray from our point.”
          “I see it as very much related to our point.”
          “We’re talking about your conduct, Christian—your plagiarism—not a fine point of metaphysics.”
          “But conduct and metaphysics are related, aren’t they. You made the point several times in class. That’s why I’m having trouble understanding why you are so upset with me.”
          “What do you mean?”
          “You spent a good deal of time showing us that matter is all there is. It’s the ultimate reality. Nothing above or beyond it.”
          “Yes, yes, this is all very elementary.”
          “And matter does not prescribe any norms for human behavior, nor can it. Right? It has no will. Matter just is. And you can’t move from is to ought. Isn’t this what you’ve taught us, or have I missed something along the way?”
          “No you’re correct. Matter itself gives us no moral imperative, no standards for behavior. And I think I see where you’re going with this.”
          “Right. All semester you’ve taught us that there are no fixed moral standards—that everything is relative and depends upon the situation. Well, I just applied what you taught us about situational ethics to the term paper situation. That’s why it’s so puzzling that you’re so angry with me and tell me that plagiarism is wrong.”
          “Don’t play games with me Christian. It’s wrong and you know it’s wrong.”
          “What atom told you so, sir?”
          “Look, don’t be smart with me, Christian. If you were the one who had done the original research and had written the essay, you wouldn’t want someone to plagiarize your work—to steal your intellectual property.”
          “Are you applying the Golden Rule? That’s an odd thing for someone like you to do.”
          “The Golden Rule is not unique to the teaching of Jesus, Christian. Other religious leaders have taught the same thing, even non-religious thinkers, like Kant, who said, ‘Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’ So the Golden Rule, as you call it, is not a bad ethic to live by, even for a materialist.”
          “But are you saying it’s a norm which everyone ought to live by, or that it’s just a personal preference of yours that people would live by it?”
          “I’m saying the world would be a lot better place if everyone lived by it.”
          “And is making the world a better place something we ought to do?” asked Christian.
          “Of course it is!”
          “What atom told you so, sir?”
          “It’s just a given.”
          “Given by what? Or by Whom?”
          The professor stroked his beard and looked Christian over carefully, musing. He was doing it again. Christian was pushing the implications of the philosophy further than the professor had ever thought to do before. And by the twinkle in his eye, he concluded Christian had cleverly planned the whole thing.
          The professor was right about one thing. Christian was not like any student he ever had before.


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