There is a discarded waxed cardboard coffee cup near a telephone post on a rural dirt road I often walk. I first noticed it several months ago -or do I mean years?- it’s been there for a long while, for sure. At first, I thought I’d pick it up and recycle it somewhere, but it was a long way from anywhere, and it looked kind of big for the pockets I had on hand at the time, so I left it to lie fallow in the grass.
“Next time,” I remember saying out loud, in case somebody might be listening from the bushes. But when I saw it again, it seemed to have made itself at home in the shadow of the pole as if it had as much right to live there as the moss on the nearby stones, so I decided to leave it be. It wasn’t harming anything or anybody where it lay -and besides, nothing lives forever, so its carbon footprint would be the same whether it was me or Nature that commandeered its fate.
I look for it every time I pass that way, and I’d kind of miss it if it weren’t there. There’s nothing special about it. It is the kind of cup you see piled in Tim Horton’s trash bins and hiding in those dark little holes in the counters where you are expected to mix what you put in your dark roast coffee at Starbucks -not that I actually look in there or anything.
I’m wondering how long it will last, if you want to know -it’s obviously getting along fairly well with the neighbours even though I imagine it has a rather different parentage. Grass seems to treat it like any other pole to cozy up to, and a few of the younger more daring blades even poke their tips in its face as if they had just come over to borrow some milk, or something. I not sure why I thought it would be rejected -in Nature, there are no foreigners- and yet to see it integrated into the neighbourhood like a guest, made me feel all fuzzy inside, not guilty like I thought I would. Like it should…
But everything is context, isn’t it? The same cup leaning against any pole on any city sidewalk would call for immediate action. Immediate condemnation. I couldn’t help but wonder what the difference was. Both would have been carelessly tossed, probably without malice aforethought -indeed, probably with little forethought at all -and certainly with no thought of what the consequences might be if everybody decided to do the same. No thought, in other words, of fulfilling Kant’s Categorical Imperative… “The need to act as if what you did would be worthy of being made into a universal law,” as I remember my first philosophy professor saying to those of us who looked puzzled at the end of her lecture.
Actually, it was a seminar course at university, and there were only about fifteen of us in attendance, all sitting around a rather large table. For most of us, it was our first class after high school and we had no idea what to expect. We’d enrolled in the Basis of Philosophical Thought course because it was rumoured to be an easy three-essay program with a multiple choice exam at the end. I seemed to be the only one who was even remotely interested in what was being taught though -a dangerous thing in such a small group that was deliberately designed to be interactive. I had to disguise my enthusiasm lest I be the go-to student to quiz in the resounding silence of the question-fraught room.
Professor Sullivan, clearly annoyed at the whispering and fidgeting in the class, asked if anybody had even heard of the philosopher who we’d been warned by the syllabus to read about before the lecture. My hand popped up before I had adequately thought through the risks of revealing that I might have been so naïve as to have prepared for the class.
“Ahh, good…” she glanced at the class list of names and tried to guess which one I might own. But there were too many for her to even venture a guess. “And you are…?” she asked with an irritable smile.
Everybody turned to stare at me, the first token sacrifice. “Uhmm, my name is G, ma’am,” I said, hoping the abbreviation would suffice, for some reason. The class all knew who I was, and throughout much of my time at high school I’d often used the initial as my only name.
She glanced down at the list and then back at me with a now-wry smile plastered on her lips, as if she had thought of a new way to teach Kant. “Spelled G-E-E, no doubt…”
I think I blushed, because the smile morphed back into the initial friendly variety when she saw my discomfort.
“I… ahh, abbreviated it, because I…”
“Say no more!” she commanded loudly, interrupting me mid-excuse, and then slowly surveyed the tittering heads around me. She was quiet for a moment, and everybody sat immobile in their seats at her sudden, unexpected silence.
“Why do you think G abbreviated his name?” She turned to a nervous young girl who happened to make passing eye contact with her by mistake. “You are?”
“Gilda,” she answered in a soft, but obviously worried voice. When the professor continued to look at her expectantly, she realized she had to come up with an answer. “I… I’m not sure…” she said, risking a quick glance in my direction.
“Suppose I told you that there were…” She stared at her list briefly. “… three other men… and two women -including yours- whose names begin with G…?”
Gilda merely stared at her, uncertain of how to reply.
But Sullivan was not going to let her off so easily. “I’m certain we could qualify things further if he’d given me another initial… But he didn’t.” She let silence reign for a moment. “So if everybody were to identify themselves using only one initial, there would be a fair likelihood of confusion, would there not?” Heads nodded. “And if I merely stared at the ceiling and asked ‘G’ to answer a question, would anybody know which G I meant?” The heads all shifted mode and turned slowly from side to side like a group of children watching a parade.
“And does anybody recognize something of Kant in that observation?”
The class looked at each other in confusion. This was nothing like high school, and nobody answered.
The professor seemed amused, and her eyes twinkled mischievously as she sat back in her chair. “Nobody seems to have prepared for this seminar,” she said through another wry smile that had crept onto her face. “Nobody but G…” She winked saucily at me, then gathered up the few notes she had lying on the table in front of her and stared at the class for a second or two before she spoke. “I know you are all aware that there will be essays assigned for this course. Well, the first one will be due next week.” She glanced at the shocked expression on our faces. “ It will be on Kant’s Categorical Imperative. One thousand words, and no plagiarism please…” she added, with an almost imperceptible chuckle. And that’s when she graced us with that explanation I remembered of what Kant had meant.
Even the memory of that first seminar triggered a shiver of guilt about the now-resident coffee cup on that dirt road in the woods. Do I think that my action -or, rather, inaction- there should be construed as worthy of being universal? Would Kant have approved? It is black-and-white imperatives like his that sometimes give me nightmares. And yet some things are special, aren’t they? Even ordinary things sometimes deserve to be seen through a different lens at times -maybe not a universal lens, but a unique lens, nevertheless.
I like to think that even Professor S -as she later allowed us to call her- would have understood.