I was in the pub again, testing some fresh observations on Tommy and his friends. I’d just finished reading Quantum Confessions, a new science fiction novel by Stephen Oram, which had made me wonder what a truly liberal society would look like here, in your universe. Back home in mine we’re encouraged to hold our own individual views without judging anyone else’s, but we have to take drugs that heighten our empathy to make it work. I wanted to get a sense of how liberal your world could be without these empathy enhancements.
It was late in the evening and we’d all had our fair share of alcohol when I introduced the topic. ‘Guys. If you found fifty pounds on the street would you keep it or take it to the police?’
They all groaned. ‘Oh no, here we go again. More questions,’ said Brian.
Tommy scowled. ‘Leave him be. You should be pleased he’s asking us and not some stupid politician.’ A couple of them nodded. ‘It’s a good question,’ he said, smiling at me.
‘With a very simple answer. Keep it!’ said Brian.
‘That’s all very well,’ said Tommy. ‘But the law says you should hand it to the authorities. Like that couple who found a winning lottery ticket for thirty thousand pounds, spent half of it and then got done for theft. And they had to pay it all back.’
‘Can I have a show of hands?’ I asked. ‘Who’s for keeping it?’ All six of them nodded. ‘Even though it’s illegal?’ They all carried on nodding. ‘What would you do if you saw someone drop the fifty pounds? Would you still keep it?’ One of them said no, but the other five, including Tommy, nodded again.
‘Why is that different?’ I asked the guy who’d said no.
‘You know who it belongs to. But, if they were filthy rich I’d probably keep it.’ Tommy gave him the thumbs up.
‘What about stealing a wallet from a table in a pub?’ I asked.
‘If they’re stupid enough to leave it lying around,’ said Brian.
‘And from their coat pocket?’ I asked.
Brian snorted. ‘Bit dodgy but yeah, if I had to.’
Tommy joined in the questioning. ‘What about robbing from a house?’
‘Very funny,’ said Brian. ‘You know I have.’ He turned to the others and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Only when a window’s been left open though.’ One of the guys got up and walked away.
‘And mugging?’ I asked Brian.
‘If they’re rich and cocky and you only threaten them, then that’s kinda okay. They’re probably some city slicker who’s been robbing you blind in some legalised way anyway. You know – insurance, banker or something.’
‘And would you hurt them if they refused?’ asked Tommy.
‘In self-defence I would, yeah.’
‘So… you come across a rich, cocky old woman in the street who you know has been ripping people off for years as a financial adviser. Would you mug her? With violence?’
Brian didn’t answer.
Tommy pressed him. ‘Well, what would you do?’
‘I’d try not to hurt her, but if she gave me no option then I’d have to, wouldn’t I.’
‘And if you came across her while you were robbing her house and she tried to stop you?’
‘I’d walk away. You don’t hurt an old lady in her own home, do you. You’d have to be sick to do that.’
I interrupted. ‘Brian, why does it make a difference if it’s in her own house?’
Tommy answered instead. ‘We all draw a line somewhere, don’t we.’
‘But who decides on where that line is?’ I asked.
‘You have to decide for yourself. You’re the one that’s got to live with it.’
‘So, you decide what’s right and what’s wrong?’
‘Yeah, I guess so,’ said Tommy.
‘If someone hurts an old lady in her own home that’s fine by you, so long as they think it’s okay?’
‘No! Of course not.’
‘So who decides?’
Brian put his pint down, gripped my jacket collar and pulled me towards him. He whispered. ‘If some piece of scum goes too far, we deal with them. Get the picture?’
I lifted his hand off my jacket. ‘I get it. There’s one set of agreed rules, the law, but you have another set of rules that sometimes you impose.’
‘Leave it there,’ said Tommy. ‘Who wants another drink?’
It was a fascinating conversation and I’m a little closer to understanding what a liberal world without effective empathy enhancements would look like. And I don’t think it’s very pleasant.