The Heavens Fall Sample
“Let’s imagine,” I said, addressing a room full of teenagers, “that I punch your teacher in the face.”
I mimed a right hook at Tabitha Simmons, a young woman with a mane of frizzy hair and the teacher whose class I was speaking to. I got a couple of chuckles at that.
“Now,” I said, “I hope you would all agree that punching your teacher would be wrong. But why is it wrong? Where is the wrongness?”
A room full of teenagers stared blankly at me.
“This is that audience participation I mentioned earlier.”
A couple of hands rose shakily into the air. I pointed at one of them.
“It’s wrong because it hurts Ms. Simmons,” the owner of the hand—a small girl with large glasses—said.
“Good answer,” I said. “It’s wrong to punch your teacher because it would hurt her. I mean, it might not hurt her very much, I’m not all that handy in a fight, but it would hurt her and it’s wrong for that reason.
“What you have just articulated is one of the main types of normative theory. A normative theory is a theory of what is right and wrong or good and bad. We call this type consequentialism, and it’s the view that good and bad come down to consequences. No action can be right or wrong in a vacuum; it’s all about the consequences of that action. Can anyone think of any examples of consequentialists from fiction?”
“Thanos,” one of the students called out.
I moved my hand back and forth in a so-so motion. “If he was, he wasn’t a very good one. He had all that power and he used it to kill half the universe. Why not just make all the planets twice as big? Also, pretty sure killing half the population at random doesn’t address any of the causes of population growth, so it’s not going to solve anything anyway. I was thinking Ozymandias from Watchmen.”
I got a round of blank stares at that.
This was my usual way of teaching students about the basics of normative theories. It helped explain the difference between consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. It was a bit simplistic, and missed out on a lot of the nuances of different normative theories. But I was giving an introduction to philosophy to a high-school class, so a bit of simplification was called for. As were some pop culture references, though apparently mine were a bit out of date for the youth of today.
“You haven’t seen—” I started. “Ugh, never mind. Did anyone have a different answer to why I shouldn’t punch your teacher? Yes, you in the back.”
“It’s just . . . wrong,” a lanky boy with messy hair said. “I don’t know how better to explain it.”
“Well, let me have a try. Would it be fair to say that you are saying that the act of punching your teacher is wrong in itself, regardless of whether or not it hurts her?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Great. It sounds like you are talking about what we call deontology. That’s another type of normative theory entirely. Deontology is all about following certain rules for acting. About some actions being right, and others being wrong, regardless of their consequences. Can anyone think of an example of someone like that in fiction?”
Blank stares again.
“How about Batman?” I asked. “No matter how much he might want to, or even how much it might help others, he never kills the Joker. He has strict rules on what he thinks is morally acceptable and what isn’t.
“So, the wrongness in punching Ms. Simmons here could come from the pain it could cause her, or the act might be wrong in itself. There’s somewhere else the wrongness might be though. Where might that be?”
Actually, there were a lot more possible explanations for the wrongness of punching their teacher but, again, simplification, pitching at the right level for your audience, good enough for government work, etcetera.
“Is it because you’re a guest in our class?” the first girl asked.
“Hmm,” I said. “Elaborate.”
“Well, you’ve been asked to come in and talk to us. It wouldn’t be appropriate for you to punch the person who invited you in.”
I gave a half smile at that. “That wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but it’s an interesting one. What you are talking about could be defined in a few different ways. It could be the view that the situation we are in determines what’s right, or that our moral obligations are different depending on what role we are in, or a handful of other things.
“Let me ask you this question though. If I weren’t a guest here, if I were just some guy who had wandered into the room, would that make it okay for me to punch your teacher?”
The girl frowned. “No, it wouldn’t.”
“Congratulations, you’ve just touched on the problem with most types of professional ethics. That is, that our moral obligations, whatever they are, predate and supersede our place in society. Now, where was I? Right, virtue ethics.”
I explained the basics of ethics for another ten minutes and, by that time, the students were starting to get restless. I had already covered epistemology and ontology/metaphysics and, fascinating as all of those topics are (and they are), the students’ attention spans seemed to be wearing thin. I decided to call it there rather than explain what cultural relativism is and why it’s rubbish.
“Okay,” I said, “I think that probably covers the ‘cramming a few thousand years of philosophical thought into forty minutes’ portion of the talk. We’ve got a bit of time left, so if you’ve got any questions, now’s the time.”
The lanky boy from the back of the class raised his hand.
“What does a philosopher actually do?” he asked.
“Well, that depends on the philosopher. Some are a bit like history scholars, and they spend their time trying to work out what ancient philosophers meant when they weren’t being very clear. Some are more like policy analysts, and they spend their time considering society and how we should structure it and then trying to communicate those ideas to the people. Some are more like teachers, and spend their time teaching others how to think critically. Some seem to just be pompous asshats who don’t really do much of anything except listen to the sound of their own voice.
“But philosophy, when it’s at its best, is like mathematics but with ideas instead of numbers. Although I suppose that describes quite a bit of mathematics as well. The point is, that philosophers, the best philosophers, try to find the answers to the most difficult questions that there are. That’s what they do.”
“What kind are you?” a short boy up the front asked.
“Depends on the day,” I said. “Today I’m teaching you lot, so I’m more of a teacher. Last week, I was with a group trying to get funding for a de-extinction program, so I was more like a policy analyst. I certainly try to find the answers to the hard questions, and sometimes I even succeed, but I have been guilty of a few moments of pompous asshattery along the way too.
“But mostly, I’m a detective. I solve mysteries and help people. Sometimes that means solving crimes; sometimes that means helping people with personal issues; sometimes it means suspending someone from a tree until they acknowledge the rest of the world exists. Last year, I found a serial killer for the police and, come Monday morning, I’m going to be officially out of ways to put it off and I’m going to have to go win some legal cases. That’s who I am.”
A very proper-looking girl raised her hand in the front row, her elbow at an exact ninety-degree angle.
I pointed at her. “Yes?”
“What qualifies you to do that stuff?” she asked.
“Hmm,” I said. “There are a few ways I could answer that. Perhaps you could elaborate. What do you mean, exactly?”
“Well, like, shouldn’t detectives or lawyers or therapists or whatever have some sort of qualification or training?”
“Okay, I think I get it now. Let me ask you this question back: Why do we have qualifications and training programs for lawyers, detectives, etcetera?”
She made a face.
“It’s not a trick question,” I encouraged.
“To make sure they know what they’re doing?”
“Basically, yeah. We put barriers to doing certain jobs in place to make sure the people doing those jobs are capable of doing them. For example, you don’t want some random dude off the street to perform surgery on you. That would end very badly.
“You want a surgeon who knows what they’re doing, so you find one who has the appropriate qualifications because that proves that they do, more or less. Someone has checked that they know how to do what they need to, and that provides you some guarantee. It’s like peer review for people.”
“So, you are qualified then?” the girl asked.
“I’m getting to that. That’s why we would want to require certain qualifications in order to do certain professions. Some professions are pretty clear, others are arguable, but putting these barriers in place has a cost associated with it. Can anyone tell me what that is?”
“You have to study for years?” the short boy up front asked.
“Well, yes, that’s true, but I meant more a cost to society. For example, it means that people don’t have as much opportunity to do a lot of different jobs, which is rather a shame. But, what I was thinking of was that you end up perpetuating the orthodox view in a given discipline by only allowing those who have been trained in that view to practice it. When it’s something like proper surgical hygiene, that’s a good thing. But in other professions, that can be a real cost.”
I didn’t use teachers as an example, even though they would be a good one, because Tabitha was right there and I was meant to be doing her a favor.
“And that’s why it’s okay for you to be a detective without training?” the proper girl asked.
“No, not really,” I said. “That’s just to get you thinking about why we have those rules in the first place. It’s all about being sure that a person can do the job that you need them to do. In my case, people know I can do my job because of my track record of doing just that. As for doing things by the book, crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s and all that . . . ” I gave a broad grin. “That’s all highly overrated.”
“And that’s all the time we have for today,” Tabitha said, seemingly wanting me gone before I started encouraging any lawbreaking. “Everyone thank Doctor Consequent for coming.”
There was a chorus of half-hearted applause and I took my leave, hoping that my attitude toward procedure wouldn’t ironically blow up in my face or anything like that during the main narrative.
I walked into the law office scowling. I was already in a foul mood, and every high-priced attorney in a high-priced suit that I saw only made it fouler. I had made a deal with Harris Murtaugh, named partner at Riggs and Murtaugh. In exchange for his help, I had to win three cases for him in eighteen months or forfeit two million dollars. I didn’t have two million dollars to give, and I didn’t have much time left. I had been putting him off for the better part of a year and now I had to win him three cases in just over six months. Procrastination might not have been the best idea but, in my defense, I really didn’t want to do it.
“Ah, Mr. Consequent,” a young woman sitting behind reception said, having finally noticed me standing around looking grumpy. “You’re just this way. I’ll show you.”
“It’s Doctor Consequent,” I muttered.
“What was that?”
“I said call me John.” I managed a half-hearted smile. It wasn’t the receptionist I was annoyed with after all.
“Lovely. Well, Ronald is just through here in Conference Room F. He’ll help you with anything you need.”
She left with a smile and I opened the door.
Ronald looked like he had just come from an audition to play Willy Loman but hadn’t gotten the role because he was too much of a sad sack. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties and his comb-over was losing the battle to conceal his bald spot. He wore a suit that didn’t quite fit him anymore and a tie that had never recovered from a run-in with some mustard.
Conference Room F, likewise, wasn’t very impressive. It was roughly the size of a supply closet and filled with a table that looked like it would struggle to accommodate two people sitting. Ronald had covered the table with stacks of paperwork and he had a laptop open in front of him. When I entered, he gave a half-hearted grunt of acknowledgement.
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re the lawyer I’m going to be working with?”
Ronald gave a shrug. “I’m what you got.”
“Figures,” I muttered to myself.
Okay, this seems like an important time for a quick lesson on Republic City law. It’s not overly strict with its regulations on legal representation. Basically, anyone can work any legal case they like, providing they can satisfy two conditions. One, the client has to sign off. And two, they have to have an actual lawyer along to supervise. Murtaugh seemed to be giving me the lawyer he needed least on other cases so that he could extract the maximum value out of our deal. Either he’d get three wins without wasting the time of one of his high-earners, or I’d have to pay him two million dollars.
“Let’s get one thing straight from the off,” Ronald said. “I don’t want to be here. The boss says you’re a big-shot expert or something and that I’ve gotta help you. I’m gonna do it because I want to keep my job, but I’m a proper lawyer, not some intern. So legal research, setting appointments, I’ll do it. But I’m not going to be getting you coffee or shining your shoes or whatever else. Got it?”
“Sure,” I said, lifting one foot to show my shoe. I was wearing a pair of comfortable black shoes about two steps away from being sneakers. “I wasn’t really planning on a lot of shoeshines. I mostly just need you to be a lawyer so I am allowed to work on cases. Looks like you’ve done quite a bit of research already.”
Ronald grunted. “Research I can do. These are all the active cases at the firm. The boss said you’re meant to choose three of them. Since it’s just us, I pulled the least complicated cases that haven’t already been assigned and put them in that pile there.”
I inched my way between the table and the wall and sat down opposite Ronald. “Yeah, I’m not that worried about complicated, and I’m certainly not worried about whether or not they have already been assigned. Can you organize them by most to least interesting instead? Or maybe by relative scumbaggery of the client?”
Ronald raised an eyebrow at me. “That isn’t how this works.”
“Reason number forty-seven why I’m not a lawyer. Okay, let’s just go through them and look for anything fun.”
“If you want fun, take a cruise; this is work.”
“Fine,” I said through gritted teeth. “How about interesting, have you got anything interesting?”
Ronald handed me a case file. “Fraud case.”
I scanned the file. “No.”
“Copyright infringement case?”
“Are we defending the alleged infringer?”
“Merger. Three different companies.”
I made a face. “My deal with Murtaugh says I have to win three cases. I don’t think I can win a merger. Let’s focus on the criminal cases and civil suits.”
We kept looking through files for about half an hour before I got annoyed and threw a case file at the wall. “Ugh! This is getting us nowhere. None of the important details are in these files. We are going to need to talk to some of these people in person. Can you set up some interviews?”
Ronald sighed and retrieved a small notepad and a chewed-on pen from his pocket. “Who with?”
“Basically everyone. Leave out the mergers and the like, and anything that will certainly drag on for years, but get everyone else. Tell them that a specialist would like to meet with them to decide whether or not to help with their case. Then have them all come in, ideally at the same time, and we can screen them.”
Ronald chewed on that, and on his pen, for a moment. “That could upset a lot of other people if they think you’re taking their clients.”
I grinned at that. The idea of upsetting some corporate lawyers by stepping into some sort of territorial pissing contest amused me to no end. “If they’re happy with their current representation, then no harm done. But, once you explain the situation and that one of the named partners of the firm has brought me in specifically to win cases, I’m sure most of them will want a meeting.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Great. You have my number, I assume? Call me when it’s done. In the meantime, I have other important work to be getting on with.”
He nodded like he was left to deal with other people’s busywork all the time, and I left to get on with said important work, which was catching up on some philosophical reading.
My office is just opposite a mall with a great food court, so while no new clients came in (I don’t get that much walk-in business anyway on account of my life not being a 1950s noir film), I had a rather nice meatball sub and pondered moral philosophy for much of the day. Suffice to say, it was a pleasant afternoon.
But alas, it couldn’t last. Ronald called me back after a few hours to tell me he had set up a whole week of interviews starting the very next day. He was impressively thorough and he had gotten almost everyone to agree to meet with me, which came as some surprise because he seemed to have all the charisma and drive of a wet rag. I thanked him, told him I’d see him in the morning, and hung up.
By that point, it was getting toward evening and, since I was going to be getting up early again the next day and dealing with more lawyers, I figured I had an excuse to knock off early.
I packed up my things—which amounted to throwing out my sub wrapper—and took off home in my 1993 Piece-Of-Junk.
I arrived home to find my wife talking to her ex-girlfriend, Maria, in our living room.
“John,” Maria said by way of greeting. Maria was tall and athletic, with dark eyes and dark hair. She wore the slacks and jacket that I thought of as her cop outfit, so it probably wasn’t a social call. Well, that was one clue. The fact that we didn’t like each other and she was likely still pissed off that, a few months earlier, I had charged into a kidnapping after promising her that I wouldn’t, also helped.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
Sophia—yes, my wife’s name is Sophia and I’m a philosopher, but don’t bother, I’ve already made every variant of that joke—gave her a look that told her to spit it out. Sophia was also roughly ten percent as beautiful as she was smart, which in her case meant she was an absolute knockout, with fiery red hair and a mischievous smile. She sat on the couch next to Maria wearing a black T-shirt and dark jeans.
“I, ah,” Maria said, “need your help.”
I sat down in one of our philosophy chairs (which is to say, one of the armchairs that wasn’t facing the TV). “What with?”
“There’s this woman; she’s saying I hurt her.”
Anger flashed across Maria’s face. “I would never do that.”
“You threatened to hit me a couple of times and . . . ” I caught the look Sophia was giving me and realized what she was saying. “Oh. You mean this is a domestic thing?”
“And she’s saying you what, beat her up?”
Another nod. “I’ve been suspended pending an investigation. It’s bullshit, but even a whiff of something like this could kill my career. I need to be completely exonerated.”
“Maria,” Sophia said. “Why don’t you start from the beginning?”
“Right, right, okay. I’d been seeing this woman for a couple of months, right? Destiny. I know, stripper name. But she was smart and funny and—ugh. I mean, she was a librarian for God’s sake! One day she calls it off. Not sure why, but it wasn’t that serious, so I moved on. These things happen, no big deal.
“Then, a few days later, I hear she has filed a police report against me. Said I went there after we broke up and got physical with her. I haven’t even seen her since we broke up but, whatever happened, she got beat up somehow. Fractured cheekbone, bruising, swollen eye. It looked pretty convincing. I don’t know if she wants to blackmail me, or if she’s being used somehow, or if she’s just fundamentally sick, but I can’t even see her to ask her now. She got a restraining order.
“That’s where you come in. I need you to talk to her, see if you can convince her to tell the truth, or at least figure out why she’s lying in the first place. Problem is, it’s illegal for anyone to go there on my behalf. I figured that wouldn’t be a problem for you.”
I raised an eyebrow. Maria had taken a dim view of my disregard for the law in the past, and there was a certain ironic satisfaction in her coming to me for exactly that reason.
Maria frowned. “Look, I know every dirtbag that beats his girlfriend says he didn’t do it, but I’m telling you the truth; I really didn’t do it. Will you help me?”
“I believe you,” I said. “I’ll look into it. I have some work I have to do for Riggs and Murtaugh. Payback for that charity gala thing, but I’ll take care of this.”
Maria looked conflicted. “Thank you. And, could you not talk to anyone at the police station about this?”
“I don’t usually tell the cops when I’m breaking the law, but thanks for the advice.”
“No,” she said. “I mean don’t even talk to them about the investigation. I don’t think having your name associated with this is going to help me.”
“I’m still persona non grata down at the station then?”
“After the stunt you pulled? I wouldn’t expect the captain to change his mind on that anytime soon.”
I was going to say something back, but Sophia beat me to it.
“The stunt where he saved my life, you mean? That stunt?”
Maria winced. “It’s not as simple as that.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I also stopped two separate murderers.”
Maria held up her hands. “Look, I didn’t come to fight. I appreciate that you’re helping me.”
I let it go. “Fair enough. I’m busy all day tomorrow, but if you give me Destiny’s address, I’ll go see her in the evening, okay?”
Maria nodded. “Thank you.”
Maria and Sophia said their goodbyes, and Maria left.
“Why wait till tomorrow?” Sophia asked once Maria was gone.
“Well . . . I was hoping you could throw together a listening device for me to plant when I go talk to Destiny. Please?”
“And what makes you think I can just throw together a listening device with one day’s notice?”
I arched an eyebrow at her and mimed casting a fishing rod.
She gave me an innocent look, but I could tell she was trying not to smile.
I rolled my eyes. “Because you’re Sophia Thorn. I have no doubt that you could throw together a particle accelerator with a day’s notice if you really wanted to.”
Sophia mimed reeling in the compliment and smiled. “Maybe a small one. Okay, I’ll make your bug, but you’re making dinner.”
“Deal,” I said. “I’ll make something really special.”
“You’re going to order Thai food, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but I’m going to order from two different places and then plate them up together.”
“I’m not sure putting takeout from two different restaurants next to each other constitutes making dinner.”
“Sure it does. I’m taking different elements and bringing them together to make them a meal. I’ll get the chicken roti from that one place, and the spicy chicken stir-fry from the other one.”
Sophia’s skeptical expression turned into a smile. “Okay, that does sound pretty good.”