murders all rolled into one—I was hired to teach an introductory course in applied eth- ics at Brown University. Whether by coin- cidence or subconscious design, much of my syllabus focused on the countless moral ques- tions surrounding property rights: Should my neighbor have to compensate me if she builds a house that obstructs my view? Why shouldn’t private business owners be permit- ted to discriminate on the basis of race or reli- gion? Who has the most convincing claim to a stolen painting that is subsequently sold and purchased in good faith by an unsuspecting third party? These are the conundrums that try eighteen year olds’ souls, during those ephemeral salad days before they start amass- ing property of their own. When you ask them: Is it ethical for a poor maid to steal a cheap toy for her son from the motel room of a wealthy family, they grapple with the mat- ter quite intensely. On the whole, they tend to be surprisingly forgiving of the well-inten- tioned and indigent cat burglar. Some even defend the working-class bandit who actually knows that the well-heeled family will return for the toy, yet steals it anyway, comparing the theft to pilfering apples for starving chil- dren or swallowing a phone company error in your favor. In contrast, my thirty-something friends—professional, civic-minded couples raising overindulged children of their own— see no ambiguity in the situation. Stealing is stealing. To the last, they are surprisingly lacking in sympathy for the imaginary servant who, in my concocted scenario, makes off with a pair of hypothetical rubber cats. Why are my Brown students so lenient? I often suspect it is because they have never before considered the injustice of a social sys- tem that allows some children to amass toys while others have none. Sure, they are aware of poverty: kwashiorkor and marasmus in the starving, dust-clad villages of the Sahel; hemorrhagic fevers ravaging war-torn swaths of the Congo. The more socially-conscious among them feel guilty that they have the leisure to study Gramsci and feminist the- ory, while millions of their chronological peers work fast food counters in urban ghet- tos and raise toddlers on food stamps. My
lessness. They side with the maid because, accustomed to an arsenal of Xboxes and mul- tiethnic Barbie dolls whose shoe collections rival that of Imelda Marcos, they do not see much cost in losing a single toy. When I de- scribe to them the vanished immigrant world in which my grandmother and Aunt Emma grew up, where one home-fashioned rag-doll was handed down like a cache of jewels from sister to sister, they listen with tolerant incre- dulity. I might as easily be telling them that when I was their age, I hiked fifty miles to school every morning—uphill, both ways— through drifts of year-round snow. Occasionally, of course, a student will take the side of the wealthy family. I recall one par- ticular girl—a sharp-thinking beauty, well on her way toward professional school and civic- minded childrearing—who had already learned
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students find these inequities fundamentally unsettling, even unjust—though, in all fair- ness, few will devote their lives to eradicat- ing poverty, and even fewer, if any, would voluntarily exchange places with their less fortunate brothers and sisters. What my students have never done, however, is reflect upon a life without toys. In a society where mass-produced plastic action figures cost ten dollars a piece, and every middle-class family has a closet well-stocked with such whole- some board games as Monopoly and Risk, my students find “toylessness” as alien as home-
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