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250 questions

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1988. 250 questions. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, February:6–7.

There's an old joke I have in mind, and like many old jokes, it contains some interesting food for speculation. The joke goes a little bit like this: A young man, out on a date with a particularly attractive young woman, gazes intently into his date's eyes and asks her if she would have sex with him if he paid her a billion dollars. Flustered, the date replies that yes, she probably would, but she'd have to think about it a bit more. The man then asks her if she would go to bed with him for $5, and she immediately refuses:"What do you think I am?" The man then replies "We've settled that, all we're doing is haggling over the price."

Let's postpone the sexist implications of the joke for the moment (maybe 'till next newsletter?). As I said, it's an old joke, and in any event, I'm repeating it as an eccentric (I plead guilty to the charge) way of making a point, namely: does every (hu)man have a price and, if so, what does that say about the person? I suspect very strongly that the answer is a firm yes, and that the real issue is the magnitude of the final price that would cause us to sell out.

What does this have to do with the title of this article? The Book of Questions is a small book by Greg Stock (published by Workman Publishing, New York) that contains 250 well-chosen questions intended to help you evaluate your own feelings on a wide variety of subjects. The book can be taken on two levels: as a simple and entertaining party game, or as a serious tool for learning a lot about yourself.

One of the most important goals in my life is to gain an understanding of who and what I am: my strengths, my weaknesses, my good, and my bad. Only through such knowledge can I improve myself and become the sort of person that I'd like to be. As a result, I've taken on the project of reading one question from the book on each working day and attempting to answer it as I walked to work and in so doing, to prod myself to examine my more dearly held convictions. This is really where the joke at the beginning of the essay comes in: it came to my attention while I pondered the little thought problem that started me off on my day some time back.

Strictly speaking, the question was as follows: "If you could gain a free vacation to a tropical paradise for so doing, would you kill a beautiful butterfly by tearing off its wings? How about a cockroach?" In short, as I've said in my own roundabout way, what is your price? Glib answers to the question come easily: "Yes, what use is one more butterfly?" "Certainly! Cockroaches are abhorrent creatures that spread disease!" But let's examine the price and the reward and see if the price is a fair one. I'll tell you a little about myself to give you an example of where such simple questions can lead.

I began the argument, as I so often do in these matters, by setting the boundaries for the discussion. Under what conditions would I do the killing? Under what conditions would I balk? Having lived with cockroaches in Toronto for two years (a statement equivalent to saying that I breathed, used the public transit, etc.), I would without hesitation kill one of the beasts: they spread disease, they get in the food, and the killing certainly wouldn't do any damage to the ecological role of the species. (Some sages doubt that any measures would.) On the other hand, I wouldn't go out of my way to kill a butterfly; they're pretty, they pollinate the flowers, and I like them. But to earn a vacation to Hawaii, for example, I'd at least think about it.

That was the start of the thought process. I eventually decided that I wouldn't kill the butterfly because I'd rather earn the trip to Hawaii. But maybe the price is too small? At what price would my scruples vanish? Well, certainly for the hypothetical billion dollars. That much money could buy a lot of happiness for me, for my friends, for a lot of charity organizations, and probably for butterflies (e.g., a large butterfly sanctuary in Hawaii). So I do have my price after all, and now I know that it lies somewhere between a trip to Hawaii (a few thousand dollars) and a billion dollars. Where do I set the price? Would I have the same answer if the butterfly looked like a cockroach and vice versa? And in what larger problems in my life do the ends justify the means? Do the ends ever justify the means?

I don't have any answers for these questions yet, but I have a start towards finding answers. If it takes me another 60 years to refine my knowledge of my own boundaries, indeed to change the boundaries themselves as I mature, then that's part of life. If this sort of personal voyage of discovery interests you (and as a sentient adult, it should), then I heartily recommend Dr. Stock's book.

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