The subject that afternoon, our teacher, Mr. Slater, told us, would be how to play chess.
“Chess is about checkmate, about trapping your opponent’s king,” he said from the front of the classroom. “It isn’t about taking pieces. Only mediocre players try to win by taking pieces.”
He handed around chess sets and had us pair off. My opponent was Peggy, a fifteen-year-old girl who was even taller than most girls her age. I was a ten-year-old squirt.
During our opening moves, she placed her pieces in the way of mine. The only way I could advance was to get rid of them. I weighed Mr. Slater’s disdain for taking pieces against my desire to win. Then, one by one, I took several pawns and a bishop.
Peggy glared at me. “That isn’t how you’re supposed to play chess.”
Mr. Slater surely overheard, but thankfully he didn’t come over.
It was no small matter when he got angry. His eyes narrowed into intense irises and his Yorkshire vowels turned harsher. When berating the whole class, he’d stand in a spot diagonally across the room from my desk. I’d stare at his face, shadowed against the light coming in from the window behind him, and hope the path of destruction didn’t track my way.
That’s a passage I’ve removed from the manuscript of my memoir.
A brief context: During my childhood in England, partially sighted children were taught in separate schools. We couldn’t go to regular schools, but we were also unsuitable fodder for residential institutions for blind children. In Sheffield, where my family and I lived at the time, there weren’t many of us. In one class were perhaps a dozen children up to around the age of ten, and in the other were a roughly equal number of older children. Hence ten-year-old me competing with fifteen-year-old Peggy. She can’t have been happy about it, let alone being beaten by me, let alone my use of condemned tactics. She clearly felt betrayed and was openly upset.
Other than my very first teacher, who inspired her young children, Mr. Slater was by far the best I’d ever had. I took his words seriously. He was also intimidating. I hadn’t liked disregarding his caution and hadn’t wanted to take Peggy’s pieces, but they occupied places on the board that made it impossible for mine to advance. If I’d had more skill, could I have found those spaces? Because I can’t recreate that long-ago game, I’ll never know.
My vivid memory of that afternoon and Peggy’s distress suggests it was my first time facing a moral dilemma. I don’t mean the first time I’d done something wrong when the right thing to do was obvious.
The dilemma was different from, say, lying. Taking Peggy’s pieces was necessary if I was to reach her king. The alternative was opting to lose, which surely Mr. Slater would have deemed no more of an acceptable choice.
Lying involves a much clearer moral issue. Almost the first thing we learn as children is that lying is bad. It is bad. It can give you a benefit you don’t deserve. It can hurt the people you deceive.
But even lying isn’t always indefensible. Is it better to praise a host’s meal than tell him it’s the worst thing you’d ever eaten? Of course, when we’re being polite, we adapt our lies. We don’t tell the absolute truth, but we don’t gush the way we might if the meal was superb.
Perhaps this is why the phrase “moral compass” has come into common use. A compass needle points to magnetic north, a location that fluctuates over time. Unlike “true north,” it isn’t more or less a fixed point.
The trouble is that once you qualify a moral precept, you undermine it. To say lying is bad, except… is to deny its objective value. It provides dangerous people with the excuse of relativeness: Yeah, maybe I lie, but so does that other guy. Just because someone else does it, even assuming they do, is never justification. Such thinking is moral compass exploitation.
Looking back, Mr. Slater was mistaken to discourage taking the opponent’s pieces. Yes, checkmate is the goal. But getting to checkmate requires reducing the opponent’s defenses, and taking pieces is a legitimate tactic. For moral compasses to do their job right, we must take care to define our terms accurately.
Sometimes with the young children of relatives and friends, I wonder what moments they’ll remember and which they’ll forget. For adults, each childhood memory is a marker for when something significant was learned. In that chess game, for the first time I made a choice that wasn’t about right and wrong, but about which option was least wrong.