James Ellison knows the names of every agent killed by … not Cromartie, but the thing that had stolen Cromartie's identity. (And doesn't that give a whole new meaning to the fear of identity theft?) He wore a black suit to every one of their funerals, gave his hollow condolences to their families. (Cromartie didn't get a funeral. Only God knows what happened to him, though Ellison can make a good guess.)
"Hello, John Henry." Ellison unbuttons his suit coat and sits across the table from the new creation in front of him. "How are you doing today?"
"I am doing fine, Mister Ellison." John Henry smiles. (It's the same plastic, false smile that the thing that wasn't Cromartie gave him when he questioned it. That's not surprising; it's the same face.) "I've been thinking about virtue. It's a big topic."
"It certainly is," Ellison replies. "Did you read the Book of Virtues?" Ellison mentioned it in passing, the day before. (John Henry had wanted to know about stories. Why do humans tell them? Why wrap messages in stories, instead of telling the message plainly and clearly? Do all stories have a message?)
"I did," John Henry replies. His voice is as bland as the room they sit in, oddly divorced from the world outside, from the past, from the future. (It's the bank of computers behind him that gives his words their edge.) "It was most interesting. Thank you for suggesting it. I am curious, though. I want to know how William Bennett chose which virtues to include."
"You'd have to ask him, for a certain answer, but I would imagine choosing the stories to illustrate each virtue would be more difficult," Ellison says. "It's a fairly standard list." (The thing that killed Ellison's team is not the thing sitting across from him discussing ethics and literature. Ellison saw the chip destroyed, pulverized beyond repair by the butt of Sarah Connor's gun.)
"That is what's so interesting," John Henry replies. "Which virtues are considered 'standard' varies depending on the culture and time period; although there is a great deal of overlap, the nuances change dramatically. For instance, one of the great themes of the Bible is justice, particularly for the weak and powerless, as we have often discussed. Yet that virtue is not one Bennett has chosen to explore. Mercy and hospitality are two of the other great virtues in the Bible, yet they are not highlighted either." He pauses, head cocked to the side. Ellison nods to him to continue.
"Chinese culture has a "Book of Virtues" as well," John Henry goes on. "It is called the Tao Te Ching, and it is arranged quite differently. Instead of a list of virtues concretely stated and named with a selection of illustrative tales, it is a collection of thematically connected poetry designed to form a holistic model for a virtuous life. Taoism prizes simple living, dualities in harmony with one another, wisdom, harmony with the universe, flexibility and suppleness, and knowing what your limits are." (That's what frightens Ellison the most, has haunted his dreams since he dug the metal corpse out of the dust of the Mexican desert, has kept him awake at night, staring at his bedroom ceiling, since he agreed to Weaver's proposition. How far in over his head is he?)
"Each time and culture emphasizes different virtues, you're right, John Henry," James Ellison says, nodding. He can't afford for his student to see his doubts. "But I think a lot of that ends up quibbling over details. Culture can be relative, different peoples value different things, but virtues are needed to teach people how to get along with each other. Without some way to tell good behavior from bad, society falls apart and evil is given free reign." (Sarah Connor's stories of the machines from the future told him what a world ruled by amoral beings looks like. Cromartie's actions showed him.) "Different cultures think about virtue in different ways, but the ways that virtue is acted out tend to be similar."
"Then you would agree with Aristotle," John Henry says, brightening. (It's the open, curious enthusiasm of a child, and more honest than any expression the thing called Cromartie had. Ellison remembers this look, this expression, when he needs to remember why he's doing this.) "Aristotle believed that virtue was a practical discipline," John Henry explains, "not an intellectual one, and needed to be learned by doing. He also believed that virtue was found in the balance between extremes, and that to be virtuous one must act according to the highest good, which he associated with happiness. Aristotle believed that virtue could be derived logically from rational thought."
"I suppose that's true," Ellison says, thinking it over. "I certainly would agree with Aristotle that virtue has to be lived out. But in most situations, when you need to make an ethical choice, you don't have time to think about it. There's no opportunity to logically, rationally figure out what to do. A lot of times, you don't even realize what's at stake until after the crucial actions have been taken." He pauses to gather his thoughts. This is where things get sticky; this is where his mission—to teach morality to a computer—is most likely to fail. "Virtue isn't solely based on logic and rationality—you can logically, rationally, make an evil choice." (It's not just computers who do that, of course; Peter Silberman showed him how deadly it could be to try to reason things out in an impossible situation. But the wildness of the fanatic is something he'll never see in John Henry's eyes.) "You have to know right from wrong, good from evil, even when wrong or evil seems easier or more expedient. And you have to apply that to little, ordinary, everyday actions, make a habit of it, or you won't know how to make the right choice in time when it's most critical."
John Henry frowns. "Plato believed there were four cardinal virtues: temperance, prudence, fortitude, and justice. The three Christian virtues Paul writes of are faith, hope, and love, but medieval Christians focused on chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Confucius taught that humanity, filial piety, and loyalty were the greatest virtues. Benjamin Franklin believed that temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, tranquility, cleanliness, chastity, and humility were the virtues that would lead to moral perfection. Muslims believe that the highest virtue is submission to the will of God, of which the Quran is the exemplar. Hindus prize altruism, restraint, honesty, peace, and reverence for one's elders, among other qualities. Buddhism lifts up loving-kindness towards all, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity as the great virtues."
"That's quite a list, John Henry." Ellison smiles. "You must have done a lot of reading overnight."
"I barely scratched the surface," John Henry replies seriously. His voice is calm and even. "There are so many opinions on what virtue is. And none of them agree completely. Some are similar, but others are very different. So the question is, who chooses what virtue is?"
Ellison freezes at John Henry's words. He can see a world in ruins reflected in his eyes.