Is it ever okay to steal? What if that theft will save a life? It’s a question debated in college philosophy classes. And it’s a question begged in the third episode of my favorite TV drama, The Waltons. The answer is not so clear.
In “The Calf,” the family dairy cow gives birth to a bull which the Walton children immediately adopt as a new pet. But the realities of life, financial insecurity, adult responsibility, all conspired to have a day-old calf ripped away from its mother and sold to a local rancher.
Anyone who has ever loved a pet knows that for the youngest children, Jim Bob and Elizabeth, the decision feels like selling a member of the family.
As the school bell rings the end of the day, the youngest take of running with a cowbell to visit their friend and deliver their present. The bull’s grumpy new owner intercepts them. He tells the children not to get attached because he’s going to fatten up the bull and sell him as steak.
It’s not quite the ‘steal medicine to save your child problem,’ but to Jim Bob and Elizabeth it might as well be. They were the ones who worried over his healthy birth and helped his mother care for him. The calf was their baby.
Feeling as though they had no choice, the children take the baby and hide it in a nearby cave. As they try to make their way back home, they find themselves lost in the woods.
After much worry and fret, the children are found and brought home to face the consequences of their actions.
“I got them a bath and some food. Poor things, they’re exhausted,” Olivia says, walking downstairs and joining John by the fireplace. “ … And afraid,” she says as an afterthought, turning her eyes to gaze into the coals.
“They asked me if I was going to give them a spanking,” John says, nibbling the end of a pipe.
“John, what they did … to them it was the right thing. The only thing,” Olivia pleads.
“Now don’t start mother henning them. They did wrong and they got to be taught to realize it,” John says.
Olivia stares at her hands.
“Liv, what I say to them tonight is going to have a lot to do with the way they live the rest of their lives. What’s wrong. What’s right … I know why they did it … ,” he trails off. Moments of silence beat on with John gazing into the fire flickering just behind his wife’s eyes.
Olivia calls Jim Bob and Elizabeth down. Holding hands they creep down the stairs in pillowcase night clothes and stand silently by their father’s rocking chair.
“I know how you and your brothers and sisters feel about that calf,” John says to his youngest. “But when you took him and run off the way you did you done two things wrong.”
The camera cuts to the children nibbling on their lower lips. They knew before he said it that it is wrong to steal, and even more wrong to run-off, worrying their mother about where they’ve been.
“I know all you could think about was what was going to happen to that calf, but you should have thought about the rest of us. How much we love you. How much we worry about you.”
“What else could we do?”, Jim Bob asks.
“We could have talked. We could have worked something out together. Next time there’s a problem, let’s talk,” John says.
And they do need to talk, because sometimes the doing what’s right is painful. Sometimes the right thing feels wrong. Sometimes big, sticky moral questions require a decision by committee because they are too hard, the consequences are too great, to go it alone.
The moral conclusion in this episode of the Walton’s is that two wrongs don’t make a right. That a wrong can never be justified no matter how much it may make intuitive sense. And in some ways I agree.
The life of a bull is not more valuable than the property right of his owner.
But, is that a hard and fast rule? Does that rule apply to pharmacists and dying babies, for example?
I’d like to be able to give an answer.
I’m no thief, but I’ve also never been put in a situation where someone’s life depended on my actions.
I don’t know the answer, but that may be the point. It wouldn’t be a timeless moral question if the answer was clear and simple.
Even the great moral patriarch John Walton struggles with it in front of his fireplace like an armchair philosopher.
What we can do is talk about it. Work it out together. Shoot me an email and let me know what you think.
Kayleigh Thesenvitz is a reporter at the Claremore Progress.