I had a friend who I thought was a genius. I ceased to be friends with him when he did something that showed a reprehensible lack of empathy.
I realized he was a genius one day when we were drinking at a dive bar after work. He, a colleague, and I were at the bar. He and his colleague were mostly talking among themselves and I was talking to the bartender about a local music act. Eventually the colleague left, and my friend joined the bartender and me in conversation. We continued to talk largely about music, but she dropped a reference to her boyfriend, well not really a boyfriend, don't call him that. As though we would.
The heralded non-boyfriend showed up, and our bartender's eyes lit up. She was immediately and totally enthralled by him. As she fawned over him, my friend and I continued to talk. The level of our beers got lower and lower and the bartender showed absolutely no interest in attending to this. There was a palpable, unspoken sense of resignation between us.
I left to go to the bathroom. When I came back everything was on its head.
My friend was talking to the bartender's non-boyfriend, who was absolutely captivated. The bartender was storming around behind the bar, visibly annoyed about no longer receiving any of his attention. Taking it in, I felt a strange sense of glee--a sense that I had seem something amazing and unexpected; a sort of reversal of a power dynamic that I had no idea was coming.
I wanted to leave, just so I could get out of earshot and ask my friend what happened. When we did leave, I gushed about the genius of it. He had exploited the bartender's insecurity--her feeling that her interest exceeded her potentially future boyfriend's--by driving him away from her, at least temporality. He drove her from a position of glee to one of simmering anger and self-doubt while elevating himself from boredom to amusement. Complete and thorough peripeteia. Even some notion of justice being served. He didn't have much to say about that, only saying how easy it was to flirt with boys. His thoughts seemed thoroughly focussed on the mechanics of his actions, not on the consequences rendered.
And it's not though I regret that I felt that his actions were genius. I actually don't think I've changed my mind at all. Let's divorce the action from the individual; let's suspend our notions of morality for a second. What he did was perhaps the most effective way to take control of a situation that would seem, at surface level, entirely beyond our control. He took actions that entirely shifted the world in his favor, granted to the direct and immediate harm of another person. But, ignoring that last clause, it was genius.
A couple months later he again took actions that shifted the world in his favor, to the direct and immediate harm of another person, and it did not seem genius at all.
And that's problematic. Can I be a person with a well-formed and consistent sense of morality if I can take two actions which match the same pattern and find one genius and the other reprehensible? I suppose I can claim a small moral victory by at least understanding and giving some weight to the notion that actions have consequences that may hurt others. I suspect that at least the latter eluded my genius former friend. But that sucks, right? Behaving in a non-sociopathic way lands you with this moral ambiguity when forced to value actions that pit one's happiness against the happiness of others.
Let's assume I'm not morally bereft. Let's say it's fine to have very different opinions of these actions based on the magnitude of the consequences. So then there must be some acceptable threshold of prioritizing personal gain over consequences rendered towards others. It's just not something to be taken lightly but it's ok to think long and hard about the repercussions one's actions have on others and decide that some amount of harm is worth it, right? So mentally I must have drawn some line. But it's beyond conscious grasp, so ill-defined, that if forced to confront it in one's own decisions, on repeated viewings, it never looks the same way twice.