The annual "Great American Think-Off" has announced its topic for 2009. In case you've never heard of the event, it's a charming exercise in public debate held up in New York Mills, a small town hanging off the spine of Hwy. 10. For 17 years, they've invited the nation's freelance philosophers to convene 170 miles northwest of the Twin Cities and answer the Great Burning Questions that bedevil mankind, such as the death penalty, immigration, whether Goofy is a dog, etc. This year: Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?

I'll take that one: Sure. It's right to help little old ladies cross the street. It's wrong if there's a tiger on the other curb. The only way you can argue otherwise is to insist that we ignore the consequences of an individual act. For heaven's sake, "paper or plastic" is a thornier issue. "Ginger vs. Mary Ann" or "Should Zygi Wilf get bucketloads of public money for a giant purple playpen" would be tougher.

But just because an argument seems obvious doesn't mean the position will win. The good townsfolk who attend the Think-Off finals vote on the answer, which collides ever so slightly with the idea that moral positions stand outside the shifting whims of the popular mood.

For example, for 2010 they could ask: Is it ever OK to boil babies in oil and serve them with parsley and pomme frites and a Mouton-Cadet '58? The speaker could describe the side dishes with such relish that the audience members drench their shirts with saliva, and when the next speaker drones on and on about innocence, the sanctity of life, the dangers of trans fat and the fact that parsley is purely ornamental and imparts no flavor whatsoever, he's doomed.

The Think-Off votes aren't binding, so we don't have to rewrite Plato. You just wish the topics were more Minnesota-specific. Is it OK to barge in line when traffic is merging instead of getting in line at the end? That debate would go on all night.

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