Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fragment on Moral Dilemmas

A moral dilemma is a situation in which it is difficult or impossible for a person to choose a morally good course of action.  Dilemmas of this sort are the stuff of tragedy: a character (person) finds himself in a situation from which there is effectively no escape.  If every possible action is evil, then there is nothing left to do but despair.  Now, while there are certainly tragic situations in life, it seems to me that one consequence of the existence of a loving, almighty God is the exclusion of genuine moral dilemmas: i.e., situations in which a person cannot possibly choose to act or not to act without sinning.  Which is to say that, given good character and a good understanding of what is going on, there will always be at least one "right" response. 
Of course, our capacity to judge what is good is inhibited by disordered appetites, concupisence, and the ignorance which comes from sin.  Thus many situations which do not actually present a grave moral difficulty may seem to do so if right action demands a higher degree of moral perfection than we presently embody.  Generally situations presented as moral dilemmas depend for their problematic nature on a common misevaluation of various goods.  Consider the following set of examples:
1.  You really ought to have the hit new album by The Wilting Spoon, but you are presently broke.  You could steal it, but stealing is wrong.  Moral dilemma: Do you neglect your own human dignity by going without the new album, or do you steal it?
2.  You have just been kidnapped by pirates and gradually starved for over a week, only to be deposited without food, money, or map in a vineyard somewhere in the world.  You feel that you are about to surrender to death, surrounded by someone else's food.  Do you steal it or let yourself die?
3.  Aliens from Zobomb have decided to experiment on humanity and you are their latest subject.  They present you with a five year old child and a hatchet and tell you that if you don't deliver his brain to them in three minutes the planet Earth will be annihilated with all its inhabitants.  Do you sacrifice young Tommy to save humanity?
Each of these cases plays off of apparently competing norms.  In the first, there's the naive egoist's impulse to self-gratification pitted against the self-evident fact that one ought not steal.  This is easily resolved when we realize the actual value of having the album and its role in character growth, etc. etc.
In the second case, the norm against stealing is pitted against the will to self-preservation.  It is tempting to say that theft is admissible here because of a "proportionate reason", but really Aquinas's solution (the devolution of property upon all of humanity in states of dire necessity) has the advantage of being reasonable and not opening up a can of (utilitarian) worms.
The third case is particularly difficult for the average person.  It's tempting to look at all the lives potentially saved and "weigh" them against the life of young Tommy.  A weird moralizing voice might even occur to you: "Do you really value your own conscience over the lives of billions?"  And in many the response might be a kind of heroism: "I will murder the child and do this hard deed but all of humanity will be indebted to me for my sacrifice!"  And yet to the trained conscience these responses are all clearly abominable.  To murder the child would be to cooperate with evil, and what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?
More signifcant, perhaps more interesting, than the resolution of these particular cases of conscience is the general fact that some situations are ugly and unpleasant to live though, though no guilt may directly accrue to the person who does so.  The person who actually chose to spare Tommy's life and watch the world be blown away would certainly feel an untold amount of horror and pehaps guilt in the process.  But this is due to the evil of the Zobombian aliens and not his own fault.  Right action can even bring about a kind of despair, as when the pregnant college student realizes that she must leave school in order to care for the child she might otherwise have aborted.  Such a choice involves the destruction of an entire future life and the sudden onset of a vast number of commitments and responsibilities, and the thought that one is doing the right thing would probably be little consolation.  (Though the gift of a child ought to be a great one.)  It is always tempting to believe that no right action could demand such a great amount of inconvenience.  (Robert Bolt's play A Man For All Seasons is a great meditation on this problem.)


  1. Two questions:

    1) If aliens offer you the choice between killing yourself and letting the world be destroyed, is it morally acceptable to commit suicide? If so, is it morally required to do so?

    2) Would you be more consequentialist in this life if you were an atheist? Put another way, does the existence of god make it easier to imagine abstaining from active immorality and thereby allowing mass murder, given that you know that at least some of the innocents slaughtered will be saved and that God doesn't like bargaining with evil? I will accept, but be made sad by, the reply that if you were an atheist you would be a moral nihilist.

  2. Consequentialism and virtue ethics are both teleological. They're both oriented toward some goal which the moral agent works to achieve. According to virtue ethics the goal of the agent is the perfection of his/her nature through virtue. Virtue ethics (secundum S. Thomam) works off the premise that the perfection of natural things is good for them. This follows directly from the convertibility of goodness and being: goodness is simply the fullness of being, or being considered under the aspects of perfection and desireability. Alternatively it follows from the goodness of God.

    Consequentialism sees the end of natural agents as the creation (as if by art) of a maximally perfect state of affairs. Which is to say that for the consequentialist the natural agent tends not toward its own perfection but toward the perfection of all things. This sounds very nice at first, but when you look at it you realize that what's happened is that the reality of the agent's activity has been unanchored from his/her actual nature. But since the nature of a thing is the principle of its activity ("nature is the internal principle of motion and rest"), and the principle which determines the perfection and goodness of that activity (i.e. perfection is always according to a thing's nature and act, not according to the external products of its activity), to divide the natural good of an agent from its moral end is foolish and unrealistic. [If you don't follow this paragraph, I forgive you. I've condensed a rather large amount of thought into it.]

    Now, cooperation with evil is evil. Internally it's evil because one becomes a participant in the evil action and intention of the person you're cooperating with. We've left aside the fact that you don't know whether the aliens will actually go about blowing up the earth, whether they'll be able to, etc. etc. Your job is not to maximize the number of souls saved, nor to make everyone as happy as possible. Your job is to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. The rest is other people's business in cooperation with grace, and chiefly God's business. Murder is absolutely evil, and ultimately your function as a moral agent is to tend toward God in humility and hope, and not to attempt to play providence with the world.

    Would I be more consequentialist if I were an atheist? I've thought about this thing a lot, and if I were an atheist I would probably just despair. Without God the whole world would seem to have been a delusion. But no, I certainly wouldn't be hacking up children because an alien threatened to blow up the planet. Nor would I delight in the calculus of pleasure and pain as if I'd mastered the meaning of life. This stuff is manifestly idiotic.

  3. A way of seeing how absurd consequentialism is:

    If the goodness of a thing's act isn't grounded in the perfection of its nature, but in the universal goodness in a given state of affairs for which it acts, then what is the goodness of that state of affairs grounded in? Presumably in the value of what is actually happening, and this is based on the particular states of individual natural creatures. But then we've fallen back upon the question of nature: is what makes a thing's act good that the act is excellent and perfect according to nature? And if so then what is the end of human nature? Consequentialism fails to answer this question: it always falls back on a vague picture of universal value without settling the particular question of what is being maximized and how that particular value is selected for maximization against others.

  4. That helps. In retrospect, I possibly shouldn't have used the word "consequentialist" because I wasn't particularly interested in ethical foundations, but I found your thoughts interesting regardless[1].

    What my question really meant (but which you also answered, so no worries) was "if you didn't believe in God, would you be more inclined to believe in the possibility of dirty hands right action?" I take it the answer is "no."

    Still interested in the suicide question, so would enjoy your thoughts on that. You may take it as a given that you know (as certainly as you know anything about the physical world) that the aliens *won't* destroy the world if you kill yourself and will if you don't.

    [1] (Parenthetically, in your eyes I'm probably a virtue ethicist, since to the extent that I think about the grounding of morality, I think of it in terms not unlike "the premise that the perfection of natural things is good for them," which for me typically entails a notion of human and—less sure about this—other animal flourishing.)

  5. Suicide is wrong. It actually doesn't make sense unless you adopt a consequentialist perspective. Every act is the act of an agent, an agent with its own nature, which tends toward its own perfection. The natural end of that act, then, is the perfection of the agent. The perfection of human beings is in the development of virtue (and especially the theological virtues, which inform all the others). Suicide is the willful destruction of one's own life, which is contrary to the perfection of nature and therefore wrong.

    At the same time, there's a distinction to be made between heroic acts of sacrifice by which a person exposes himself to danger or certain harm for the sake of others' well-being, and acts where something intrinsically evil is performed for the sake of a good consequence. This gets complicated, but what ultimately matters is the object of the act (i.e. what is done), the intention, and the circumstances. There is a difference between volunteering to be killed and willing directly to kill oneself. In the former case one puts oneself at the mercy of an evil agent, in the latter one cooperates directly in the willing of an evil act. This willing of the evil act renders the act itself evil, regardless of its good consequences.

  6. Second paragraph is what I was wondering about, re: martyrdom.

  7. Martyrdom is something that will only make sense if you're a Christian. I couldn't give a compelling defense of it otherwise, though from an (impoverished) secular point of view one could make sense of it as non-violent non-cooperation.

    Christianly speaking, though, Martyrdom is a graced act whereby a person reaches utmost perfection in this life, in imitation of the most perfect human being: Jesus Christ. The world in its present form is passing away. This is something that one can only know through faith, though.