Thursday, September 24, 2015

Where to draw the line

I believe in the lesser evil principle, but I have limits. Everyone must decide for himself where to draw the line. Speaking for myself, there's a point beyond which it becomes too personally compromising. 

You can't back me into a corner, then say, "I double dare you to accept the consequences if you refuse to choose between two alternatives I've given you!"

I won't allow myself to be manipulated and maneuvered by circumstances beyond a certain point. It becomes almost diabolical.  

At that juncture I will walk away from the table and let the chips fall where they may. I'm not ultimately responsible for what happens. I didn't make the world. I didn't create this situation. 

If you dictate unacceptable choices to me, I will bow out. I can't control the world, but I can control my own actions. You can't make me choose a certain way by putting a gun to my head. You can't prescribe how I must choose. If the options become too awful, I withdraw from the game. I won't play by your rules. I refuse to collaborate. If you win by default, so be it. I leave it to God sort out the consequences. 

There can be situations in which a human being confronts us with a moral dilemma. We either do one of two things or else!

That's still different than God confronting us with a moral dilemma, because the "or else" option is still available.

Suppose I'm a German Jew. The Nazis round up my parents and me and put us on a train. When we arrive at the camp, Himmler is touring the camp.

He gives me a choice: If I shoot one of my parents, he will allow the other to go free. (And he has the authority to release my remaining parent). If I refuse, he will shoot them both.

In that situation I'd let him shoot them both, and leave the matter in God's hands. The dilemma is a way for him to make me cross over into his moral universe. 

But I can't go there. I must stay on my side of the moral boundary, regardless of the threat. I won't be party to his diabolical game.

Conversely, suppose that's the camp where Mengele performed human experiments. If my parents were picked, I might wrest a gun from the guard and shoot them myself to spare them that fate. That's a horrible choice, but unlike the first, I don't think it's morally compromising. 


  1. How does your final scenario align with your view of assisted suicide?

    1. I think some actions are intrinsically wrong while other actions are prima facie wrong, but that can be overridden if additional factors are brought to bear. It's like the ethics of killing in general. There's a presumption against taking human life, but there are special circumstances in which that's permissible or even obligatory.

      I don't think suicide or euthanasia is intrinsically wrong. But I think it's usually wrong. Consider the common reasons for euthanasia today: the elderly are a "burden" on their kids; the elderly are a drain on the healthcare system.

      There's a sense in which both are true, but those are disreputable reasons to take life.

      Likewise, with increasing secularization there's increasing impatience with the physically and developmentally disabled. They get in our way. They inconvenience us.

      But, of course, all of us begin life in the same helpless, dependent condition. It takes many years to become self-reliant. Childrearing is very demanding.

      Mind you, many people who support euthanizing the elderly and disabled also opt for dogs instead of kids. To that extent they are consistently selfish and sociopathic.

      But morality to aside, that Nietzschean code only works for the young and healthy. Or the powerful. Or the supersmart. Sooner or later it weeds out all the weaklings. Nietzsche could play the Übermensch until his health and sanity was destroyed by syphilis.

      It's a shortsighted philosophy for short-lived elitists. A friendless world. You must constantly watch your back.

    2. Thanks for fleshing that out.