Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Life for life

One of the most moving stories in Rosenbaum’s deeply moving Holocaust and the Halakhah tells of how one can be a great moral hero even when acting out of mistaken conscience. A man in a concentration camp comes to his rabbi with a problem. His son has been scheduled to be executed. But it is possible to bribe the kapo to get him off the death list. However, the kapo have a quota to fill, and if they let off his son, they will kill another child. Is it permissible to bribe the kapo knowing that this will result in the death of another child? The rabbi answers that, of course, it is permissible. The man goes away, but he is not convinced. He does not bribe the kapo. Instead, he concludes that God has called him to the great sacrifice of not shifting his son’s death onto another. The father finds a joy in the sacrifice amidst his mourning.

The rabbi was certainly right. The father’s conscience presumably was mistaken (unless God specifically spoke to him and required the sacrifice). Yet the father is a moral hero in acting from this mistaken conscience.

i) I disagree with Pruss. All things being equal, it's certainly permissible or even obligatory for the father to bribe the kapo to save the life of his innocent young son. And that principle could be extended to protecting innocent lives generally. 

ii) If there are two drowning children, one of whom is yours, it's permissible or even obligatory to save your own. You have a greater duty to your own dependents, despite the tragedy to the other child.

But this hypothetical has greater moral complexity. It isn't just a question of whether the prima facie vice of bribery can be overridden. That's a separate issue. Considered in isolation, sometimes that's justifiable or incumbent. Bribery is not intrinsically wrong. 

But by bribing the kapo, the father would knowingly facilitate child murder. He is collaborating with the child-killers. He becomes a part of that moral and causal nexus. 

So the rabbi was most certainly wrong while the father was most certainly right. Although it would be psychologically understandable if the father did that, and there are mitigating factors, the deed remains objectively heinous. 

iii) Mind you, this assumes we inhabit a moral universe where there's at least one right course of action open to us. That requires a strong doctrine of providence. If, on the other hand, reality confronts us with genuine moral dilemmas, then we're on our own. 

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