Thursday, June 09, 2005

Horrible dilemmas

Impossible dilemmas are the stuff of tragic drama, ethics courses, and Zen. They are only too easy to find. Today's: the Wall Street Journal notes in passing that "drivers are tied into suicide car bombs, a sign of coercion," according to US commanders in Iraq.

I don't know how the coercion works, but it's all too easy to imagine. Let's say someone tied me into car, and told me that I was going to die when it exploded. I did have a choice, however; if I exploded it at the target of their choice, my loved one - who they'd taken hostage - would live. If I tried to minimize the damage by driving elsewhere, my beloved would die.

What would you do?

I think I would try to limit the death toll. Since there is no guarantee that they would keep their word and not kill my beloved if I did what they wished, and since she would want to spare as much life as possible, I would resist their designs.

But what if it were not just one loved one, but my whole family? What is my value calculus of known vs. Unknown people?

1 comment:

Bret Battey said...

Glad to see someone else thinking about "moral calculus" -- a big topic on my mind since the leadup to the invasion of Iraq. Isn't it odd, though, that if moral dilemmas face us constantly, so little of our public discourse or cultural patterns acknowledge directly the reality of moral dilemmas.

Committed politics, it seems to me, is the art of pretending that moral dilemmas don't actually exist. How rare the politician who would say the truth: "We don't know what the moral outcome of our actions will be or how to measure it. No matter where we go and what we do, it will be in some way evil. We are just going on by gut as to which direction will yield the minimal overall evil. We could be desperately wrong."

[Although the latest Atlantic Monthly included an interview with Paul Wolfowitz in which he said essentially that.]

A freeing reality, in a way. Faced with the forced-suicide-bomber dilemma, one makes a choice, aware that the ultimate outcome is unknown.

I wonder what a public politics based on explicit acknowledgement of the reality of moral dilemmas would be like?