The following is an example of an extreme allegorical situation. In that it is an extreme, it serves only as an example scenario to examine a moral premise under more contrasting circumstances.Imagine you are taken captive by a group of thugs. You are with someone you truly care about deeply and someone who is just a good friend. One of the more sadistic of the thugs tells his comrades to hold you at gun point and to shoot any of you if you ‘try anything funny’. He somehow managed to figure out that you were closer to one of the people you were with than you were to the other, so he grabs the person you care deeply about and holds his gun to their head. He then reaches down to his belt with his other hand and pulls his knife out of it’s sheath and throws it to your feet. Then he commands you to slit your good friend’s throat or he is going to shoot the person you care deeply about in the head.
What made me bring this up was a combination of a number of people around me arguing in favor of pragmatic decisions combined with a quote I had on my facebook some time back:
“I have learned that I have it in me to be a prick to people who earn that treatment and deserve it, but I do not have it in me to do the ‘wrong’ thing regardless of what someone else does.”
I left the above scenario intentionally unqualified for the most part, but assuming you are well overpowered and doing anything other than what you are told is going to end up in at least the person you care about being shot in the head, and resisting or trying to fight back may well result in all of you ending up dead.
Do you pick up the knife and cut the throat of your friend? What about if it was someone you didn’t even know well? Would that (or should it even?) make a difference in your decision?
Sometimes using an ‘extreme’ scenario puts things in better focus by drawing the contrasts more vividly between moral rights, moral wrongs, causes and effects. Let’s examine some of the things that are either specified, apparent or implied by this scenario.
- Regardless what you do or don’t do, you are being commanded to take a given course of action by someone who is a sadistic thug
- This thug wants you to kill someone, something you (should) know is morally wrong
- The thug is counting on you to follow his orders because he is holding something you care about ‘more’ hostage to get you to do harm to something you care less about, presumably for his own amusement.
The other thing that made me think of posting this scenario was a quote someone posted today from John Galt’s radio broadcast from the Ayn Rand book, Atlas Shrugged:
“Now that you know the truth about your world, stop supporting your own destroyers. The evil of the world is made possible by nothing but the sanction you give it. Withdraw your sanction. Withdraw your support. Do not try to live on your enemies’ terms or to win at a game where they’re setting the rules. Do not seek the favor of those who enslaved you…theirs is a system of white blackmail devised to bleed you not by means of your sins but by means of your love for existence.” – John Galt [from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged]
The point of this analogy is to point out a very extreme case of pragmatism. The reality of the situation is that when you deal in evil or attempt to deal with the irrational, you have no reasonable expectation of a result. If you cut the throat of your friend, not only have you committed a moral wrong, but you only have a passing assurance that no further harm will come to you or the person you care about. All you have done is ‘buy a little time’ while demonstrating that under extreme enough of circumstances, you will do what you are asked to do so long as the stakes are high enough for you to not be willing to accept a potential alternative.
I’m sure most of you can guess as to the other reason I am posting this example. Some of you may think this example is too extreme to be relevant. I admit it is extreme, but only for the sake of pointing out the factors involved in more vivid detail. If a thug holds those you care about at the point of a gun, it is the thug that will bring them to harm one way or another, whether you willingly go along with their insane demands or not.
It is the thug that takes away your choice in such a situation. It is the thug that puts you at risk. It is the thug that poses the threat to the life of the one you love. It always was and it always will be — until you pick up the knife! The question is whether you become evil along with them for the sake of expedience. The question is whether you end up with blood on your hands.