by Jay Johansen | Feb 10, 1997
I recently came across some materials from a college class on "morality education". It told me a lot about why this country is in the trouble that it's in ... or at least why our intellectual elites are little help in solving the problems.
The materials I read presented the students with a series of exercises in which they were asked to make difficult, lesser-of-two-evils kinds of moral decisions, and then discuss their choices with the class.
A typical example was the "lifeboat problem". I've heard of this exercise in several other places -- perhaps you have too -- so I guess it's fairly common in these sorts of classes. Basically, it went like this:
Nine people are stranded in a lifeboat which has only enough room and supplies for eight. One person must be thrown overboard and left to drown so that the remaining eight can survive until they are rescued. The student is then given various information about the nine people on board, and is told to choose which person should be thrown overboard.
I have three fundamental objections to this kind of exercise.
First, the very phrasing of the question demands that the student only consider immoral alternatives. The student is not asked what he could do to give all the passengers the best chance of surviving. Even in this deliberately contrived exercise, who says that all nine could not survive? Just because someone painted "Capacity: 8" on the side hardly means that with eight passengers they would all survive but nine would immediately sink and all drown. Even if it's true that when the ninth person climbed in the boat immediately begin to sink, why can't we take turns hanging over the side? Perhaps there is something on board we can throw out instead of a person -- extra oars, perhaps, or the boxes that those supplies came in. Speaking of supplies, I guess that mainly means food and water. Who says there's only enough food for eight? Couldn't we each just eat a little bit less? How do we know how long it will be until we are rescued? Maybe help will arrive before nightfall, so that we all could have survived with no food at all, and we drowned an innocent person for nothing.
There are many, many possibilities. Surely the morally correct thing to do in such a situation would be to struggle to keep everyone alive, not to start killing each other in a brutal fight to improve our own chances. This is not only moral but eminently practical. I've heard plenty of accounts of people in such a difficult situation who fought over supplies or leadership, and ended up wiping each other out just a few miles from civilization. I've also heard of people who helped each other and worked together and overcame incredible odds. When the assumption is that "it's him or me", people spend time and energy fighting each other rather than the external problem, and everybody loses.
Second, even if we accept the premise that someone must die so that the others will live, the next requirement of the exercise is that the student should evaluate and judge each person's "worth", and then decide that one person's life is worth less than anothers and so should be sacrificed so that the "more important" person can live. What gives anyone the right to decide on the value of another person's life? In the materials I read, the student is told that one of the people on the boat is the vice president and another is a cripple. This pretty clearly sets the student up to say that of course the vice president should not be thrown overboard, because he is important; maybe the cripple should be, because with his handicaps his life isn't worth much anyway. I don't doubt that the vice president would find that reasoning persuasive, but would the cripple?
(Hey, here's an idea: How about the first person who suggests that someone else should be thrown overboard so that he can live, we throw him overboard?)
Once we accept the assumption that some people's lives are worth less than others, why should its application be limited to lifeboats? Why should society spend hundreds of dollars to buy that useless cripple a wheelchair, when that money could be given to me to buy that big-screen TV I so desperately need? That's a ridiculous extreme, you say, no one is proposing carrying the logic that far. Okay, so what's the limit? Who decides how "useless" someone has to be before I have the right to kill him, and what is sufficient benefit to myself to justify it? Interestingly, I have yet to hear someone say that on the basis of this kind of analysis, he concludes that his own life is worthless and should be sacrificed for the benefit of others; it is always someone else's life that should be sacrificed. People who really do sacrifice their lives for others consistenly do so out of love, dedication, or a sense of duty -- not a "relative worth" analysis.
But third and most important of all, all of this discussion of extremely difficult moral decisions is largely irrelevant to real life.
Sure, there are times when people have to make difficult decisions about who lives and who dies. But I suspect that the vast majority of us go through our entire lives without ever being called on to make such a decision. Presumably the people who put together this class would reply that that's not the point. They choose life-and-death cases to make the examples more dramatic, but the goal is to explore the process of moral decision-making, which should then be applicable to less dramatic cases.
Okay, but the fundamental point is that all of the exercises created -- or attempted to create -- literally impossible moral dilemmas, where there was no right answer. So ask yourself, when was the last time that you were faced with a decision where you really had to struggle with what the morally correct thing to do was? How many times have you really been faced with a situation where no matter what you did, some innocent person would be hurt? How many times have you had to wrestle with a case of breaking one rule of traditional morality, or breaking another? Like, you either had to steal, or had to commit rape, and there was just no way out of it.
I am hard-pressed to think of many such dilemmas which I have actually encountered in my own life, even on the most trivial level. Indeed, as I write this I cannot think of a single example to include here, though I suspect that if I think about it long enough I could probably come up with a couple. (Of course I've sometimes had to make difficult decisions weighing the pros and cons of various alternatives, but I can't recall any that were truly moral dilemmas; rather, they were practical: like, should I take job A with its immediate higher pay or job B with more opportunity for advancement.)
In real life, the "moral dilemma" we most often face is: I know what's right, but it's difficult or inconvenient. Do I have the determination to do it anyway?
Think of the real moral decisions you have to make every day. The clerk at the grocery store accidentally gives you a twenty bill as change when he should have given you a ten. Do you stick it in your pocket and walk out, or do you give it back? There's no question about what's right; you know what's right. The question is, Will you do what's right even though you could easily get away with keeping the ten bucks? Or, that girl at the office has great legs, and she's clearly very willing, and your wife is getting old and ugly. Besides, no one will ever know. Right? Wrong. You will know. You know it's wrong. Do you have the determination to overcome your physical desires and do what's right?
How many of the moral problems of our day are really due to people not having the intellect or education to think through difficult, confusing situations? Compare that to the problems that are due to people demanding selfish gain or pleasure without regard to how it hurts others, where they must surely know that what they are doing is wrong, and they simply don't care.
Do drug dealers really wrestle with some difficult moral dilemma, of whether they are helping addicts more than they are hurting them? If we could somehow get every drug dealer in the country to take a class in "moral education", would they suddenly say, "Zounds, after careful analysis, I realize that selling drugs and turning people into addicts has a net negative effect on society, and therefore is not an ethical activity"? Yeah, right. They want the money and they couldn't care less about their "customers".
Do teenagers engaging in promiscuous sex really ponder whether their activities are moral or not, and they just don't have sufficient education to come to the right conclusion? Yeah, right. They know it's wrong, but they also think it's fun, so they do it anyway.
Make a list of all our social problems. How many are really caused by lack of knowledge or fine points of reasoning, and how many are caused by simple greed, arrogance, lust, and hate? Political corruption, racism, gang violence ... tell me which of these involves complex moral dilemmas.
What our children need to be taught is not how to choose from the lesser of two evils in complex, confusing, impossible situations. What they need to be taught is to stand up for what's right even when it isn't popular or convenient, even when it will cost them.
© 1997 by Jay Johansen
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