Friday, December 12, 2008

When no one wins

This chapter is along the lines of a horrific Holocaust story that always leaves me with the utter shock at how humans could ever be so cold-hearted.

Private Sacks had been ordered to rape and kill a prisoner whom he knew was a perfectly innocent civilian who happened to be from the wrong ethnic background. He knew what he was ordered to do was entirely cruel and immoral. But he thought of the situation again and surmised that if he didn't execute the orders, not only will he be killed, but the prisoner will also be invariably put through the torture by someone else. If it were him, he would at least make sure the prisoner faces a "bearable" amount of abuse and be killed as quickly and painlessly as possible, rather than be cruelly tortured by another agent. He reasoned this would be the best course of action given the circumstance. Is he justified? Can this mean that sometimes it is inevitable for even the best course of action to be grossly immoral?

This situation echoes the use of the Utilitarian principle again. If Sacks decided to preserve his integrity, he loses his life and the prisoner gets killed and abused, probably more violently. So there is no "win" here. If Sacks went ahead with the order, he saves his life and is more "considerate" in ensuring a far less painful and violent, albeit inevitable death to the prisoner. This seems to ensure "greater good". But it is still immoral beyond doubt. Or is it? If Sacks goes ahead with it, how will he face such a guilt, how will his conscience punish him for the rest of his life?

For the purpose of not circumventing the severity of such a situation, we will assume that Sacks is not as adept as Batman or James Bond to try and do something miraculous to save the prisoner and himself.

All of us face similar dilemmas (similar in principle but not in magnitude). There are often crossroads when we're torn between which road to take, knowing that either one will end up hurting someone, or yourself. It's common for us to consider ourselves first and go ahead with a choice that leaves us searching for ways to assuage our guilt, and we end up justifying our ends through the means...probably how Sacks tries to convince himself of providing a painless death to the prisoner, to save his own life.

But when we do take the road of self-sacrifice in an attempt to do the moral thing, it still results in consequences that are dire. If Sacks decides to take the bullet and honor his integrity, in what way is he helping the prisoner? Does he then resign to his fate and that of the prisoner? Is it better to resign ourselves to the uncontrollable forces of fate than commit an immoral act?

Obviously there is no solution or right answer. But I know that people like Sacks are much needed in the world. If he remained alive, he could probably help in preventing more such crimes because of his heart and head being in the right places. There are surely many more prisoners and innocent people whose fates could be altered, if a genuine agent were still alive. If Sacks is confident of saving the lives of at least two other innocent people in his lifetime, then for that reason alone he is justified to stay alive to commit his crime. If he knows he can't help the other prisoners anymore than what he can with the current, then he has no option but to resign, and at least save his integrity.


SUMI said...

very interesting. in my book, Sacks did the "right" thing. Even if it were out of self interest, it's not clear that that's wrong- the question is, do we or don't we owe it to ourselves to protect ourselves?

Neeraja said...

Thanks a lot for sharing your view Sumi :). True, we do owe it to ourselves to protect ourselves, but I'm not sure how to draw the line when our act steps the bounds of morality.

If a person tries to attack me, killing him to save myself is on one side of the spectrum, but killing an innocent person to save myself is on the other side...

SUMI said...

Yeah, I am not sure I can answer that honestly. Suppose that innocent person were some kind of a genius, and I am just a regular person, then should my judgment be based on who's likely to contribute more to mankind if they live some years, and hence let myself die and let the genius live?

Sometimes I wonder whether we should make our decisions not based on pondering at length, when it comes to moral issues, I mean, since we can never be convinced we are right one way or another, but rather, go by what we will be comfortable sharing with *anyone* in the world without feeling guilt or shame.

My husband recently mentioned the book, To kill a Mocking Bird- I'd read this years back and don't remember much of it, but he mentioned it in the context of morality - the guy in the book, under every situation, decides on what action he should take by asking himself whether he'll be able to talk about what he did with his son, looking him in the eye. If for a certain deed he thinks he cannot do that, he will not do it. Pretty interesting... so can we have that kind of a benchmark perhaps? Asking ourselves whether we'll, for instance, be able to yell out to the world that we did something without any hesitation; playing by the rule that whatever we want to hide is wrong?

However the thing here is that, what one person feels comfortable with, may be another person will not feel comfortable with. And if we play by this rule, we are accepting morals as being subjective rather than absolute - it serves as a good solution pragmatics wise, but not necessarily in principle. Upshot: I still don't know...

Neeraja said...

Yeah that's an interesting notion.. almost like the principle behind having a jury. And it's even more interesting to have a simple and innocent child look through the decisions.

The more I think about such problems the more it seems like morality and self-interest hardly go together. It almost boils down to survival. I wonder if the cavemen had been so "moral", and if so, would the humankind even have survived? If a member of the clan contracted a fatal contagious disease, would the members have hesitated to kill him right away? I presume not, and I'm sure they would have reacted like Sacks without a moment's hesitation if they were in a similar situation. If we were to look into the lives of such old clans, survival was their foremost priority.

We call it barbarism and call the present generation more civilized. It seems like the more "moral" our decisions, the more we are compromising on our effective survival. This extends to situations in workplaces, relationships etc.

We do need to set a balance, but there's no easy way to do so.