Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We Are Not Gods and Cannot Fix All Wrongs

A friend who is a professor of ethics at a Catholic university posted this clip from the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans and asked:

For those of you who (like me) hold the principle that it is always wrong to aim at the death of an innocent person (whether as a means or as an end) do you think what Daniel Day Lewis' character did in this scene was wrong? If your answer is "no", I'd be interested to know your reasoning.

Michael Mann's The Last Of The Mohicans (1992) ~ "...I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans" from Schmeichler on Vimeo.

I was stuck because the movie was a pivotal fictional experience for me. I saw it when I was thirteen and was deeply impressed by the blend of music, cinematography, and minimalist storytelling. However, I was also deeply troubled. My parents had been fairly strict with what movies I was allowed to see, and this was one of the first cases where I saw a movie in which basically admirable characters were shown doing things I considered deeply wrong for reasons that were still in some sense honorable.

[In the scene shown, one character offers himself in place of another to be burned alive by an Indian tribe that has captured all the main characters. As this burning is happening, the main character (thankfully renamed Nathaniel Poe in the movie rather than Natty Bumppo as in Cooper's original novel) shoots the man being burned alive in order to spare him further suffering. Both the scene itself and the movie as a whole as very much worth watching.]

One thing that surprised me about the conversation which proceeded on the ethicist's post was that so many people working from a Christian moral background wanted to come up with a way to justify Nathaniel's action.

One common approach was to attempt to apply the principle of double effect and argue that Nathaniel only wants to end the other man's suffering, and that the other man's death is merely a foreseen but undesired side effect of the only means available for ending suffering (shooting him.) The reason why this doesn't work is that in this case killing is not merely a side effect (as, for instance, might be the case in using a very high dose of pain killers to relieve the suffering of someone with a terminal illness while ignoring that such high doses increase the risk of fatal side effects) but rather the direct means chosen. Shooting someone only relieves his suffering if you succeed in killing him.

Another approach was to argue that the tribe which decided to burn the man to death was the one which incurred the guilt for creating an evil situation, and that Nathaniel took the only possible action in that situation which would relieve the suffering of the man being burned alive.

This latter argument strikes me as hinting at the heart of the problem here, and one which I think is relatively common in modern moral thinking, in that it assumes that the human actor must take an action which fixes the suffering or other earthly evil which is he is confronted with. Nathaniel is faced with a situation in which someone is being made to suffer horribly, and therefore there must be some action which Nathaniel can morally take which relieves that suffering. If shooting the man being burned alive is the only way to end his suffering, then Nathaniel is justified in taking that action.

I think implicitly this puts humanity more at the center of the universe than we in fact are. There may be cases where we are confronted with suffering that we do not have any moral means at our disposal to end. We are not God. We do not have it in out power to end all suffering. Sometimes our fellow humans will cause evils we which do not have the ability to end without ourselves joining them in committing evil.


mandamum said...

This is a good point (and a great post - thanks for bringing this to my attention). Dr. Greg Popcak was recently commenting on Kresta in the PM that we in this culture tend to opt for killing those responsible for the problem when we can get away with it (especially when it's sort of invisible). Since you can't kill the burn-ers, then you solve his suffering by killing the suffer-er. Not invisible, but I'd bet "I'm doing the HARD THING that will give me nightmares because it's the HONORABLE thing" would excuse it for many.

Here's where the lifeboat/trolley/madman-with-gun problems actually helped me in high school: when I realized I could just opt out of positive action, instead saying, "it is never OK to do evil that good will come" and "the evil in this situation is HIS problem, not mine. I can't solve it."

Popcak: "What's the easiest way to solve any social problem? Kill the people who are responsible for the problem."

Agnes said...

This is basically the same ethical problem as active euthanasia. Only this situation requires even greater faith and humility to accept that God is able to bring about the ultimate good without me committing an intrinsically evil act.