Moral Choices

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It is easy to judge others, but are not without blind spots in judging ourselves. In the domain of moral choices, this becomes particularly problematic. How many times have you heard or thought to yourself, “If I were he, I would have done that differently.” Or perhaps, “If I were he, I wouldn’t have done what he did.” But how many times have you said to yourself, “If I’m honest, if I were in the same situation, I really don’t know what I would have done.”

I’ve listed below a few such moral dilemmas, some drawn from real life accounts. I hope you will put yourself in each one and ask yourself three questions:

1. What is the right thing to do?

2. Would I do the right thing?

3. Am I absolutely sure what the right thing is?

A. If you have seen the 1957 movie Abandon Ship, you know the moral quandary in which Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) finds himself. Holmes is second in command of a luxury ocean liner which strikes a mine. He takes charge of a life boat when the captain (Lloyd Nolan) dies from injuries sustained in the explosion. The small vessel is seriously overcrowded (including numerous people who are hanging on from ocean-side), has limited supplies of food and medicine, and is in shark-infested waters with only small amounts of  shark repellent in hand. Those hoping to survive include the young and old of both genders, some of whom have been grievously injured as the ship went down.

Soon they become aware that no SOS was sent, because the explosion destroyed the radio. Concluding that no rescue ship will be looking for them, Holmes determines the infirm and weakest must be ordered off the so that the remaining individuals can have a chance at survival by rowing the very great distance to the nearest land mass, with enough food to sustain them until they reach it. What would you do if you were in charge?

B. This comes from the oral history of a Holocaust survivor as described in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory by Lawrence Langer. Imagine that you are one among many Jews swept up in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). You have been separated from your parents. You aren’t certain whether they are alive or dead. In fact, the Nazis have taken a large group of Jews, including your mother, to a place in the forest. They have required these people, at gun point, to dig a long, deep trench. While doing this, the soldiers are joking, smoking, and drinking. Once the trench has been dug to an adequate depth, a handful of the soldiers shoot their machine guns at the diggers along the line of the trench. Some are killed instantly, some dive into the trench to escape the gun fire, and others are wounded to various degrees of severity.

Meanwhile, you are far from this action. Perhaps you heard the gun fire in the distance. But once it is finished, the Nazis assemble a group of Jews to fill in the trench, to cover over their dirty work, quite literally. You are in this group, assigned to this grisly task. The soldiers have their guns on you and your co-workers, reminding you to work quickly or else. Much moaning and screams of pain are heard from this place. And one more thing: From the trench in front of you, a familiar voice is also heard, quite distinctly. It is your mother’s voice. She is telling you that she is not wounded and pleads for your help. What should you do? What would you do?

C. You are Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, provoked to war by the abduction of Helen of Troy, the wife of your brother Menelaeus. Before you and your 1000 ships can reach Troy, however, your fleet is stuck in place, stopped by the intercession of a god named Artemis. Time passes. Your supplies of food and water are dissipating. In addition to your family responsibility to defend the honor of your younger brother and help him retrieve his wife, you are aware that Zeus, the most powerful and important of the gods, has demanded that you sail to Troy. A seer is consulted to determine what might be done to appease the god Artemis and enable the fleet to be launched. You are told that you must sacrifice your virgin daughter, who is not far away. What should you do? What would you do?

D. The economy is tough. You have been out of work for some time. You don’t want to lose your home or apartment, and you are afraid that if you can’t find work soon, that might eventually happen. But, you’ve been networking, and it finally pays off. You are offered a job selling AK-47s, assault weapons that fire 600 rounds per minute, whose principal use is to kill people. While you would only be expected to sell these arms to “legitimate” buyers, you are also aware that the AK-47 is one of the world’s most frequently smuggled weapons and the rifles you sell are likely to get into the hands of criminals and drug lords. Should you take the job? What would you do?

E. An elderly aunt dies, one you have not seen in many years. She has named you the sole beneficiary of her estate, a total of $600,000. You are doing well financially, so the money is not a necessity for you, but you can certainly imagine an enormous number of uses for it (including charitable giving), not to mention the fact that it would allow you some peace of mind, knowing that you will be even more financially secure. You also have two siblings and two cousins, none of whom were more or less close to your aunt than you were. You are under no legal obligation to share the money with them, but you wonder whether you should. What would you do?

F. You are politically “pro-life.” You have campaigned for candidates who believe, as you do, in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. You believe that abortion is murder, without qualification. Financially stable, you have donated money to prevent abortion. A young woman approaches you, someone you know, and who knows and respects the aforementioned beliefs. She is pregnant out-of-wedlock. She would like you to adopt her child. She knows that your two children, who you had when you were quite young, are grown, and believes you would be just the right parents for the new life she carries inside of her, in part because of your moral stance against abortion. She is terrified to give up her child to someone she doesn’t know and who might not provide the kind of home that she believes you and your spouse can provide. But the two of you had decided some time ago that you only wanted two children and, in fact, you have been looking forward to any empty nest and to the freedom it would permit you while you are still in your 40s. What should you do? What would you do?

G. The Holocaust again. This time you are a German gentile. You have a spouse and children. You are not wealthy, but you are getting by. You are not sympathetic to Hitler, but well aware of how the Gestapo works, and that anything seen by them as disloyal to Hitler and the Reich would likely cause you to be interrogated, perhaps sent to a concentration camp, or worse. Your family depends on you for their livelihood. A Jew comes to your door after dark. You know him, but only very casually. He asks you to hide him. You have heard rumors about what is happening to the Jews once they are sent away and, in fact, have been told by a witness that they are being murdered. What should you do? What would you do?

I am not here to give you answers to these questions, assuming that I would be able to come up with just one acceptable moral choice; or that I am some sort of moral authority, which I am not. It can be argued that some of these situations do not allow for a “right” action; not all situations in life offer absolute clarity. Life can be complicated, as these examples demonstrate.

To be sure, none of us are as good as we could be, but that does not mean what is good is always apparent. Indeed, in Aeschylus’s telling of Agamemnon’s story, the title character utters the words “(Which) of these things (choices) goes without disaster?” in describing the the conflict between his public responsibilities as leader of his troops, head of his (and his brother’s family), and the demands of the gods Zeus and Artemis versus his private responsibility as the father of young Iphigenia. The heart break is readily apparent in this man’s dilemma of whether to honor all the aforementioned interests except the one closest to his heart in “such sacrifice of (the) innocent blood…(of) the beauty of my house.”

On a daily basis, we can only do our best to lead moral, principled lives. Not just to talk about it, or formally worship a deity on a holy day, or even to donate some money, but to weave those beliefs into the fabric of daily, commonplace interactions, and try not to fool ourselves when we fall short; to minimize the everyday fibs, moral compromises, and inconsiderations; to show kindness, be forthright, go out of our way for others. To do what is right when no one is looking.

On the other hand, if we want to find out if our morality goes the distance, then we have to be tested — confronted with something difficult and costly, if not dangerous, if not horrible in its implications, as in the examples I’ve given you above; and until then, be humble, not knowing exactly what we would do.

Being a “nice person” is easy enough … until the chips are down.

Most of us won’t ever know the answers to the kinds of questions I have posed, that is, what we would do if actually faced with them.

Best not to know, I think.

The photo above called Choices, choices… is the work of Duncan Lilly, originally sourced from geograph.org.uk, sourced for this blog from Wikimedia Commons.

Experience and Memory

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The last Canadian World War I veteran, John Babcock, is dead. He passed away at age 109 in Spokane, Washington on February 18, 2009. Frank Buckles, also 109, remains the sole surviving American veteran of the “War to End All Wars,” according to The New York Times.

With Mr. Buckles inevitable departure, we will all lose contact with what happened in Europe between 1914 and 1918 within what is called “living memory;” the contact that can only come from the direct experience of the world-changing event that shaped the lives of many of our grandparents or great grandparents. Our only available sources of information will then be in the form of books, stories that the survivors told to those still alive, old silent movie film of some of the battle action, recorded reminiscences, journals a few of the combatants kept, accounts from war correspondents, and the like.

All of which leads me to think about memory and experience. And why understanding them is important.

Experience takes a number of forms and, when the experience is past, it becomes a memory. Simple enough on the surface, but not simple at all.

First, there is the “living” of the thing, actually participating in an event. In the case of Frank Buckles, that meant driving an American Army ambulance in France during the conflict itself, witnessing the carnage, hearing wounded men cry for their mothers, making and losing friends, feeling the “pee-in-your-pants” terror of it, getting shot at, carrying a gas mask or perhaps being exposed to poison gas, ministering to the wounded, jumping into fox holes—eating, drinking, and sleeping it all. But once Mr. Buckles returned home from the front, his time there had become a memory and was now different from the actual, in-the-moment intensity of the lived-experience, an intensity that nothing in his long life after the war could match.

At another level, more removed, there are the spectators to events. We all achieve the status of “watchers” when we attend a sporting competition. We see and hear a good deal of what is happening, even if we don’t ourselves play in the game.

At even more distance from the event are those who watch at home. They will miss some of the “atmosphere” of “being there” unlike those of us independent of TV cameras, who will see the event naturally, in the way it unfolds in real-life (without the mediation of a cameraman or the interruption of commercials). And the “at-home” audience will not experience the same roar of the crowd, the heat of sun on skin, the faces of the beer vendors, and the thousands of movements and sounds of the athletes and spectators that the cameras and microphones do not record.

More distant still from the actual experience is a radio broadcast, where one’s imagination and memory of events like the one being reported tend to fill in the blanks where no visual representation of the event is present. At a further remove might be a newspaper account of the game or a friend’s description of what happened from his memory of being there himself.

Experience is one thing, memory another. Memory can only approximate the event itself and can alter or fade with the passage of time. Remember your first kiss—all the thousands of sensations happening all at once—the rush of being alive, the smell of perfume or aftershave or the person’s natural scent, the touch and texture of skin, the moistness and softness of lips, your own heartbeat, body against body—firmness, roundness—the moment before and after, the placement of your hands, the color of your partner’s eyes and their expression in those same moments? Now, as you think about it, however good your memory, I think you will admit that remembering is not the same as living it.

At least in the case of memories of things like your first kiss, you have an advantage over others’ understanding of that experience because it was yours and not theirs. It becomes a good deal harder to relate to the experience of others, especially if they have lived through something wholly unlike what has happened in your own life. The most dramatic examples I can think of come from those who have experienced severe trauma. Take the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, Magda F., from the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies quoted by Lawrence Langer in Holocaust Testimonies: the Ruins of Memory, as relatives implored her to talk about her experience:

And I looked at them and I said: “I’m gonna tell you something. I’m gonna tell you something now. If somebody would tell me this story, I would say ‘She’s lying, or he’s lying.’ Because this can’t be true. And maybe you’re gonna feel the same way. That your sister’s lying here, because this could not happen. Because to understand us, somebody has to go through with it. Because nobody, but nobody fully understands us. You can’t. No (matter) how much sympathy you give me when I’m talking here, or you understand…you’re trying to understand me, I know, but I don’t think you could, I don’t think so.”

And I said this to them. Hoping (they) should never be able to understand, because to understand, you have to go through with it, and I hope nobody in the world comes to this again, (so) they should understand us. And this was the honest truth, because nobody, nobody, nobody…

Those of us who are the children of Americans who survived the Great Depression got a little bit of this kind of understanding, I think, in late 2008, when the economy fell off a cliff and looked like it was going to continue falling and possibly repeat the Great Depression. We’d heard the stories our parents or grandparents told, we’d read the history books describing the period between the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the beginning of World War II, but we hadn’t lived in a period anything like that. Now, we were getting a taste of it, even if, for most of us, it was only a taste and not the whole meal. Now we know more, and better, what it was like for our elders (and what it is like for our fellow Americans who are losing their homes along with their livelihoods right now).

Sergiu Celibidache, the Roumanian symphony conductor, put very well the difference between direct experience and some form of pale attempt to duplicate that experience in a different time and place. Celibidache believed that it was impossible to accurately render the transcendant impact of musical performance except in a concert hall. He thought that recordings were a fraud, because they attenuated this experience and altered it, didn’t duplicate the physical and aural sensations present sitting in the hall, listening to the full dynamic range of sound as that sound was being made in the same acoustical environment as the musicians themselves. Therefore, Celibidache refused to make recordings for most of his career. And, in the days before anyone ever considered the possibility of experiments in virtual reality, he said that “listening to a recording is like making love to a picture of Bridget Bardot,” the gorgeous French model and actress of the 1950s and 1960s.

Adlai Stevenson II, as I’ve quoted elsewhere, captured the impossibility of fully communicating an experience he’d had to those who had not yet had that experience in a 1954 speech (made when he was 54) to the senior class of his alma mater, Princeton University:

“…What a man knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty is, for the most part, incommunicable. The laws, the aphorisms, the generalizations, the universal truths, the parables and the old saws—all of the observations about life which can be communicated handily in ready, verbal packages—are as well known to a man at twenty who has been attentive as to a man at fifty. He has been told them all, he has read them all, and he has probably repeated them all before he graduates from college; but he has not lived them all.

What he knows at fifty that he did not know at twenty boils down to something like this: The knowledge he has acquired with age is not the knowledge of formulas, or forms of words, but of people, places, actions—a knowledge not gained by words but by touch, sight, sound, victories, failures, sleeplessness, devotion, love—the human experiences and emotions of this earth and of oneself and other men…”

So, put another way, for example, no one who hasn’t been in love can know what love is; no one who hasn’t experienced discrimination or fought against it can really understand it fully; no one who has only watched a travelogue about the countryside really knows what it is like to be in the country; just as those who observe from the sidelines and never have played the game cannot completely grasp the clichéd expression about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

No, life is about the living of it, not the reading about it or the watching  of it. And, so too, it is about knowing that you don’t know fully about the experiences you haven’t had. It is about knowing that you can only approximate a real and complete appreciation of another’s life; knowing that some of those things the other has witnessed or lived through are frankly unknowable without their experience; knowing that the depths of human personality, emotion, and incident are infinitely great and that one can only approach the deepest point in knowledge and understanding even as we reflect on our own live’s through the lens of memory; and knowing that the death of the last veteran of World War I robs us all of some element of connection to history and, therefore, to the forces that shaped us, our parents, and their parents.

Life is infinitely humbling, fascinating, terrifying, and touching. I imagine one could live a dozen lives, some in one gender, some another; some straight, some gay; some black, some white, some yellow; some married, some single; some in this time, some in the future and the past; some here, some there; and still not achieve the richness that is possible.

But, of course, we only get one, so far as anyone knows. That means we must get on with things.

The day is short and there is much to do.

The photo above is of Frank Buckles with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on March 6, 2008 by Cherie A. Thurlby of soldiersmediacenter, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.