Right Or Wrong?

One of my favorite episodes of the excellent British detective series “Foyle’s War,” which takes place during World War II, involves the master detective in a moral  dilemma. He has caught the man who murdered a German woman, the wife of a wealthy English landowner. The evidence is overwhelming, but the problem is that the murderer is a naval officer who is working with the British navy to crack German codes. He is one of the few men in the country who has the background to make it possible for his country to achieve this, and if he does he will save countless British lives. He puts it squarely to Foyle who is faced with the moral dilemma: arrest the man for murder (of a woman who was, after all, German), or let him go to continue to work on the codes that may save lives. He arrests the man. It’s who Foyle is: he is convinced that even in wartime it is only the law that separates us from barbarians such as the Nazis they are fighting and he has sworn to uphold the law.

This is a most interesting moral dilemma and it gives rise to the question: Did Foyle do the right thing or did he not? Whatever we decide in this case, we cannot determine that he BOTH did the right thing AND he did the wrong thing. It’s either/or. Ultimately, all moral dilemmas are of the same type: it’s not possible for there to be an answer that is both right and wrong at the same time and the same respect — any more than it is possible for my computer to be both a computer and a telephone at the same time and the same respect.

The problem is that in our age a great many people deny that moral issues are like computers and telephones. The common view is that ethics is all a matter of opinion and when it comes to opinions you have yours and I have mine. This is, of course, true, but irrelevant. Our opinions are simply the starting point, not the end, of discussion.  Someone who has never watched a tennis match may have an opinion about who will win the match they are now watching. But that opinion doesn’t count for much, because the person knows nothing about tennis. In the case before us we may have our opinions, but the answer — somewhere out there — is that Foyle either did the right thing to arrest the murderer or he did not.

In a seemingly unrelated topic, Abraham Lincoln wrote what has come to be called a “Meditation” during the Civil War that was only recently published. He was wrestling with the question why God was permitting the war to happen. Ultimately, he was wrestling with the question of free will versus determinism. Regarding the war, which was not going well and eventually cost America 630,000 lives, Lincoln muses thusly:

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.. . .”

Lincoln picked up the same theme in his Second Inaugural — regarded by many (and himself) as the  best speech he ever wrote. And this suggests that he was still wrestling with the dilemma at the end of the war. And well he should. But he knew one thing: either the North or the South was right in fighting the war, they could not both be right. They might both have been wrong, as Lincoln suggests, but they cannot both be right. It is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. But it is a fact that we may not be able to make out clearly, groping as we do through a thick mist of bias and confusion with our limited perspective, prejudices, and meager intelligence. From God’s perspective, there is one right and one wrong and perhaps only He knows which is which. So as we struggle to determine which side was in the right we may never see the answer clearly, but we can be certain, as Lincoln was, that one side or the other is right — they cannot both be right. Lincoln expresses this difficulty at the end of his famous Cooper Union Address when he famously says, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” (Italics added).

This is the nature of ethical argument. It parallels arguments that require evidence and careful thought which we might come upon in history (what would have happened if Chamberlain had not been so conciliatory toward Hitler?) or even in the hard sciences (does light consist of waves or particles?). But above all else, ethics is not simply a matter of opinion. Again, Foyle was either right to have arrested the murderer or he was wrong. He cannot be both. Ironically, it is precisely this fact that makes dialogue possible in ethics and takes us beyond the shallow realm of gut feelings and hunches.


13 thoughts on “Right Or Wrong?

  1. Hugh, on your first question, I think Foyle was in the right (I like this show as well, but have only seen a few episodes). Of course, had they found out about Alan Turing’s sexual orientation earlier, they may have arrested him (for a horrible reason) and harmed our chances to win the war and cost many more lives. DDE said his team’s breaking of the Enigma code shortened the war by two years. If you have not seen the movie “The Imitation Game,” there is an interesting moral question therein, as well, once they break the code.

    Back to Lincoln, I have written before about which side was God pulling for in the Civil War, when both sides were praying for victory. If he had to choose, my thinking is he would not be siding with those who wanted to own slaves, especially after he asked Moses to free Hebrew people from bondage.

    For those who like to comment about right equal might, I go back to war being a horrible thing and we should resolve matters diplomatically wherever possible. Our country has involved itself in conflicts where the righteous side was less clear, especially in the Middle East and Africa. In fact, our country has helped over throw democratic leaders to position autocrats who liked us and could keep things stable, as we did in Iran in the 1950s. So, were on the right side then?

    Sorry to wax on, but your post keeps us between the white lines, where often we have veered for some expeditious reason. Thanks, BTG

    • Thanks, BTG. I agree, as I suspect Lincoln would have, that God couldn’t possibly side with the owners of 4 million slaves. And I am sure he was right that there cannot be two acts that are both right in cases such as those.

  2. Doing the right thing is never an easy thing. And I find the fact that people in war consider god as being on their side as foolish idiots at best. An all caring, all compassionate god could never condone war, no matter the cause.

    The crusades killed millions, all in the name of god. Really? Our politicians rally around god today, while doing all they can to hurt the poor and the homeless. Not for any god I’d care to be associated with.

    I’m afraid that the constraints of ethics and morality today have moved to close to what someone’s opinion is, and away from reality.

    Good post

    • No question about it, Barney. I realize I am spitting into the wind! And it is deeply disturbing indeed to think of the atrocities humans have committed in the name of their god. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Hugh, I’ve written you on this before, too. It’s fascinating to think about!

    I see more room for gray in what is right and wrong. I know the exercise is that there has to be an either/or, but so often life can be neither or both, or a blend. Sometimes in war, say the American Revolution, for instance, the legally “right” party — the British, whose land the colonies was, whose funding paid for the investments in capital and goods for more than a century of development, and even for previous wars to secure the colonies — may lose the actual war to an opposition whose moral stand was both admirable and dubious. Why not fight taxation and other issues they disagreed with through the British courts and Parliament, rather than go to war? Many of the financial underwriters of the Colonial army were financiers like John Hancock or nations like France, Hancock opposed to British regulatory matters, the French hoping to profit from a Colonial victory. So can’t there be multiple factors that play into the right/wrong discussion?

    I love Foyle’s War and have been binge-watching it this winter on Netflix! That is a heckuva dilemma in the episode you mentioned. If I absolutely had to say a black-and-white right or wrong, I would say Foyle — as wonderful a character as he is — was wrong for making the arrest. Both precedent and the broader picture say that the hope of saving many more lives and shortening the war is more important than jailing one man. Also, what good would Foyle’s admirable moral stand have done or meant if the Nazis had won the war and rendered such an action obsolete or irrelevant?

    • I think you and I are talking at crossed purposes. I don’t claim that anyone has the absolute truth about right and wrong. On the level of debate it is always gray. But I say there IS a right and a wrong — we just need to open discussion (and our minds) and examine the evidence and the pros and cons. Even when discussion is over, it may need to be reopened later on when new evidence comes to light. As I have said before, it’s like a jury trial. There is a right and a wrong: we just don’t know for sure (ever) which is which. But without insisting there is an answer somewhere “out there” there’s not much point in discussing any ethical issue. (I tend to agree with you about Foyle, by the way. Does that make us correct???)

  4. We probably are at cross purposes. It’s interesting and helpful to me when you phrased it as the answer to right or wrong being out there somewhere, and maybe beyond our seeing in some cases. Sort of a concrete foothold into thinking about something theoretical. Thank you.

    Hmmm, maybe the Foyle episode would make a good cade study for ethics classes!

  5. Wonderful! I will indeed stay tuned!

    Yesterday, I read this story and it also helped me as I read your reply. I see a parallel. It’s about a major discovery in mathematics which also posits that the answer, in this case to a math “conjecture”, was not theoretical but very real, albeit somewhere in the midst of 70 million numbers. What the breakthrough did was prove that it exists and in just a couple years has helped other mathematicians trim that very large number. Zeroing in on the actual number.http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/02/pursuit-beauty

  6. Last night, I watched a later episode of Foyle’s War. This time, Foyle was ordered by higher-ups to release a murderer who was working on a classified project. She was essential to the project and the higher-ups said she needed to be released for the sake of the war effort. This time, Foyle — giving a short speech about the subversion of the British justice system, the rendering irrelevant of the work he was doing — resigned!

    • It does seem to me that Foyle, as a policeman, is right in his seemingly rigid stance on issues of right and wrong. It is up to the courts to decide whether the war situation (expediency) trumps morality. No? We are addicted to British mysteries and they are full of policemen and policewomen who insist on doing the “right thing” regardless of the consequences. Many of them, like Foyle, find the system flawed because it fails to back them up. The courts would argue that they are taking the broader view, I suppose. But the real question at the center of all this is whether the end ever justifies the means.

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