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.

Keeping Up

I recall seeing in a superb documentary entitled “Affluenza” a young black woman who lived in the projects of a large city; she was bothered about the fact that her son had wanted a pair of expensive basketball shoes because his friends all had them. She could barely afford to put food on the table, much less buy expensive shoes for a growing child. But in the end, with help from her sister, she gave in and bought the shoes at considerable sacrifice. The story was echoed in some comments made by a “non-traditional” student in an ethics class I taught years ago. She also wondered aloud “what is a parent to do if her child wants something all the other kids have and she thinks it’s a waste of money?” The amount of peer pressure is immense and parents don’t want to deny things to their children.

I was lucky enough to live in a small town when my sons were growing up where the kids were happy to ride cast-off bikes and wear their older brother or sister’s outgrown clothing. They most assuredly didn’t demand designer clothing or expensive basketball shoes. So in many ways we never had to deal with the sort of peer pressure those kids in the stories felt — or the pressure their parents felt to keep up with their neighbors. But when our sons wanted something we simply couldn’t afford or which we thought was a waste of money we simply said “no.” Our thinking was that this is part of life: it’s a question of building character. It makes the boys better men in the long run. But is this simplistic? Or unfeeling?

Parents decide that the children ought to do without but all their children’s friends are displaying the latest fad and the kids feel left out. The kids can’t understand about priorities — even when it comes to putting food on the table — and the parents don’t want to deprive their children and see them unhappy. As noted above, I have always maintained that the parents should hold the line and simply deny their kids the toys, clothing, or games the other kids enjoy when the parents know it is a waste of money. But the kids I see around me seem to win out in the end nearly every time. A conscientious parent doesn’t want to spoil the child — or spend money on something frivolous that the child will probably toss aside in a few weeks. But at the same time she doesn’t want to see the child unhappy.

I am going to take a page from that stellar blogger newsofthetimes and ask other people what they think about this. I regard it as a real dilemma in parenting and one that I am not sure I “solved” satisfactorily. What about others who have faced it: what did you do? In a way, it is one of life’s little tragic situations — you can’t win for losing. Whatever you do it will be OK from one perspective and wrong from another. I don’t see a simple answer!