Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Singular Choice

Several months ago I read an article in one of the major news magazines – Time or Newsweek; I can’t remember which one – dealing with religion.

This particular article dealt with morality, and the author was trying to make a point that while it’s nice to say that there is such a thing as “good & evil” and “right & wrong”, the reality is that it isn’t so cut & dried as it may appear. The “reality” (according to the author) is that morality is actually a very gray area, and subject to interpretation.

To help prove his point, he listed out several scenarios that were all very similar in their presentation. One of these scenarios was that you are part of a group of people – a dozen or so – who are hiding from armed men. These men are looking for you, and if they find you they will kill you. You know that.

One of the people in your group is a woman with an infant child. The baby starts crying, and it’s only a matter of time before the men hear the child and find you.

So the question is this: What do you do? Do you – because of your deep sense of morality and belief in the sanctity of human life – do nothing, and thereby allow the men to find you and kill everyone? Or, do you sacrifice the child – kill it – in order to save the lives of the rest of the people in the group?

It certainly sounds like a difficult dilemma. Until you realize – if you realize – that it’s a trick question. It’s loaded. It is a question specifically designed to illicit an incorrect answer. It’s no different than asking someone “What’s the answer to 2 + 2? Is it 5? Or is it 6?”, even if it’s not quite so obvious.

The author is counting on a couple of things here. For one, he’s counting on the fact that you’ve never seen this question before, and that, unlike “2 + 2”, you won’t notice the fact that both answers that you are given to choose from are incorrect.

He’s counting on the fact that you’ll be concentrating so hard on the question that you’ll never stop to think about who’s asking the question or why they’re asking it (which in this case is a secular humanist who is trying to discredit Christianity and reduce the concept of morality to a pile of rubble).

And he’s also counting on the fact that you’ll be so focused on trying to pick the best answer that you’ll never realize that they are not the only options available to you.

Who is to say, for instance, that if I were in that situation, I couldn’t leave the group myself and lead the armed men away from the others and thus save their lives by sacrificing my own?

Sounds perfectly plausible to me. As plausible, at least, as the original scenario itself. Funny, though, that it wasn’t listed as one of my possible choices. Can you think of any other possible courses of action that someone could take in that situation? I can.

So why write an article like that?

Well, I can’t be sure of the author’s intentions, but realizing that a world in which morality can be defined (and redefined) at will is definitely part of his personal agenda, I can take an educated guess.

In my opinion, the article serves 3 purposes.

First, it is meant to initiate the uninitiated. To influence the thinking of those who really haven’t given morality much thought one way or the other and guide them to the author’s point of view.

Second, it provides reinforcement to those who already subscribe to the author’s philosophy by presenting a series of seemingly concrete examples which prove his point.

And third, it is intended to sow seeds of doubt in the rest of us – Christian or otherwise – who are already well grounded in our understanding of right and wrong. It serves to make us second guess ourselves; to think that maybe morality isn’t quite as black & white as we originally thought.

Whether you agree with that analysis is entirely up to you, but I’ll leave you with one question of my own: If what the author of that article says is really true – that morality is open to interpretation – then why does he have to resort to deception in order to prove his case?

Real truth can stand on its own. It needs no lies to prop it up.


Kimberline said...

Well thought out and well written. These "social" problems are now presented in public school for children in the early grades to solve. I was among some of the first school children pressed to "answer" one of these conundrums.

You astutely point out that most people get so carried away thinking they have only the 2 answers presented with the problem to choose from that they abandon all other possibilities. I never "fit in" in school because I was that out of the box thinker who rejected both of the options and argued for something entirely different.

Our posed problem was that a group of people are on a life raft. Too many people for the raft, which soon will be swamped and everyone would likely drown. They list out the members of the raft, and of course they always include the prerequisite doctor, but also listed emotionally charged options such as teacher, pregnant woman, old frail woman, strong and fit man in his mid 20's, older experienced gentleman who has survival skills, a child, a handicapped teenager who requires meds to survive.

I was horrified as my group quickly threw out the old woman, the handicapped teenager and the teacher. Our teacher was also emotionally involved in the process as the teacher was so easily abandoned. I called a halt to the discussion because I found it so upsetting and so narrow. I suggested that the more fit and healthy people take turns paddling in the water to the side of the raft while everyone prayed for rescue. The teacher was infuriated and stated that we actually did only have 2 choices . I told her that is not at all like real life then because in real life we almost ALWAYS have more than two choices.

My other solution was to give people a choice as to whether they would sacrifice themselves for the group. Apparently the kids in my class didn't really believe in that whole women and children first idea because they said they believed no one would offer that.

Out of frustration I finally joined in the with crowd and agreed that perhaps we should throw the teacher overboard and beat her off from climbing back in with the only paddle :D

This was 3rd grade! I really believe these types of problems steal innocence from children. The out of the box thinker should be rewarded but instead is battered into cookie cutter obeisance to the objective...which is to say that some lives are worth more than others and humans can correctly choose out of list who is worth living and who is not.

Thanks for a thought provoking article.

vera said...

Kimberline, great post to a great post. There is much manipulation and cheating going on under the guise of moral reasoning.

The fallacy of black and white thinking presented as an example of superior moral reasoning? Oh sure, why not? At least it shows the dishonesty and illogic in the whole "theoretical ethics" enterprise. :-)

Beth said...

A hearty "yes" to both posters; and I wonder if the predominance of "multiple-choice" and "true or false" questions in education today further prepares our minds to think in such narrow, "either-or" terms?