~ Sunday, December 25, 2005 ~
What's more important, doing the right thing or making the world better?
You'd like to never have to choose between the two, wouldn't you? But has the path to world-improvement ever complied with The Rules? Half the time the rules are wrong, and so they get in the way of doing what needs to be done for the Good of All Humanity. Think of unions fighting for laborers' rights, or Rosa Parks, or laws condoning slavery. Or heck, think of the Maccabees fighting the Seleucids (thank you, Eric). Assuming the Maccabees were right, you know.
But the other half of the time, the would-be-reformers think they have a really hot idea and it isn't until much later that their grandchildren realize how wrong they were, and that maybe they should have listened to the law all along instead of contorting it to fit their purposes. Think of the Salem Witch Trials, or of Our Friend Dubya, or think of the eugenics movement, which is the topic of the paper I'm taking a break from writing just now.* The eugenics movement, for those of you who haven't heard, started around 1890 with people here in the U.S. trying to keep survival-of-the-fittest-style evolution alive by mating the best people with each other. Later, they moved onto sterilising the worst people, but the movement found its ultimate expression in Nazi Germany with the Elimination of the Undesirables through mass murder.
The third half of the time, the law is right, AND breaking the law is the only way to help things get better, and that's the case that pulls the hardest. The first example I can find is that of using animals to do medical research so that maybe someday people won't die of terrible diseases. It's not illegal to give cancer to a rat, but it's still morally bad...or at least morally undesirable? The situation gets a lot sharper if you have to do all your testing on human subjects, so if you hate animals and want them to die anyway, just imagine the rats as sweet adorable little 6-year-old children with blonde hair and big blue eyes (thank you, Mr. Bobonich), and then maybe you too will feel the agony of the situation. Or another example might come from war. Nothing but being totally sacked by our military will stop that country's evil dictator from committing daily atrocities, so if we want to make the world better, we have to go to war against him, but come on, is it ever really Right to send our people to kill their people? Or how about this one, from Jarah: it's always wrong to torture someone, right? But what do you do if there's someone who knows where a bomb is hidden, and the only way to get them to talk in time enough to save the hundreds of people who will otherwise be killed when the bomb goes off is to torture this person into telling us the information? You have to imagine, I guess, that it's not due to a lack of creativity on our parts that we can't think of anything else to do other than test it on a human/declare war/torture the potential informant, but rather that this morally bad thing is the Only Hope to get out of this really terrible situation. And let's also say that you don't even know for sure whether doing this morally bad thing will fix the problem. Which would you rather do? The right thing, or the thing that could make the world better?
Professor Panache, who taught my British Moral Philosophy class, once sighed deeply and said that there are basically two kinds of people, the ones who say our main directive in life is to do the right thing and the ones who say our life's purpose is to make the world better. When he said that, I was surprised to find how instantly I knew that I'm a member of the first camp...I usually spend years wavering back and forth on questions like this before I can decide, but not in this case. Intuitively, I consider it to always be more important to do what's right. Anything else feels...selfish. Who am I to put aside the moral law of human interaction for the sake of my own dreams of how good things could be if only I could temporarily shove this pesky rule out of the way? Just because I want something doesn't mean I get to trample you to get it...even if what I want is something that will benefit many others. If the only way to get the guy to talk is to torture him, I'd let the bomb go off and let the people die. Or maybe I'm just morally squeamish that way.
So where do you stand, dear reader? Is it more important to do the right thing or to make the world better? I would love to have a response from every single person who reads this post. It can be your Hannukah present to me. :)
Speaking of Hannukah, I'm having my own little mini-Hannukah miracle here...as I type this, the two candles that I lit tonight are still flickering two hours past their 3-hour life expectancy. Most of the wax has melted away, and they've been in that just-about-to-go-out state (nothing left but tiny pieces of wick and small blue glows) for the past hour or so.
*Actually, the paper's about the Human Genome Project, and whether or not it's just another expression of the eugenicist agenda, but the work I've been doing for this paper has been inspiring me to think about broader topics.
~ prattled by Miriam at 10:32 p.m. [+]
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