Having to Do Something Wrong

Peter WInch discusses a case in which an Amish elder kills a man who is threatening to shoot a young woman (in “Moral Integrity,” from his collection Ethics and Action). Winch concludes that although this man did what he had to do, he nevertheless judges that he did something wrong in killing another person (which follows from his commitment to non-violence). (The case is taken from the 1950s film Violent Saturday.)

Some might claim that this simply shows that the elder is mis-judging his action (in thinking that it is wrong to act as he did), and that he should revise his moral views (that all forms of violence are immoral). How could this elder judge that he had to do what he did, if he believed that doing so is morally wrong? If he is to remain committed to Amish ideals, then he can only look back on what he did and judge that it was morally wrong. But equally, it seems that in looking back, he may continue to think that he had to do it.

If thinking in this way manifests a bias, it is not obviously a self-serving bias. (True, thinking this way might be a condition for his remaining in the community, so it might be.) He is choosing to live with the (deeply troubling) judgment that he has done something wrong even though he also believes he could do nothing else. Many of us might be inclined to think that the elder did the right thing, but he himself would disagree: he did what he had to, but it was still wrong.

This suggests that we might agree about the “solution” to the problem, yet disagree not only about the reasons that justify that solution – as discussed in Robin’s post on the convergence of multiple ethical theories on similar practical questions – but also about the moral status (the rightness or wrongness) of the solution. This is deeply puzzling because, as Winch notes, it raises a huge question about the purpose of moral thought.

Or, do we simply dismiss the elder as an irrational old man, and cling to the claim that if it has to (ought to?) be done, it’s the morally right thing to do? It is tempting to hold that the elder expresses the simple bias of being convinced that his moral views are correct, even in the face of a situation that suggests otherwise. But might this case also reveal that most of us have a bias in thinking that morality must always provide comfortable pronouncements about the moral status of our actions, even when they are things that we have to do? (Other examples that might challenge this? "I had to give him a good shaking. But still, I see that it was wrong to do so." I was in a situation like that recently.)

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