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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  • billswift

    I don’t see the problem. So, he did something he felt to be wrong, but he thought it **less wrong** than the alternatives, even after further consideration.

  • anonymous

    “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.”

    In your scenario, it took unusual circumstances for the Amish man to end up in the moral situation described. Compare Calvinist morality, to which the above quote applies in mundane situations as well as extreme ones.

  • michael vassar

    This seems to me to be an instance of ‘moral luck’. It makes sense from an external perspective, though possibly not from an internal perspective, in that external observers may make the Bayesian rational inference that a person who experiences evidence against the correctness of his moral views has some practically significant likelihood of having those views undermined in an unpredictable or threatening direction. As a result, they may infer that ‘challenged’ or ‘tempted’ people, those who have experienced such evidence are more threatening than ‘innocents’, who are perhaps more threatening than those who have been repeatedly tested and have retained conformity to some code. If morality is viewed as a Bayesian estimate of the risk from antisocial behavior inherent in interacting with a person (possibly divided by some measure of their harmful capabilities), then people can correctly judge one another as having been tainted through bad ‘moral luck’.
    By the way, do any of the philosophers here know if this is an original theory?

  • Doug S.

    There are more trivial examples that could be described as “having to do something wrong.”

    Imagine that you are gripping the hand of a person who is dangling over the side of a large building. If you let go of the person, he will fall to his death, so it would be wrong to let go. However, if you lack the physical strength to rescue the person and end up dropping him anyway, you’ve done something wrong, but you had to do it.

    Another example might be “cracking” under torture; an interrogator may demand that you name co-conspirators even though none exist, so you end up telling him whatever names you think he wants to hear.

    Finally, a person suffering from a severe claustrophobia may be unable to bring himself to enter a small room even if it were the only way to save someone’s life (by, say, performing CPR).

    In the case of the Amish man, he ended up concluding that, for whatever reason, he was not capable of behaving in a way he considered morally necessary. A moral system might require that you act in a certain way even under severe pressure to do otherwise, but you might cave in to that pressure anyway, and upon analyzing the situation (and yourself) in hindsight, decide that you could not have done otherwise. One can easily lack the physical capacity to perform an action that would be morally necessary if it were possible; however, as in the case of the hypothetical claustrophobe or this Amish elder, one can also lack the psychological capacity to perform an action that would be morally necessary if it were possible.

    Opening up the “morality and free will” can of worms here could be dangerous, but if we assume the existence of limits on a person’s ability to perform actions that do not affect the morality of a person’s actions, then the statement “it was morally wrong to do it but I could not have done otherwise” is not a contradiction.

  • Doug, I agree with much of what you say, but I wonder whether the moral case can be assimilated to the “trivial” cases (where the impossibility of doing otherwise is physical or psychological) – that is, is the Amish elder’s inability to do otherwise merely psychological? (Could the Amish folks in his community point him toward a counselor or therapy to help him overcome this disorder?) If it were a psychological impossibility, then this would make sense of Michael’s “moral luck” claim: the elder, in judging that he did something wrong, is holding himself responsible for something that is – in a fairly straightforward sense – not in his control (something like “psychological limits” similar to whatever “breaks” when a tortured person confesses).

    But before we ocnclude that the impossibility of doing otherwise involved in the elder’s case is psychological, consider Luther’s, “Here I stand: I can do no other.” Was Luther expressing a physical or psychological impossibility? (Would it make sense to suggest that he should try harder to do something else? -stolen remark, btw, from Rai Gaita)

    The difficulty with the claim that the elder thinks killing the robber is “less wrong” than the alternatives is that that would still imply that he has abandoned (or rejected) his Amish moral values, which (Winch says) the elder did not abandon. This brings us back to another bias issue: do the puzzles here show that there is something mistaken about making moral judgments in terms of absolutes – i.e. not admitting talk of “more or less” wrong? (This is related to Stuart Armstrong’s recent worries, and perhaps mine about the proper way to think about moral “dilemmas”.)

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Maybe we can take the analogy here of the torturer in the famous “ticking-bomb” situation. He could say that he did what he had to do, and would be correct by most moral codes.

    But the fact remains – he became a torturer! Part of the price he paid was in himself – he has become something that he identifies as evil. His moral certainties are weaker now, and he is a different person, probably a person he doesn’t like much. He did something moral that made him into an immoral person.

    To imagine how the elder would feel, ask youself the question: would you save someone’s life, if you knew that saving them would transform you into a peadophile?

  • michael vassar

    Stuart: Isn’t that what I just said?

  • Anna

    Stuart wrote:
    To imagine how the elder would feel, ask youself the question: would you save someone’s life, if you knew that saving them would transform you into a peadophile?

    I don’t understand how this reflects to the hypothesis of the elder. Based on the fact that he already feels that he has “sinned” by having to kill to save a loved one, I highly doubt he would choose to save one person while knowing that in the future he may destroy many lives in return.

    I remember a case in a law class regarding five fishermen that got lost at sea. To stay alive, they killed one of the men to eat. They where found guilty in a court of law. They where found guilty because they ate the youngest instead of the oldest. They must have been bias towards this young man instead of using rationality.

    I believe that morals are integrated within each of us but at times you have to be rational about the situation. I don’t believe it’s rational to choose to condemn oneself when there is no choice within the matter.


  • Stuart Armstrong

    I don’t understand how this reflects to the hypothesis of the elder.

    I didn’t mean that you would inevitably become an active peadophile, just that you would change to be a worse person – more vulnerable to temptation, damaged by your previous decision. I was just trying to translate in our terms what the elder might have felt: this is what it is right to do, but I will be a worse person by doing it.

    Stuart: Isn’t that what I just said?

    It is indeed. I misinterpreted. Mea Culpa! The only thing I can claim in my defence, is that my example may make the elder’s thought process easier to follow.

  • The problem for the elder is that he can’t judge that this is the right thing to do (given his moral convictions) – although he isn’t willing to abandon his moral ideals (at least in thought), the world (which contains vicious robbers) makes it quite difficult to live up to his own ideal standards. (We might think of the adoption of the non-violence ideal as adopting a vision of the way the world ought to be, but doing so is not – as this case illustrates – always practical.) The difficulty lies in making sense of what he has done, without hedging on his ideal moral vision. To that end, what Stuart has us imagine (that this act of killing is a temptation of sorts for the elder) makes sense: if he doesn’t live up to the ideal, then who will? And even if we can’t in practice without letting horrible things happen, this doesn’t make, for the elder, our less-than-ideal acts right. (So, again, he might claim that there is a kind of bias against, as Anna says, condemning ourselves even where there is no other option. But having no other option doesn’t mean that the option we have is a good one…)

  • Russ

    “To imagine how the elder would feel, ask youself the question: would you save someone’s life, if you knew that saving them would transform you into a peadophile?”

    That’s a useless comparison! A paedophile goes on to inflict harm on numerous innocents, is viewed negatively by the rest of the population. The elder never did, nor ever does harm innocents, and only he views himself in a negative light.