False Moral Dilemmas

Moral or ethical dilemmas are often presented in an attempt to manipulate us to accept a particular point of view, no matter how distasteful we find it.  In many cases, the dilemma is bogus, based on illogical or unsupportable premises…a false dilemma.  I will consider three false moral dilemmas here, involving torture, collateral damage and abortion.

False Moral Dilemma No. 1:  Torture of prisoners.

When the controversy over torture of captured terrorists erupted a year or so ago, an Email was circulating on the Web posing the following dilemma:

You have captured a terrorist, and he has information that will save the lives of some American soldiers, but he refuses to talk.  Should you torture him?

This seems to be a classical moral dilemma, pitting the reader’s moral and ethical abhorrence of torture against his/her patriotic loyalty to our troops.

It is similar in many ways to the question:  “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

A simple yes or no answer to either question is impossible.  But any attempt at an explanation is greeted with jeers and accusations that you are “avoiding the question.”

The problem with both questions is that they are based on one or more false premises.  The wife-beating question obviously assumes that you ARE beating your wife, and the question is…have you stopped.  If you do not beat your wife, you cannot answer this question with a simple yes or no.  It is necessary to explain that you do not, nor have you ever, beaten your wife.

In the case of the question on torture, the premises are a bit more subtle.  The question makes several assumptions:

a) That the (accused) terrorist has information.
b) That the information will lead directly to the saving of soldiers’ lives.
c) That torture will convince the individual to supply the information.
d) That the information supplied will be correct.

Let us consider each of these assumptions.

a) How do the captors know that the person in question has any useful information?
b) How do they know that the information, if they can get it, will save soldiers’ lives?
c) Experts on torture have said that it is often not successful at making victims talk.
d) How would they determine that any information they obtain is correct?

They can never be even reasonably sure of ANY of these assumptions, but consider b) in particular:  What sort of information could a captive have that would have the immediate effect of saving troops’ lives?  The names of co-conspirators?  Locations of caches of weapons or explosives?  While this information, if he had it, might have a long term effect on a terrorist cell’s operations, it could hardly be defined as an immediate threat to the lives of specific soldiers.  If that kind of information justifies torture, then almost any captive could be tortured at any time.  A slippery slope, indeed.

Furthermore, it is very unlikely that a captured terrorist would have detailed knowledge of future attack plans.  Anyone who knows anything about terrorists knows that they “compartmentalize” such information so that captives cannot compromise operations that they are not involved in.  There are so many uncertainties about this that it becomes clear that the question is as invalid as “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

The correct answer to either question is:

“The question you pose is illogical because it is based one or more false premises.”

But of course, you must be prepared for the ridicule and invective that will be heaped upon you for giving this answer.

False Moral Dilemma No. 2:  Collateral Damage.

Killing another human being is generally considered a serious crime.  We call it murder.  There are exceptions.  A soldier can kill as many enemy soldiers as he likes, and will receive only praise for his actions.  He can even kill civilians if they are trying to kill him, or even threaten him.  But soldiers have been tried and convicted of murder if they deliberately kill noncombatants…civilians who are not threatening them.  This has happened in Vietnam, recently in Iraq, and elsewhere.

The key word in the above paragraph is “deliberately.”  Civilians often die in wartime through accidental and unintended actions.  This is commonly referred to as “collateral damage.”  A bomb aimed at a terrorist headquarters goes astray and hits a house or a school or even a hospital.  Bad things happen in wars, and generally the people responsible for collateral damage are not prosecuted unless they have been grossly negligent.

With that bit of background, consider the following scenario.

You are a military commander in Afghanistan.  You have obtained information about the location of a terrorist leader from informants.  The individual is sleeping in a house on the outskirts of a city with his family.  Should you order an air strike to attempt to kill him?

Clearly, the terrorist leader is a legitimate military target.  But the presence of his family presents an apparent moral dilemma.  The air strike will almost certainly kill his family along with him.  These are not accidental deaths resulting from a misguided bomb or poorly-aimed weapon…collateral damage.  The deaths of his family must be considered as part of the planning for the operation.

So…the legitimate desire to kill an enemy, is pitted against the deliberate killing of his family…noncombatants who are not a threat to our soldiers…or our nation.

Recently, several such attacks have been reported in the media.  The terrorist leader was indeed killed…along with his family.  In one case, three of his wives and several children died in the attack.

Am I the only person in this country who is appalled by this?  I doubt it.  There is no moral dilemma here.  This is the planned murder of innocent women and children.  No matter how many atrocities that terrorist leader committed or ordered committed, this action cannot be justified on any moral basis.

This is most certainly NOT a moral dilemma at all.

To those who would cite beheadings of American soldiers or reporters, or even the WTC attacks, I say yes, those are horrible atrocities.  One, or a dozen, atrocities does not justify an atrocity in response, either legally or morally.  When we respond in kind, we are no better than the criminal perpetrators of those atrocities.  Indeed, the murder of those women and children is an atrocity.  There is no other word to describe it.

And the military commander who ordered it…or his superiors who directed him to order it…should be put on trial…not in a military court.  This is a criminal case, and the accused should stand before a civil court and let our judicial system decide his fate.

False Moral Dilemma No. 3:  Abortion.

Of all the “culture war” issues dividing our nation, none is more divisive than the issue of abortion.  The arguments are almost always couched in moral terms, but it is interesting that neither rabid anti-abortionists nor fervent pro-choicers would acknowledge any moral dilemma at all.  For them, the world is simple: black-and-white.  For the rest of us, the “in betweeners,” the world has a decidedly complex grayish tinge where an apparent moral dilemma exists, but according to recent polls, a growing majority would probably come down on the side favoring legalized early-term abortion.

First, let’s consider the views of the strict anti-abortionists.  For them, conception creates a “person” with all the rights of any other human being.  They believe that to destroy a fetus at ANY stage, even when it is a single cell, a fertilized egg, is murder.

Since anti-abortionists don’t distinguish between that single cell and a complete, living, breathing baby outside the womb, let us confine the discussion for the moment to that single cell.

Pro-choicers generally believe that the woman carrying that cell has the right to make the ultimate choice whether to carry it to term (if possible) or to abort it.  To take this choice away from her, they believe, is a violation her human rights.

So the basic argument is…rights of the cell vs. rights of the host.  Performing abortion is seen as a violation of the rights of the cell, while prohibiting abortion is seen as a violation of the rights of women.  A true dilemma?

The core of the anti-abortionist argument comes down to the definition of “person.”  Is the cell a person?  Certainly it contains the human DNA code, and if it is not spontaneously aborted, if the pregnancy goes well, if the birth goes well, and there are no fatal birth defects, it could become a living, breathing human being.  A lot of things can go wrong, but that single cell has the potential to become a person.
But is it a person?

The anti-abortionists say the cell is a person.  Period.  And the rights of that person have priority over the rights of the woman who carries it.  They believe that the government should enact laws prohibiting any woman from removing the cell from her body.  In effect, they believe that all the laws that protect children from harm or abuse (by their parents or anyone else) should be applicable to the cell at the instant of conception.

What if the woman’s health is endangered?  What if having the baby could kill her?  What if she does not have the physical, mental or  financial resources to support a child…or she just does not want to have a baby?  Should she be required to carry the fetus to term regardless of the threat to her physical or emotional health…or her economic ability to support it?  The unequivocal answer from the anti-abortionists:  Yes.

The pro-choicers say…well, I guess I can’t speak for all of them, but I think their basic position is that the woman’s right to choose whether to carry the cell or not should be her choice, and her choice alone, and the argument about whether the cell is a person or not is about the same as arguing about how many angels can strum harps on the head of a pin.  To them, even the idea that the government or anybody else should have the power to dictate what happens inside a woman’s body is outrageous.

It is pretty obvious that nobody is ever going to prove that a fertilized egg is or is not a person.  So this argument is not, and will never be, over facts.  It is over opinions.
It is also clear that there will never be a winner of this argument, and that there will always be people with differing opinions.

Anti-abortionists have also made the judgment that in the contest between the rights of the cell and the rights of the woman, the rights of the cell take precedence.  People with these beliefs clearly suffer from no moral dilemma at all in their unconditional opposition to abortion.

How about the pro-choicers?  My guess is that most of them do not think of the cell as a person.  So the rights of the woman to control her own body clearly do not involve any moral dilemma.

How about the “in-betweeners?”  Judging by the fact that polls have shown that a majority of Americans think early term abortion should be legal, I will go out on a limb and say that most of them would agree with the pro-choicers when the argument is about a single cell, or even a blastocyst…a ball of around a hundred cells.   But as the fetus grows, and eventually becomes “viable,” support for abortion starts to waver, and the real dilemma emerges.

Viability, the stage where a fetus, if removed from the womb could survive on its own, is a crucial point in any abortion discussion.  Many people acknowledge that a viable fetus is a “person,” and abortion should only be allowed in the most dire of circumstances…e.g., when any other alternative puts the woman’s health or life in great danger.  These cases should be exceedingly rare.

Is this a violation of the woman’s rights?  Notice that I am not saying that she should not be permitted to terminate the pregnancy at this stage (or any stage).  But if the fetus is viable, a Caesarian Section birth would appear to preserve the rights of both the baby and the mother.

If you examine it a little more closely, there is still a moral dilemma, though.  Even with the Caesarian, the woman is required to undergo major surgery, possibly against her will, and then take on the parenthood role, at least temporarily.  I guess this is where common sense and reasonable compromise must prevail.  After viability, we are (arguably) considering the conflicting rights of two individuals.  This is a real moral dilemma.  Society should seek to deal with this in a way that causes the least harm.  Proper counseling on contraception, family planning and early-term abortion should make such cases rare.

Most (but not all) anti-abortionists hold their views because of their religious beliefs.  Devoutly religious people often warn about the “slippery slope” of moral decay caused by that dreaded disease, Moral Relativism.  But in examining their position on abortion, the contention that a single cell is a person leads to a slope of moral glare ice.

Parents can be prosecuted for child abuse if they beat their children or subject them to other mistreatments such as withholding food or medical care.  Consider for a moment the vast expansion of child abuse laws that must logically follow if the fetal cell is a person.  Using alcohol, non-prescribed drugs (legal or not) or tobacco during pregnancy surely would constitute child abuse.  How about working too hard or not eating a healthy diet?  All of these cause a risk to the fetus.  Even the threat of prosecution, trials and punishment would subject the woman to great stress, also harmful to the fetus.

And I haven’t even mentioned the impracticality of enforcement of such laws without a Big Brother Monitor in the home…and maybe in the uterus…of every pregnant woman, a clear violation of a woman’s right to personal privacy.

The first two “dilemmas” described above are nothing of the sort.  Instead, they are obfuscations designed to confuse people in order to advance  particular agendas.  I hope that I have exposed them as such, and that I have enabled you, the reader, to clear away the smoke and mirrors and view them objectively.

Only in the case of abortion is there a real moral dilemma, and then only after the fetus reaches viability.  Before that, it’s strictly a matter of opinion.  Everybody is entitled to their own opinion on abortion.  The trouble is, some people want to impose their opinion on everyone else.

2 thoughts on “False Moral Dilemmas

  1. Re : Abortion. Those against do not explain how or why a woman’s right to life vanishes by dint of pregnancy. They also do not explain why spilled blood from a paper cut is not a person. But their “reasons” for their position are rationalizations, after having chosen a set of simple rules to cover all cases, which helps in avoidance of thinking and feeling.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Daniel. The majority of anti-abortionists (not all) base their position on religious beliefs. By definition, faith-based beliefs do not involve any thinking.

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