A couple hundred years ago, William Godwin (a crime writer, among other things) posed a hard question: if a fire broke out and you could save only one person – your mother or a human rights advocate – who should you save? He said you should save the human rights advocate, and not only did that choice lead to a lot of public ridicule but on his next birthday when everyone else gave him presents his mother stiffed him.
It was a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario, and if he’d flung his mother over his shoulder and carried her downstairs to fresh air, a bunch of human rightists probably would have met them outside and sent him back into the fire.
I hate this kind of situation, the kind in which, for example, a bad man ties Desmond Tutu to railroad tracks, and a train full of innocent babies is barreling toward him, and you’re the switchman, and what will you do? – throw the switch that sends the train over a cliff or allow the train to cut Desmond in half? Refusing to make a choice isn’t an option. If you walk away from the switch, Desmond also will get it, and when the commission comes looking for someone to blame, they’ll be looking for you.
So, what is a good person (or a bad person) to do in such a situation? What’s the morally right choice?
These situations, although hateful to me, also interest me, and so, when writing, I throw my private detective, Joe Kozmarski, into them as often as possible. My just published mystery, A Bad Night’s Sleep, opens late on a cold night with Joe staking out a housing development where thieves have been stealing construction materials. When the thieves show up, they turn out to be uniformed cops. Then, other cops arrive to arrest them. When the two groups get into a gun fight, Joe watches until one of the uniformed thieves is about to kill one of the arresting cops. Joe can stop the thief only if he shoots him. But shooting him also means killing a cop, even if the cop is a corrupt one. Joe doesn’t want to kill a cop. Joe doesn’t want that cop to kill another cop. What’s he to do? His indecision and then his decision lead to a lot of bad days and nights.
There are some situations for which moral codes are insufficient.