Thursday, July 28, 2011

If You Do and If You Don’t

By Michael

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.


Meredith Cole said...

Wow! You're pretty tough with your main character... I hate those moral conundrums too (like Sophie's Choice) because you're going to regret the decision you made for the rest of your life. But they certainly make for great drama, Michael.

Joshua Corin said...

Great post, Michael.

William Godwin is not one of my favorites. He is a little too hippie-hippie-naive for my tastes.

I much prefer the work of his daughter.

Liz said...

It may help to put the onus of choice where it belongs. With Sophie, that's indisputably on the Nazi forcing the choice. While that knowledge would never assuage Sophie's remorse, it should be clear to anyone hearing her story.

That said, I don't see the angst in shooting a 'bad' cop who is threatening the life of a 'good' cop, aside from the burden of taking any life. The "bad" cop forced the choice.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Great post, Michael! I think the easy moral choices are the straightforward ones, but most real moral choices aren't that straightforward. As you point out, sometimes, all the choices are bad and the consequences from any of them will haunt you forever.

Tough on humans, but great for fiction!

(I would save the babies, every time)

Michael Wiley said...

It's more fun to throw Joe Kozmarski into these situations than to face them myself, Meredith -- though I've yet to face either a shoot-or-don't-shoot or a Desmond-on-the-tracks predicament. I hope we all avoid such circumstances.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Joshua. Yes, naive, but hey, it was the French Revolution, and he was peeking out from the covers of hundreds of years of monarchy if not tyranny -- what better excuse to be naive?

His daughter ain't bad either.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Liz -- and you're right: putting the onus where it belongs helps. I think. In Joe's case, though, additional features complicate his decision: he used to be a cop still carries the burden of having been unceremoniously kicked off the course. And his dad was a cop -- a very good cop -- who also got kicked off the force (because of an injustice caused by an unjust judge), and Joe hesitates to see any apparently bad cop as absolutely bad. And so on. But you're still right: the choice is ultimately clear, and he does make it: he shoots the thief-cop. But he still suffers for doing so.

Hope you have a chance to read the book -- and let me know whether you think the decision and consequences are plausible.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Rebecca. I would save the babies too, and it's nice to know that the Commission will be coming after you as well as me.

Liz said...

I shall read tA Bad Night’s Sleep.

Of course, there are many factors unknown to me and, in any event, logic doesn't rule emotions, which is why the bad guys sometimes win, at least psychologically. That's the evil of their actions.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Liz. I hope you like it. Yes, sadly, the bad guy sometimes win. The great thing about fiction is that we can control which ones do.