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Rescuing O’Donnell from the “Lying to save a child from the Nazis” quagmire

In other words, don't let the enemy set the terms of debate

This started as a comment to the comment thread on the diary titled

O’Donnell and Lying To Save Lives: Was Castle Right to Withhold His Endorsement?

before my comment got too long.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Just about everyone here has fallen in the trap that the diary author has set here

…excepting mom2oneson who instinctively gets what is going on.

This is a classic scenario from Situation Ethics which attacked and tried to discredit historical morality and particularly the concept of absolute values by posing thorny scenarios about hypothetical situations.

I seem to recall there was a book by that title some years ago which started this all up, which may well have been closer to the time that OConnell’s quote comes from.

The “What do you do if the Nazi’s came knocking on the door” was one of the classic scenarios, along with the “Whether to let the Nazi prison guard bonk you so that you can get yourself a ‘get our to jail free” card” scenario that mom2onesone referred to.

The purpose was to create situations designed to get the reader to decide that moral absolutes had to be bent to the situation – or at least to set up contentious debates that would have the same effect of dividing people of good faith.

And judging from the comment thread, this aim succeeded.

In most cases, these situations can be defused because essentially if you look more closely at the unstated premises, you will see that the scenario has been loaded to create controversy.

Or alternatively, the scenarios assumes that you have certainty about the content of the situation beyond what is plausible.

About the Nazi’s questioning you about hiding a Jewish child, a key fallacy is assuming (as the scenario implies) that your answer would be decisive in determining whether the Nazis would search you house.

In other words, there would be a strong likelihood it doesn’t matter what you say in terms of the Nazis’ subsequent behavior: you’re in an untenable position once they’ve come by – and that the lives of you and the child are both forfeit. For that matter, they quite likely would just force their way in without even asking in the first place.

Therefore, since lying is not really likely to save the child, and flat telling the truth is untenable and unacceptable, I would suggest something neutral like, “feel free to search the house if you like” (which is every likely to happen anyway) – and pray to God that the child is not discovered. There are multiple stories of miracles like this that the survivors have related. Or perhaps you will bluff the Nazis from searching – which is at least as plausible as thinking that lying will dissuade the Nazis from searching.

The real point here, though, is that this situation doesn’t at all impeach O’Donnell’s statement that it would be morally wrong to lie. And that if you creatively reply without lying, you very well could achieve the desired outcome without violating moral standards.

About the pregnant prisoner question, again if you examine more closely, again you have a loaded scenario. Why should Nazi’s promulgate such a policy and even more absurdly, why would they follow such a policy. Far more likely (and historically more accurate) is that would likely simply kill the child, and quite possibly kill the mother too rather then set the free. It’s not like the Nazis exactly had a high regard for the lives of prisoners – especially those like a pregnant mom who couldn’t work – or a newborn who was a total drain on supplies.

So if becoming the guard’s sex toy isn’t going to improve your fate – or more likely it will worsen your odds, not to mention the risk of getting gang-banged to death and/or sexually tortured or worse, given their lack of respect towards prisoners – why degrade yourself in pursuit of a delusion.

Also, on a different track, I remember an essay on this that I read years back that refuted this situation through a reductio ad absurdum (or perhaps an infinite regression, I’m not certain as to the correct techical term). The refutation runs something like this.

Continuing past the release, the woman and child are now on the road, and it being winter, they are about to freeze to death because they were only given rags to wear. They encounter a guy on this deserted area who offers to clother them…in return for sex.

So next, the find theyt have no food and at the point of passing our from hunger. they run into another guy who learning they are hungry, offers to feed them…in return for sex.

And as night approaches and they have no place to sleep to shield them from dropping temperatures and an impending blizzard, in which they will surely freeze, a trucker passing by stops and offers them a ride…in return for sex.

And so on, “all the way down”.

In other words, once you buy the argument to cross the line, you have no defense against further incursions until there’s nothing left to defend.

So as you can see from this brief (and rather hastily assembled) discussion, even the best thinkers have great difficulty unraveling the ball of thread around Situational Ethics. And much of this analysis almost surely was not something O’Donnell would have know about.

Thus, given the multiple land mines that these situational ethics problems create – and which are easy to blow oneself up on, the best defense is to hold to the absolutes, as O”Donnell did, because you do not gain by breaking them.

Instead, focus on being creative in the life situations you do encounter, while not crossing the line.

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