Every decision we make pushes us down a particular path. At each moment, our choices narrow the possible futures to one singular future, and so we must bear the burden that each choice we make shuts the door on an infinite number of possibilities.
Sometimes being given a choice is harder and more damaging than if we’d never had a choice at all. Usually when we decide between options, we must also accept part of the responsibility for not choosing otherwise. This is an expected consequence if we paint humanity as moral.
Often, making a choice relies on morality. For instance, if we’re parallel parking in the city and accidentally dent one of the surrounding vehicles when no one is around, we have a choice. Do we leave a note explaining what happened and our contact info, or do we beat a hasty retreat, reasonably assured that our crime will go unpunished? The moral choice is obviously to leave a note on the dented vehicle. Even though we may not like having to compensate the owner and take responsibility for our actions, it’s infinitely more fulfilling to be able to do the right thing and choose that option as well.
Other times, however, our choice depends on two or more disheartening options. Consider the harrowing dilemma of Anna Pou, head physician of the Memorial Medical Center in Uptown New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Power is cut off and the running water ceases to flow. As a result, temperatures reach extreme highs. Due to the overwhelming amount of flooding following the hurricane, the hospitals must be evacuated. “Everyone is to get out by the end of today,” the staff are told. As the time limit dwindles down, so too does your hope for getting the patients who can’t be removed out of the hospital. Eventually, a choice has to be made; do you euthanize the immovable patients without their consent (many of them are in situations where they’re unable to give it), or do you desert them to experience an agonizingly interminable and terrifying death unaccompanied? Even if you’re distressed at the very idea of having to make a choice in this situation, you may still have a preference, a lesser evil. No matter the decision, though, you may also get the feeling that you’re breaking a rule of morality. With this in mind, there are certainly settings where no matter which choice you make it is a morally wrong one. Therefore, there are some situations where the failure of ethics is inevitable. In the case of the hospital, what your moral obligation is, is also something that’s impossible to do; you don’t kill the patients without consent and you don’t let them suffer painful deaths alone.
Pou didn’t have the luxury of being free from making a choice; she and her staff euthanized the patients that couldn’t be evacuated. They did it humanely and as gently as they could, but they still took those lives. I doubt they felt good about fulfilling what they saw as their moral duties, and the New Orleans grand jury in her case refused to indict Dr. Pou on second degree murder. She’s since helped to pass laws that offer “immunity to health care professionals from most civil lawsuits — though not in cases of willful misconduct — for their work in future disasters, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks to pandemic influenza.” I want to stress that I’m not taking a side here, for or against Pou. I don’t know whether it would be right to judge someone based on how they handled an experience I don’t know myself how I would handle. Instead, I’m trying to empathize with both the medical staff of Memorial and the patients, and see just what I can learn.
It may seem as though it’s unfair to be obligated to undertake an impossible task. If morality is indeed intended as a compass for our decisions in any given time and place, and we can’t actually succeed in doing the undoable, it would appear that discussing these decisions is for lack of a better word, wasteful. However, if you’ve ever had the experience of being obligated to perform the impossible because it was the morally right thing to do, you’d know that it’s attractive to fight the assumption. Accepting this as genuine human compassion or duty can aid in understanding your experience, even if it doesn’t inform your decision. We cannot, contrary to some belief, criticize others for inescapable moral transgressions so long as they chose the greatest of the feasible decisions; it is rare to blame people for doing what we like to think we would’ve done. On the other hand, righteous fury is abundant in many of us when others have the ability to do something better than what they ultimately decide to.
Unfortunately, the human condition is such that the majority of us, when in the same situations and performing the best of the choices, are likely to blame ourselves or hold ourselves accountable for doing something morally reprehensible. Our conscience may still inform our judgment of ourselves, despite the knowledge that we did what we could. Hence, we sometimes can decide for ourselves that we have morally failed.
I don’t know if it’s wise to completely disregard these judgments. Instead I think perhaps it would be wiser at least to present these judgments to scrutiny and a more inquisitive eye; if we do this, and they still persist, then we can understand that sometimes we really can be required to attempt to do the impossible. This is a powerful inference; if someone is in such a situation and they’re given an impossible choice like this, to even allow them a choice is cruel. They fail either way, and as a society we need to refrain from placing people in such circumstances if it can be helped. It can certainly just be poor fortune that yields someone having to choose between two crimes, but sometimes choice isn’t shaped by coincidence. It can certifiably occur in societal frameworks. Social structures, regulations, or establishments can create results that benefit some groups over others, and sometimes simply by deciding what choices those people get the privilege – or burden – of having to contend with.
Members of some social sets might have to face mostly horrific choices in that those choices aren’t allowed to be good, that all the available choices are detrimental to them. Still, there’s the even more harmful sense that those choices will make them fail in their obligations to other people or society as a whole no matter which they choose.
This is a moral wrong in itself. No person can be liable for failing to protect his or her charge when it wasn’t possible to do in the first place. Yet that person may still think they are required to undertake the task, and consequently decide that they’ve failed at that task. Nobody should be forced into the decision of evil one or evil two. Not all of the circumstances that present these choices are avoidable, as chaos is everlasting, but we at least should not knowingly bring them about.