In praise of half-measures

Though an earnest pro-lifer, who believes (knows would be more like it) that abortion and euthanasia are forms of murder, and that no murder can be justified, I am sometimes driven nuts by my allies. I think of those who will not make any political compromise, that would “merely reduce” the number. They insist on the full restoration of our old laws, or they will feel themselves complicit in each act that remains legal. Thus they will sabotage any promising half-measure. And thus, they become actually complicit in any killing that could have been prevented.

(The “Freedom Caucus,” in the USA, also comes to mind.)

My point is ultimately theological. It touches on the question of the “lesser evil.” Catholic, if not all thoughtful Christians, understand that one may not justify an evil means by a good end. More profoundly, one may not intend an evil. And some things are intrinsically evil (see above); there can be no argument for them. Yet in “real life,” as people fondly call it, we are sometimes presented with a circumstance in which, if we do not do the grisly thing, a grislier must follow.

An example which amused me was in a journalistic “ethics” quiz I wanted no part of, many years ago. (“Ethics are for people who have no morals,” as I have sometimes observed.)

You, gentle reader, are the engineer of a railway train. You have just learnt that the bridge over the deep gorge ahead, has collapsed. Your only chance of saving, not only yourself, but five hundred harmless passengers, is to brake as much as you can, and try to shunt onto a disused siding. You go for it, no?

But then you notice there is a sweet little girl on the siding, standing right between the rails, with a beautiful bouquet of daffodils. She wears a pretty satin dress, in blue, has freckles, and is smiling beatifically. (Yes, I have parodied their emotionally loaded question.) If you succeed in performing the shunt, she will be … pancaked.

“That’s easy,” I replied. “Ace the little girl.”

But this turned out to be the wrong answer, according to the journalistic sages. Why? It is wrong to kill sweet little girls, they informed us, in their unctuous way. (“What if it were the terrorist who just blew the bridge?” I asked, mischievously.) You must never do things like that. Not ever. To them, the fact of five hundred on your train, was irrelevant.

(Guns are necessary, I reflected. And moral absolutism is necessary. But neither should be left in the hands of small children, journalists, or the insane.)

Let me be clear. I have never extirpated a little girl. Not even one. Thought of it, once or twice, when I was a little boy, but never acted upon it. Wouldn’t cross my mind, under normal circumstances.

And that is the key to the question. The engineer does not intend to liquidate the sweet little thing. He intends to save the lives of five hundred passengers. And she just happens to be in the wrong place, and at the wrong time.

I will admit that my calculation was statistical. Consider that, however dressed, and whether with daffodils, or without, there will be, by close to demographic certainty, more than a dozen sweet little girls on the train. My preferential option is for saving as many as possible.

Most likely result if, unlike a journalist, you know anything about trains: this one will be moving too fast to make the turn. Blame the fog of war. It derails, killing a hundred people, starting with the engineer. But the little girl on the track survives! (Perhaps traumatized for life.)

Still, you saved four hundred, and should get the (posthumous) gold star. But probably won’t, because, life’s like that.