This entry assumes familiarity with the story recounted by Shusaku Endo in his novel, Silence. Philip L. Quinn's "Tragic Dilemmas, Suffering Love, and Christian Life" (The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 17, no. 1, Spring 1989, 151-183) is the best discussion of the central themes of the novel I have read. I thank Vlastimil Vohanka for bringing Quinn's article to my attention.
Quinn argues powerfully and plausibly that Rodrigues is "trapped in an ethical dilemma." (171) I will suggest, however, that while the dilemma is genuine, it cannot be ethical. Let us first hear what Quinn has to say:
When Rodrigues tramples on the fumie [image of Christ] what he does, I think, is both to violate a demand of his religious vocation binding on him no matter what the consequences and to satisfy an equally pressing demand for an expression of love of neighbor. The case resists subsumption under one but not the other of these descriptions. Both demands are characteristic of distinctively Christian ethic. They spring from a single source: the commandment that we both love God with total devotion and love our neighbor as ourselves. The misfortune is that Rodrigues cannot, given that he is the kind of person his life has made him, satisfy one of these demands without violating the other. He is, I suggest, trapped in an ethical dilemma. (170-171)
Quinn then proceeds to explain what an ethical dilemma is:
There is an ethical dilemma when a person is subject to two ethical demands such that he cannot satisfy both and neither demand is overridden or nullified. [. . .] Demands that are neither overridden nor nullified are in force. When one confronts two conflicting ethical demands both of which are in force, one is caught in an ethical dilemma. It seems to be that this is the situation of Sebastian Rodrigues.
I will now attempt to set forth the problem as clearly as I can.
A. The two great commandments that contain the whole law of God are:
- Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength;
- Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
And one of them, a doctor of the Law, putting him to the test, asked him, "Master, which is the great commandment in the Law?" Jesus said to him, "'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.' This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:35-40)
C. Both are equally obligatory: neither takes precedence over the other.
D. Neither demand can be overridden and neither can be nullified.
E. An exterior act of apostasy such as trampling on the fumie even without a corresponding interior act of apostasy counts as a violation of the first commandment.
F. Failing to engage in a simple exterior act such as trampling on the fumie that will save many from prolonged torture and death is a violation of the second commandment. Therefore:
G. Rodrigues faces a dilemma: he must satisfy both demands, but he cannot satisfy both demands.
But is this dilemma an ethical dilemma? Arguably not.
H. Ought implies Can: If one ought to do x, i.e., if one is morally obliged to do x, then it must be possible that one do x. Contrapositively, if it is not possible that one do x, then one is not morally obliged to do x.
I. It is not possible that Rodrigues satisfy both demands in the terrible situation in which he finds himself. Therefore:
J. Rodrigues is not morally obliged to satisfy both demands in the situation in which he finds himself. This is not to say that, in general, a Christian is not morally obliged to satisfy both demands; it is is to say that a person in the situation in which Rodrigues find himself is under no moral obligation to satisfy both.
At best he is in an awful psychological bind. The dilemma is psychological, not ethical. Quinn may be committing a non sequitur when we writes (emphasis added),
The misfortune is that Rodrigues cannot, given that he is the kind of person his life has made him, satisfy one of these demands without violating the other. He is, I suggest, trapped in an ethical dilemma.
From the fact that R. is deeply psychologically conflicted due to the circumstances he is in and the kind of person his life has made him, it does not follow that he is in an ethical dilemma. He cannot be morally obliged to do what it is impossible for him to do. So:
K. Rodriguez is not "trapped in an ethical dilemma."
L. We should also note that if Rodrigues does face an ethical dilemma, then this would seem to show that there is something deeply incoherent about Christian ethics. This would not follow if the dilemma is merely psychological.
M. So what should Rodrigues do? Exactly what he is depicted as doing in the novel. I can think of two reasons that justify trampling upon the fumie and saving the prisoners from torture.
The first is that his apostasy is merely external, not in his heart, and therefore arguably not apostasy at all in the precise circumstances in which he finds himself. So (E) above, even if true in general cannot be true for R. in the circumstances.
The second is that, given the silence of God, it is much better known (or far more reasonably believed) that the prisoners should be spared from unspeakable torture by a mere foot movement than that God exists and that Rodrigues' exterior act of apostasy would be an offence God as opposed to a mere betrayal by Rodrigues of who he is and has become by his life choices.