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Friday, April 19, 2024


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As you know, I am no philosopher, so my answer to which limb “must be rejected” is most likely inadequate, but I would choose “B,” conscious of the fact that in doing so, I violate a moral principle that I would otherwise uphold. Do I like making this choice? Obviously not, but we have been dealt a bad hand in this as in other essential matters where the uncertainty at the very heart of things sometimes forces us to make such choices. And we often make them not abstractly, as exercises in logic, but concretely in situations where what we decide has serious, even grave, consequences. In such moments, instinct and emotion (including love) assert themselves, and we, simply act. I will give you one example: You accept the moral maxim that is always wrong to lie, but one night, the secret police of an evil government knock on your door and ask you if you know the whereabouts of some saintly opponent, who they intended to torture and kill. You know where he is, but you say that you do not. Thus, you commit an immoral act or, in religious terms, a sin. But while we, in this and similar situations, bear some of the responsibility for our action, we do not bear all of it, for we find ourselves in the miserable position of making our way in the world ignorant of ultimate truths and facing much man-made wickedness, of suffering under two forms of evil. And given this, our choice to lie may be both ethically inexcusable but existentially justifiable.

Maybe not all problems need to be solved in this life, though.

"A time for questions we can't answer/But we ask them just the same."

— Kate Wolf



I sympathize with your rejection of (B).

On the level of theory, the problem of dirty hands strikes me as insoluble in the sense that there is no good solution to it. The only solution is on the practical level: one simply acts. One orders the nuclear annihilation of a couple of Japanese cities to bring the the war to an end and to save American lives, and this despite the horrific slaughter of non-combatants, many of them (e.g. infants) with no connection to the Jap war effort.

But then we are nailed to the cross of an existential 'contradiction' -- one between theory and practice . . . which suggests that human life is absurd.

"But then we are nailed to the cross of an existential 'contradiction' -- one between theory and practice . . . which suggests that human life is absurd."

I agree, but I would rather live with the unpalatable possibility of the absurdity of human life than follow those who insist that B must always be upheld, whatever the cost.

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