We are all faced with choices many times a day. Most will be simple, such as “Will I have chicken or beef for dinner?” which has no serious moral implications (unless I am a vegetarian). However, some choices will have serious moral or legal implications because they will impinge on society or the rights of other people.
There are, basically, three types of choices that we must face at some time in our lives: Choices between right and wrong; choices between two rights; and, the worst, choices between two wrongs. How we make these choices will depend on our view of life and our responsibilities to society and other people. I’ll discuss these three types of choice in turn, discuss some of the implications for the chooser and society, and think about what happens if we refuse to make the choice. I’ll do this by describing my own responses to the choices and what the choice means to me.
1. The choice between right and wrong: Fortunately for society, most people have no trouble with this choice. They do the right thing.
Consider the road rules that apply when driving. I have to choose between obeying the law and having a degree of safety on the road, or I break the law and endanger myself and other road users. Most people would agree with me and choose to obey the laws, thus enjoying some safety on the roads. Unfortunately, some people make the decision to break the laws and cause problems for everyone else, causing work for paramedics, police and the courts, who either have to repair the damage or try to control such anti-sociable behaviour. Obeying the laws causes me no problems, so my choice is simple: I choose to obey the laws.
2. The choice between two rights. This choice requires a bit of thought but can usually be decided one way or the other. The only downside I have found is that I get frustrated that I can’t always choose to do both.
Consider that I want to make a donation to some worthwhile charity. I don’t have enough money to donate to all charities, so I must choose the one that I think most deserves my support. After some thought, and maybe investigation, I decide to donate to a charity that helps homeless people. I make my donation and feel good about it. Then I think: What about the other charities that need help? I feel frustrated, but decide that I’ll try to support them at some other time when I am better able to. No serious problems there, except for my wish that I could do more.
3. The choice between two rights. This one is more difficult than it at first appears, and, I feel, is most likely to cause trouble of various sorts for the chooser.
Consider: I am faced with a terrorist who has a bomb that he intends setting off at a football game, murdering many innocent people. I am armed with a shotgun and know how to use it. The choice I have to make is: Do I murder the terrorist and save all those people, or do I not commit murder and allow him to go on his way? Do I murder the terrorist and save his innocent victims, or commit the crime of murder myself to save them? Both choices will cause me much troubled thought: Am I willing to break the law to save other people?
Most people would say: Murder the terrorist and save his innocent victims, and hope that society will support my decision and not punish me for it. Either way I will feel guilty, either of murder or allowing the victims to be murdered. It is a dilemma, but there are other considerations.
What if I don’t murder the terrorist and he fails in his objective and the victims are not murdered? Perhaps he is detected before he gets to the football game and arrested; perhaps his nerve fails and he decides not to set off the bomb, killing himself; perhaps the football game is cancelled and there’s no-on there for him to murder? In this scenario, what if I had murdered him? My crime would not be justified. I cannot, rightly, justify murdering him for what he might have done, or even intended to do but failed.
This is the dilemma. Do I murder the terrorist because he intends setting off the bomb, without knowing whether he actually will or not? Or do I let him go on unharmed, accepting that he might murder a crowd of innocent people? Is it my responsibility to decide? Whichever way I choose has tremendous implications, not least for my own peace of mind. I know that I will feel guilty whichever I choose.
Fortunately, very few of use ever find ourselves in this position. Those who do, such as police and anti-terrorist squadies, are trained to make the right decision. They are usually trained to do what is best for society in general, but I do not envy them the decision, and wonder what effect it will have on them and their lives.
In our society I am (mostly) free to make my own choices, as far as the law will allow. However, I must take responsibility for my choices, particularly as they affect other people or society or relate to the law of the land. If I make the wrong choice then I have to accept the cost, perhaps in the loss of my freedom. Unfortunately, many people want the freedom to choose but do not accept the responsibility for their choices. Someone once said (I can’t remember who) that freedom without responsibility leads to anarchy. If, by refusing to take responsibility for our choices, we bring on anarchy, then we will lose the freedom to make those choices.
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