Since Angie recently posted a thoughtful response on this blog on the voter’s dilemma, that old old issue of bargaining with the Devil has been haunting my inner world. There was a time, some years back, when I too believed that choosing the lesser evil is the way to go.
I once engaged in such an argument with an ethicist, and it ran as follows: if aliens come and tell you they will spare the Earth if you kill off all the 8-year olds, what is the moral thing to do? The ethicist argued that choosing the lesser evil and killing all the 8-year olds is the moral thing to do. I disagreed, and said that while you may be necessary to choose the lesser evil, it is still evil, and never a moral thing to do. We left the discussion unfinished.
A more poignant argument involved a thoughtful orthodox Jew named Russ I encountered in a multi-religious forum. We focused on Sophie’s Choice. To refresh your memory, Sophie is a young Polish mother of two who tries to smuggle a ham in from the countryside. She is arrested by the Nazis, and we find her next in a line of people being processed into a concentration camp. She accosts the passing commandant, telling him a mistake’s been made; she does not belong here. The sadist, amused, gives her a choice: surrender one of your children to death. And be quick about it. If you refuse, both will be taken. Sophie, amidst the agony, chooses the younger, her precocious little girl, bargaining in her mind that the older boy is more likely to survive. He does not, but she lives and comes to America, where her ghosts find her and destroy her.
I tried to persuade Russ that when evil asks for one child, it’s wrong to surrender both voluntarily. In other words, I was convinced that Sophie did the righter thing by choosing the lesser evil. Russ argued, based no doubt on the rabbinic tradition, that it is immoral to try to make deals with evil, period. She should have refused. She should have refused the demonic “choice” he was imposing on her. Our debate ended in a stalemate, but it’s been part of my inner life ever since.
All those long years I have been haunted by that wrenching movie scene. Wishing that Sophie had a kitchen knife secreted in her boot, and plunged it into the commandant’s belly. Or, that she had been defense-trained and poked out the man’s eyes with her fingertips. Even had he lived, he would never again divert himself by posing such choices to incoming prisoners. But short of that? The older I’ve gotten the more examples I saw around me and in my own life of such failed bargains, such self-betrayals, albeit in smaller doses. I have had to finally acknowledge that Russ was right. Bargaining with the Devil is invariably a losing proposition. The aliens who ask you to kill all your eight year old children are not trustworthy by definition, and will betray your hopes as soon as you do the grisly deed, asking for another yet grislier. The commandant who asks you to sacrifice one of your children will kill the other with a smirk on his face, if it so pleases him. Where do you draw your line?
These are extreme examples, of course, such as ethicists love. But we all face moments where bargains with the Devil come up in our lives, and modern elections are one such example. People think they can bargain with the future. But we cannot. It was not in Sophie’s power to save her children, or to survive the camp (that was a good measure of luck and circumstance), or even, in the end, to save herself. But it was in her power to choose to be a woman of integrity who would never ever betray those she loved, whatever the consequences. Who knows? Bullies often respect those who resist their bullying; maybe such a move would have given the family the best chance of all if the commandant showed some grudging admiration for a woman of courage (as he showed it later in response to her endurance and quiet strength).
And after all those years of mulling (after all, I am an introvert!) this is where I’ve come to rest. When we debated Rebecca Solnit’s “propaganda for Obama” post on the Energy Bulletin, a couple of the commenters made some notable points.
JumpNow said: Ms. Solnit’s cliche filled essay complains about the cliche of the lesser of two evils, because she must admit that she has hitched her wagon to Obama’s stairway to heaven and declared the slaughter of Muslim children OK because “thousands” of American children will do better under Obamacare. (I can do cliches, too).
Ms. Solnit belongs to the amoral left, that seeks its own benefits,
without regard to the costs paid by others. No matter what happens,
well off “liberals” like Ms. Solnit will do fine, or at least she
We have two types of mainstream voters in Amerika — moralistic
conservative voters (such as in they oppose abortion, but don’t mind if
the child starves or dies without health insurance) and amoral liberal
voters, who cannot take a moral stand on any issue, no matter how
Free and Easy Rambler responded: With this article Rebecca has officially jumped the shark – much the way Monbiot did with his pro-nuclear article after Fukushima. JumpNow is absolutely right; liberals have never met a moral principle that they aren’t willing to compromise for the sake of political expediency. We’ve all seen what the result of that is.
Personally, I think we would all be better off ignoring the spectacle of electoral politics and getting on with our lives.
This political system, so full of lies and grotesque evil, profits by driving all sides during each election, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, into desperately trying to justify repugnant bargains. As long as this game persists, nothing will change. ‘Divide and conquer’ will remain the winning hand.
We don’t have the power to determine the future. The only power we have is the power of our here-and-now, deep-down integrity. Which will you take? The desperate bargaining, or the quiet clarity of your conscience, refusing all pseudo-choices?