By Lisa Tessman
It is not always good to have the opportunity to make a choice. When we must decide to take one action rather than another, we also, ordinarily, become at least partly responsible for what we choose to do. Usually this is appropriate; it’s what makes us the kinds of creatures who can be expected to abide by moral norms.
Sometimes, making a choice works well. For instance, imagine that while leaving the supermarket parking lot you accidentally back into another car, visibly denting it. No one else is around, nor do you think there are any surveillance cameras. You face a choice: you could drive away, fairly confident that no one will ever find out that you damaged someone’s property, or you could leave a note on the dented car’s windshield, explaining what happened and giving contact information, so that you can compensate the car’s owner.
Obviously, the right thing to do is to leave a note. If you don’t do this, you’ve committed a wrongdoing that you could have avoided just by making a different choice. Even though you might not like having to take responsibility – and paying up – it’s good to be in the position of being able to do the right thing.
Yet sometimes, having a choice means deciding to commit one bad act or another. Imagine being a doctor or nurse caught in the following fictionalised version of real events at a hospital in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Due to a tremendous level of flooding after the hurricane, the hospital must be evacuated. The medical staff have been ordered to get everyone out by the end of the day, but not all patients can be removed. As time runs out, it becomes clear that you have a choice, but it’s a choice between two horrifying options: euthanise the remaining patients without consent (because many of them are in a condition that renders them unable to give it) or abandon them to suffer a slow, painful and terrifying death alone. Even if you’re anguished at the thought of making either choice, you might be confident that one action – let’s say administering a lethal dose of drugs – is better than the other. Nevertheless, you might have the sense that no matter which action you perform, you’ll be violating a moral requirement.