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Who Do You Want to Be? Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 17 October 2013

We were discussing Christopher Browning’s extraordinary book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, in which he describes the circumstances surrounding the massacre of nearly 2,000 Jewish women and children on July 13, 1942, in the small village of Józefów, Poland. 

The battalion’s commanding officer, Major Wilhelm Trapp, laid out for his men in tears “the unpleasant task” they had been ordered to undertake. Each woman and child in the village was to be taken out into the forest and forced to lie facedown in the dirt. Placing their bayonets between the shoulder blades, the soldiers were to shoot each person in the back of the head. Teenage girls, elderly grandmothers, six-month old babies: all were to be shot until the village was empty. 

Having finished his explanation of the task that lay ahead, Trapp made an extraordinary offer: if any man among them did not feel up to the task, he could step out. Of the roughly 500 men in the battalion, only twelve took him up on his offer. 

Each semester, my students and I discuss why so few took the offer and refused to take part in the killing. There are a number of different reasons, each of which is detailed in Prof. Browning’s excellent book. Some of the men who participated in the killing claimed that they just didn’t have time to think the matter through; others said that it was “a different time and place” and “circumstances were just different back then.” Still others said that they didn’t want to “look weak” in front of the others, as though killing innocent women and children was something that would make them “look strong.”

Most of the reasons these men gave for not refusing to take part in the killing strike my students as essentially bogus, except for one: some of the men said that they were afraid of what might happen to them if they refused to follow orders: “What if someone is holding a gun to your head and says he will kill you if you don’t shoot these prisoners? With the gun to your head, standing under the threat of execution yourself, are you culpable for killing the prisoner? You have a duty to preserve your own life too, don’t you? If so, would it be ‘immoral’ to kill the prisoner in order to save your own life?” 

These are all thoughtful questions that reveal my students to be intellectually engaged young adults. And yet they also reveal some of the dangers to their moral lives that come from teaching them ethics in the usual ways. A professor of mine once pointed out that the books most often stolen from libraries are books in ethics, which was evidence for something he had always suspected: namely, that courses in ethics don’t generally make people better and more virtuous, rather they tend to make people worse. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.


       The Jewish cemetery at Józefów, Poland

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not inveighing against all courses in ethics or moral theology. This would be strange, given that I teach just such a course each semester. No, what I’m concerned about is how ethics often gets taught. So, for example, there are many important issues involved in any final moral evaluation of the dilemma my students have posed. 

In classical moral theory, there are very finely honed distinctions to be made between levels of culpability depending upon the degree of voluntariness or involuntariness of the act. Accurately determining an agent’s culpability is crucial, for example, in a courtroom to a judge or jury. 

In previous generations, that consideration played an important role in the confessional.  If I am forced to do something against my will, have I committed a sin – perhaps even a mortal sin?  If I am a slave, for example, on a Moslem galley (to cite a famous example historically), must I refuse to row for my Moslem overseers if the punishment for refusing is execution?  What in such circumstances constitutes “formal” cooperation with evil, which is impermissible, as opposed to merely “material” cooperation with evil, which may in certain circumstances be allowable?  All of these are interesting and important questions – in certain contexts and for particular purposes.

But here instead is what I prefer to ask my students: You are the man or woman holding the gun to the head of a Jewish woman or child. You fear that if you don’t shoot, you yourself will be shot. What do you hope you would do? For the time being, I’m not interested in what you think might or might not be the “moral” thing to do. And I’m not interested in gauging the culpability of someone else in this situation. What I want to know, very pointedly, is what would you hope that you would do? What sort of person do you want to be? The choices we make, make us.

Invariably my students reply: I hope I would have the courage to refuse to shoot, even at the risk of my own life. And there, they have their answer.

We can talk about “morals” or “ethics” as though they were a series of abstract rules having nothing to do with our own character or flourishing as full and complete human persons.  When we misunderstand ethics in this way, we can say really foolish things such as: “I know it’s not the moral thing to do, but I still think I should do it,” or “It may not be the moral thing to do, but it’s the good thing to do” — as though doing the “moral” thing was in an entirely different category from what is “good.” 

Thomas Aquinas would ask us to consider what category of virtue is relevant to the situation. In the case above, the relevant virtue would be courage. Then we ask ourselves what the courageous person would do. And by choosing correctly, we become what we choose. 

 
Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
 
 
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Comments (14)Add Comment
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written by Bangwell Putt, October 17, 2013
In "Basic Moral Concepts", Dr. Robert Spaemann writes: "... there are certain actions which are, regardless of the circumstances, bad, at all times and in all places, because by their very nature they deny the quality of a person as an end-in-him or her self..." With such actions there is no more room for calculating consequences."

"... If a soldier refused to shoot a Jewish girl who was begging him for her life, and his commanding officer threatened to shoot ten people if he still refused, it is not the soldier who would be responsible for the deaths of those people, but the commanding officer."

"... we all have to die one day, but we do not have to commit murder."

" 'Whatever offends against ... respect for human beings ... should be regarded as impossible.'" Someone whose conscience transformed 'I may not' into 'I cannot' would be a good person.' "
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 17, 2013
The students come up with a different set of ethics based on whether they are asked "What should you do" as opposed to "What do you hope you would do." This neatly identifies the current culture: feelings have replaced thinking.

Most young people today could not execute a series of logical thoughts. Ask them, however, to tell you what they feel about things and they will speak non-stop. Thus describes the culture since the days of the sexual revolution of the 60's and since.
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written by Rich in MN, October 17, 2013
Yep, moral decision making can be a pretty slippery business. I am part of a big farming co-op. Unfortunately, our field, vital to our survival, has been getting overrun by weeds. I found out just yesterday that one of the new managers hired to nurture the young crops in my own area of St Paul, MN, may be planting weeds herself, and I just don't know what to do. I want to say to this manager something like, "Dr. Sullivan, what exactly did you mean in your opening year convocation address to the students at the University of St Thomas when you said 'We are called to love and support everyone in our community regardless of their sexual orientation.... And, I might add, regardless of the gender of their spouse'? What does the word 'support' mean in the context of Catholic teaching on same-sex marriage? How do you think the young people to whom you spoke understand your meaning? Do you think it would be a good thing if the whole Church understanding of human sexuality is overturned by a revolt from within?"

Anyways, Dr. Smith, I am just stumped. And I know this sounds like a cop out, but I am just a private in this here army and I'm kind of looking around to see what the officers are doing. So, Dr. Smith, how did y'all in the Theology Department at UST respond to President Sullivan's address?
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written by Randall Smith, October 17, 2013
Deacon Ed,

Yes, you are right in a certain sense about the modern role of "feelings." Two observations, however, if I may.

First, I take it that hope is not necessarily a "feeling," but more of an aspiration. When the culture no longer has a shared notion of the good, we are usually left only with the personal. In such circumstances, we should ask students to reflect on the persons who serve as the role-models for their lives, and then ask them to consider what sorts of decisions they would have to make in order to become like them.

Second, I'm not above using the students' general tendency toward emotivism to try to undermine the students' general tendency toward emotivism. If by speaking the language of "hope" rather than the language of "should," I can make students understand what they should be doing, then I will do so.
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written by Dean stroud, October 17, 2013
Thank you for this. I love the twist from what I would do to what would I hope to do. Insightful and helpful.
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written by debby, October 17, 2013
Prof. Smith, I appreciate your work and post. In response to your comment to Deacon Ed, I agree with you entirely. It appears to me that Jesus was always undermining general tendencies toward following the religious leaders' examples, many of whom were not "good." our comment also reminded me of an expression used by 12-step groups: "Don't should on yourself". As much as that is often good advice, especially when a person is not thinking with right reason formed in virtue but is instead listening to the drone of sin-sick formed beliefs clamoring for continued exercise, there must be a time when "should" comes to the forefront of our behavior as the General of our conscience. If Hope focuses the gaze upon the One, then "should" is transformed by a loving response. This takes time, maturing, good formation and usually many pitfalls where Mercy comes to the rescue and fidelity is forged in discovering that Love.
In other words, keep it up. Work with what you've got, where you are. You have little to work with but "with God, all things are possible."
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 17, 2013
Randall,
Please don't think I was being critical of your methods. I was simply making the observation that much of our culture operates at the level of feelings and, while I know that hope has profound meaning, my guess is that people today view it as something emotive.
I would agree with your second point that tapping into students' proclivity to operate on an emotional basis may yield benefits in engaging them in ethical discourse.
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written by jan, October 17, 2013
'What would you hope that you would do?' is an interesting thought experiment. While it may lack precise underpinnings in moral theology, it is certainly helpful from a pastoral perspective, because it can help open a closed mind to truths about morality. I hope preachers read this article.

I read the Browning book many years ago, and I was greatly impressed. In the years since, I have often looked for it in my stack of stuff; but I think that in my enthusiasm to share the book, I loaned it to someone, and have never seen it again.

So while your point about the dubious effect of ethics courses is noted, I observe that people could steal worse things than books on ethics. That this is their #1 choice is partly a reason to rejoice as well as a reason to be snarky.
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written by Seanachie, October 17, 2013
Randall, I am curious if your students deal with contemporary issues of morality in the U.S.? For example, what is the morality of voting for (enabling) a politician and his/her party who support (even to the point of demanding that fellow citizens fund) abortion? If abortion (infanticide)is morally wrong (evil)and I enable it, am I not acting immorally? If I am unwilling to publicly denounce abortion, especially as a public figure, am I acting morally/amorally/immorally? In all, it seems to me that few of your students will face a decision about killing unarmed, innocent civilians...but, I believe the moral questions surrounding abortion are clear and present.
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written by Ernest Miller, October 17, 2013
Boy, would I like to read responses to @Seanachie's post.
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written by Dan Deeny, October 18, 2013
Randall,
An excellent article. I will try to read the book. I copied this and gave it to one of my supervisors. He said his first reaction was to shoot the officer. Have any of your students ever had this idea?
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written by Brad Miner, October 18, 2013
Pope Pius XI in Vigilanti Cura (1936): “Now then, it is a certainty which can readily be verified that the more marvelous the progress of the motion picture art and industry, the more pernicious and deadly has it shown itself to morality and to religion and even to the very decencies of human society.
“The directors of the industry in the United States recognized this fact themselves when they confessed that the responsibility before the people and the world was their very own. In an agreement entered into by common accord in March, 1930, and solemnly sealed, signed, and published in the Press, they formally pledged themselves to safeguard for the future the moral welfare of the patrons of the cinema.
It is promised in this agreement that no film which lowers the moral standard of the spectators, which casts discredit upon natural or human law or arouses sympathy for their violation, will be produced.”

The Production Code. And the filmmakers meant it, until, that is, they gave in to the allure of “reality,” always the ludicrous ideal of exploitation.
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written by Patti Day, October 19, 2013
Dan Deeny, Wouldn't that be the same as blowing up the abortuary or shooting the abortionist?
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written by Dan Deeny, October 21, 2013
Patti Day,
Thank you for your response. Probably not, because we have means of legally ending the abortion business, whereas a German soldier in occupied Poland did not have that opportunity. But your question is interesting because my supervisor is pro-choice.
Thanks again.

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