Who Do You Want to Be?

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 a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.