August 26, 2012

The Painting or the Guard?

Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night," 1889
So, I'm in philosophy class. The discussion is centered around an author's ideas that are not inherently ethical, but instead decidedly ambiguous when it comes to matters of right verses wrong. 

For a little clarity, there is nothing unusual about this. Many philosophers, especially modern, do not take stands on matters of why right is right and wrong is wrong, an aspect sometimes referred to as the, "source of normativity" - the reason, basis, motive, cause, aim, goal, purpose, none of these words are strong enough - for the "ought-ness" of action, of life. The reason is simple: They don't know. Or maybe they just can't make up their mind. (Hell, Aristotle never said either. He didn't argue as to the truth of ethics, only said one needs a proper upbringing to know their "why." Huh?!) And to avoid answering the question they wind up engaging in torturous conflagrations of thought - we're talking backbends and shit - in order to make their nebulous points seem clear. Still with me?

This sets us off discussing the nature of values, what people value, and how they find these values valuable. Eventually it brings us back to the professor who lays out in methodical detail how the nature of autonomy is in essence to decide for oneself what is important and just how these issues, values, and concepts are of importance.

"Not everything is about ethics," she begins. Some find great value in art, and when confronted with choices about these values, reasonable questions on action are posed about what we should or should not do. For instance, if a museum is on fire and one can either save only a priceless van Gogh painting or wake up a sleeping guard (and save his life), these would present legitimately tough choices to make. She then looks over the room, seemingly for approval.

History's greatest art. So boring ...
Wow. Did she just say that? Did she just equivocate the value of human life with a painting under life and death circumstances? This inadvertently pulls the pin on my "Life Value" grenade. I debate tossing it.

Didn't have to. Turns out she also pulled the pin of the student next to me - she explodes: "What?! That is a human being! A human life! How can you even compare the two?!" Me, sotto voce: "This just got awesome."

I dart back to the professor. She straightens in her seat, clearly caught off guard by the torrent of common sense. Her only response is, "Well, okay, if that's what you think ..." I wonder if anyone else is thinking it as well.

The incident compelled me to establish the analogy as a proper philosophical question:
You find yourself inside a museum on fire. Let us suppose you are the last person inside that you know of. As you make your escape, you come to a fork in the hallway and can make out two distinct paths: One leads to a priceless, world-famous painting - perhaps your favorite - that would allow you to save it from certain destruction in your escape. The other path leads to an asleep security guard, who you could wake and escape together. Let us also suppose the roar of the fire is enough to drown out any yelling to wake the guard. Which way should you go? There may not be time enough to do both and escape injury or death.
Which in that moment is of greater value to you? Should you have an obligatory value for the protection of life? You yourself are trying to escape, so we can discern you at least value your own life. But tell you what, let's put in a third option, one that might not be reasonable to everyone, but may be at least justifiable from one's own perspective: Wake the guard and tell him to skeedattle. Then, because you value "priceless" art, you can choose to risk your own life to rescue the painting as the building burns around you. This is not going to be reasonable to everyone (especially to the people who love you), but at least you are not risking the lives of others to satisfy your own relative value.

Perhaps to some the choice between saving the painting and saving the guard is equivalent. They might even have arguments for why saving the priceless painting is a better choice than saving the guard. Except for this: Unless you are the guard. Unless the guard is someone you love, you care about - a husband, father, brother, son, a wife, mother, daughter, sister. And here's the thing: Chances are it's somebody's someone. The guard is somebody's father, daughter - somebody's someone. And if you conclude it wouldn't be right for anyone to supersede the value of your own life or anyone you cared about for their own arbitrary, relative value - in this case a value for "priceless" art - then why would you think it is in any way allowable for you to impose that value upon them?

That's what my professor apparently could not understand and it led to some insight. This is a well-respected university professor, one who recently played host to a symposium on world poverty and human rights with similarly-minded people from around the globe. And yet here she is in measured voice, rationally, "reasonably" condemning a fellow human being to death because their life is simply outweighed by her own vision of "equality." The very same dehumanizing equivocation made throughout history to justify the moral failures of the human condition - all life is not equal. Some people (and in this case some things) are simply 'more equal' than others.

I really don't mind she made the analogy - let's face it, it's hypothetical and I like to think under actual circumstances she'd do the right thing. What I find most troubling is the fact human life was not "out of bounds" when discriminating between saving a painting and saving a person. Would she have made the same equivocation if it wasn't a guard? What if it was a baby? Or some eminent professor? What if the guard was 19-years-old? And had kids? Would it make a difference then? And if it did, what makes it different? Seems to me if it is different, there would be an infinite number of mitigating factors requiring analysis prior to decision. One would have to discern value amounts for each and every factor and weigh them against each other. You'd need a roomful of actuaries just to keep track. (See Utilitarians.)


I really wanted to engage my professor's analogy with her saying: Okay, let's say you decide to rescue the painting. You run outside (saving yourself) and make it to the parking lot. You look up at the building now engulfed in flames, when a woman runs up to you - she's clutching two small children - and asks, "You were the last person to come out of the museum. My husband is a guard inside. Did you see him?"

Question: Would you tell her the truth or would you lie to her? And if you would lie, are you lying for her or are you lying for you?

I say, you made your choice - stick by it and tell the truth: You condemned her husband to die over a painting. See, it's a very famous painting. You should explain that. Perhaps it will console her and her children in the future.

But perhaps you feel you must lie - for her. But if you are lying for her, then you are clearly not lying for yourself. And if you are not lying for yourself, then why not just tell her the truth? Besides, why would you feel you must lie for her? You don't wish to hurt her feelings? Why do you care about her feelings? You certainly didn't care about the guard's.

Is it possible the lie is for yourself? A lie to cover up the fact you did something wrong - and you know it - and do not wish to reap the consequences that will surely cramp your lifestyle?

Isn't the lie, in fact, because you are trying to protect, trying to preserve and save your own life? Again? That's twice in one day. Know who could have used just one of those saves?

The guard.

1 comment:

Scott Zaleski said...

Interesting.

Thanks for sharing. You make really good points.

Scott