You are a soldier in Vietnam. You have met and fallen in love with a Vietnamese woman. The two of you have a child, although you are not legally married. Due to political reasons beyond your control, you are ordered back to the United States. The North Vietnamese forces are invading the South and will soon overrun it. Since you are not married to this woman, you cannot get her or the child out of the country. If you leave, you may not see this woman or your child again. If you stay, you will likely be imprisoned by the invading North Vietnamese. Should you obey your orders and leave, or should you stay with this woman and your child in Vietnam? Explain your decision.
Sociologist Christian Smith reports that 2/3 of the young adults he surveyed could not engage questions about moral dilemmas in their lives; many did not even understand what a moral dilemma is. For the record, a moral dilemma involves a choice between two possible moral imperatives, neither of which is unambiguously preferable.
I pose this case to my students not primarily as an example of a moral dilemma. I use it to help them understand the decision Aeneas was forced to make in the Aeneidwhen the messenger god Mercury comes to remind him that his fate is to found a great city in Italy (which would become Rome). And so, although Aeneas has fallen in love with the Carthaginian queen Dido and has become quite “comfortable” sharing her bed, Jupiter sends Mercury to order him to leave Carthage and Dido.
My students rarely think of their lives in terms of “fate” and the gods. They imagine that somehow, with modern science and technology, we can (or should) control everything. As a result, many students over the years have proposed various technological “fixes” to get them out of the dilemma. “Maybe she can go with him for now, and then they can go back to Carthage after he has founded Rome.” “Maybe he can go found Rome, but they can stay in touch, and he can travel back and forth every month.” They imagine that if they could Skype or “text,” it might solve the problem — until I ask them whether theywould want to carry on a relationship that way.
They aren’t happy when I suggest there might be issues bigger than just the two of them. Will these Trojan foreigners be welcome in Carthage as more than just temporary visitors? Will Aeneas’s son Ascanius eventually become a threat to various political parties if he is in line to rule the city? What if Dido and Aeneas have a falling out? Will the Trojans still be safe in Carthage? They continue to think all these problems can be “managed” somehow.
Sometimes, however, things simply aren’t under our control, either because we are subject to the decisions of powerful persons — political or corporate leaders (our version of “the gods”) — or under the sway of historical forces beyond our control, our version of “fate.” Our Vietnamese soldier has no control of what goes on at the Paris Peace Accords. Even the diplomats there are often subject to forces greater than their own.
All these various forces, whatever their source, come down on the head of our humble American soldier in Vietnam who must decide what to do. He might try appealing to “the gods” for help: one of his commanding officers or a major politician if he knows one, someone with enough power and influence to “pull some strings.” But there is no guarantee they will respond. The gods rarely like being bothered with such minor details, unless they love you the way Aeneas’s mother, Venus, loved him.
And so, like Aeneas, sometimes even we in the modern world must make hard choices, not merely between “being greedy” and being noble, but between two important moral imperatives in direct conflict with one another.
A former Marine in my class told me, “You take a solemn vow to the American military that you will obey orders; you will be court-martialed if you don’t.” “Okay, but what about the woman?” I ask. “Does he have noobligation to her? How about to her child? How about to both together?” A few students think that he should take the child if he can, even if he must leave behind the mother. “The child will have better opportunities for education and advancement in the United States,” they claim. When later in the course, we read in Augustine’s Confessionshow he sent his mistress back to North Africa but kept his son Adeodatus with him in Milan, the students don’t like it. “How can he separate a mother from her child?” they rightly ask. “But wouldn’t this be like the American soldier taking the child away from his mother in Vietnam? Adeodatus would have so much greater opportunities for advancement with his father in Milan, wouldn’t he?”
The students must reflect on how they rank order various goods and obligations: their duty to the Army, to their parents, their country, this woman, her child. What about the man’s future career prospects? Which takes priority? How about the role of “emotions” versus “reason.” Students will often say they know what the “moral” thing to do would be, but they would have to go with how they “feel” at the time. Sometimes they say that the “moral” choice would be to stay with the woman, but then admit “it makes no sense.”
What about love? When I ask them what movie audiences would want if this were a movie, they all agree: “They would want the man to stay!” “Why?” I ask. “Because we’re stupid,” is one reply. “Because he should be willing to sacrifice everything for love,” is the other. Does love provide reasonsfor acting? Does love clarify or does it obfuscate? Some claim, “If he really loved her, he wouldn’t leave her.” Really?
Amidst all the confusion, it doesn’t take long before someone points out the obvious. “He shouldn’t have gotten her pregnant in the first place!” “Sure,” I say, “but likely this was not his intention.” Perhaps moral dilemmas are caused by making bad decisions which don’t seem bad at the time. If you say, “He shouldn’t have been doing what he was doing because bad things could result” then ask yourself whether unintended consequences are possible whenever you fornicate. Are those bad consequences even more likely given how little you know about her and her family and her hopes and dreams; how little she knows about you, your family, your hopes and dreams?
Let’s be honest: If you knew those things about your beloved, you would be married. Even married people can be unaware of the things they ought to know about their spouse. But with unmarried, uncommitted couples, forget it.
There is some risk in posing this moral dilemma to my classes because I teach in Houston, and Houston has a very large population of Vietnamese citizens who fled to the U.S. after the war. This question may really “hit home” with one of them. One of my Vietnamese-American students asked her parents what they thought about the question. “Oh, no, no, he could never have stayed,” they told her. “He would have been hunted down and shot. The communists were relentless.” But then, upon reflection, they added this: “Yes, but there were many such abandoned women in Vietnam, waiting for the man they loved to return. They suffered horribly. The men just went back to the States and started a new life, no matter what they had promised. It was tragic.” They had no clear answer.
It would have required a tremendous amount of self-sacrifice and perseverance to have rescued this woman and her child. Most parents and friends would have advised our love-besotted soldier just to “forget her” and “get on with your life.” “You have a great future ahead of you if you just let all that go.” Some likely would have claimed: “You don’t owe ‘a woman like that’ anything.” Why a “man like that” who had impregnated a woman and abandoned her to a horrible fate should deserve a “great future” seems not to have entered the equation. Nor has the question of whether one can have a “great” future if one simply shucks one’s obligations to others. One might have a financially wealthier future, but “great”? One might have thought that the result of abandoning one’s obligations to a woman and one’s child in this way would preclude the possibility of ever being accounted a “great” person.
But the point I wish to make is this: If you see clearly that our American soldier was courting tragedy when he “made love” to this woman — which sounds nice, but turned out not to be so nice — perhaps it’s time to see yourself in him. Many bad choices are made long before a crisis hits. And many bad consequences result from people not having the moral character to follow up on their good intentions.
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