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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.

Are there situations, perhaps including this one, in which all the things that you could do are things that would be morally wrong for you to do? If the answer is yes, then there are some situations in which moral failure is unavoidable. In the case of the flooded hospital, what you morally should do is something impossible: you should both avoid killing patients without consent and avoid leaving them to suffer a painful death. You’re required to do the impossible.

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Image:

Hungarian Jewish women and children on arrival at the Auschwitz camp in 1944. Photo courtesy German Federal Archives/Wikipedia

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