Saturday, June 11, 2011

Can inaction be a sin?

I'd like to do this post in honor of my junior AP English teacher and debate coach, Mr. Frechette, who planted a lot of the ideas it contains in my head last year. I will begin by telling you a fictitious, hypothetical story about a man named Walter. There may be individual elements of this story which you find unlikely or far-fetched, and I will do my best to limit these elements. Regardless, do not allow this to distract you from the message. The general concept is what is important.

Water worked hard all his life. He was an honest man, with a wife and two children who he loved very much. Walter didn't have much money growing up, but because of his work ethic he was able to hold down a steady job as an auto mechanic, which paid well enough to support his family. It wasn't a lavish life, but it was enough to pay the bills and put food on the table, and they were generally happy. He was proud of the sort of man he'd made of himself, and was well liked by all his friends and neighbors.

Walter's prized possession was his customized 1964 Chevy Corvette Stingray. The car is in pristine condition, and he has spent thousands of hours restoring it and customizing it over the years. Despite his attachment to the car, he's planning to sell it when he turns 65 to fund his retirement. He has priced similar cars at auction, and considering the customizations he has added he expects to fetch $70,000 for his car, which combined with Social Security should be enough to keep his wife and he comfortable. About once a month, on a Sunday in good weather, Walter drives his car down the country roads around his house, enjoying his passion before he's forced to sell it off.

On one such Sunday, when Walter is 64 years old, he plans to enjoy the sunshine with a good book on a park bench. He parks his treasured car on some old, unused train tracks, which are about 20 feet from the newer train tracks. He gets out of the car and is enjoying his book on the nearby bench. Suddenly, he is startled to hear the train whistle approaching; the train doesn't usually come at this time of day. He looks up and, to his horror, finds 9 year old Tommy playing on the train tracks. Walter recognizes Tommy because it is the sort of small country town where everyone knows one another. He also happens to know that Tommy is deaf, and he observes that he is utterly consumed with his action figures. The train is fast approaching, and in Walter's haste to help he notices a lever located right next to the bench on which he is sitting. This lever, if pulled, will divert the train back onto the old train tracks, away from Tommy and directly into his prized 1964 Chevy Corvette Stingray.

For the sake of eliminating any confounding variables, let us outline several things which Walter knows for absolute certain. He knows for certain that if he does nothing, Tommy will not detect the train coming and will die. He knows for certain that there is no other way he can save Tommy without pulling the lever; he is too far away to get there in time, and Tommy is too consumed in his play to see any waving of the arms or gesturing. He knows for certain that the lever will work and that he has the strength to pull it. He knows for certain that no matter what choice he makes, nobody on the train will be harmed. He also knows that, from the angle he's sitting, he is totally shrouded by the trees and nobody on the train will be able to know he was there or know of the decision he makes.

The question of this post is, should Walter pull the lever? Actually, scratch that. Forget Walter, he doesn't exist. The far more meaningful question is, should you pull the lever?

When I first heard Mr. Frechette pose this question to me, I immediately responded yes. Not only should Walter pull the lever, but he must. He is obligated to pull that lever. Not legally, of course, but morally. He must. How can he not? How could he sleep at night if he did not? How could he live the rest of his life with the image of an innocent child being ran over by a train, and knowing that he had the power to stop it but chose not to? And when Mr. Frechette posed the question to me, asking if I would pull the lever, I honestly said that I think I would. I hope I would. I don't know how I could live with myself if I did not. Perhaps this is a hasty assumption, but I'd imagine that most who are reading this for the first time right now are thinking the same thing I was.

So what's troubling about this? What's haunting is that each and every day, each of us choose not to pull the lever a hundred times. According to many charities, an Africa child's life can be saved for less than $10. There are countless variables that go into calculating this statistic, and it is not reliable enough to use for certain; there is no set number which is set in stone. But $10 is enough for a malaria vaccine, which will ensure that child never dies from malaria. $50, according to one website, is enough to feed a starving child for a year (I can source each of these links if someone questions their veracity). I've heard that 3 children can be saved from death in childbirth for $11, even that it takes less than a dollar, when converted to local currencies, to save a child from death by diarrhea. Perhaps these figures are exaggerated, but even if it's $100, or $200, or $1,000, the principle is the same. No longer do we have the excuse that it takes tons of time, effort, or coordination to fly over there and administer the treatment directly; large charitable organizations do this for us. All we have to do is write the check. They have provided us with a lever, one which each of us chooses to decline every day.

Not that none of us donates at all to these charities, but most don't. And even those that do could donate more. Look around your house right now. How many luxuries are there that cost more than $10, $20, $100?  When you purchased each of those things, consciously or not, you chose to enhance your own life with some trivial luxury instead of saving the life of a child you had full power to save. Did we not just agree that a beloved $70,000 car, with hours of customization and a career of labor towards retirement built in, is no excuse for not pulling the lever? Then how do we live with ourselves?!?!?!? I got my car washed today for $10. If the statistics above are to be believed, then not only did I choose my car over saving a human life, I chose my car being clean over saving a human life. By this moral standard, I am a monster, and so are each and every one of you who are rich enough to own a computer to read this on. The only distinction between what appeared to us an obvious decision and what we choose not to do each day is visibility; Walter can see Tommy on the train tracks right in front of him, whereas we cannot see the starving or diseased African child our donation will save.

This is a disturbing revelation, but is it a fair metric to hold ourselves by? Can we be held accountable for inaction? What if Walter's car was parked on the regular tracks and the boy was playing on the unused tracks...certainly, by any moral standard, it would be murder to intentionally divert the train into the boys path. But while that was action, the scenario above is inaction. Walter was not responsible for the boy being there, and if he had died it would have been his "fault", per se. It was an accident.

Does this mean we should reconsider our judgement of Walter's situation? Is it fair of us to demand that he sacrifice his entire retirement plan for the life of another, when we ourselves do not sacrifice even the most trivial things? To what extent are we morally obligated to help? Must we live as monks or nuns, and give all but the barest necessities to those who have less than we? What is the appropriate level of our things that it is immoral not to give? Our whole retirement? A tithe? Can any inaction be a sin? I don't know the answers to these questions. But I do like thinking about them! And hopefully, if you're still reading this blog, you do too.

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