Imagine this scenario:
Your brother is a heroin addict who has tried multiple times over the span of a year to get sober and each attempt has failed. Fearing that he may die if he does not stop using, you try to admit him to a rehab center but he refuses to go, saying instead that he will agree to go through detox by himself in the privacy of his apartment—which has already been cleared of contraband. After his history of drug use there is a very likely chance that detoxing in an environment lacking professional help will hurt or even kill him. Knowing this you have two options:
- You stay with him for the week while he comes down so there will be someone present to help or call an ambulance should he need one. This involves spontaneously taking time off from your new job where your reputation and work ethic have not yet been fully established, putting your employment and, therefore, your family’s financial stability at risk.
- You leave him to detox on his own, knowing that there’s a chance he could die without assistance during the experience. This also means that he will have greater opportunity to acquire more heroin and fall off the wagon before he even begins to detox which, given his history, will also put his life at risk.
You could treat this scenario as a thought experiment, if you wish, juggling the two options in the air until only one lands in your hand while the other drops away. Which option is right and which option is wrong?
First you might weigh the options on a moral scale: Which is good and which is bad—or more simply, what would Jesus do? The Good Man would probably stay and help his brother through detox, call an ambulance when he started having seizures and prayed that the ambulance would reach him fast enough so that he wouldn’t have to watch his brother die right in front of his eyes. But whether or not his brother lived through the detox, that good man would probably lose his job. He called out of work for two days with little more than ten hours heads up and now he must find a new job by the end of the week or he can no longer afford the house that shelters his family or the food that feeds his kids. On the other hand, the Bad Man takes option two and leaves his brother to detox alone. He goes to work the next day, makes the money that will keep a roof over his family and food in their belly, but he lives with the knowledge that his only brother is most likely dead or dying because there was no one there and the Bad Man will have to live with the knowledge that he had the choice to stay, despite the risks, and chose not to.
Then you might weigh the options on an emotional scale: Which feels more important and which feels less important? The Sibling Bond would stay, believing that he could always bounce back from whatever consequences came from potentially losing his job. There’s no guarantee, after all, that he will and if he does then he’ll find another one at some point. His immediate family will have to struggle for a while but they’ll still have his brother in their lives and he’ll have another chance to stay sober this time. Perhaps he’ll have an even better chance of staying sober because this experience will have shown him that he is not alone even at the worst of times. On the other hand, the Family Man would leave, knowing that his family depends on him for strength and stability. Without his job to pay the bills he would have to watch his family struggle, believing that it was his fault for not putting their worth before that of an addict’s, regardless of his relation.
Lastly, you might weigh the options on a logical scale: Which is logical and which is illogical? To be perfectly honest, unless you can provide me with a real argument against, I believe most Logicians would leave. “The need of the many outweigh the need of the few,” as it were. The immediate family is your responsibility, and your brother is his own responsibility. Or, more darkly, what is the life of an addict, no matter whom he is, when compared to the lives of a whole family?
This scenario may appear dramatic, but think about it as a real world experience. There will be those who read this and instantly think, “I’m going to stay!” and half of the observers will commend them for their selflessness while the other half sneers are their irresponsibility. There will be those who read this and instantly think, “I’m going to leave!” and half of the observers will commend them for being responsible while the other half sneers at their selfishness.
In reality, neither choice is obviously good or obviously bad. They both put lives at risk, some more severely than others. They both put your sanity and emotional stability at risk, as well as that of others. They both have their pros and cons, as it were. So, knowing that there is no magical third option where you can choose both or neither, how do you choose?
You weigh them on all three scales, some holding more water than the other two, depending on you, your personality, your lifestyle, who you see yourself as, who you want others see you as, and so forth. But if you were honest with yourself, you would have to admit that your choice would probably depend on one major factor:
Which one can you live with?
Just as they do every living person, these dilemmas are what drive characters in their decision-making. Sometimes they get lucky and are presented with obviously good and bad options, but that is so rarely the case, as well it should be. Life is not filled with cut and dry options. The crossroads in life are often foggy and cold, and after trudging for what feels like forever through the muck and catastrophe of the long road your weary eyes have to squint to see the dark brambles and haunting shadows that each subsequent path leads to. None of the roads available are easy but in order to keep moving you must choose one.
Heroes are often misunderstood because of this. Tried and true ones like Captain America are often criticized for being goodie-goodie Boy Scouts who always choose to do the moral thing even if it’s illogical. Morally bankrupt heroes like Ironman are often misunderstood for being selfish risk takers who always use logic to justify their immorality. They’re heroes, that’s who they are and that’s all the motivation they need. But that’s not the crux of it, is it? I mean, just saying that you’re you, you are who you are and that’s all the motivation you need to do anything isn’t really true, is it?
We could say they’re heroes, saving people is what they do so they should try to save everyone. Or we could say they’re heroes, but even they can’t save everyone so they should try to save as many people as possible. Or as many of the really good people as possible. Or as many of the really influential and smart people as possible. Or as many of the world shakers as possible, you know, those who will really do more for the world as a whole. But what are we really saying here? We’re giving them options to choose from.
So let me put it this way: Ironman is the man who will choose restrictions of liberty for the greater good of the mass population because that is the option he can live with the most. Captain America is the man who would die attempting to save everyone and his or her right to live because he cannot live with choosing every other option provided.
So, here’s another scenario for you:
You are standing in a locked, windowless room with four other individuals: a revolutionary activist who inspires thousands into attempting peace through the use of fear, a corrupt priest who uses his influence and power to provide shelter to orphans and the homeless, a biologist who has discovered a cure for cancer that can also be used as a biological weapon, and a child who at some point in their future will go on to either solve world hunger and save billions of lives or inspire mass genocide and cause the death of billions. In your dominant hand is a pistol with only one bullet. You are aware of all of this. In the ceiling there is a camera with an automated rifle pointing right at your face and a speaker that says you must shoot someone or everyone will die including yourself. Which do you choose?
When faced with equally terrible choices that can affect more than just yourself, what do you choose?
What can you live with?