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Wrestling with a Moral Dilemma

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.

Read more at Catholic World Report

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