Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Choosing between two evils

A common idea when it comes to morality is choosing between two evils. Often times though, we just like to think there are only two choices when in fact there are more, and some do not involve evil at all.

I could be misquoting here, but I thought I heard somewhere that John Paul II said when choosing between two evils, choose neither. All too often, we incorrectly place a decision as being between two possible evils, but these circumstances are very rare.

I was just reading the biography of St. George who lived during the time of Diocletian. He belonged to a wealthy and noble Roman family.

Diocletian was one of the greatest opponents of Christianity and under his reign was the greatest persecution of Christians. He issued an edict saying that all soldiers must pay homage to the Roman gods. Of course, George, a Christian, refused.

Diocletian knew George and wanted him to worship these deities. The emperor did not want to punish George and offered him land, wealth, and power. All he needed from George was for him to worship these false gods. George refused and was subsequently tortured, and never abandoning his faith, was finally killed.

How many people in our modern day, perhaps sadly even including me, would see this as an option between two evils? One evil, being killed by the emperor and worshiping a false god. Then many would conclude that it's better to just worship this false god and live because then we can do other things like charitable work, etc.

But St. George chose not to participate in evil. That's the point. Evil may be done to him, but he will have nothing to do with it.

The amount of good St. George did because of his choice is incalculable. Many were converted at the time and today he is the patron saint of many countries. Legends have developed around him such as him slaying a dragon, which represents his triumph over evil.

Had he chose instead to do what the emperor wanted, he may have helped a couple of people a little here and there, but then he would have had a very tiny impact. It is doubtful anyone would know him today.

All too often, we put our own selfish desires above the truth. We justify our actions instead of choosing good.

Let's give everything to God.


  1. I think you misunderstand what choosing between two evils means. It does not mean a choice between doing evil and suffering harm to yourself. That's an easy one; you take the hit.

    A better example would be the classic example of World War II Germany, where you are hiding Jews in your basement. The Nazis arrive at your door and ask if you know where there are any Jews. Your choices are to tell the truth or be silent, in which case the Nazis will investigate and the people you are hiding will certainly be killed, or to lie.

  2. All I'm saying is that true situations where there are 2 and only 2 options and they are both evil are rare.

  3. I don't think they are; I think they are quite common. The conflict is between two world views. The first, called "deontological" from the Greek "deos" (duty), calls on people to do what is right, because it is right. The second, called "consequentialism," calls on people to take the action that will have the best outcome. The problem with deontological ethics is that they require taking no responsibility whatsoever for the outcome of your actions -- in other words, a deontological perspective would urge you to tell the Nazis that you are hiding Jews in your basement, because it is sinful to lie; you would offer them up for slaughter in order to keep your own conscience pure. You would let your child starve rather than steal to feed him. You would let the terrorist explode the bomb rather than kill him.

    The problem with the consequentialist perspective is, first, that it is "end justifies the means," and second, that we never really know what the consequences of our actions will be. It is quite possible to do something terrible and to justify it to yourself on the theory that if you had not, something worse would have happened. The decision to lie to protect the Jews is a consequentialist decision -- you lie because you want to protect them from others. Of course, it is possible that you could lie and they would still be detected and killed. You could steal to feed your starving child, and he could still die. You could kill the terrorist, and the bomb could still explode.

    The question I wonder about is whether Christian ethics are deontological or consequentialist. I'd be inclined to say deontological, in that what is Right does not change, but this is likely too legalistic. Jesus clearly indicated a hierarchy of priorities by, for example, healing on the Sabbath. So this means that we will often be in this difficult type of choice between the two. I'm not sure there can be a general rule; like all things I find confusing, I take it one step at a time, and to the Lord in prayer.