Moral Absolutes

Here’s a thought experiment: Suppose you’re a photojournalist working for, say, National Geographic. Your editor Nigel calls you into his office for your next assignment. He tells you about a tribe of Aborigines recently discovered on a remote tract of land in Australia. He wants you to do a photo essay. Nigel hands you a manila envelope. Inside the envelope is a round-trip plane ticket, the name of your local guide, and a fact sheet on what’s currently known about the Kwakkwak tribe. As you are about to leave the office, Nigel drapes his arm over your shoulder and says, “Get me good pictures.”

Early the next morning, you climb aboard Qantas Airways for the 24-hour flight to Sydney. After takeoff, you settle into your first-class seat and glance, for the first time, at the fact sheet on the Kwakkwaks. You find details on their agricultural methods, their hunting rituals and their social customs. As you read to the bottom of the page, you notice that the Kwakkwaks practice polygamy. You, of course, having grown up in the United States, having grown accustomed to monogamy, reflexively regard marriage as an arrangement between two people. Still, you don’t think much about it. You set aside the fact sheet and hunker down for the long flight.

It’s already afternoon of the following day when the plane touches down in Sydney. You meet up at the airport with your contact, Rod Laver (not the tennis player), claim your knapsack and climb into a waiting taxi. You and Rod Laver ride for hours and hours, the countryside becoming more and more remote, until the last paved road ends. Then you and Rod Laver climb out, and he leads you to a pair of bicycles he’s hidden behind a boulder. The two of you pedal along ever more treacherous dirt roads until nightfall, then camp out and stash the bikes, rise at dawn, and hike for fourteen hours until at last, just before another sunset, you drag yourself into the village of the Kwakkwaks. There is a ceremony taking place. Rod Laver nudges you and explains that the son of the Kwakkwak chief is about to marry three village women—ages 19, 17 and 15.

You feel a wave of nausea at the sight. Suddenly, the fact that the tribe is polygamous is more than just a footnote; the reality of three women, the youngest one only 15, marrying the same man strikes you as plain wrong. You feel inside your knapsack for your safety revolver. You can stop the ceremony; it’s within your power.

But do you have the moral right to do it?

Now you and I are creatures of Western civilization, not to mention cable TV reruns, so we’ve cut our teeth on Star Trek’s Prime Directive—the principle that a more technologically advanced culture must not interfere with the natural development of a more primitive culture. That’s the liberal ethos of the 1960s in a nutshell. So of course we know what to do in this situation. Live and let live, right? Tolerance is the sign of an intellectually evolved human being. No way does an outsider, such as yourself, have the moral right to stop that ceremony. You don’t want to wind up in Captain Kirk’s intergalactic doghouse. Besides, who are you to judge? Doesn’t Hamlet warn his buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”? That settles it. You bite your tongue, hang around the tribe for a few more days, snap your photos, write your essay, and by the end of the week, you’re back in New York, sliding the photos and text across the desk to Nigel.

All right, you’re halfway through the thought experiment.

Nigel is pleased with the job you’ve done. He’s so pleased, as a matter of fact, that he’s got another assignment for you. While you were gone, he explains, another tribe of Aborigines was discovered, the Gleekgleeks. Nigel wants you to do another photo essay, and you want to keep Nigel smiling, so you nod your head, and he slides another manila envelope across the desk. “Look,” he says, leaning back in his chair, “I know you had a hard time with that polygamy business. You’ll be glad to know the Gleekgleeks are as monogamous as you and I.”

By the next morning you’re back aboard a Qantas jet, out over the ocean, on your way to Sydney. You’re scanning down the fact sheet on the Gleekgleeks. Their agricultural methods, hunting rituals and social customs seem much like those of the Kwakkwaks; for a moment, you’re filled with apprehension . . . but then, toward the bottom of the page, you note that the Gleekgleeks are indeed monogamous. You feel relieved. But your relief turns to horror a moment later as you notice the very last line of the fact sheet:

The Gleekgleeks practice human sacrifice.

But there’s no turning back now. The afternoon of the following day, your jet touches down in Sydney. You meet up with Rod Laver again, claim your knapsack and climb into a waiting taxi. You ride hours and hours until the last paved road ends. Then you bicycle for hours until nightfall, make camp for the night, then hike for another day until at last you stagger into the village of the Gleekgleeks. There is a ritual taking place. Rod Laver explains that a three-month-old baby girl is about to be dismembered in order to appease tribal gods. Your guts seize up. Again, you feel inside your knapsack for your safety revolver. You can stop the ritual; it’s within your power.

But do you have the moral right?

The question isn’t as straightforward now, is it? You’ve got two irreconcilable principles tugging at your conscience. On the one hand, there’s the Prime Directive. The Gleekgleeks have evolved a culture very alien to ours, just as the Kwakkwaks have. Don’t both tribes have a right—in fact, an equal right—to decide what’s right and wrong for them? On the other hand, there’s your natural instinct to protect the innocent. Surely, it’s wrong to stand by and watch a baby slaughtered. If anything is wrong, that’s wrong. Come to think of it, when Hamlet lectures his buddies on the relativity of good and evil, isn’t he pretending to be crazy?

So what do you do?

I’ve presented this thought experiment to hundreds of people in the last decade—friends and family, colleagues and students. The majority of them, you may be amazed to hear, have decided that the Prime Directive trumps the instinct to protect the innocent. They’d let the baby girl die. Perhaps you yourself have come to that conclusion. If so, congratulations, you’ve just constructed a powerful defense of the South’s position on slaveholding during the Civil War. Oh, and you’ve also cast a vote to acquit the Nazi leaders on trial at Nuremberg after World War II. If every society has an unlimited right to decide for itself what’s right and wrong, then the abolitionist movement in the North had no moral standing to condemn, let alone to undermine, the institution of slavery in the southern states; Lincoln was not the Great Emancipator but a narrow-minded bully. And if every society has an unlimited right to decide for itself what’s right and wrong, then the Nuremberg prosecutors had no moral standing to try Nazi leaders for “crimes against humanity”—since the defendants had worked within the laws of the Third Reich.

But if you elected to rescue the baby girl, if you felt reason and decency compelled you to rescue the baby girl, then you just crossed a significant intellectual threshold. For once you intervene in the sacrifice of the baby girl, you’re saying, in effect, that what the Gleekgleeks regard as morally right is in fact morally wrong. You’re saying that laws made by human beings must be judged against a Higher Law—since it would be ridiculous to say that Gleekgleek laws are morally wrong simply because they’re different from the laws you’re familiar with. Indeed, the fact that you were willing to tolerate polygamy among the Kwakkwaks but not child sacrifice among the Gleekgleeks illustrates the point that difference, in itself, does not equate with wrongness.

So what’s it going to be? Are you going to be open-minded and let the baby girl die, or are you going to be narrow-minded and intervene on the premise that some lines cannot be crossed…even if it means insisting that there is a Higher Law by which all human laws, even if they’re traditional, even if they’re accepted by people who do not look or think like you do, must be judged?