Understand the reasons, but do your duty


Situation 1:

Person A says Charles Manson never had a chance. His childhood was filled with alcoholism, neglect, and a lack of nurturing and love. The fact that he became a criminal and was ultimately complicit in several brutal murders is hardly a surprise.

Then Person B asks Person A if he is justifying what Charles Manson did.

“No,” answers Person A. “But I would much rather try to understand why someone did something than to just shake my head at all the incomprehensible evil in the world.”

“What would you have done in 1969 if you knew about Charles Manson,” asks Person B, “if you knew of his abuse and neglect, and you saw him cruelly assaulting someone?”

“I would have tried to stop him, by violent means if necessary.”

“Would you have gone so far as to kill him if you thought the other person’s life was in danger?”

“If that ended up being necessary, yes.”

“Even if you understood his youth and how it had led to this attack?”

“Yes. His childhood explains to a large extent why he did what he did. But his childhood and the life of the person who would have been in danger are two different issues. He had no right to assault another person. If he had done something to harm this person, he would have had to bear the consequences. The fact that I would have had some understanding of what might have caused this behaviour would not have diminished my moral responsibility to at least try and protect the other person’s life.”

Situation 2:

Person A says he understands that the Red Army soldier in Berlin in April 1945 was angry with all Germans because they had brought the war to him and his country. He was full of rage and energy and fear for his own life. And he missed his wife. He hadn’t seen her in months. He heard of other Soviet soldiers just grabbing a woman in the street and forcing themselves on her. He missed the closeness of a woman. He felt nothing but hatred for the Germans. And he was sexually frustrated, full of adrenaline, and the testosterone in his blood made him think about things in a way that ran counter to his moral values.

Then, one afternoon, he saw a young woman enter a building. He ran after her. By the time she reached the second floor, he was behind her. He called to her. She started running. He grabbed her, forced her against the wall.

Person B: If you were there and you understood why he was acting that way, what would you have done? Or, what do you think would have been the right thing to do?

Person A: I would have tried to stop him by any means necessary, even if that would have meant killing him.

Person B: Even if you understood why he was doing it? Even if you understood the circumstances, the war, the fact that he hadn’t seen his wife in months, his rage, the adrenaline, the testosterone, the fact that he knew that he might be dead the next day? Would you still have killed him?

Person A: I would have done anything to stop him. The reasons why he was in this situation, which could be explained rationally, and the woman’s life are two different issues. He had no right to force himself on any woman. It is immoral. It is wrong – even if the reasons behind his actions can be explained. My moral duty would have been to protect the woman. Even if meant taking the soldier’s life. Even though I would have understood his situation.

Conclusion: Understanding immoral behaviour does not diminish your moral responsibility towards your fellow human beings. In a situation where an innocent person’s life is in danger, that is all that matters. To compromise your resolve at that moment with consideration for the motivations behind a perpetrator’s violence is a luxury the person at risk cannot afford.