Monday, January 15, 2018

Murkier Morality - Quasimodo's Cries

Part of the reason I blogged about Captain Pheobus's lie last night was because I couldn't think of the right words to use to blog about a far trickier moral issue that appears much earlier in the film.

Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame begins with Clopin telling a group of children the beginning of Quasimodo's story. When he was a baby, a group of gypsies, which may have included either or both of his parents plus at least one gypsy who wasn't one of his parents (if I recall correctly), carried him though Paris, trying to sneak past Judge Frollo and the city guards. At one point, Quasimodo cried, putting the gypsies at risk of detection. Fortunately, the female gypsy in the group, who is assumed to be his mother, managed to hush the baby Quasimodo, but this situation reminded me of an episode of M*A*S*H in which a baby had to be smothered to prevent its cries from putting the lives of others in jeopardy, which prompts a very serious moral question: Is it morally acceptable to kill a child when doing so is necessary to save the lives of others?

In essence, this question is a variant of the Trolley Problem. In the Trolley Problem, the situation is that a speeding trolley with malfunctioning brakes is racing down a track toward a junction. If the trolley keeps going down its current track, it will hit and kill one person or group of people, but if someone throws a switch and sends it down a different track, it will hit and kill another person or group of people. In this situation, you are the one standing by that switch, and you must decide whether or not to sacrifice one person or group in order to spare another person or group.

Naturally, this decision can be very difficult to make, especially as the situations become more complex. If two identical people are standing, one on each track, and there is no discernible difference between them, it pretty clearly makes little to no sense to sacrifice one of them to spare the other. They're identical, so there's no reason to value either of their lives over the other's. But the situation the gypsies found themselves in was much more complex and tricky.

In the situation in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a woman who may have been Quasimodo's mother had to decide how she was going to try to silence the child in order to reduce the chances of their capture. If they were captured, they would be arrested and probably either killed or tortured, and the baby would almost certainly die.

Looking at the situation simplistically and pragmatically, it might make sense to sacrifice one person, whose life was almost certainly forfeit anyway, in order to spare the others from death or a fate worse than death. But this situation is not so simple. It involves unknown odds of unpredictable outcomes. Maybe they could spare the child and still not be detected, or they might kill the child and still get caught. It's impossible to know what any of their odds of survival were based on which course of action they took.

It's also irrational to expect the woman who may have been Quasimodo's mother to think about this situation from a purely logical and pragmatic perspective. It's one thing to say that it makes sense to sacrifice one for the good of the many, but it's much more difficult to put that belief into action when you're the one who has to smother your own baby.

I'm not sure what I would have done in such a situation, and I deeply hope that I never have to find out. This is an exceptionally challenging predicament for anyone to be in, and I can't judge anyone who has ever been in such a situation for whatever decision they made. It's an impossible decision for anyone to have to make, and I have sympathy and pity for anyone who has ever had to make it.

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