A Note on Dilemmas

Rarely in life do any of us have to pick between the lesser of two evils. Rare enough that I considered saying, “never.”

Instead, dilemmas show up that force us to choose the greater of two goods. We must pick between what is right and what is cool, or between what is beautiful and what is profitable, or between what is noble and what is merely acceptable.

Though hypothetical ethical scenarios are completely useless in forming a person of virtue, they will serve here as an illustration. If my wife was chained upon the rails of one branch of a railway fork, one hundred illegal immigrants were chained upon the other side, my hand was fused to the switch, and a train was coming…


That’s not a choice between the lesser of two evils, is it? The question is not “whom shall I kill?”

The question is: “whom shall I save?”

That was Hitler’s problem. Hitler didn’t start out evil. Hitler started out asking, “Where are we gonna put all of these Jews? Madagascar?” Well he chose one lesser good and then another… and then another… which, in the end, led to the greatest evil. He thought he was doing the right thing, that’s what terrifies us: Hitler was human. As in life, so in story — stories are progressed when a character faces a choice between two goods and then makes a decision and then faces the next choice when some crisis obstacle futher splits her path. If she chooses the lesser good, she becomes a lesser human. If she chooses the greater good, she becomes a greater human. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but hopefully this post puts some flesh on the bones of thought.

Well don’t take my word for it, take Dumbledore’s:

“The time will come, Harry, when you will have to choose between what is right and what is easy.”

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  1. Hitler is not an example of someone who was forced to choose between the greater of two goods. I disagree with using him as an example. He hated Jews, read Mein Kampf. He had a plan and it succeeded! In no small part because other European countries were more than happy to join in…France and Austria in particular.
    He had an agenda for Germany that was deceptive and clever if you study the beginnings of The Final Solution…it was expertly carried out. I would argue that he was not BORN evil but certainly was well before he was elected. Once in that position the manipulations and governmental takeover began.

    1. I’m not saying Hitler was good. I’m saying he thought he was right. That’s the problem: he convinced an entire nation that persecuting your people was a good thing to do, a patriotic thing. That’s what damned them — that between the alleged good of patriotism and genetic superiority they neglected the better, truer good of the brotherhood of mankind.

      Said simpler: they chose their brother over their neighbor instead of chosing to love all.

      You’re absolutely right — he was an evil man. But he was convinced of his righteousness. All tyrants are. Napolean was. Those who promote Manifest Destiny are. Columbus was. They think they’re doing the world a favor.

      They most certainly are not when they choose the lesser good… which is really just the greater evil in the long run.

      That is to say, I myself am not doing a favor when I choose a lesser good.

      It is always better to love your enemy than to hate, and if Hitler really felt the Jews/Communists/Catholics were his enemies then he should have loved them, served them, washed their feet. It is precisely because he wanted to get rid of “the problem” (human beings) that he did, in the end, get rid of “the problem” (human beings).

    2. Okay, I see. Semantic FUN! I don’t think the lesser good is the same as the lesser evil. Not always. So, the sentence setting us up by saying Hitler didn’t start out evil. Hitler started out asking, “Where are we gonna put all of these Jews? Madagascar?” Well he chose one lesser good and then another… ” I still disagree with this I think that every decision was evil. You don’t say he *thought* it was the lesser good until you reveal that he ended up doing evil.

      I get what you are trying to say…”step off the path just a little and you may end up very far astray”. But I would still prefer the use of examples that are less extreme…Lance Armstrong for instance…Paula Deen, Martha Stewart, Madoff, Tiger Woods. People who are perhaps more easy to understand than Hitler.

      I haven’t heard the term “Lesser good”. What? I guess this just seems like strange semantics. The quote from Dumbledore reminds me of Teen: “How do we know which is the right decision?” Parent: “It is usually the most challenging path…”.

      A helpful one for the future (for me anyway) would be the difference between anger and hate. Sometimes people think they are the same. I don’t hate anyone I know, but some of my friends can sure do some things that anger me. Rarely but it happens. And because I am angry, one friend in particular thinks this means I do not love them. FRUSTRATING.

    3. Swiss psychologist Alice Miller writes in the preface of her book ‘For Your Own Good – Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence:

      ‘But unlike children, we adults have other — and healthier — alternatives. We can choose knowledge and awareness over compulsion and fear. Unfortunately, too many people are not yet aware of this choice. Maybe there is a little Stalin inside many of us. For all his power, he spent his life in fear of his father and clinging to the “blessings” of denial. Like Hitler, he believed that the annihilation of millions of people would free him of the tormenting fear of his father. But it didn’t.’


    4. That gets, in part, at what I’m getting at. The other piece is more of his mindset like in Hitler: A Biography by Ian Kershaw, who shows where Hitler really believed himself to be in the right, though he was wholly wrong.

      An inability to carry oneself with sobriety in recognizing the difference between good and better as eventually leading to evil/good is what creates self-righteous tyrants.

      Which is kind of my point. The slow fade in There Will Be Blood is the story of a man choosing profit over people. King Saul’s story is one of power over people. Hitler’s, actually, looks rather similar to Saul, only exacerbated to the point of suicide.

      The way I’ve been saying it lately is “I need to kill off the Hitler within before I can take on the Hitler without, for if the Hitler within is not dealt with, he will become the Hitler without.”

  2. You think that purportedly uprooting the Jews and moving them to Madagascar was GOOD?
    And the death camps were a lesser good? Not a proper example!

    1. No no no.

      I think that Hitler thought it was good. Thought it was better to “save” his people.

      No I don’t endorse that either. My point is more that his dilemma, in his mind, was “what’s the best option” not “what’s the worst.”

      Said simpler:

      Choosing good over best is as the same as choosing wrong over right, because we are never directly faced with a choice between right and wrong. Just right and easy.

      Adam and Eve: between obedience and knowledge, they chose knowledge. It was “appealing.” That’s the point. The wrong thing never looks wrong at the moment of choice. It simply looks more appealing.



      But often the better things are the less glamourous, less passionate, less in step with the ways of the world.

      Especially if that step is a goose-step.

    2. The obedience v. knowledge interpretation is classic. So many interpretations of Adam and Eve. It is brilliant how many ways there are to look at the eating for the fruit of knowledge and the results. Another standard interpretation is it was a test that was bound to fail. Created in Thy image but NOT wanting knowledge? Hmmmm…oh well…NOAH! Build the ark, this batch failed!

    3. Probably not a good idea to use Hitler in any context for good – he was evil and by contrast there is good, and we all have bits and pieces of both! The brain is the unifying factor – connected as it is with everything else alive on this planet.

      To make the right decisions make sure you have slept well, are in good bodily condition and in control of your thought processes which have, for that moment of choice, been tamed by a meditative discipline such that they become universal rather than personal.

    4. I agree… in general. But I think if we demonize Hitler, then we, ourselves, get off the hook. IF we humanize his atrocities, show how they are within the reaches of any other human being who goes down a dark road, then we can get to a point where we actually prevent more Hitlers from emerging. We must first admit that Hitler’s journey and downfall began with internal decisions–that’s my point:

      He should have stuck with art.

    1. I don’t follow that line of Christianity. I follow St. Francis, who protested the crusades.

      There’s a great resource out there called “A People’s History of the Church.” It’s kind of like Zinn, only for church history.

      Just like “not all people claiming to be Jewish are Jewish,” all people claiming Christ aren’t of Christ.

      So I don’t condone or approve of the Crusades. I think it was the biggest breech of “Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain” in history. They painted crosses on their shields, for crying out loud. That’s about as anti-cross as it gets.

      Which is also why I’m proud to say that some of my better friends and greatest teachers over the years have been former or current Arabic Muslims.

    2. Naw I didn’t think you followed that line of Christianity I meant if you plugged The Crusades into the lesser evil lesser good argument…what would ensue? They thought they were doing the right thing….but like in the Holocaust, plenty of people knew it was wrong but went along with it anyway.

  3. Did you take Logic? I am tempted to take the original argument here and see how it comes out in Symbolic Logic. Since good does not equal evil….I think it would make a negation or non-cogent something. Lesser good/Lesser evil. Not the same (as in it cannot be a constant).

    1. Yes, I did. Here’s the Socratic version:

      Is there a good?

      Is there a great?

      Is there such a thing as good, better, and best? A superlative good?

      Is there such a thing as bad?

      Is there such a thing as terrible?

      Is there such a thing as bad, worse, and worst? A superlative worst?

      Can there be, then, an parallel move in opposing positions between the merely good/worst, or the better/worse, or the best/merely bad?

      Does this automatically equate superlative good with superlative evil? (I would say “no”).

      Can humans achieve superlative evil or superlative good? I.E. can any one human be the distilled embodiment of good or evil? And if so, can said human be so without being God, who is superlative good, or Satan (or some impersonal force like decay), that is superlative evil?

      That said, if humans can never be the worst (most evil) or the best (most good) force in the universe, then can they said to only become better over time or worse over time?

      If, then, we consent to these degrees, can we say that a choice between the good and the better is really a choice between the evil and the good?

  4. Hey! Can you tell I am in revisions on my book? I am all fired up! Sheesh. Revising is seeping into everything I write. Writing the draft was WAY more fun…aw man….I cannot believe I was wrote about logic with this post!


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