Sometimes doing the right thing is impossible, says moral philosopher

Lisa Tessman, professor of moral philosophy at Binghamton University, says there are moments when doing the right thing is impossible. Understand that and you’re closer to understanding what makes us human.
A plea for help appears on the roof of a home flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Memorial Medical Center in the city was forced to make hard moral decisions about their patients after the hurricane hit. (Robert Galbraith/AFP/Getty Images)

Lisa Tessman, author and professor of philosophy at Binghamton University, says there are moments when doing the right thing is impossible.

Consider this.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast. New Orleans started flooding and soon more than 80 per cent of the city was under water.

New Orleans' mayor had issued a mandatory evacuation, but as the water levels rose, many — including doctors, nurses and staff at Memorial Medical Center — found themselves at the mercy of mother nature.

(Lisa Tessman)

Soon, the situation at Memorial was critical. There were power outages and medicine shortages. There was flooding. Hospital staff had to leave as soon as possible but some of the patients could not be moved.

This put doctors in what Lisa Tessman called a "classic moral dilemma."

"They could either kill the patients without their consent, because the patients weren't in a condition where they could consent, or they could abandon them," Tessman told Tapestry host Mary Hynes.

Tessman said we don't actually know which option doctors chose. But the tragedy highlights those rare but critical moments when you are faced with two options, neither of which are good.

Moral philosophy for the real world

Tessman came to the topic of impossible moral choices because she found herself frustrated by a blind spot among fellow philosophers.

"A lot of moral theory is as if it's always just a matter of identifying the right thing to do. And that just did not ring true to experience for me," Tessman said.

Human beings actually don't make most of our moral decisions by reasoning.- Lisa Tessman, professor of philosophy at Binghamton University

She said philosophers tend to ignore how people experience moral ethics in the "real world" in favour of more rationalist arguments.

But "human beings actually don't make most of our moral decisions by reasoning. We tend to make more of our decisions intuitively, including our moral judgments," said Tessman.

"So there's a big, big gap between what people experience in their actual moral lives and the kind of theory that assumes that human beings are completely rational beings."

You must — but what if you can't?

Tessman also identified the struggle many people face when they find a discrepancy between what they feel they must do versus what's actually possible.

She used a moral dilemma faced by her friend, Celia, as an example.

Celia's father was a child during the Holocaust. Although Celia wasn't alive when it happened, she'd always felt a strong sense of responsibility for him, as if she should have been able to protect him during the Holocaust.

"That's as impossible as it gets," said Tessman.  "You feel you should have done something 20 years before you were even born."

A coroner team prepares to remove a body from a building at the LSU Medical Center Sept. 13, 2005 in New Orleans, La. More than 40 bodies were discovered at the abandoned Memorial Medical Center. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tessman said Celia's moral dilemma is an example of the need to abandon the idea that something is either rational or irrational.

"It's actually just arational, it doesn't have to do with reasoning," said Tessman.

So how do you explain it?

Tessman said it has to do with what philosophers call "the commands of love," or the belief that there are things you must do for someone you care about.

"It was out of her love for her father that she had this kind of emotional, intuitive sense, that she must protect him, despite it being fully impossible."

You're only human

Tessman said recognizing those moments when doing the right thing is impossible helps us understand what it means to be human.
(Oxford University Press)

"Part of what's important about thinking of ourselves as only human is that we understand that in failing in that way, we have simply done something that is quite typically human," Tessman said.

"We are not really a moral aberration, or anything like that, for having unavoidably failed. We are simply unavoidably failing in the way that humans are sometimes set up to fail." 

Lisa Tessman is the author of When Doing the Right Thing is Impossible and Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality.