instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, September 12, 2008

The casserole of death

Suppose you go over to a friend's house for dinner, and they serve you Greek-style moussaka, and you've just never cared for the taste or texture of eggplant. Should you eat your friend's moussaka?

NO!!! Are you crazy??!? That thing's teeming with E. coli due to contamination at the meatpacking plant. Eat it and the best case scenario is you're sick as a dog for a week; worst case, you're sick for two weeks, then die.

But of course you have no way of knowing that, as you sit there at the dinner table wanly smiling at the plate in front of you. And since kindness and good manners dictate it, yes, you should eat the moussaka that will poison you.

Our lives are full of choices like this -- not life-and-death choices, for the most part, but choices where the very best we can do by reasoning about what we know is to choose something that, if we knew everything and reasoned impeccably, we would not choose.

Everybody knows* that you have to follow your conscience, even when your conscience leads you to do something that is objectively wrong. The Catechism puts it this way:
A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed. [CCC 1790]
Usually this is discussed in the context of choosing to do something that the Church teaches is immoral. But it's also true in cases like the Moussaka Mortis, where there aren't and can't be any sound arguments from revelation, human reason, and known facts that you should choose to do something your conscience tells you not to do.

Suppose, by the way, that at your friend's house you had said, "I'm not eating this," and later found out (while visiting your friend in the hospital, say) that the moussaka was contaminated. You couldn't then say, "Well, it looks like I did the right thing after all."

In what sense could it be said to have been the "right" thing to do? Only in the sense that it was not eating poison, and not only would you not have been refusing the moussaka as a species of not eating poison, it was literally impossible for you to know that it even was a species of not eating poison. The object of your act was in no morally significant sense "not eating poison." You don't get moral credit for accidents.

* Everybody knows "everybody knows" doesn't mean everybody knows.