Does the end really justify the means?

It is September 1666, and the Great Fire of London has broken out in a bakery. For four days flames rage uncontrolled through thousands of wooden homes. Though few perish in the fire, enormous numbers are homeless, possessions lost, with nothing to eat and no work available. Many of them die during the winter months. Almost immediately after the fire rumours swirl that the blaze was begun by Dutch or French Catholics. Mobs roam the street demanding an arrest. The authorities fear large scale civil unrest.

Then a simple-minded man confesses. He is Robert Hubert, believed to be a French Catholic. Hubert soon retracts his confession but he is brought to trial, convicted by the jury, and the death sentence passed. It is what the crowds wanted, and they disperse. Next month Hubert is hanged.

It would seem justice was done. But it wasn’t. Hubert certainly did not start the fire. He couldn’t have because there was incontrovertible evidence he was at sea on a ship when the fire began. London had already been burning for two days before he arrived in the city. The authorities always had doubts about Hubert’s guilt, but his conviction prevented riots, and it was better that one die than many.

Why tell that story? Because it illustrates what can happen if the rightness of actions is judged by how good or useful their consequences. Philosophers have a name for that kind of moral theory: consequentialism. One kind of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which I will explain later.

I imagine you’re telling yourself: ‘I wouldn’t hang an innocent man under any circumstances – I’m not a consequentialist!’ But I’d be ninety-nine per cent sure you are a consequentialist, probably quite often. My mother was when it came time to remove a band-aid plaster from my knee. ‘If I do it quickly it won’t hurt so much,’ she’d say. That’s consequentialism – let’s do the hard thing now because it’ll be better later. And we’re consequentialists any time we pay a false compliment about someone’s clothes or hairstyle, or cross our fingers while saying we like their friends. We don’t want to hurt their feelings, so we tell them what they’d like to hear. That’s consequentialism – we’re focused on outcomes, especially happy ones.

If you’ve been following recent blog posts, you’ll know I’ve been studying the philosophical issues around (what’s called) dirty hands. Dirty hands refers to doing something bad, but we do it because we believe it’ll lead to a good outcome. The situations I’m looking at are usually a lot more serious than hurting someone’s feelings. Two posts back ( I shared an often-quoted imaginary scenario, which is this:

  • a terrorist is arrested while planting a bomb
  • the authorities learn there are more bombs, all with timers to go off soon
  • the terrorist won’t say where they are
  • if they torture him to get that information they will save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives
  • but torture is evil and illegal, so only the most extreme of emergencies could possibly justify its use
  • might saving a thousand lives be such a situation?

That’s the standard imaginary story to explain the dirty hands dilemma. You could say it’s about doing wrong to do right, about doing a bad thing for a good outcome. But can really dreadful things like torture ever be allowed, no matter how good the goal? That’s what I’m studying, and I’m asking if there is any moral theory that has the answer.

Before going further, I recognise some are fascinated by subjects like this, and others are switched off. I’d encourage you to keep going. The issues are actually very important. But don’t feel bad if this subject is not for you.

In the last post I looked at one theory. It’s about rule-keeping but goes by the fancy name of deontology. (See:  A very famous 18th century philosopher called Immanuel Kant believed no act was right unless you could will that everyone behaved that way. For example, he didn’t believe the world could function if everyone lied, so, for him, lying was always wrong no matter the consequences. That might mean telling a murderer where his intended victim is hiding. But, the question I asked was: how could a lie be more important than saving someone’s life?

Consequentialism isn’t about obeying rules. What’s right is doing what gives the best outcomes / consequences. Therefore it seems exactly right for dirty hands issues, because they’re about doing bad things to achieve good outcomes. Hence, can you torture a terrorist if that’s the only way to find and diffuse bombs? Some think that, in these circumstances, it’s the right thing to do; others think torture is always wrong.

The first person to organise consequentialist thought was a strange man. Well, I think someone is strange who writes in his will that, after death, his head should be preserved and placed on his body, seated upright on his usual chair, so he could join meetings of his ‘disciples’ when they gathered together.

The philosopher was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Though his wish was extremely odd, it was granted and his auto-icon (body preserved and displayed as still living) is on display to this day in the Student Centre of University College London.[1]

Bentham was a pioneer in developing philosophical method. In the 17th century Francis Bacon had brought orderliness into scientific investigation, and Bentham wanted to do the same for philosophy. His key interests were morality and justice, so he wrote a book called ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’. It very nearly never got published. He had it ready in 1780 and, as many authors do, he let his friends read it in advance so he could make any corrections. These friends were unsparingly honest with Bentham, and pointed out so many imperfections Bentham confessed he believed the book ‘doomed to oblivion’. But he kept working at it, and it was published nine years later. But – being an odd man – Bentham wrote into the book some of his own criticisms of it. Over the years he continued to make corrections for a new edition which finally came out 34 years later.

So, what was Bentham’s moral philosophy?

He considered human beings to be governed by pain and pleasure. And his principle of ‘utility’ (usefulness) – hence the name utilitarianism – approved or disapproved of actions according to how much they increased or diminished the happiness of an individual or community. If an action produced benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, then it was right. It could also be right if it prevented mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness. He defined six circumstances which could affect the value of pleasures or pains for an individual – see the footnote below for the details.[2] Then he specified an exact way of working out whether an action tended towards good or evil when everything was taken into account. His method is amusingly or frustratingly complicated – again, see below for details.[3] He didn’t believe his process could be followed before every moral judgment, but said the more precisely his method was observed, the more the result would be exact.

You might think that’s quite enough. Not for Bentham! What follows in his book are nine pages of kinds of pleasures and pains. There are 33 different lists. I have only skim-read them, and that left me exhausted.

To be kind to Bentham, his method and lists were an attempt to stimulate legal reforms and regularise sentencing in the justice system. But he was also trying to bring a more scientific process to moral decision-making.

His attempt at a method was applauded and criticised. It was impractical, and Bentham’s focus on calculating rightness on a numerical basis left open the chance of great evils. For example, was it right that slaves and Christians were tied up in Roman arenas so large crowds could watch them torn to pieces by wild animals? Bentham’s system would seem to say ‘yes’, because for a few there was extreme pain, while for the many there was great joy and excitement. Far more had pleasure than the number who suffered pain. And that’s what Bentham said was the way to judge rightness.

Jeremy Bentham was great friends with a man called James Mill, and he tutored James’ son. That boy became an even more famous philosopher than Bentham, and sought to rescue utilitarianism from the crude versions of consequentialism. His name was John Stuart Mill (1806-1873).

His father decided that John Stuart would have a genius intellect. He was put through an immensely rigorous training, which John Stuart detailed in his autobiography. From Wikipedia, here’s how it began:

At the age of three he was taught Greek. By the age of eight, he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon‘s Anabasis, and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic, physics and astronomy.[4]

Lists of his immense learning cover several more paragraphs. It’s a massive amount and range of academic knowledge. Then, aged 20, John Stuart Mill contemplated suicide. He’d realised the direction his life was taking would not bring happiness. What brought him back from the brink was the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Mill became an MP for a short time, but he made his greatest impact through his writings on several branches of philosophy. His book ‘Utilitarianism’ continues to fascinate me.

Mill was unquestionably a man of great learning. He was also shrewd, and he affirmed, adjusted and added to Bentham’s views to make them better.

Affirmed    He agreed with Bentham’s way of deciding between right and wrong. Here’s how Mill puts it: ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness’.

Adjusted    Bentham had given all forms of pleasures the same value, so critics said many of them were no better than beasts would enjoy. Mill adapts the understanding of pleasure by arguing that the quality of pleasure matters as well as the quantity. In other words, there are ‘higher pleasures’ (such as those of the intellect, morality and aesthetics) and ‘lower pleasures’ (such as those of the body and senses). That allows Mill to say: ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. Mill’s view smacks of elitism, but allows him to elevate his utilitarianism above the crudity of consequentialism.

Added    Bentham’s system involved calculating the happiness or usefulness of each act for most people. But his formula was tedious to calculate, and allowed the Roman masses to revel in watching people mauled to death. Mill, wisely, did not reject all that, but he added something that transformed it: the idea that it is not individual acts that should be assessed for pleasure or pain, but the assessment should be made of ‘rules and precepts for human conduct’. What that means is this: if a moral rule is widely accepted as good, and an action fits within that rule, then that action is morally good. For example, if there’s a rule that says ‘It’s a good thing to assist the poor’ and you take a loaf of bread to an impoverished neighbour, you no longer need to assess the moral rightness of your gift of bread because it’s already covered by the ‘assist the poor’ rule. That makes sense.

But, surely there are times when rules can’t be kept, such as the need to lie to someone intent on murder? Mill picks up on exactly that famous case I mentioned in the previous post. Yes, lying is wrong, but Mill says that even such a sacred rule has to allow exceptions. One of his examples, unsurprisingly, is that lying would be justified to ‘preserve someone from great and unmerited evil’. There can’t be rule-exceptions for self-interest, such as to avoid embarrassment, but, to save someone else from harm, a rule could be broken. Though that is a very reasonable position, Mill was criticised that he made his rules useful when convenient, but abandoned when inconvenient.

Eventually – in the late 1950s – Bentham’s views were labelled ‘act utilitarianism’ and Mill’s views ‘rule utilitarianism’. Not many today advocate the ‘act’ version, but plenty still identify with ‘rule utilitarianism’. It’s a softer, more reasonable form of consequentialism.

My special interest, of course, is whether any moral theory helps us justify a ‘dirty hands’ action, such as torturing a terrorist to find the bombs he’s planted.

A raw version of consequentialism would simply say, ‘Of course torture is justified providing more people benefit than suffer’. That’s straightforward, but no better than justifying slaughter in a Roman arena to amuse the crowd. No moral judgment is being made about the torture, only a calculation about how many gain from it.

I think Mill’s rule utilitarianism helps, but only goes so far. Here’s what I mean. Unquestionably torture would be against any normal moral rule. So, on that basis, you should refuse torture. However, you only remove the immoral action. You don’t remove the immoral consequence of inaction. By not torturing, you allow bombs to explode and many hundreds die.

So you have to resort to claiming this dreadful scenario needs one of Mill’s rule-exceptions. You could argue for a ‘supreme emergency’ exception to the no-torture rule. But who gets to define what is a ‘supreme emergency’? It’s not hard to imagine that many situations could be claimed as a supreme emergency. After all, that’s the line of thought which authorities, faced with mobs in the street, used to convict and hang Robert Hubert for starting the Great Fire, even though he was innocent.

My final conclusion will not be that consequentialism is the moral theory that resolves all dirty hands issues.

One more major moral theory to go still. It’s not remotely a religious theory, but some words of Jesus could sum it up: ‘Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit’ Matthew 7:17-18). I shall explain next time.

[1] See:,both%20in%20life%20and%20death. Understandably the head now on his shoulders is made of wax.

[2] His six are: 1. intensity 2. duration 3. certainty or uncertainty 4. propinquity or proximity, 5. fecundity (‘more of the same’ to follow), 6. purity (unlikelihood of opposite sensations following). If the issue concerned a group, Bentham had a seventh: extent (the number affected).

[3] Here’s how Bentham instructs his readers to ‘take an exact account then of the general tendency of any act’. It is to be an exact process: value each initial pleasure and each initial pain; then secondary pleasures and pains. Then total the values of the pleasures against the values of the pains. If the balance is on the side of pleasure, there is a good tendency to the act, and a bad tendency to the act if the balance shows pain. Also, consider how many people are affected by the act, and do the calculations again for each one. Then do the ‘balance sheet’ calculation again to calculate if the tendency is good on the whole or bad on the whole. Where the balance lies will show whether the act has a good tendency or an evil tendency.

[4] From:

Would you torture a terrorist if that would save thousands of lives?

Here’s the situation. A terrorist has been arrested while planting a bomb in the middle of a large city. The bomb is diffused, but it’s soon very clear six or more other bombs have been planted, each timed to explode within 24 hours. The terrorist is interrogated, but he won’t reveal the location of the bombs. You are the senior political figure. The police and security services tell you there’s only one way to find the bombs: torture the prisoner to make him talk. You are asked to authorise his torture.

Torture is illegal. That is not only the law of the land, but contrary to the UN Torture Convention. It cannot be inflicted under any circumstances. You agree. Torture is heinous, a terrible evil. But the murder of thousands is also evil. In numbers and severity their deaths are a much greater evil. Surely it’s obvious which is worse? The choice is torture one very bad man, or allow bombs to explode and kill thousands including children. Which is right? What do you do?

This scenario – often called the Ticking Bomb Scenario – is wholly imaginary. It’s the invention of philosopher Michael Walzer, written to illustrate hard moral choices. Personally Walzer is utterly opposed to torture, but, to save the lives of hundreds or even thousands in a situation like this, he believes torture has to be allowed.

At the heart of the issue is what’s called ‘dirty hands’. You get dirty hands by doing something morally bad, but which is necessary to achieve a good outcome (or to minimise a bad outcome). So, in Walzer’s scenario, the politician would have dirty hands by authorising a morally evil practice, even though he authorised it so there would be good (least bad) consequences.

Here’s a real-life dirty hands story, one I partially described in a past blog post ( The whole story is told skilfully and compellingly in the book ‘Touching the Void’.[1]

Joe and Simon had climbed an immensely high snow and ice-covered peak in the Andes. It was a major achievement for a two-person team. But getting up a mountain is one thing; getting down safely another. The descent began well, then came the accident. They were edging down an ice wall, clinging to their ice axes, when Joe’s axe gave way and he fell. He crashed into the base of the cliff, bones in his knee shattered instantly, and he was catapulted over the edge of the mountain’s East Face before his rope jerked him to a stop. The pain in his leg was excruciating. The agony in his mind was no better, for climbers knew that even a broken ankle is a death sentence in these conditions when there are only two mountaineers. Joe’s ripped knee was much worse than a broken ankle. His leg was useless, lying twisted in a hideous zigzag.

Simon now faced a dreadful choice. He could safely descend alone. With Joe? No chance. An attempt to lower Joe on a descent of 3000 feet (914 metres) would be fatal for both of them. But they decided to try. There was just one chance. First a bucket seat would be dug deep into the snow, firm enough to support Simon while he lowered Joe down the slope. When the rope was fully extended, Joe would secure himself on the slope and begin to dig another belay seat, while Simon climbed down. Then with Simon secure in the new snow seat, he’d lower Joe further. It would be immensely dangerous. If Joe fell, Simon would near-certainly be whipped from the snow and both would plunge to their deaths.

Remarkably the plan worked. With Simon holding Joe’s weight, and despite excruciating pain as his broken leg snagged on rocks and snow, Joe slid down, anchored himself, dug a new seat, let Simon descend, and the ritual began all over again. By now light was fading, snow falling, and both men had frostbitten hands.

By the fifth belay point, Joe could hardly think straight but he’d managed to secure an ice screw to free his hands which he waved to get some feeling back into them. Simon joined him, and stared at the ice screw. Both knew that ice meant something steep just below. By now they were in white-out conditions, and they’d no idea what lay ahead. But to stop was to die. They had to keep going. Joe was lowered, Simon descended, Joe was lowered, Simon descended. Over and over again. The two men almost grinned. They were getting good at this. Both began to believe they would make it to the glacier below.

On the next descent, Joe realised the slope was getting much steeper. Ahead there must be a sheer drop. Joe shouted a warning for Simon to stop lowering him, but his words were swept away. Desperately Joe tried to halt his descent, but his ice axe wouldn’t bite. Suddenly his feet hung in space and his whole body slid over an edge. He toppled backwards, dangling in spacing, spinning in circles. Somehow Simon had managed to hold his weight. When his circling eased, Joe used his torch, saw a massive overhang above, and only a sheer drop below. Even if Simon had a completely firm belay seat, he could never haul Joe up. Of course Simon was not on solid ground but sitting in snow, It was impossible.

Joe hung from his rope, and stared down. He could see enough to know he was not far from the glacier. Except, what was right below was not glacier but the gaping void of a crevasse.[2] For half an hour, Joe hung. Simon was now as trapped as he was. He would either die in his seat, or be pulled off the mountain by the strain of holding Joe.

Simon had been nearly wrenched from an already crumbling snow seat when Joe had fallen. He’d thrown himself backwards, bracing his legs against the sudden strain. He didn’t know what had happened, but guessed that Joe had fallen and couldn’t get his weight off the rope. Time passed. Simon’s legs went numb, his arms could hardly bear the weight, and his snow seat was half its original size. Desperately Simon hoped Joe could anchor himself, take his own weight, and Simon could move. It didn’t happen. After an hour, his seat was collapsing, an avalanche of snow pressed him from behind, and he began to slide.

Simon dug his feet into the slope. It stopped him momentarily. Then – only then – the thought came to Simon: his knife. With difficulty he got it from his rucksack. There was now only one option. He made his decision, put the knife to the rope and the super-tight strands parted instantly. As he pulled up the frayed end of rope, he asked himself, ‘Have I killed Joe?’

There is much, much more to that story than this. But my extract gives enough information for the tough question: Was Simon right or wrong to cut the rope?

In any ordinary circumstance, Simon had committed a serious moral crime, and possibly a legal crime. Cutting your climbing companion’s only lifeline could result in a murder charge. But Simon’s situation was no ordinary circumstance. There was no hope of saving Joe, and within seconds both Joe and Simon would plunge to their deaths. Unless, that is, Simon cut Joe’s rope. Joe would die, but losing one is better than losing two.

So, if we consider only the act of cutting Joe’s sole lifeline, the action was wrong. But, if we take a broader view, recognise that Joe was already doomed but Simon could still live, the action was right.[3] Cutting the rope gave the better consequence.

But we seem to have reached an odd conclusion, that by doing what is bad you get what is good. By doing wrong you do what’s right. That seems impossible. But some philosophers believe that’s exactly possible according to their moral theory. Other philosophers, though, think such an idea is false, and even incoherent.

And that is what the dirty hands debate is all about. Can we make sense of this? Is there any moral theory that answers the very tough questions these ideas provoke?

Those who know me personally, or have read the ‘About’ page of this blog, will know that I’m studying for a Masters degree in philosophy. My final challenge is a dissertation, and my wise or foolish choice of subject is the dirty hands dilemma.

Here are examples of questions I’m currently trying to answer:

  1. Are there moral rules which must always be obeyed? If so, then dirty hands actions can never be done. A rule would forbid them. But that means the terrorist’s bombs will explode with mass casualties, and Simon and Joe will both fall off the mountain.
  2. Could the gravity of a situation be so great rules must be broken? An example I’ll explain more fully next time is of a householder giving shelter to someone trying to escape a murderer – then the murderer bangs on the door and demands to know where his intended victim went – do you say ‘Come on in, he’s inside …’ or do you point into the distance and say ‘he went that way’? A man’s life depends on you lying.
  3. Might a dirty hands action be so awful that it could never be justified no matter how terrible the consequences? Philosophers ask, ‘If the terrorist won’t tell where the bombs lie, could you torture his (wholly innocent) wife to force the terrorist’s confession?’ Could that ever be right?
  4. Might dirty hands actions be justified only if the consequences of doing nothing reached a certain level of awfulness? Some suggest torturing the terrorist wouldn’t be justified if only a few would be killed by his bombs, but it would be entirely different if the terrorist had planted a nuclear bomb which would destroy millions.
  5. If someone is a moral rule-keeper and refuses to do ‘what needs to be done’ (a dirty hands action), and there are dreadful consequences, should the rule-keeper be blamed, and perhaps held legally liable? For example, a beach life-guard has promised to be home in time for his daughter’s birthday party, but just before he leaves his post he’s told someone is drowning in the waves. But, he’s a rule-keeper and can’t break his promise to be present at the party. Besides, his shift-time is over, so home he goes. The person in the waves drowns. The lifeguard kept his promise, but will he not be blamed because someone died whose life he could have saved?

Thankfully the philosophical world is not on tip toes waiting for my answers to these questions. All debate will not screech to a halt because of what I write. But I’m glad to be studying something which impacts all of us. Not you? Are you sure? Next time someone you care about – a spouse, a son or daughter, your best friend, has an appalling hair cut or wears outrageous clothes, and asks ‘Do I look good in this?’ what will you say? The truth, or a lie…?

If it’s any comfort, in the next blog I’ll explain why rules matter, and why sometimes they just can’t be followed.

[1] The book details can be found here:

[2] A crevasse can be 150ft/45m deep.

[3] My elite mountaineer friend Rick told me what Simon did was exactly right. Climbers understand and accept that two shouldn’t die when one could live. In fact Joe did not die, but everything that followed his plunge into a crevasse is one of the most remarkable survival stories ever recorded. Read the book!

When to say no

I don’t like trite formulae for success. But – when my life was overloaded – this saying made me stop and think: If you never say no, what is your yes worth?

It makes a serious point and, years later, I’m still trying to apply its question to my time choices.

Time choices aren’t usually between right and wrong options. Our dilemma is as simple but difficult as this: should I do this good thing, or should I do that good thing? Both are worthwhile, but we shouldn’t do both. Yet often we can’t say ‘no’ to either. Instead of making choices, we squeeze everything into our lives, and, in return, become inefficient, worn out, frustrated and stressed.

So, let’s find a way to say ‘no’.

Why is saying no so difficult?

Guilt    If something is well within my abilities, I feel guilty at not taking it on. I don’t have time for it, but my mindset is: ‘I could do this, so should do this’. That’s bad logic. Could doesn’t mean should. There are a hundred things we could do, but we should do only a fraction of those. Guilt cannot decide our priorities.

We’d let someone down    This was a problem in church life. Maggie starts visiting elderly people in a nearby care home, then persuades her friend Maureen to visit too. They try to persuade others to come along, saying, ‘If only more would join us, we could spend time with everyone in the care home.’ But people don’t join them. Maggie and Maureen are overstretched, and urge: ‘This is important work. You’ve got to help us.’ At last some do. They haven’t the time but feel they can’t let Maggie and Maureen down. Visiting the elderly is good work, but they were already doing other ‘good work’ and now have little time for it. It’s been sacrificed, principally because they didn’t feel able to let Maggie and Maureen down.

We like to please people    From my earliest times as minister of a church, I realised I had power to persuade people to take on responsibilities: join a task group, attend a meeting, give money to a cause. It didn’t work with everyone, but a sizeable number accepted roles because they wanted to please me. That was helpful for me, but not always for them. They had other things to do, whether with family, leisure, work, or other activities. They were busy people. But they wanted to please, so didn’t say ‘no’.

We can’t cope with no-one doing it    A leader asks for a volunteer to take on a task. Heads go down. No-one speaks. The silence is deafening. Finally, George sighs, ‘Okay, I’ll do it if no-one else will.’ Why does George volunteer? It’s because George can’t stand the silence and can’t cope with no-one taking on the task. But George was already over his head with work so probably isn’t the right person for the task. Part of me wants to say ‘good for you’ to those who volunteer when others won’t, but it’s not good for them when they take on causes just because no-one else will. Especially if that means less time for the many things to which they were already committed. Neither embarrassment nor awkwardness is a reason to volunteer. We simply can’t fill every void that exists.

Personal ambition    People with drive and ambition often assume their work or responsibility limit is somewhere far ahead of where they are now. They can always take on something else. But most people don’t know they’ve reached their limit until they’ve passed it. And then they’re in trouble. Their drive to do more is commendable, but taking on too much only leads to problems down the line.

Overconfidence    Last week I listened to an interview with an American military commander who was reflecting on the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, he said, he couldn’t consider the 20-year conflict a success. Then he went on to describe (what he called) a dangerous ‘can do’ culture in the military. No matter how great or challenging the mission, the view was ‘we can do this’, as if anything was possible. If the strategists said there was only a 30% chance of ‘taking’ an enemy-occupied hill, they’d likely still charge up the slope. But it would cost the lives of many soldiers and the mission might well fail. Most of us don’t face life and death choices, but overconfidence – ‘I can take this on too’ – is a danger, not an asset.

So, what are the consequences of never saying no?

An unmanageable workload. When I talked about being over-busy, Hamish told me ‘all you need is to be well-organised’. Two years later he was in a senior role in an organisation, and working in his office in the early hours of the morning to meet a project deadline. When there’s more work to do than time to do it, even the best organisation isn’t enough.

An unfocused workload. When we don’t say ‘no’ we accept someone else’s agenda for our lives. We’re not prioritising what’s most important for us. That’s a bad strategy. We may succeed in a scattering of miscellaneous tasks, but fail in vital things that were uniquely for us to do.

We work outside our skill set. The big gain from making our own choices is that we play to our strengths. We do what we’re trained and skilled to do. When we accept choices made by others we lose that advantage, and struggle with tasks for which we’re not suited. If our church was looking for a new treasurer, and I agreed to take on the role, the church would be in financial chaos. I’m not a numbers person. Give me words to read or write, and I’m in my element. Give me a spreadsheet, and I’m lost. New challenges are good from time to time, but letting others define what we do is usually folly.

We experience serious stress. I can juggle two balls, and be relaxed enough to hold a conversation at the same time. Throw me a third ball, and I might keep them in the air but only with all my attention on the task. Throw me a fourth ball, and within seconds every ball would be on the floor. And perhaps I would be too. I could not juggle four balls. All of us can operate beyond our limits, but only for a very short time. After that we’re being damaged, and that’s always dangerous.

When should you say no?

When current obligations already fill your life    In theory you can always get more money, or more friends, or more possessions. But you can never get more time. I’ve often wished for 25 hours in the day, but there’s always been only 24. And when those 24 are full – including adequate time to sleep – fitting something else in only pressurises everything already there.

One way, though, to add a new thing is to throw out an existing thing. In an earlier blog I wrote about a friend who kept her house immaculately tidy by following that method ruthlessly. If she bought a new sweater, she got rid of an existing sweater. When she bought new shoes, she got rid of the old shoes. I could never be that severe, but it’s a principle which could be used to manage time. Providing, that is, you can be at peace with stopping something else. And that’s not easy. We may displease people by withdrawing our help, or leave no-one doing the task we’ve stopped. The new thing has to be weighed against the old things already filling our lives. Hard choices.

When important people would be hurt by saying yes    I’ve always been busy with studies, with church, with employment. It would have been very easy to miss the children’s growing up years. In part, I did. But, I hope, only in part. As often as I could I was home for dinner, listening to their stories, then tucking them into bed. Sometimes I watched them at swimming practice. When our son was about seven I drove miles to buy him a second hand Sinclair ZX81 (the most basic of computers). His work today is with electronics. When heavy snow was on the ground, I took one of our daughters on the back of my motorbike to deliver newspapers. (I’ve no idea now why she was safer on my motorbike.) I protected time so I could attend school concerts and athletic events. Later, when I travelled to dozens of countries, I sent them postcards, not so much so they saw a pretty picture but knew I was thinking about them. None of this was perfect, but we muddled through with a lot of laughter and togetherness. Those children are now adults, and also great friends.

Through all these years I was acutely aware that the time spent with the family would never come back. That sharpened my will when people wanted more of my time. To be away even more from my family was to impose a sacrifice on them as much as on me. Very easily we ask too much of people who care for us. Saying ‘yes’ to things may hurt most those who care for us most.

When your health would suffer    Being over-committed doesn’t directly cause conditions like depression. But taking on too much doesn’t help. We’re overtired and over-stressed. We don’t feel in control. We don’t cope. And our mental health deteriorates. Also, we can’t be experts at everything, so an overloaded life will include work for which we’re not suited. Then we’re both time-pressured and out of our depth. Quality of work suffers, as does quality of life. That’s bad, very bad. And not survivable in the long-term.

We can’t just ignore these truths, grit our teeth, and plough on with a chaotic life. Our health matters. Abusing it has serious consequences, affecting not just us but everyone who depends on us. Guarding our health is a primary reason to work up the courage to say ‘no’ to things we shouldn’t be doing.

Many of us don’t find it easy to turn down new opportunities. We hate disappointing others, or leaving a task undone. We feel obliged to help.

Maybe cold-hearted people who don’t care about consequences have no problem saying ‘no’. For the rest of us, it isn’t a simple decision. We’re faced with things that must be done, and there’s no-one else to do them. So we compromise.

But let that be the exception, not the rule. We’re in trouble very quickly when we open the floodgates for anything and everything to take over our lives. Saying ‘yes’ can ruin us and others we love. Instead, be polite but say ‘no’. Your life will be richer for using that little two letter word.

What should Jim do?

Jim has stumbled into a small South American town, and he has a problem. A squad of government troops has arrested twenty natives, and lined them up against a wall to be shot. The squad captain tells Jim there have been anti-government protests in the region, and the twenty villagers have been chosen at random for execution as a deterrent to protesters. But, the captain says, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another country, he will grant him a guest’s privilege of selecting and shooting one of the natives himself. If Jim accepts, to mark the special occasion the other natives will be set free. If Jim refuses, then there’s no special occasion and all the natives will die. What is Jim to do? He wonders if he could grab a gun and save all of them. But, he’s massively outnumbered, the rescue would fail, and he would die along with the natives. So Jim has a terrible decision to make. The men against the wall and onlookers from the village are all begging him to choose and kill one so the others can live. Should he do that? Kill one and save nineteen? Or do nothing and allow twenty to die?

I’ve sourced that story from Bernard Williams,* a noted philosopher who used this as an argument against ‘utilitarianism’. Utilitarianism’s core idea is about maximising happiness for the greatest number, so an action is right if it’s beneficial for the majority.

The Jim story is not real; it’s a ‘thought experiment’, an imaginative tool to help us work through a complicated moral issue. There are many versions of the story, and others with similar dilemmas, because moral choices are often difficult.

So, if you were Jim, what would you do?

Keep in mind all the natives facing the firing squad want you to choose one of them so the rest will be spared. Their families want that too. Surely it’s best that one dies to save nineteen?

But these men are all innocent. How can you select one, point a gun at him, and pull the trigger? It would be an unlawful killing and you will be the perpetrator. Is it then a crime? Is it a sin? Could you look the man in the eye who’s about to die and believe you’re doing the right thing? Could you live with your conscience afterwards?

The simple utilitarian response would be: ‘Of course you shoot one to save the other nineteen. That results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ All that matters is the maths. Losing one is better than losing many.

However, that logic can have serious consequences. In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the city. In the days immediately after the fire, citizens crazed with anger demanded someone be held accountable.  Mobs roamed the streets, and authorities feared riots would cause many deaths. Suspicion fell on Robert Hubert. The fact that he was a Catholic was not in his favour. Moreover, he confessed, perhaps because of the mob’s pressure. Hubert certainly didn’t start the fire. He couldn’t have because he wasn’t in the country when it began. But, despite his obvious innocence, the jury pronounced him guilty and he was hanged. His death likely saved others from dying at the hands of mobs. But did that justify a wrongful execution?

Hubert’s fate shows the problem when moral judgments are made simply by calculating the number who gain versus the number who lose. It can’t be that simple.

It isn’t that simple. Life isn’t simple. In his poem Marmion, Sir Walter Scott talked about the tangled web we weave, and tangled it is. Here are three real-life situations I know personally.

A couple watched their adult son descend into alcoholism. Some nights they roamed the streets searching for him, occasionally finding him unconscious in a shop doorway. They gave him money to pay his rent, and money to buy food and clothes, but he spent it all on drink. They became desperate to save their son. But the advice those parents were given was to stop helping, because their son had to reach absolute bottom before he’d change. That seemed too hard. The couple believed he’d die before that change would come. What was the the right thing to do?

A younger couple, with no children of their own, fostered a bright ten-year-old girl. Her background was dreadful, but for about four years they were a happy family together. Then it all changed. The fourteen-year-old had joined a bad crowd, begun staying out late and sometimes didn’t come home at all. Her foster-parents knew she was drinking and perhaps taking drugs. They were seriously worried she’d get pregnant. They tried everything to help her change, but it all failed. They couldn’t let her behaviour continue, but alerting social workers would mean their foster-daughter was taken from them into care. What was the right thing to do?

In 1999, Odisha (formerly Orissa) in India was devastated by a cyclone and super-cyclone in rapid succession.** Winds reached 160 mph, and the sea was driven inland to a depth of five to six metres for 20 miles, contaminating the land with salt so nothing would grow. Cattle and goats were destroyed, and up to 30,000 people perished. Soon after the cyclone I visited the area. The people in one of the devastated villages told me how everyone had rushed into the village’s only concrete building. They were so crammed in they had to stand upright in waist high water for three days until the flood subsided. Because they did, most lived. But, unable to plant crops, and with no animals, many would die of hunger in the weeks ahead. A team of young people was with me, and they spoke to as many as they could (with the help of a translator). They met a grandmother clutching a young baby whose parents were lost. Grandmother grabbed the arm of one of our team, and begged, ‘Take the baby with you. She’ll die if she stays here.’ For many reasons the aid worker couldn’t take the baby. Besides, why this baby? There were thousands – tens of thousands – at risk. But yet, she was being asked about this baby who, sadly, would indeed probably die. What was the right thing to do?

Jim’s story and these other stories bring home two truths to me.

Life is messy and difficult. It’s complicated. Over the years I’ve been privileged to listen to many who shared the hidden parts of their lives, things most would never know about them. A disturbing number were told by a parent, ‘I hate you. I wish you’d never been born.’ How does anyone say that to an eight or ten-year-old? It leaves a dreadful legacy. Another legacy lives permanently in those who experienced sexual assault as a child. For others, the secrets were current. Some had health problems that would seriously shorten their lives. Or depression, that robbed every day of colour or joy. Or tension in their marriage that might soon cause it to fail. Or debt from which they could see no escape. Not everyone’s story is dramatic, but everyone has a story which includes hard challenges. When my wife, Alison, studied sociology of health, the lecturer said that most people think everyone else is so much healthier than they are, but they’re not. That’s also true about life. We assume most people are having an easier time than we are, but they’re not. Life is messy and difficult.

Answers are not obvious. I’ve known people with ready-baked solutions for almost everything. They have no uncertainty; there’s only a right way or a wrong way. They’d have instant answers for Jim and everyone else I’ve mentioned, and they’d be certain their answers were right. I can’t share their certainty. I can’t pronounce an obvious right way through wretched problems because often there isn’t an obvious right way. A lot of the time we simply don’t know the right thing to do. Accepting that is an important first step, because a pre-determined, formulaic answer may be entirely unsuited for a complex problem.

Jim faced a wretched dilemma in the South American jungle. Who would want his choice? The author behind the story – Williams – hints at his own answer by suggesting we’re responsible for what we do rather than what others do. That makes sense to me, but I can’t imagine I’d ever feel comfortable with either decision.

I’ll finish, then, with a World War II story in which someone took personal responsibility at great cost. This is a true story, told in Ernest Gordon’s moving book Miracle on the River Kwai.*** Gordon and many other allied POWs were made to work in Thailand on railway construction by their Japanese captors. Their conditions and treatment were brutal and appalling. Yet there were many examples of great heroism among the prisoners.

An Argyll soldier had laboured all day on the railway. He and the rest of his work detail were marched back to camp, tools were laid down and counted by a guard. (There was a suspicion that prisoners might sell tools to local Thais for food.) The guard shouted that one shovel was missing. He screamed with rage, worked himself into an out-of-control fury and shouted that the guilty man must step forward. No-one moved. The guard lost control and shrieked that all would die. He readied his rifle, and pointed it at the first man in the line. Then one prisoner stepped forward. The Argyll stood to attention and quietly said he’d done it. The guard’s rage exploded in extreme violence. He kicked and beat the soldier, but still he stood there. Infuriated, the guard lifted his rifle by the barrel, and crashed it down on the Argyll’s head. The prisoner fell to the ground. He was clearly dead, but the guard continued to pound on his body until too tired to inflict any more retribution.

The other prisoners picked up the Argyll soldier’s body and their tools and returned to their camp. At the guardhouse, the tools were counted again. None were missing. The guard had miscounted. The Argyll had given his life to save his fellow prisoners.

Did that soldier do the right thing? If love for neighbour was that man’s guiding principle, I believe he did. Was it an easy decision? No, I suspect it was very hard. After all, none of the rest of his squad moved. But, on that day and in that situation, the Argyll made a decision he believed in. I try to make decisions I believe in. I suspect that’s all any of us can do.

*Smart, J., & Williams, B. (1973). A critique of utilitarianism. In Utilitarianism: For and Against (pp. 75-150). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511840852.002

**There’s a Wikipedia page about that super-cyclone.

*** Gordon, E. (1965) Miracle on the River Kwai, Fontana, London.