Pursuing 'Purpose' at the Expense of Family

How the story of Chris Kyle resurfaced an the age-old moral dilemma

The movie American Sniper recently sparked a fierce debate: Was Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American history, a hero for killing Iraqis and protecting Americans, or was he a “hate-filled” murderer—a “psycho,” as some have called him?

Much of the attention surrounding Kyle’s story focuses on the morality of war and gun violence. But another major moral dilemma of the story does not involve the decision to kill Iraqis or the justness of war. It lies in the conflict that Kyle, a father and husband, faces every day that he is deployed: Does his primary responsibility lie with his country or does it lie with his family? Put another way, what comes first: Kyle’s noble purpose and calling to protect others—which was ingrained into him from childhood, when he protected his younger brother from playground bullies—or the duty he has to his wife and children, who need and want him back home?

The way Kyle resolves the conflict between his duty to go to war and his duty to his family changes over the course of his story. He comes to see that his primary responsibility lies with his loved ones. Family, he realizes, is more important than whatever calling he may have to serve his country.

The conflict Kyle faces comes up again and again in both fictional and real stories of great accomplishment. Virgil’s Aeneas, the quintessential man of duty, sacrifices his relationship with Dido—who kills herself as a result—to follow his divinely mandated mission to found Rome. Paul Gauguin abandoned his family to follow his calling as an artist. Paul Farmer, the doctor and co-founder of Partners in Health, worked to reduce the suffering of people in Haiti, but spent less time with his family as a result. “He received a fair amount of criticism,” writes Tracy Kidder in his book about Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, “from friends for not spending more time with his family.”

Should these people have paid more attention to their relationships? Or did they have a stronger and more compelling obligation to pursue their purpose, especially if their purpose benefitted humanity by either directly saving lives and reducing suffering, as Farmer did, or putting something unique and wonderful in the world that wasn’t there before, like Gauguin did?

One way to resolve moral dilemmas like the ones faced by Kyle, Gauguin, Farmer, and others is by figuring out what the consequences of making one decision over another might be, and making the decision that has the best consequences—a moral position academic philosophers call “consequentialism.” Consequentialists determine whether a decision is right not by the motivations we bring to it or the duties we have, but by its overall outcomes. If a decision ultimately helps more people than it harms, then that was a good moral decision.

Peter Singer of Princeton University is one of the most important consequentialist philosophers on the scene today. Singer suggests that we consider what the world would be like without the contributions of people like Gauguin and Farmer.

“How important was it,” Singer asks, “that Gauguin did these paintings? There are lots of paintings that inspire people. Does it matter that we have his paintings versus having another person’s painting?” For Gauguin to pursue his goal to create art is morally suspect by consequentialist logic. It’s not clear that the consequences of his decision ultimately made the world a better place. His decision may have even made the world worse by causing his close relations to suffer.

Farmer, on the other hand, is entirely justified, Singer believes, in putting the sufferings of others above his own family’s needs. In Mountains Beyond Mountains, readers learn that at one point in his travels, Farmer carried two pictures in his wallet: one of his daughter and one of a young starving Haitian girl the same age as his daughter, suggesting some equivalence in his loyalties.

“These other children,” Singer says of the Haitian kids Farmer has helped, “have parents who love them and they could die. He’s helping a much larger number of people than if he stayed home and was a good dad.” The obligation “to help friends and to help other people who you are in close relationships with,” Singer says, does not trump “the obligation to do a lot more good by helping strangers.”

In one of his recent columns, David Brooks pointed out that we live in a utilitarian culture—by which he meant that people today, like Singer, judge a decision based on its outcomes: “Life is filled with tragic trade-offs. In many different venues,” he wrote, “the suffering of the few is justified by those trying to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number.” Given that Kyle protected hundreds of American troops in Iraq—and is part of an institution that protects millions of Americans—the right choice for him, from a consequentialist perspective, would have been to continue serving as long as he was fit and able, even if that meant neglecting his wife and two children.

Julia Annas, a moral philosopher at the University of Arizona, sees things differently. She is what philosophers call a “virtue ethicist,” which is another approach to morality. A virtue ethicist asks what a virtuous person, a person of good character, would do in a particular situation—and says that we should do that.

Annas points out that moral dilemmas like the one Kyle faces come down to conflicts of duties. On the one hand, Kyle has a duty to return to Iraq and use his skills as a sniper to protect marines. On the other, he has a duty to his family. If Kyle aspires to be a virtuous person, it would be wrong, Annas says, for Kyle to neglect either duty. Both duties are important. Both duties are worthy. Both duties are valued by society. But when those two duties come into conflict, he must choose among them, and the decision will have a moral cost. The virtuous person will sometimes have to cause pain to loved ones because there is no better option.

“No matter what you do, there’s a cost,” Annas says, “No matter what you do, there’s a great loss. So the question is: If there is a great loss, would it be made up for by something else?” Virgil in The Aeneid thinks that the founding of Rome is greatest duty, so he has Aeneas steadfastly devoted to that duty. Aeneas’ larger historical mission gives him a duty to leave Dido. He does not want to leave her but he must. This, of course, doesn’t justify his leaving to Dido. But it justifies it to Virgil. Aeneas, meanwhile, must bear the cost of her death.

“There can be cases where a virtuous person,” Annas says, “can’t make a decision that will be right in every respect. Aeneas chooses the right thing to do, but it’s not right in every respect. It doesn’t do right by Dido.”

When Aeneas descends to the underworld, a rite of passage for all great heroes of antiquity, he sees Dido and realizes for the first time that she is dead because he abandoned her. There, at the height of Aeneas’s heroic journey, during the last and only opportunity these once passionate lovers have to confront each other, Dido turns away from him. The message is as clear as it is harsh: what Aeneas did is impossible for her to forgive, no matter what good he may have brought into the world. Dido does not reason like a consequentialist.

Neither does Kyle. He reasons like a virtue ethicist. He weighs his duties and initially places his duty to the military above his duty to his family. The recurring fight that he has with his wife is over duties. They both believe that their primary duties are to God, family, and country. But they disagree over which value they should prioritize. For Kyle, country comes before his family. For Taya, their family supersedes patriotic allegiance. The disagreement over which duty is stronger almost rips the two of them apart. Taya’s anger and resentment grows with each deployment.

“If you die,” she tells him before one of his deployments, “it will wreck all our lives. It pisses me off that you would not only willingly risk your life, but risk ours, too.”

As his story develops, Kyle’s values slowly start to align with Taya’s. His idea of what a virtuous person is changes, and so he changes his behaviors to align with that new ideal. “Taya made it clear that our family needed a father,” Kyle writes in his bestselling book American Sniper, on which the movie is based:

But I also felt as if I had a duty to my country. I had been trained to kill; I was very good at it. I felt I had to protect my fellow SEALs, and my fellow Americans.

And I liked doing it. A lot

But ...

I went back and forth. It was a very difficult decision.

Incredibly difficult ...

I told her I would not enlist when the time came.

I still wonder sometimes if I made the right decision.

Toward the end of the book, Kyle feels more at peace with his decision: “I’m starting to understand the contributions I can make to others I realize that I can be a complete man—taking care of my family and helping in a small way to take care of others.” He goes on to write, “It’s taken a while, but I have gotten to the point where being a SEAL no longer defines me. I need to be a husband and a father. Those things, now, are my first calling.”

As he develops as a character, Kyle realizes that the moral dilemma he thought he had is no longer a dilemma at all. The duty he has to his family is stronger than the duty that he has to his country because as a father and husband, he has a core obligation to take care of his wife and kids, and no one else can satisfy that obligation. Protecting others in war, on the other hand, is a responsibility he can pass along to someone else. “In the end,” he writes, “I decided [Taya] was right: others could do my job protecting the country, but no one could truly take my place with my family.”