Readers Offer Their Moral Dilemmas

Would you press a button to eradicate cancer if 20 percent more marriages would end in divorce?

Student walking on campus on their phone
Al Seib / Los Angeles Times / Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Monday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked readers to describe a moral dilemma.

Susanna situates us in the medical profession:

Imagine you are a doctor. A patient comes in with an unidentified genetic disease. You order testing and identify the genetic variant that’s causing the disease. There’s a known therapy, and you’re happy to give your patient that news. But you learned something else surprising: the tests indicate that the patient’s parents are not the same people listed on the patient’s medical forms. Your patient came in specifically asking for help treating an unknown disease. Should you mention your genetic findings?

Mahan puts an innocent man in jail:

Imagine that one of your friends or family members comes to you and tells you that they’ve committed a crime. A few days later you find out that someone else has been arrested for it. What would you do? Would you go to the police and tell them whatever you know? Would you encourage your friend to confess or warn them that if they don’t, you will tell the police the truth? Would you say nothing because you don’t want to betray your friend?

Stephen has climate change on the brain:

Would you embark on a massive shift in society, to use cheaper, cleaner sources of energy? Industries would be born and die. Life would change in a million small ways, some possibly quite difficult. Doing so would improve national security and health. Doing so may allow continued access to water supplies, or their return. Doing so would benefit you in a million untold ways. Would you do it, or would you simply pollute yourself to death, possibly exterminating all future generations and many other species besides?

I predicted that you will insist on trying both options.

You’d “try” shifting to cleaner energy, but only after billions have died, the cost of doing it has become unbearable, and the difficulty is potentially insurmountable, all in the midst of war, famine, and drought. I made the prediction years ago. You’ve already waited until change alone is no longer an option, and now you need to “invent something” to undo even more damage. People are already perishing from the indecision. I feel my prediction was accurate, but I suppose you could just “not even try.” I ask because we seem to be unable to answer this one. It must be trickier than it first appears.

My moral dilemma turns on whether you should press a tiny brass button in the following scenario: If you press it, cancer is eradicated … but 20 percent more marriages end in divorce. Do you press the button?

Don’t fret too much about your answer. Paul objects to the premise that there is a correct one:

When I was in Catholic grammar school, one of the parish priests would visit a classroom. A favorite activity was for students to pose questions about what conduct was correct in various difficult circumstances. The assumption was that for every question, no matter how seemingly difficult, there was a right answer—after all, God would be able to decide the question, and a good Catholic obeyed God’s law, as presented by the Church. Much energy invested in worrying about moral dilemmas is a residue of that kind of thinking. If you set aside the religious assumption of “a right answer,” moral dilemmas are much less compelling. Either choice is awful. That’s all there is. Take your pick.

This concludes our experiment in airing moral dilemmas. See you Wednesday with a more conventional question of the week.