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In Search of a Moral Compass

Rose Compass by Enrico Strocchi

How do our characters navigate their way through difficult choices where the moral issues are ambiguous, contradictory, or insufficient to resolve the dilemma? How are they to determine what is the right or the good thing to do? How can they be sure of what the wrong or the evil thing is to do?

This is the topic of the presentation I gave at Craftfest on Wednesday, the subsection of Thrillerfest devoted to enhancing one’s writing skills. Fellow Unboxer Donald Maass also presented, revisiting a talk I’ve heard before and which changed my entire way of looking at suspense, “Your Thriller Isn’t Thrilling.”

I’m going to begin the lecture by asking everyone to answer the following questions with respect to their current work in progress. (Note, given the crime-mystery-thriller context of the conference, the questions have a definite slant in that respect.)

Ask yourself for both your protagonist & your opponent:

  • What beyond the survival of himself and his immediate circle is he fighting for?
  • What does he stand for?
  • What principles is he defending?
  • What way of life is he trying to create, maintain, or protect?

With the answers to those questions in mind, consider the following scenarios:

Example #1: You work for an International Non-Government Agency (INGO) working with refugees, such as UNHCR, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, etc. You have food and medical supplies for residents of a refugee camp. But the camp is controlled by an armed militia that insists that its warriors and their families get these supplies first, and they take whatever and however much they please. Therefore, if you provide the supplies, you are directly aiding a combatant and potentially contributing to the war effort, which will cost lives and increase suffering. If you don’t provide the food and supplies, people in the camp will suffer and even die. What do you do? On what basis do you make your decision?

Example #2: You are interrogating a terrorist that you believe has vital information about an upcoming attack, an attack other intelligence indicates will take place in less than 12 hours. The subject has thus far proven unwilling to say anything. You proceed with “extreme methods,” and the subject provides a location for the bomb. Officers rush to the scene but find nothing. The subject lied. As you are about to resume torturing him, word reaches you that a massive bomb placed in a delivery van has gone off in midtown Manhattan. There are hundreds of dead and injured, maybe more, and nearby buildings lie in flames. The terrorist tells you, “ I knew how long I needed to hold out, and that a lie would buy me time. Do whatever you want to me now. We won. And I am at peace with my God.” You and your fellow interrogators proceed to beat him to death as punishment for the innocent lives lost from the bomb. Whose actions are moral here? Whose are immoral? How can you determine which is which? Does this sort of extreme situation somehow lie outside of moral concern—i.e., are there other concerns rather than moral ones to be considered?

Example #3: You and your best friend are prisoners in a concentration camp. Your friend believes moral concerns are moot because the only good is now survival. You disagree. You believe that doing anything and everything merely to survive would in the end aid your enemies. It would also require you to betray your principles, and to deny spiritual concerns for the sake of saving your skin. Put differently: yes, you would survive, or a certain “you” would – what would survival mean given what you had to do to earn it? Which one of you is right? How do you know? (This is a scenario that took place in the Belsen concentration came described by Holocaust survivor Hanna Levy-Hass.)

Example #4: Your best friend is a slave who has chosen to escape his owners and flee to freedom. Your whole society, the law, and God’s will as you understand it command that you turn the runaway in—and that if you don’t, you will go to Hell. You yourself believe this is true. And yet you’re finding it impossible to turn your friend in. How do you resolve this dilemma? On what grounds do you make that decision? (You may recognize the person who faced this dilemma as Huck Finn.)

Example #5: You and your community are taken prisoner during a time of war. You are confined to a camp but are fed adequately, offered proper hygiene and medical care, and are generally treated well under endurable conditions (they meet the “safe and sanitary” threshold). Some of your friends plan an escape that will involve the murder of civilian workers hired by the enemy. Is that justified?

Example #6: You are an elected representative in a reasonably functional democratic republic. However, your constituency and your party both have minority status in the legislature, and the executive branch is also held by the majority party. Your constituents will be severely inconvenienced in the form of higher taxes and commodity prices—fuel, food—by a vote about to take place in the capitol. The bill has broad public support, and it was negotiated in good faith by your opponents, who tried to accommodate your concerns with subsidies for fuel, etc. But you consider the entire premise of the legislation, the need to curb fossil-fuel usage to lower carbon emissions, a plot against the fossil fuel industry and those who rely on them: truckers, farmers, small business owners. If you and your fellow minority opponents to the bill do not show up for the vote, a quorum cannot be reached and the vote cannot move forward. You and your colleagues flee the state. When the governor authorizes the state police to go out, find you, and bring you back to the capitol for the vote, you respond by threatening to shoot to kill any officer who intends to honor that order, saying, “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I will not be a political prisoner in my own state.” Armed militias come to your defense, saying they will defend you and your colleagues to ensure no harm comes to you. Is your position defensible in a constitutional republic? Is majority rule tyranny?

  • Now: Assume you are the governor, what should you do? Can you justify sending LEOs (law enforcement officers) into a situation where they may be killed simply to pursue a political objective?
  • Would your answer change if the bill concerned a woman’s right to an abortion? What if it were a fetal-personhood bill?

(The astute consumer of news will recognize this incident from recent events in Oregon.)

Example #6: Your best friend is about to kill a total stranger in cold blood. The only way to stop this is to kill your best friend. Is that justified? How? Why? What would your answer be if your best friend was about to kill five people? Twenty people? A million people? What if the would-be killer wasn’t a friend but a mere acquaintance?

Ultimately, such questions force us to define ourselves but what we decide to do. Therefore, not just morality but identity is at issue: What kind of person do I intend to be? How do I intend to live? Am I capable of living up to the answers I feel are correct?

As with us, so our characters. Reflect for a moment on the various ways you chose to decide how to resolve the dilemmas listed above.

  • Did you refer to a distinct code of ethics, such as the Ten Commandments, for an answer? How confident are you that this code pointed you toward the right answer?
  • Did you rely on a less formal, more personal or intuitive sense of right and wrong? Where did that sense come from? Has it ever been tested before?
  • Did you weigh different forms of guidance—code of ethics vs. intuitive sense of right and wrong? Which gained the upper hand? Why?
  • Did loyalty to a person or persons have an impact on your choice? Was that loyalty the deciding factor in the end? Why is loyalty so important to you?
  • Did you rely on rules of conduct you learned from parents, clergy, or other authority figures?
  • Did you have some personal experience in your background to help you decide?
  • Did you try to determine the choice with the least disastrous or most beneficial consequences? If so, how certain were you that you could foresee those consequences accurately?

You’ve probably discerned from the foregoing that there are two distinct ways of trying to determine how to make the right choice:

  • One is based on an explicit ethical system premised on a set of rules. Such an approach is termed deontological or absolutist, and has been championed by such thinkers as Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Kant, and others. Its greatest strength is clarity. Its greatest weakness lies in its inflexibility, especially in the light of reality’s incredible creativity in unforeseeable circumstances, and other concerns not easily reduced to rules, such as loyalty and compassion.
  • The other focuses on the intended or expected consequences of an action, not rules. This approach is termed consequentialist or utilitarian. It is most closely associated with Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgewick. Its strength is its ability to include both intention and responsibility into the formulation of how to make choices; its weakness is that it can reduce to “the end justifies the means,” and it begs the question as to how, in a complex world, one can reliably predict the full consequences of anything.

Normally, in our day-to-day life, we use a vaguely coherent (or conspicuously muddled) combination of these two approaches in making our own ethical decisions. In the end, however, we usually rely upon a sense of proper behavior (virtue) and improper behavior (vice). Where do we get this intuitive moral sense? More to the point—as writers, where do our characters get them?

The monkey wrench hits the gears when these influences conflict:

  • I was told not to lie, but then my brother caused an accident when I was with him, and he begged me to tell our parents that a hit-and-run driver was to blame for the damage to the car. I did, my brother stayed out of trouble, and he treated me better after that.
  • I was taught that losing your temper was a sign of weakness, but every now and then, when my dad came home, he completely lost his rag and went off on my mom. Afterwards, she’d just clam up and do the opposite of whatever it was that had set him off. I realized that sometimes the angriest person wins.
  • I was told stealing was wrong, but my uncle worked at a naval base and always showed up at the house with tools and other stuff he’d taken. He said the navy wasted so much money it was mind-boggling, what he was taking was peanuts. Besides, the pay was lousy; this was his bonus. (Similar example: a bar owner I once knew said, “I expect my bartender to steal. I just don’t want him to steal too much.”)
  • My mother was always very kind and generous to people, but once I entered the corporate world, I saw how the people who rose to the top were always the ones who didn’t give a damn about anybody else.
  • I was told cruelty was wrong, but when I was in the army in Iraq, there was this one family of brothers who we knew were tied to the insurgency and they just mocked us whenever we used our “winning their hearts and minds” methods. It was until, outside the view of our officers, we took the oldest brother out and beat him within an inch of his life—and made the other brothers watch—that they had any respect for us.

Some of the most dramatic moments you can craft for your character involve these sorts of collisions between clean-and-neat morality and ugly, messy reality. So, when creating the characters for your stories, try to envision, either in their past or in the present of your story, precisely one of these moral dilemmas. It isn’t just dramatic—it can literally define for the character who he is (in contrast to who he thought he was, or wanted to be).

Technical Pointers

Each dilemma your character faces has four basic steps, each with its own dramatic demands:

  • Presentation of the Options
  • Deliberation
  • The Choice
  • Consequences

Each character faces these various steps in a unique way, based on his own nature and the particular demands of his situation.

The most startling moment often comes when the options are revealed, especially if they’re unforeseen. Even if the character has time to watch the situation crystalize, the sudden realization there is no escape should always come as a shock—to the reader if not the character.

The deliberation phase, where the character assesses her moral guidelines as she understands them and weighs the options, can add agonizing tension, even if there is little time to figure out the best course, as is often true when danger suddenly arises. This is where your character will avail herself of the moral codes, exemplary example of others, and lessons from experience discussed above. Given more time, the character may proceed through various levels of denial, bargaining, and other types of evasion before actually grappling with the true weight and moral complexity of the decision, which becomes more oppressive as its necessity clarifies and time grows short. She may try to protest, find a way out, or explore other options, only to see them foreclosed one by one.

Although making the decision itself, once these preliminaries are concluded, is often the simplest step to stage dramatically, this needn’t be the case. Often, the more you can incorporate resistance to the decision into its actual execution, the better. This creates great tension, as we wonder whether the character will retain the willfulness needed to make the difficult choice.

Finally, once the decision is made the character still has to grapple with what he has done. This can be particularly grueling when the decision had to be made hastily or with imperfect understanding, as in “the fog of war” or other situations when there simply is no way to predict how things may turn out. Hoping for the best may prove to have terribly bitter consequences. Or it may be that foreseeing those consequences pales before living with them.

Levels of Impact

To adequately portray what the character faces at every stage of this process, we have to realize his decision affects three distinct but potentially interconnected aspects of his life:

Internal: The effects the decision will have on the character’s identity—his idea of himself as a moral person, his honor or dignity, his sense of his own worth or purpose.

Interpersonal: The consequences the decision will have on others, especially those dearest to him. How will those bonds change given his choice? Where will he stand in their eyes afterwards?

External: The ramifications the decision will inflict on the situation he faces—how will the circumstances of his world change for better or worse?

The character may have to weigh the potential consequences on only one level, or some combination of all three. He may have to weigh harms or benefits of one kind against those of another.

Regardless, the most important consideration is to make the potential consequences as devastating as possible. The stakes must be ultimate. Whatever the character is obliged to give up by choosing one option over another must feel like a loved one’s death.

Maximizing the Dilemma’s Effect

With all the foregoing in mind, her are a few concluding observations:

  • As much as possible, present options that are equally demanding, horrifying, or dangerous, and make a choice inescapable.
  • As much as possible, make the options few and clear-cut—and terrible. Where ambiguity works best is in creating tension by clouding the character’s judgment or in sapping his will—but this only works if the need to decide continues to barrel down relentlessly.
  • If the best option seems relatively clear, as in choosing the lesser of two evils, make the consequences devastating, so even the clear-cut choice haunts the conscience.
  • If the character’s convictions are firmly held, make them irreconcilable.
  • If the character’s convictions are uncertain, clarify and intensify them through the deliberation, decision, and consequences.
  • Amplify tension by shortening the time to decide. Find ways to shorten it further as the action proceeds.
  • Don’t drag out the deliberation needlessly, but make sure the character discards every possible option other than the one he ultimately takes.
  • Intensify consequences by having the choice harm, devastate, or even destroy people the character cherishes.
  • If the decision is rushed, make that hurry create terrible repercussions—for example, have the character learn there was a better option available he failed to see.
  • Make the consequences change the character’s sense of worth, integrity, morality. Feed his conscience.
  • As always, when creating the life-shattering dilemma your character faces, remember, at every stage of the process: Make it worse.

What sorts of moral dilemmas do your characters face in your current WIP? What do they rely upon to make their ultimate choice as to what to do? Why do they rely on those factors and not others? How does this define who they are: the person they want to be, the kind of world in which they want to live?

[Note: I will be at Thrillerfest on the day this post appears. Though I don’t have any personal obligations that day, I will be attending various panels throughout the day, but I will be checking in for comments and responding as best I can.

Also, my title, “In Search of a Moral Compass,” derives from an excellent historical survey of ethical thought by Kenan Malik, which I cannot recommend more highly. It’s one of the most insightful and influential books I’ve read in the past few years.]

About David Corbett

David Corbett is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.

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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.