Had a pretty interesting class with my freshmen today: a nice and complicated moral issue about which there emerged two distinct sides, who mostly took over the discussion in attempting to defend their side and argue against the opposition (and did so with pretty good and subtle arguments on both sides). Pretty much the dream, pedagogically.
We had been reading Norm Geras' The Contract of Mutual Indifference and a debate had broken out about whether we should judge the great number of people who were inactive during the Holocaust on the basis of their intentions or their actions. So I proposed the following hypothetical: suppose there were two German citizens in 1942, who were alike in all respects except the following:
Person 1 does nothing, positive or negative, with respect to the treatment of Jews.
Person 2 rescues, but only does so in exchange for money.
(to introduce a later clarification from our discussion: the money represents pure profit, not the cost of providing for an additional person, and their reason for rescuing was solely the realization of the profit.)
The question was: who is the better person? The class was split pretty much down the middle. It seems obvious to me that Person 2 is better, even if neither of them are exactly great, but the dissension was strong.
Follow-up question: who should feel more guilty after the end of the war? Again, evenly divided.
Follow-up to that: which person would you rather be? Surprisingly, the position was virtually unanimous that they'd rather be Person 2.
I suggested the possibility that those who had thought Person 1 better, but would rather have been Person 2, might want to engage in some moral introspection to resolve what seems to be a contradiction.