by Tara Dalton
“Every action has its equal opposite reaction.”
In an American Constitution class a few weeks ago, a classic moral dilemma was posed: the trolley problem.
A trolley car is barreling down a track, toward five people tied directly in its path. A switch can direct this trolley down an alternate route, which has one person tied to the track. There is only time to flip the switch or, not. Tensions are high. Is one death better than five? Reducing the amount of people who die might be the moral choice. In flicking the switch however, are you suddenly complicit in murder? Or foggier still, by not flicking the switch, would you still be complicit?
The details of this problem can be changed to reap hopeless confusion on the person to whom its been posed. If you believe less death is always preferred, is your decision influenced if it’s your son on the alternate track? What if you’re informed one of the potential victims will go on to save thousands of lives if they’re saved?
Underlying any answer is an elusive ideal of principle. Do morals change with circumstance; can any rule be absolute?
It’s unlikely to find oneself in this position, deciding between flipping a switch and moral authenticity, but other tests of morality are not only likely, but expected. Living is a constant pull between principle and policy, what ought to be and what is. Take freedom. It’s pretty popular, most people like freedom; few agree with its vast, diverging interpretations. Freedom to that activist over there is the ability to stand with a sign in front of an abortion clinic. To this teacher, a just, free society allows her to teach creationism in her public school classroom. What if some NSA employee feels like a bunch of classified information should be public? What if I really need to scream fire in this movie theatre? Right. Now..
Few, if any, values last at all costs.
Ten Duel Commandments
Consider these moral tensions in the historical context of dueling. Which is more valuable, life or honor? Hamilton does a good job of demonstrating the nature of how civil these uncivil meetings could be. When Laurens and Lee introduce this concept of duels, Burr tries to negotiate with Hamilton on Lee’s behalf and the following exchange occurs:
Hamilton: Aaron Burr, Sir
Burr: Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?
Hamilton: Sure. But your man has to answer for his words, Burr
Burr: With his life? We both know that’s absurd, sir
Hamilton: Hang on, how many men died because Lee was inexperienced and ruinous?
Burr: Okay, so we’re doin’ this.
There’s irony here of course, considering the final exchange Hamilton and Burr have. But there’s also a clear weighing of values. Burr and Hamilton are aware of the oddity of dueling over matters of words, but it’s clear that Hamilton, even in this instance, doesn’t believe words are to be taken lightly. They’re tools.
Later in the show, Alexander counsels his son Philip, telling him “to take someone’s life, that is something you can’t shake.” His son then heads into the duel without the intent of shooting.
In the final scene when Burr shoots Hamilton, Hamilton utters along internal monologue, in which he asks, “What if this bullet is my legacy?” before aiming his pistol at the sky. He follows through with his earlier advice, knowing the potential consequences. Burr’s internal monologue complicates the traditional impressions of the incident, elucidating the uncertainty plaguing the moment. Burr notes that Hamilton was wearing his glasses, and fiddled methodically with the trigger.
Honor compelled Burr to initiate the duel, yet he considers his daughter and the likelihood of Hamilton shooting him, before he takes aim. The audience has a full story, rather than a brief moment by which to judge him. Ultimately the duel is portrayed as the conclusion of a lifetime of escalating disagreements. Burr notes, “Now I’m the villain in your history,” but in Hamilton, with the exploration of principle at play, Burr has recovered some of his lost humanity.
Tara Dalton is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org