Tim Chappell, Professor of Philosophy at the Open University, started the year’s Williams Project meetings in style with two different but related talks on the theme of Tragic Dilemmas.
The first, aimed at younger students, was a more general discussion about what a dilemma is, and how we go about resolving them. Our thoughts centered around “Sophie’s Choice”, a novel and film based on real situations in Nazi concentration camps, where Sophie has to decide which of her two children is to be sent immediately to the gas chamber. Tim showed how absurd it is to used any kind of calculation (e.g. utilitarianism) in making this decision. He stressed the importance of empathy, of imaginative involvement in the decider’s dilemma, as an important way by which we can use these situations to think about moral choices.
The second talk, a more formal lecture aimed at older students, was a detailed examination of moral philosophy based on a scene from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where the Chorus describe the Greek king’s dilemma between abandoning the expedition to Troy (and thereby losing all his status among his fellow kings) and sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. (The goddess Artemis was preventing the wind from blowing the right way, and demanded this price.) His decision, to kill his daughter, successfully gets the ships to Troy, and leads directly to military success and glory; but it also leads to his own death, as on his return his wife Clytemnestra kills him in revenge for their daughter’s life. Tim drew attention to Agamemnon’s words just after he has made his choice: “May all be well” – a desperate plea, made by one knowing it won’t be. Agamemnon was in a completely messy situation – there was no way out, and no moral system could help him. Tim’s point was that there were two contrasting ways of looking at the moral world. One, put forward by Plato and moral-system people such as utilitarians, claimed that by using such and such a system one can always find the right thing to do, that all can “be well”; the other, shared by Aeschylus, Bernard Williams and himself, was that there are lots of situations in life where this won’t work, where we are just stuck and there’s no way out. In these circumstances what might help us a little is not a moral system, but an imaginative empathy developed from our own experience of life, and our experience of literature and drama. When we watch Agamemnon on stage we in some strange way feel what it’s like to be in his shoes, and gain some moral strength and wisdom from the experience.