Hobson’s Choice – using ethical dilemmas in writing.
Hobson’s choice may have originated in the 1500s with an innkeeper who told customers they could have the horse closest to them, or none at all. In 1954 a movie was made with the title. While the original meaning was more ‘take it or leave it, ‘ it now has the nuance of a choice between two bad things.
Do you choose to obey a kidnapper’s demand to kill someone, or let your family die? The choice between evils is compelling, especially with a time limit. It leaves your character scrambling to find a way out which doesn’t lead to either end.
This scenario is a bit like the infamous ‘Trolly Problem‘
The question is this. Do you pull the lever and kill one person, or stand by and let the trolley kill five people? This is a favourite argument starter in philosophy bars. Recently it has come under fire for being too extreme, and requiring a kind of cold calculation which is detrimental to compassion. It also removes the person at the switch’s agency (ability to choose).
A more mundane Hobson’s choice might be choosing between staying home and cleaning house because your partner is going to move out if you don’t, but your friends who want you to join them at the bar are ready to dump you if you don’t come. Do you lose your partner or your friends?
While a choice of evils is a powerful plot tool, there is an even greater problem, and this is the source of the stickiest ethical dilemmas faced by people in real life.
This is the choice between two good things. To illustrate, in social work, the primary goal of a social worker is to build self-determination in their clients. Interfering in a client’s right to make choices is contrary to everything a social worker should be. Also a major goal of social workers is to prevent harm. The only time a counsellor should break confidentiality is to report harm or potential harm to children around the client.
So a client comes to a counselling session and talks about their desire for a fresh start. They plan to leave their family and disappear. The other parent will continue to care for the children. The client believes it will be better for the family if they aren’t around.
The social worker knows from experience that the vanishing of a parent is a traumatic experience which will leave deep scars on all those left behind, but this is not a clear case of abandonment. The children will have a competent parent.
Do they respect the client’s desire to choose a new path, however foolish, because they must make their own decisions, or does the social worker intervene to prevent the client from hurting their family by vanishing, but removes their client’s right to choose?
The reason this is more powerful than the choice between too evils is that people want good things. They would want to have both the right to choose and the assurance that their family won’t be hurt by their decisions.
Does a character act with loyalty to their liege, which they have been trained to see as the highest good, or act to save a person or people who will be harmed by their liege if they don’t do something?
The other powerful way to have a struggle between two goods is to have your antagonist want a good thing, but one which opposes the good thing your protagonist wants. The most common version of this is the choice between peace and order and freedom, but there are lots of others if you think about it.
When the antagonist’s goal is virtuous, but contradictory, it adds a level of complexity to the plot and emotion of the story. Is the protagonist right to stop them? Who is right? This kind of conflict also means the motivation of both antagonist and protagonist are clear. They both want to help, so you don’t have to come up with reasons for the antagonist to act despicably.
Another version of this is a common goal, but different paths to get there. Magneto and Professor X are a prime example of this. They want the best for mutants, but the way they plan to achieve it is very different.
Since we’re talking about ethics we show also talk about the foundational question of ethics. Is there a single set of rules which determines all moral and ethical behaviour?
People who use scriptures to decide between good and evil would fall until this category, for convenience we’ll call it ‘rules based ethics’. Put simply obeying the rules comes first. In the example above with the client planning to abandon their family the decision would be based on the application of the agency’s policy. Since there is no reportable harm to the children, the client must be allowed to abandon their family if that is their choice. People who don’t agree with them would call them legalists.
The people who want to look at the result of decisions and determine the greatest good created by each choice are utilitarians. Their choices are determined by the utility of the choice. What creates the greatest benefit for everyone involved? These are people who would consciously or not use game theory in making their decisions. People who disagree with them would suggest they use the ends to justify the means.
Putting a rules based person against a utilitarian is sure to create conflict.
There is one last group. They are utilitarian rule people. They work with a set of rules, be it company policy or the ten commandments, but they also recognize that some ethical decisions need thought outside the rules, and so they bring utilitarian methodology to bear on that problem. Put them into the mix and you have three people acting from very understandings of what is good. These people would be accused of sitting on the fence and having no firm beliefs.
Even if characters share the same goals, viewing the world through a utilitarian versus a rule based ethos will create conflict.
While it is great to set up an ethical conflict for your characters, it is also important to take care in the resolving of that conflict. Going back to Prof X and Magneto, they end up cooperating, but never really sorting out their argument. This is great if you have characters who will be bumping heads over a series of books.
If the conflict is within one character, like the social worker example, then it becomes more important to bring some conclusion to the problem. The process comes down to examining the hierarchy of needs, and how each response will or won’t fulfill the person or community’s needs. With the social worker struggling with self-determination versus the family’s health, they would work through each choice both from the viewpoint of their client and that of the client’s family.
They would probably involve the client in this process, so it becomes part of their self-determined choice.
When ethical decisions are made in a vacuum, that is without involving the people the decisions affect, they are very likely to produce horrific results. This can be used to heighten the stakes for your characters and world, especially over a series.