The Case of the Weak Resistance Fighter

The Background

Turnia is a small, independent country with a vigorous culture and a strong ethnic background. It is invaded by a more powerful and vicious adversary. Through the use of force and terror, the invaders impose a tyranny on the country and take harsh steps to eliminate the traditional culture of Turnia. A young man, born and raised in the country, sees it as his duty to join the resistance and fight against the invaders. He does so, but he is very much afraid of being caught and tortured. He has always had a low threshold of pain, and he agonizes that he may not have the strength to resist torture. He decides, therefore, that if he is caught, he will take a lethal poison he always keeps at hand.

He is caught, tries to take the poison, but is prevented. What he dreaded comes to pass. In prison, he sees the mangled bodies of fellow prisoners and his fear approaches panic. When he is brought before a clever and experienced interrogator, he is told that he will be given a new drug that dissolves people's resistance. Under its influence, those interrogated answer whatever questions are put to them, saving time and effort in the torture chambers. In a few cases, the drug does not work, he is told, so the torture chambers have not, ha ha, been put into mothballs. And no one, no one, ever resists expert torture very long.

He stoutly refuses to provide information, so he is given the drug, the session is tape recorded, and afterwards he is shown the tape by the interrogator. He revealed all he knows, even though he does not remember doing so. Then the sadistic interrogator reveals what is in fact the truth. While there is a truth drug, the young man was given a placebo. The interrogator notes that the young man's fear was sufficient to take over, defeat his feeble attempt at self-control, and move him unconsciously to betray the resistance movement. He is released, as is the tape, and he is left to cope with the consequences of having been instrumental in the capture, torture, and death of a number of his fellow freedom fighters.

The Problem

The resistance fighter did not choose to betray his comrades, he did not know he was betraying them as he did so, and if he could have acted otherwise, he would certainly have done so. Nonetheless, what he did was not morally neutral. If someone else, in the same situation, had remained silent, that would have certainly been better. The young man blames himself, and many others in the movement blame him as well, some bitterly. Are the young man and those who blame him right? To agree is to accept the principle that it is appropriate to praise and blame people morally for what they do, even if their actions are involuntary. Such a judgment contradicts the common opinion that moral judgment is justifiable only for actions that agents consciously choose to perform. But if we answer "no," then we cannot say that the resistance fighter ought not to have betrayed his comrades. This view contradicts the common opinion that a man who stands up to his torturers is more admirable than one who does not.

The Council Meeting

The leaders of the resistance in Turnia call a meeting to decide what to do about the resistance fighter case. They have to decide whether he is to be blamed and punished for what he did. The issue is not an abstract one. It addresses immediately important questions about the lessons learned from the case for the recruitment of resistance fighters and about assuring the loyalty and the morale of current members.


1. This group is the council.
2. The council knows all the facts.
3. The discussion of the council has focused on the question of blame, not on the subsequent question of what to do if the resistance fighter is properly blamed or exonerated. The question of blame has yet to be resolved.