In the process of helping young Hebrew parents deliver their babies, Tamar and Gomer are accused of examining the child as it enters the world. If the baby was a male, they would grab hold of it and rush out of the tent and proceed to kill it. In order to be sensitive to our viewers, we will not go into the gruesome details.
The trial room is hushed as the judge begins to question the two women.
The Judge asks, “Were the two of you present when each of the Hebrew male children were born”?
A hushed yes from both of the trembling accused.
“And did you kill the infants”?
Another barely audible yes.
The Judge looks at them and then asks the midwives if they are going to plead guilty or not guilty. Before they can answer the question their defense lawyer springs forward and announces before the stunned courtroom that they are pleading not-guilty.
After calling the room to order, an incredulous Judge stares at the young lawyer and then asks him how he plans to defend the midwives, given their confession and the numerous witnesses that are available to testify against them.
The lawyer addresses the Judge. “Your honor: Would you say it is fair that for an individual to be morally responsible for their action and deserve punishment they must have acted freely?”
“You will have to elaborate on the term freely,” cautioned the Judge.
“Using the term freely, I simply mean that a person, like our midwives, has the ability to act as she wants,” explained the lawyer. “And this ability to do as they desire in order to be considered free should not be compelled or coerced.”
The Judge nods and waves his hand for the lawyer to continue.
“A compelled action would be any act in which the person is forced to act against their desire by an external factor. Therefore, we seek to prove that these women were compelled by external factors to act as they did when they killed these infants. Neither Tamar nor Gomer were able to act in accord with their strongest desire, which was to deliver these babies healthy and alive to their parents.”
The Judge pursued the lawyer’s argument, “Are you claiming that they women were not acting freely? Did someone hold a gun to their head?”
“What’s a gun?”
“Sorry, was someone holding a knife to their throat?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. The women did not want to kill the infants. However, there was an external coercive force at work that prevented them from freely acting. Therefore they did not have the freedom to act in a way that renders moral responsibility.”
The Judge asked him to explain.
“The Pharaoh issued a decree ordering the murder of all Hebrew male babies.”
After the Judge calls the court to order, he asks, “What happens if someone fails to obey this rule?”
“They face anything from a severe warning, imprisonment, or death. Don’t you think this would satisfy the requirement of an external coercive force?”
“I think it would qualify.”
“Then under the compatibilist defense, any act that is externally coerced is no longer a free act, and thus not morally culpable.”
After mulling it over, the Judge asks the Pharoah to appear before the court. Surprisingly he makes an appearance.
“Pharaoh did you order the murder of the Hebrew infants?”
The Pharaoh answers coolly and confidently that he did.
“Why did you order such a horrible decree?”
“For the glory of me and my kingdom. If these Hebrews were allowed to continue to grow in number they might rebel and destroy us.”
“One has to wonder how such ends as these can justify such a horrible decree. Why should I not charge you with 10 counts of murder?”
“Now your honor, I can’t be held accountable for these murders. I may have decreed that they should happen. But clearly I was not the author. I did not take hold of each child with these hands you see before you and end its life. Just by decreeing that this evil should occur does not mean that I am the one that committed the act. Clearly it is the midwives who freely chose to do this act. They are the ones who actually did the crime and it is they who should do the time. Can I be held responsible for the evil actions of those in my kingdom?”
“We are considering whether this decree is an external compelling force that would acquit the midwives,” the Judge replied. “Surely your decree implicates you in this crime?”
“I can see why you might draw that conclusion. But does my willing that this evil be committed really rob these midwives of their ability to choose?”
At this point the prosecution steps forward. “Your honor I would like to call two people to testify before the court.”
Two women are led in.
“Your Honor, this is Mary and Martha. They are both midwives as well. They also ‘had a knife held to their throat’ and were thus externally compelled by the Pharoah’s decree just as Tamar and Gomer.”
The Judge motions for him to proceed.
“Yet they disobeyed the orders of the Pharoah and delivered the babies to their parents.”
The Judge turns to the two midwives, “You were able to act against the compelling external force of the decree to kill the children.”
“Of course we were! We wanted to deliver these babies to their parents and we were willing to face the consequences for our choice. We could not live with ourselves if we committed such an act.”
The Judge looks to the Pharaoh who declares, “I only issued a decree. I did not plunge the knife into the newborn, so you cannot convict me as the author of this evil.”
Then Tamar and Gomer step forward. “We admit we killed the newborns. But it was under external coercive factors. If compatibilism is true you cannot convict us since we were not acting freely and thus can’t be held responsible for these acts.”
Who would you judge as guilty of the murder of the infants?