· essays · dialogues · meditations · about subscribe

Why Bother with Boromir’s Body?

Cicero said “once you adopt moral goodness as your guide… it will follow automatically what our practical duties or obligations must be”. He was wrong. Moral obligations are not always clear, even with moral goodness as our guide. In fact, some choices are so unclear that weighing them can be mental torture.

My wife and I face a few such questions of duty: Should we move back from New York, the city we love, to raise our daughter near family? Should we give our daughter a sibling to accompany her through life, or should we preserve our attention for her (and side step the costs and stresses of a second child)? We have weighed these questions for years, and our freedom to choose has given birth to a nagging uncertainty, which fades at times but is always unsettlingly present.

How is one to decide? I like searching for insight in books, and right now my wife and I are reading The Lord of the Rings. This fantasy classic is filled with difficult moral choices, because choices face the Fellowship of the Ring throughout their epic journey. Go through Moria, or between the Gap of Rohan? Take the ring East to Mordor, or West to Minas Tirith? These decisions tormented them too. Aragorn and Frodo put off their decision to go East or West until a roaring waterfall forced them to choose. In the end, Frodo took the ring East by himself, since his heart told him that was the way to go, although going West was the tempting easy road; he could put off facing evil in Mordor that much longer.

While Frodo is departing East, Pippin and Merry are captured by Orcs, and Aragorn is left with another terrible choice: chase after the Ring or the two captured hobbits? Frodo had never left the Shire before this journey, so to expect him to navigate to Mt. Doom by himself with the Ring was foolish, and the stakes couldn’t be greater! Nothing less than the fate of all the free peoples of middle earth. Surely the greatest good for the greatest number would dictate that they leave their friends Pippin and Merry to near certain torture and death.

Aragorn also faced a more immediate choice: what should they do with Boromir’s body, pierced with many arrows, lying among the Orcs he had slain before he died? Time is off the essence, the fate of the whole world lies on a knife, what would it matter if the body were left to lie?

Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli did not leave Boromir’s body. Instead they “laid Boromir in the middle of the boat… they combed his long dark hair and arrayed it upon his shoulders. They golden belt of Lorien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilt and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies.” As they watched the boat slowly drift out into the current, they sang a lament to the for their companion. I cried here.

Not only did they take the time to send off Boromir, but they also didn’t go East after Frodo, but instead they went West to chase after the young hobbits, their friends Merry and Pippin.

Perhaps Aragorn knew that our limited minds can’t predict the course of great events, and when you try to you risk letting uncertain ends justify immoral means. Since leaving Boromir’s body to lie as carrion would be wrong in normal circumstance, they decided it was likely best to follow that convention in their circumstance. It’s possible that sending Boromir’s body over the Rauros directly lead to Sauron’s victory. Perhaps if they hadn’t delayed, they could have caught up with Frodo, and doing so would eventually lead to Sauron’s defeat. Even if this were true, they couldn’t have known it would turn out that way. All they knew was that Boromir was that their friend and who had died valiantly, and that leaving his body as carrion would be wrong in normal circumstance, so they decided to spend the time to send his body down the great river Anduin.

Here’s a more interesting question: If they had known that delaying to send off Boromir’s body would lead to Sauron’s defeat, what would they do? Would they have still sent it over the river? The most extreme rule-follower may have. Though shalt not murder. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt burry the dead (like Antigone). I think they would have let Boromir’s body lie if they had known it would prevent Sauron’s defeat. After all, they did compromise and send Boromir over the Rauros instead of taking the time to properly bury him. They were willing to bend the rules given the great consequences of a delay.

Most of us fall somewhere between “always follow the rules” and the “ends justify the means,” between deontology and consequentialism. Thus, most of us will break the rules sometimes if the consequences of an act lead us to.

The consequentialist still has a place for rules, because the rules guide us when there is uncertainty. We’re limited by our mental ability, our available time to make decisions, our information, and our knowledge of how other humans will react. For this reason, I think deontologists and the consequentialists are closer in practice than they may seem in theory, because both rely on moral rules and heuristics.

Does all of this help with our decisions? Not too much, although perhaps we should stop trying to predict too far into the future and should rely more on our gut feelings and moral heuristics.