What moral dilemma is Rachael Carson worried about in Silent Spring?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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A moral dilemma is a situation in which what would seem to be necessary action contradicts the moral imperative it is designed or said to uphold. Case in point, DDT, about which Rachael Carson write in Silent Spring, was designed and used by the military to eradicate malaria causing insects in the South Pacific Islands. This was received as a great good--the saving of soldiers' lives--and the inventor, Paul Hermann Müller, was awarded a 1948 Nobel Prize. This same DDT, a full-spectrum insect killer, when used in the public domain, as opposed to military, killed insects, birds, plants and whole ecosystems and accumulated in the worldwide food chain and in human bodies, where it triggered cancers and genetic damage. This scenario represents a moral dilemma: What would seem a necessary action of agricutural pesticide control contradicts the moral imperative of saving lives, for which DDT was invented and which earned Müller a Nobel Prize.

Something designed to save human lives for the highest good of humanitarian service was, when used for crops and pestilence, destroying lives and ecological systems in wholesale quantities. The imperative questions that then arose were: Which has more value? Which is the greater good? This moral dilemma was resolved after much debate, research, loss of life and damage with the authority and backing of the United States government and other world governments by rightly defining the greater good and by disregarding the economic advantage gained from ignoring the dilemma. The dilemma was resolved by world governments banning the production and use of DDT--incidentally proving that morality can and must be legislated. 

Today we face an extension of this dilemma. Phthalates, dioxins, formaldehydes, PCBs and other plasticizers, surfactants, detergents and other volatile organic compounds, which are found in foods, adhesives, carpets, counter tops, school desks, office furniture, make up, hair grooming products, synthetic perfumes, papers, clothing, sheets, the list is unending, are adding a chemical body burden to all people, even infants who ingest dioxins from foods handles by their mothers' fingers. These chemicals are being linked to obesity, Lupus, asthma, ADHD and other diseases. The present moral dilemma related to these chemicals is the same dilemma as Carson uncovered in Silent Spring and is most apparent in regard to recycled paper, which was meant to be a valued good to individuals and to the planet. Recycled paper has high concentrations of phthalates and dioxins because of the cleansing and purifying processes it goes through. Recycled paper, which has been rejected by industry leaders for use as an alternative "green" building material because of its unacceptably high toxic chemical content, is used to package our foods and these volatile organic compounds are not stable but transfer into our foods. Recycled papers make it clearly apparent what our present day chemical moral dilemma is.

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