I’ve been thinking about the Heinz dilemma a lot lately.

It has nothing to do with ketchup; it’s a psychological thought exercise, meant to figure out what stage of moral development a person is in. I still remember my high school psychology teacher, Mrs. Ponzetti, teaching it to us during senior year.

The dilemma is this: A man named Heinz lives in a town with his beloved wife. His wife becomes deathly ill. A doctor in the town has invented a drug that will cure the illness. Without it, the wife will die. The doctor is charging $10,000 for the cure.

Heinz sells everything he has, borrows money from neighbors, goes to the bank for a loan – does absolutely everything he possibly can – and he comes up with only $5,000. He can come up with no more money right away. He asks the doctor if he can give him the $5,000 right away for the cure, and pay the rest in installments. The doctor says no; he has a right to profit off the drug and charge what he wants. So, in desperation to save his wife’s life, Heinz breaks into the doctor’s lab and steals the drug.

The dilemma, therefore, is: Should Heinz go to jail? What punishment should he receive? Why or why not? (As with many problems in schoolwork, you’re supposed to show your reasoning.)

A child, whose world consists of rules, structure and authority figures, and who has not yet developed a complete moral compass, would say, “Heinz broke the rules, he stole, he should go to jail.” An adult, presumably more aware of the many shades of gray that our world operates in, with an understanding of greed, selfishness and the value of human life, says something along the lines of: “No, Heinz was saving his wife’s life. He should not go to jail.”

I’ve been thinking of the Heinz dilemma because of the breaking news over the past few weeks of the horrific conditions that asylum-seeking migrants – including and especially children – have been subject to courtesy of the United States government. (Sometimes, I look at the taxes taken out of my weekly paycheck, and wonder how much of it goes to fund our government’s abuse of children at the border.) And the photo of the drowned father and his little girl. Of course I saw the photo, and call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you want, but it made me feel sad, and ashamed.

And then there are Americans – I estimate 30 percent to 40 percent of the country, President Trump’s much-praised and much-feared “base” – who look at those photos and think, “That’s what they get for breaking the rules.”

It’s a response you see a lot, especially on the internet – the idea that while the death of that father and daughter is sad, it is the father’s fault for breaking our rules and trying to swim across the Rio Grande. That it’s fine to separate families, cage asylum-seeking children, cram men, women and children in frigid holding cells referred to as “freezers” and deny them showers, because they “broke” the “rules.” No matter that seeking asylum is legal, and the absolute vast majority of migrants are just trying to do the best thing for their family. This non-majority of American citizens is holding everyone hostage with their cruelty and their stunted moral development. (Sometimes, I look at the Medicare taxes taken out of my weekly paycheck, and wonder how much of it goes to fund health care for these, by and large, angry older white people.)

For the record, if my father had thought that my life or my future were in danger, he would have plunged into the Rio Grande, too.

I haven’t felt very proud of our country much lately. But I have felt pretty proud of Maine. Surprised with an influx of asylum seekers a few weeks ago, we (yes, we – I donated, and you can, too, by texting “EXPO” to the number 91999) raised around a half-million dollars and opened up our Expo as a shelter. (Fun fact: I used to run track meets in that building! What it lacks in charm, it makes up for in sheer multipurpose functionality.)

Of course, there are the usual suspects who don’t like welcoming immigrants (angry internet commentators, governors-turned-bartenders, et al.), but I say, pay them no mind. They probably think Heinz should be in jail. But, as his dilemma shows, the intersection between what is law and what is right can be complex.

Our state motto is “Dirigo” – “I lead.” With a motto like that, we had better prove worthy. We should hold the federal government to account for its abusive treatment of migrants, and we should hold open Maine’s doors and show America what it looks like when a state welcomes immigrants with its whole heart.

As Maine goes, so goes the nation.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:

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Twitter: mainemillennial

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