"We are slaves, all of us, Will Henry," he said, pulling the book from my hand and placing it upon the nearest stack. "Some are slaves to fear. Others are slaves to reason—or base desire. It is our lot to be slaves, Will Henry, and the question must be to what shall we owe our indenture? Will it be to truth or to falsehood, hope or despair, light or darkness? I choose to serve the light, even though that bondage often lies in darkness. Despair did not drive me to pull that trigger, Will Henry; mercy guided my hand." (4.9)
Whoa. This is a loaded statement, courtesy of Dr. Warthrop. You can decide to agree or disagree with his proposal that we're all slaves to a cause of our choosing, and it's a pretty interesting argument either way. We'd personally argue it's a matter of poor word choice ("slave" is pretty loaded terminology), but as a concept it's pretty solid.
Why did we tarry there reading old books, studying maps, and taking measurements while a pack of thirty sojourners from a nightmare roamed the countryside? We should have roused the residents to flee the creatures' onslaught or throw up barricades against the coming siege. The time to unravel the puzzle of their presence in New Jerusalem was after their eradication, not then, when our very survival hung in the balance. Who else, I wondered, might perish this night in the same unspeakable manner as Erasmus Gray, while the doctor draws his lines and reads his Greek and jots in his little book? Who else will be sacrificed upon the altar of science? (4.25)
Will Henry has a point: Dr. Warthrop's choice to pursue the why's and how's of the Anthropophagi's presence cost the lives of an entire family. Did he truly believe that they didn't pose a danger because they required time to rest after a feeding? Or was it a case of his denial about his father's potential involvement getting in the way of making good decisions?
"And I must say, Will Henry, it is exceedingly curious that you dwell upon the perceived folly and injustice of his end and not upon your own good fortune, the life that would have been forfeit had I not ended his. Do you see? Do you begin to understand why I said he would thank me if he could?" (4.44)
Essentially, Dr. Warthrop chose to save Will Henry rather than save Erasmus—which seems like a pretty normal decision based on their relationship. Throw in the fact that Mr. Gray was already probably a lost cause and the choice becomes an easy one. Dr. Wathrop actually put Erasmus Gray out of his misery, making it a really good call. So why does Will Henry have such a problem with it?
"I cannot do it, Will Henry."
He laughed humorlessly and added, "I cannot decide which it is, a triumph of will or its failure. Perhaps it is both. You see why I prefer science to morals, Will Henry. What is is. What might be only might be. They allowed him to lie in that bed unmoved until his own weight produced the infected sores into which the flies laid their eggs, and now that infection has reached his bones. He is doomed, Will Henry; there is no hope of recovery."
"Then why can't you… ?" I whispered.
"Because I do not trust my own motives. I do not know whose hands would hold the pillow, his… or mine." (6.277-780)
Ah ha—Dr. Warthrop is capable of easing someone into the afterlife when it's a clear-cut case of mercy, but in the case of Captain Varner the morality is a bit murky. After all, he's the only person (that Dr. Warthrop knows of at the time) who can testify to his father's participation in the plot to bring the Anthropophagi to New Jerusalem. So if he did kill him, he's not sure if it would it be mercy or murder in order to protect his family name. Tough call.
"Then exile your guilt and bury your grief. They are dead, and no amount of sorrow or regret will bring them back to you. I present you with a choice, Malachi Stinnet, the choice eventually faced by all: You may lie upon the shores of Babylon and weep, or you may take up arms against the foe! Your family was not beset by demons or felled by the wrath of a vengeful god. Your family was attacked and consumed by a species of predators that will attack again, as surely as the sun will set this day, and more will suffer the same fate as your family, unless you tell me, and tell me now, what you have seen." (8.139)
Good old Warthrop, being sensitive as always. In this instance his brand of tough love helps get what he needs—Malachi's testimony—but he also gives Malachi a sense of purpose to which he can cling throughout his terrible ordeal. He can choose to throw a colossal pity party for himself or he can take up arms and exact vengeance. And Malachi chooses vengeance like the semi-suicidal orphan Rambo that he is.
"I am his assistant," I said not without a touch of pride. "Like my father. After he… after the fire, the doctor took me in."
"He adopted you?"
"He took me in."
"Why did he do that? Why did he take you in?"
"Because there was no one else."
"No," he said. "That is not what I meant. Why did he choose to take you in?"
"I don't know," I said, a bit taken aback. The question had never occurred to me. "I never asked him. I suppose he felt it was the right thing to do."
"Because of your father's service?"
I nodded. "My father loved him." I cleared my throat. "He is a great man, Malachi. It is… " And now my father's oft-spoken words fell from my lips, "It is an honor to serve him." (9.78-86)
Malachi raises an interesting question, and it's kind of surprising that Will Henry has never pondered the same thing: Why did Dr. Warthrop choose to take him in? Was it allegiance to his dead father? Or was it his desperate need for an assistant, and the convenience of an impoverished orphan was too good to pass up? Or, as Will Henry wants to believe, was it just the right thing to do?
So the debate raged within, to call for help or to remain silent, and the seconds turned to minutes, and each minute tugged the straitjacket of indecision and paralysis tighter. (12.201)
This made us remember when we were little kids and got super scared in the middle of the night. The decision whether to stay safe under our blanket fort or go running into our parents' rooms was always one fraught with doubt, and we would be frozen to the spot until our fear reached a breaking point.
He put his hand on my chest and said with mock sorrow, "I am so sorry, Mr. Henry, but there really is no choice. It is the morality of the moment." And with those parting words John Kearns shoved me as hard as he could. (12.241)
There's always a choice when someone says there isn't one. Typically it just means they don't like the other options. The "morality of the moment" to Dr. Kearns doesn't really involve any morality at all: He's made a choice to sacrifice Will Henry, and he's sticking to it.
He launched himself at me, his left arm extended perpendicular to his body, poised to land the killing blow. I had just one bullet left and one second to decide. Fortune spared me that awful decision: In midflight he stiffened, shoulders yanked back by the punch of the round landing between them. (12.247)
This paragraph took a couple of re-reads until we fully understood what decision Will Henry had to make. He had one bullet, which he could use to either shoot the Anthropophagus or to shoot himself before he died a horrible death. That's a terrible choice to have to make, especially in such a short time. Luckily fate intervened before he truly had to decide.
"It is murder, Kearns, plain and simple."
"It was a mercy killing, Warthrop, simple and plain."
"You've given me no choice."
"One always has that, Pellinore. May I ask a question? What would happen should the old coot's heart suddenly spring to life and he makes a deathbed confession to his crimes? Would you not like to continue your life's work?... Sorry, that was two questions."
"I have a better question," retorted Warthrop. "What is my choice if staying silent allows you to continue your life's work?"
"Why, Pellinore, you wound my feelings. Who is to say whose work is more worthy of approbation? 'Judge not, lest you be judged.'" (13.136-141)
Hmm… When Kearns decides to sacrifice Will Henry to lure the matriarch, he says there's no choice—but then here he is telling Dr. Warthrop that there's always a choice. How convenient. Ultimately, Dr. Warthrop chooses to report Dr. Kearns, but the authorities have nothing to go on, so this whole argument becomes kind of a moot point.