Choosing Between Unpalatable Options

Science fiction frequently presents ethical dilemmas in ultimate terms. While we should be cautious to recognise the dilemmas are often simplistically rendered in drama they are nevertheless a stark way of focusing on a conflict in principles. Take two examples: one from the Watchmen movie and comic book and the other from the BBC’sTorchwood. Both deal with the political reality of sacrificing human lives for a greater good in utilitarian terms

Example 1: Watchmen

The Watchmen, a curious dystopian vision of a future of US history in which strange costumed Super Heroes emerged in the 1940s and 50s and helped America to win the Vietnam war. Nixon is still President and the Super Heros are now retired or working for the government. One, a brilliant scientist, has created the technology to destroy a number of the world’s capital cities. He does this, disguising it as coming from another hero (in the movie) as tensions have escalated towards nuclear war between the USSR and USA. Moments before the launch of a nuclear strike the destruction of so many major world capitals causes the USSR and USA to ally their forces against the common enemy and a new era of peacetime begins. The hero scientist with the brilliant mind worked out that the only way to prevent massive thermonuclear war was to tactically present a third common enemy to unite the world. He succeeds, at least for the present, but at the cost of tens of millions of lives. The other heroes are horrified at what the brilliant scientist has done.

Example 2: Torchwood

Torchwood presents a similar dilemma but this time the threat is from an over powering enemy which wants live children so they can feed off chemicals released in the children’s bodies. It is a horrific vision. The enemy has a virus which it could release to the world if the children are not handed over. There seems no way to challenge the aliens. The British Cabinet are left to work out how to choose children. They use school league tables to work out which children are likely to be least productive. But how to get the schools and families to agree? They tell a lie that there is an inoculation that these children need urgently and they get the help of the army by telling soldiers the truth and guaranteeing the safety of their own children if the soldiers help to round up the others. Faced with annihilation or the sacrifice of many children, they choose the sacrifice as the only responsible thing to do. In the end this disaster is averted by Captain Jack Harkness who uses his own grandson to destroy the aliens. In doing so the child must die. His team are horrified by what he has to do.

In both nightmarish visions a few, or the one, are sacrificed to avert the catastrophic alternative. In both dramas there are those who voice an alternative moral sentiment. It is better that humanity falls, than such a terrible price is paid for survival. Both programmes challenge what is meant by heroism. In both we are left wondering whether the real hero is the person who acted to save humanity by a brutal act. Perhaps this is an example of the different between good acts and right acts. There is nothing intrinsically good about the murder of innocents but what if that was the only way of reducing the overall death toll? Is it better to do a ‘right’ but bad thing, or better to allow a ‘wrong’ and terrible thing to occur?

Then there is the question of what happens to the people after their terrible right but bad acts. Do they become monsters? Captain Jack leaves Earth, never wanting to return. The Brilliant Hero Scientist stays. Is there a price that is paid by the civilizations themselves? What kind of world is it that allows the few to die in the interests of the many?

Of course it is comfortable to treat such moral decision making as a sci-fi drama. But military commanders of soldiers will face terrible moments where they must send men to certain or near certain death, to insure that the battle plan is ultimately won. Politicians have to make calculations about how to allocate a limited budget among an overwhelming need. For instance, there is an increasing pressure for some local authorities to merge homes for the elderly as the larger homes are cheaper to run and budgets are very tight. But to close a home can lead to the elderly residents suffering from the loss of their familiar surroundings and can bring on a death earlier than necessary. One solicitor has made a name for herself by fighting the closures because it is clearly in the interests of residents not to go through the trauma of a move. But if there is no money to pay for it, what then?

This is the conflict between a pragmatic utilitarian ethic and an altruistic and idealist one. How would you act? I for one am glad I do not have to make the decision. There is a saying that when faced with two unpalatable options, the choice should follow your imperative – that which is essential above all else. Perhaps this means sacrificing the few for the many. For some all ethics boils down to a pragmatic realism. Underneath is a view that things cannot be changed – there is no truly just society. The reality is that it is a jungle out there and the fittest and perhaps most vicious, or wealthy, survive.

But against this gloomy presentation of ethics we must pay attention to how human civilization has sought out to alleviate suffering – the anti-slavery movement, the women’s rights movement, the development of liberal democracies where there is more participation in power. The individual people who did extraordinary things to save the lives of other people, such as those who saved Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis.

We could argue that progress is being made towards a better world and that a belief that it is possible to make the world better is essential to keep that progress going.

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