The Dilemma of Us

Late last night, while watching an absolutely atrocious movie, I had a thought experiment come to mind. I dismissed it quickly enough, since the whole point that the director tried to make was his attempt to cause the viewer to “think” (when, in reality, the message was more “I’m smarter and morally superior than you”, but whatever), but then I had a dream about it and how it correlates to the current dust-up in Science Fiction/Fantasy (yes, it’s coming full circle). I’ll pose the moral quandary here for you, and let you decide.

Let us begin.

  • There is a train coming. There are 5 individuals of varying nationalities (everyday Joe’s so to speak) tied to the train tracks who will most certainly die if they remain there. There is a lever which you can pull that will divert the train onto another set of tracks. On this second set of tracks, however, is  noted white English author Iain Banks (he’s still alive for this thought experiment). Iain Banks will surely die if you divert the train. Do you sacrifice Mr. Banks to save the five everyday Joe’s? Or do you sacrifice the average Joe’s to save the noted author?

Let’s take it up a notch, shall we?

  • There is a train coming. There are 5 white men tied to the train tracks who will most certainly die if they remain there. There is a lever which you can pull that will divert the train onto another set of tracks. On this second set of tracks, however, is noted African-American poet Maya Angelou (again, let’s presume that she’s still alive for this experiment). Maya Angelou will surely die if you divert the train. Do you sacrifice Ms. Angelou to save the 5 white men? Or do you sacrifice the 5 white men to save the noted poet?

Thinking yet? Well then, let’s not stop there. I want to keep going because, well, philosophy and sh*t.

  • There is a train coming. There are 5 impoverished minority children tied to the train tracks who will most certainly die if they remain there. There is a lever which you can pull that will divert the train onto another set of tracks. On this second set of tracks, however, is noted physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil deGrasse Tyson will surely die if you divert the train. Do you sacrifice Dr. Tyson to save the 5 impoverished minority children? Or do you sacrifice the 5 impoverished minority children to save the renowned physicist?

Let’s do one more, just to put some knickers in a twist.

  • There is a train coming. There are 5 wealthy, snobby, bratty white American children tied to the train tracks who will most certainly die if they remain there. There is a lever which you can pull that will divert the train onto another set of tracks. One this second set of tracks, however, is noted  author (and outed pedophile) Marion Zimmer Bradley. Marion Zimmer Bradley will surely die if you divert the train. Do you sacrifice Ms. Bradley to save the 5 insanely wealthy, snobby, bratty white American children? Or do you sacrifice the 5 insanely wealthy, snobby, bratty white American children in order to save the famed author and pedophile?

Some of you have already decided that the “Greater Good” trumps all, and that the 5 saved are always better than the 1 lost. However, do you really want to run the risk of losing such an established individual like deGrasse just to have, say three of the five kids you saved die from malnutrition or other diseases, before they’re 20? Think about the loss to humanity if someone like deGrasse were suddenly removed, and none of the five ever come close to his level of intellect or contribution to humanity. Do you save the physicist and murder five children?

Some of you immediately went to saving the noted individuals because you know them, and they’re famous. Much like how society now looks to those who are famous being more important that those who are not, you attached yourself to the idea of saving Maya Angelou and letting the five white men die. But ask yourself… did you put Ms. Angelou ahead of saving the white men because of her contributions to society, or do you feel that race and guilt made the decision for you?

The problem with a moral quandary like this is that there is no right answer (except for the last one, but that’s to come). How do you value one over the other? How does an individual choose?

Well, this is where your own perceptions of what is important come into play for this thought experiment. Your judgment is based on who you identify with, who you associate yourself with, and who your “tribe” is.

Part of what bothers me in this current dust-up is that the legions on one side are lashing out at the problem instead of addressing it, then fall into this sort of congratulatory mutual masturbation session in which they pat each other on the back while jerking each other off (inelegant, I know). The moral problems are still there, but instead of making a decision, they’re attacking the questions posed. They may even say that the root of the moral problems I posed above boil down to “RACISM!” and attack me for this. There may even be harsh language.

With the exception of the final problem (let the pedophile die, and pop up some popcorn so the children can enjoy the show is my vote), there isn’t an easy decision to make in the group. If you found any of them easy, then you may want to check your perceptions of what is important or not. If you picked Maya Angelou over the five white men, for example, did you just condemn five innocent men to die? Or if you picked to save the five white men, aren’t you worried someone may turn around and call you racist for not choosing the African-American woman (oh come one, you knew that was coming)?

But since 3 of the 4 questions aren’t really that “fair”, a Progressive minority might casually dismiss the philosophical implications of the decisions and instead attack me, the questioner. This would make sense to some, since after all, I’m the one who dared to include racial stats into the equation. But if that’s the case, would it make your decision easier? Would it make your decision simpler if it were just five men on the tracks versus Maya Angelou? Or five white kids versus Neil deGrasse Tyson? What do you, personally, place value upon when you look at life?

Take this all into comparison with the current dust-up in SF/F and you might… MIGHT… begin to understand. For some within the SFWA community, battle lines MUST be drawn. The very soul of science fiction is at stake, they’ll argue. It is their job to protect it from racism, sexism, misogyny and whatever other buzzword of the week is.

Finally… back to the philosophical questions posed above. Please, I want you to be honest with me (and yourself) in this matter… but did you even think of asking if there was someone else around who could help you save everyone? Because, despite your protestations otherwise, you are not the moral majority and you do NOT get to decide who lives and who dies. NOBODY has that right. You do not get to choose whether Neil deGrasse Tyson is more important that anyone else, or that anyone else is more important that Dr. Tyson.

Or, in the case of Science Fiction/Fantasy, you do not get to determine what is the heart, and what is the soul, and you definitely don’t get to decide what is good and what is bad.

18 thoughts on “The Dilemma of Us

  1. “The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. . . ”

    – Spock

    Besides, you can run the rich brats over yourself. . .

  2. Actually did that in a class assignment with one of these “moral dilemma” problems. It was a “lifeboat” problem (lifebolt can hold X, people on the sinking ship Y > X. Who gets on the lifeboat?)

    While other folk were arguing, I was writing. When the teacher asked what I was writing, I read my own “solution”, which was basically a way to save everyone. (Starting with, per my stepfather’s BlueJacket’s Manual that a lifeboat can support twice as many people hanging on the sides than sitting inside, and, yes, I addressed the issues of sharks and hypothermia in the overall solution.)

  3. Dunno if there something wrong with me, but the answers to all of those were pretty easy for me.
    Iain Banks dies.
    May Angelou dies.
    Dr. Tyson lives.
    MZB, dies.
    Pretty easy. Simply a measure of potential good/harm. Whether you like their stuff or not, Banks and Angelou won’t be contributing that much to the overall good. Sorry ’bout that.
    Dunno if we’ve wrung all of Dr. Tyson’s brilliant ideas out of him yet, so he lives.
    MZB had it coming.

  4. I submit that you’ve formulated the experiment in such a way that snap judgment is necessary. Furthermore, you didn’t ask an open-ended “What will you do?” You asked a closed-ended binary: “Will you save 5X or 1Y?”

    Given that, I’ll choose 5X in all cases. There’s not time for a deep philosophical debate, so I’ll fall back on numbers.

    The snap judgment also depends on my awareness of the individuals. If you told me the 5X were all known pedophiles, I might throw numbers out the window.

  5. The singleton dies, unless I manage to cut him free after throwing the lever his way, maybe we both die but, we go out trying

  6. Note, had any of the scenarios been 1 child vs the 5 named people above, i would have saved the child

    • That one would have been too easy, Sanford. We are biologically programmed to protect children. Those who harm children are the ones who are biologically damaged and/or raised to despise or hate children.

  7. I dislike the “lifeboat” style of question, because except in rare cases it’s is intended to either categorize a person or brainwash them.

    This appears an obvious attempt to catagorize people into either “racist” or “socialist” categories.

    Virtually all “lifeboat” scenarios attempt to brainwash people into deciding that x+1 people are worth more than 1 person. Or, to boil it down, that “rights” are cumulative.

    The only questions of his type that are worthwhile A&E those asked of people who will actually have to make life or death decisions in the course of what they do.

  8. Let the train run over the five — I can kill the solitaire myself.

    The story of the Ethics 101 course I took in college, and what happened when the “lifeboat” question came up, I save for conventions…. >:)

  9. Pingback: The Evil that Men do | According To Hoyt

  10. If I had to choose between a train running over Bradley and a train running over Vox Day, I’d have it run over Vox Day. Just so you know.

  11. The principle of double effect can guide us here.

    Since the experiment is framed as a moral question, the matter at stake is what’s right. The high likelihood that many would choose based on political affiliation and sentiment shows how detrimental those allegiances can be outside their proper spheres.

    How do you choose? It depends on a few moral principles. First, human life either has inalienable or conditional worth. If it’s the former. No one person’s life is more valuable than another’s. (Assuming that pulling the lever or not is a tough call presupposes this fact.) If it’s the latter, choosing is a relatively straightforward matter of assessing which life/lives are more valuable and acting accordingly.

    But reality won’t let us off that easy. Because the question, “which lives are of greatest benefit to humanity?” presupposes that humanity as a whole, i.e. all human life, has intrinsic worth. (Otherwise we’d ask, “which lives are of greatest benefit to the elite?”)

    If some are more equal than others, then those who dispense preferential or punitive treatment based solely on racial and political affiliation are right.

    Once we conclude that each human life is equally valuable, there’s no way to avoid an evil outcome. That doesn’t mean there’s no right answer. The moral character of a choice like this depends on whether the good or evil result is your main intent, whether the good result comes first (causally; not temporally), and most importantly here: whether the good result is proportionally greater than the evil result.

    All human lives being equal, the right answer in each case above is to divert the train away from the five victims. (That, by the way, is the moral act under consideration. The death of the single victim on the other track is an unintended evil consequence of the good act.)

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