14 June, 2011

Entering the Dojo

[Guest blogger Kaden]

This was supposed to be a comment on Dana's latest Dojo post below, but it was too long so I decided to make it a post of its own. Because, you know, why cut my word count short? That doesn't make any sense.

Without further ado...

Dana, I was going to speak to you at length about this (and I still would like to) but I thought I'd throw my two pennies into the pile

Per Nicole's comment, I think that writers might deal with the full depth of the philosophy more than the average person, or at least on a larger scale than most. We can decide the fates of individual lives, whole civilizations, and the fact that it doesn't exist doesn't change that we have to make it happen in that world. We have to actively choose to write it like that.

However, as real as writing is, and I'm all about the voices in our head Nicole, I also work closely with police officers and dispatchers who have to make these kinds of life choices regularly. If the choice to kill off billions of fictional people is this hard for us, but knowing that perhaps our story will make a difference and thus, that may be our justification, where does that leave those who make those choices every day?
In my home town, officers faced off against a young man who was charging, downhill, holding a knife, and shouting "shoot me". What do you do? They are faced not just with the 'criminal underworld', but with people who are mentally or chemically unstable, possibly not in control of their own actions. How do they justify theirs?

What about politics? How do you justify your orders in a time of war? In a documentary about WWII, it is estimated that about 75% of the fighter pilots never saw the end of their campaign of 25 missions. Yet when the brass digs in their heels, when they look at the scene at hand and declare, "Hold this line, at all costs", and countless lives are lost in the name of country soil, they declare success at the end of the day. The mission was "Successful".

Wait, what?

Take the scenario: You are tasked with the choice of killing a man, or not. If you do not, a man in a suit presses a button and 10 people die. You know none of the individuals involved. Now, because I'm a writer too, I understand the arguments (and the loopholes - we're not trying to think outside the box in this case. Sabotaging the button is not an option). That said, two of my characters would like to explain their sides.

Amara: It is morally wrong to kill a another human being, end of story. The ends never justify the means. If the suit pushes the button, he is making that choice to do so, and the blood is on his hands. I won't justify my actions like that.

Meg: At the end of the day, it's no comfort to the victims who's hands are stained. The husbands, wives, children and friends of the 10 people you killed will not forgive you for not choosing, because you don't think its your fault. Proving a murderer's guilt or innocence has no impact on the fact that someone was killed. Ignoring inequality among the individuals, if each of these 11 lives are to be held equally, I would kill one to save 10. Because when the day is over, it doesn't matter who feels guilty, or if my conscience is heavy. The point is that when the sun rises tomorrow, 10 people will get to wake up to see it that wouldn't have otherwise.

Who's right? I don't know. How do you weigh one life against another? These are the very questions we seek to answer.

To touch on an earlier topic, of reducing these lives to nameless numbers, that's what we have to do every day of our lives just to get by. When you see a man on the street, cold and hungry and alone and hope only to rustle up a warm meal, we have to emotionally detach ourselves. Or justify it to ourselves. "I won't give money to them because they'll just buy booze" "They're abusing the system" whatever you want to say. But we survive by putting ourself on another level from them. Dana, if you walked down that same street tomorrow, and you saw one of those special people you were thinking about up there? Your mom, your intrepid companion, maybe me. Could you still say those same things? Could you still go about your day? We're not only socially but genetically wired to want to help our kin.

These are the questions we, as writers, readers, as politicians, as teachers, as students, as fathers and mothers, these are the questions we must ask.

Even if we can't answer them.


Nicole said...

You make a good point about people who face these decisions every day. I didn't mean at all to diminish that with my comment, but was simply looking at it through the lens of a writer.

You also raise a good point about being programmed to help our kin. It's how we are able to make these questions unanswerable. Taking your scenario of kill a man or 10 will die, many people's minds immediately turn to getting more information.

Do I know the person I have to kill? Does the person know he's going to die? At my hands? Am I going to shoot him? Stab him? Strangle him? Burn him alive? What about the ten people? Will they be shot? Gassed? Thrown from the top of a building?

All these conditions change the situation. And yet, at the end of the day, the choice has not changed: kill a man or ten will die.

Jacob said...

I know you weren't trying to diminish anything - just mentioning that our fantasy is someone's reality.

So, those details, do they really change the situation? Is the morality altered by the methods?

Let's take human violence out of the equation. You choose that one man will die, say of a heart attack (induced by your will). If not, then the suit (through sheer force of evil) makes 10 random people in the world die of heart attacks. Explainable by medical science, no direct person-to-person violence. Do you feel better that way? Would you only be willing to kill the man if you didn't "feel bad" doing it?

What if the man was willing to die, asking you to kill him, in exchange for the ten? What if its the other way around, and the one man is begging for his life? If the 1 is a criminal, a child molester, and the 10 are innocent civilians? Does that make it ok?

If its taking a life, how does anything make it ok?

You say that conditions change the situation. So while we're agonizing about killing our friends and family, here's a wrench for your engine of morality:

What if you shot the suit?

Dana Hunter said...

ZOMG this is almost like old times - you all remember the Death thead? Woot!

Right. Haven't got time for the in-depth, alas, but I wanted to include a quote from Russell Blackford on a post I read recently:

I really don't like the phrase "kill them without pity" - I don't like the idea of being either able or eager to kill anyone without pity, which is not to say that I dispute the need in some cases to kill, however regretfully.

I'm with Nicole on the man in the suit: I'd need to know. Who is this man? Why is he about to kill ten people? Knowing would change the morality - because if he's gathered ten of the world's worst genocidal maniacs in one place, they've been confirmed guilty and sentenced to die, and there is no alternative - kill them or they will continue their genocidal campaigns - then there is no force on earth that would cause me to kill that man.

If, OTOH, he's just some random maniac about to murder ten ordinary people, and killing him is the only way to stop the slaughter, then not pulling a trigger or wielding a garrotte would be tantamount to taking ten lives.

But like Brother Blackford says, I still wouldn't be eager or able to kill without pity. I hope I never am.

Morality is not an easy thing, I don't believe. No matter how much we wish it were otherwise, no matter how black-and-white we would like it to be, there's never a situation where a different moral choice couldn't have been made, and might be valid. That's what makes it so difficult, and so necessary to think through, and revisit in light of new evidence or changing social norms.

But what if they're all anonymous, and there's no way to know in advance if I'm killing the man who will save millions or the maniac? I don't know. I don't know how I'd react in that situation, and I don't know what my courage is like, but I know I agreed more with Meg. Ten more people saw a sunrise.

And just then, I held their lives in my hands. Whatever choice I made, the blood stains my hands. There's no disavowing that. All due respect to Amara, but I can't stand that willful refusal to take responsibility. If I choose the blood of ten over the blood of one because my morality doesn't allow me to take a life under any circumstances, I can't pretend my hands are unstained. And I have to accept the consequences of inaction.

If I don't, how can I claim any sort of morality?