And now, let's time travel back to my high school ethics class.
Pretty much everything I read in that class has been saved in my personality to some degree. All my experiences in that class heavily influenced me at the time, and by now have been whittled down, pruned, and have formed the core of my ethical outlook. One of the strongest roots of that ethical philosophy is Utilitarianism. (WARNING: NERD CONTENT AHEAD) The best way I can think to succinctly summarize the point of view is: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. That is, of course, a line famously spoken by Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I can remember two times he says it, the most poignant is after having saved the ship from danger and lays dying alone in the reactor of the damaged Enterprise. To a logical race like Vulcans, this utilitarian maxim would be a second nature and a sacrifice like this would not merit too much debate.
|This rap came after the one I mentioned. Totally.|
Logic dictates that the "value" of one person is not as great as the several hundred other people on the starship all combined who will die if action is not taken. We often exalt this type of action and call it heroism, a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his platoon, a person who runs into a burning home to search for persons in need of help, or-depending on your point of view- a suicide bomber who straps explosives to him or herself in order to kill "the enemy." I hope we can all be adult enough to realize heroism is subjective. One man's hero can be another man's terrorist and vice versa. I do NOT believe such things are useful, but some do, that's what I'm pointing out. And of course there's altruism too, but what I really wanted to touch on was something different.
Continuing on from my broken thoughts...I really liked utilitarianism, which is odd because it is so logical and almost mathematical and I was not into either of those things when I was a junior in HS. It just made sense to me at the time, and it meshed with my ingrained values. I believed it was important to do good, and whatever seeks to create the most good by causing the least harm seems like the most obvious choice in ethical systems, right? Well, all was not well in my school. We had many a heated debate about this subject. People love the cruel ethical dilemmas. "Would you torture a baby to save a thousand people from a horrible disease" or whatever morbid spin you wish. I remember being one of the few people to agree with this unpopular argument, and I did it nearly unflinchingly. HOW CAN YOU BE SO MEAN?! Easily. One baby to save a thousand people? That's not even a challenge. I'd do it to save fifty probably. (Sexist time:) Mostly it was the girls who got on my case in these examples and I think it's just a natural thing and not truly sexist to say that men are more mathematical and logical and women are more emotional and social. This generalized split serves some kind of purpose, and that purpose is to ride my ass in ethical discussions. God they were all pains. I think it was the "baby" that did it. Babies exemplify helplessness and innocence (unless you believe in original sin, in which case HAHAHA!) so the thought of harming one is anathema to a "normal" person, especially one who can give birth to a helpless infant.
Quick detour. My main gripe with utilitarianism is the math part. I'm sure for an insurance adjuster it's easy to determine someone's absolute value (though, in what units would you put it? dollars? utils? guns and butter?) but for the layman who's in a crisis what are we to do? Large numbers are fairly easy to handle. One life to save a million? Bah! I'll chop his head off myself. One million lives sacrificed to save one and a half million? I pause at that. I just don't feel so confident there. One life to save two? A similar stay of execution. Of course nothing that's based in real life could be absolute and cover every contingent. For example would you kill a doctor to harvest his organs to save six convicted pedophiles? I certainly wouldn't. Even though they're more "lives" I consider their value as less. But who makes that call ultimately? That alone could fill a book of thousands of pages I'm sure. I just wanted to make it clear I have my own personal gripes. Ethical systems aren't perfect. They're man-made and deal with mankind who are a pain in the ass, or so I've heard. The point of this ethics is to serve as a general heuristic I think. Do the most good, while doing the least harm.
So, back to me getting pooped on in class. I often said outrageous things, sometimes to test people, sometimes to be outrageous, and sometimes because I actually believed it. My eagerness to kill an innocent child to save the village was frowned upon. To me it just made me angry that people would be willing to harm so many when the solution was simple if a little messy and sad. Thinking back I should have brought up "The Giver," that book most of us read in elementary school about the Utopian society where the one person in the village gets to take on the terrible burden of the collective's memories from before the happy time. Not a perfect analogy but it just occurred to me as I was typing.
|COMMUNIST PLOT, ALL PART OF IMAM OBAMA'S PLAN!!! QUICK BUY FROZEN BEEF STROGANOFF AND GOLD!|
What also always made me angry was when movies glorified the idea of putting tons of people at risk for the sake of one person. I don't think it's a bad thing for our society to value life, and value individualism; and I don't think that utilitarianism contradicts these values. But in a movie where the hero gives up the nuke codes because some people he's never met might die (and only like 20 of them) make me so fucking ANGRY! Another situation is where someone is under pressure of pain or death to give up info or perform a task which will result in many many deaths. Of course they give it up, and I suspect most of us would to avoid pain, but with a gun to your head it'd be quite easy to resist. Of course you should die to protect the lives of millions, hold out as long as you friggin can. Of course it's not as good a story if the "right" thing happens, if the terrorists can't get the codes the movie ends pretty damn quick. And in most dramas the hero saves the day in the end so it's all super okey-dokey ^_^. To quote Die Hard: "This time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly." ("That was Gary Cooper, asshole"). Basically the ending isn't always a happy one and you should be a little more miserly with those launch codes. Just remembered another reason Die Hard is so awesome, he doesn't save Ellis. The Lieutenant gets pissed but Powell points out that they'd both be dead; and of course all the hostages would have died all according to keikaku* (TL note: keikaku means "plan").
|Would you want to save this prick?|
|Killing Nick Cage to bring back your honey is also kind of lame, but it's hella funny.|
So, yeah, it always pisses me off in an argument where people try to make me look like a hypocrite, and as if that hypocrisy erodes my entire argument wholesale. I don't make any claims that I'm a Terminator cyborg or something with no feelings who would throw babies into a volcano for curing someone's arthritis. That's just fucking stupid. Who would make that argument? I bet you would...you...you disgust me... Just because I would oppose the use of myself or loved ones in any kind of pain or life sacrifice for the greater good doesn't mean I don't actually believe in my ethics. It means I'm a human being and I can't help being one. It also means you should disregard my complaints and do what's right even if it's hard to swallow.