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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Dead Zone



This week's DVD rental ... The Dead Zone. Made in 1983, starring Christopher Walken and directed by David Cronenberg, it is not to be confused with the USA network's TV series. The movie was made from a book of the same name by Stephen King ... of all his stories I've read, I found this one to be both the best and the saddest. It deals with pathos, but also some important philosophical questions, one of which is, would it be ethical to murder one man, if by doing so, you could save the lives of millions?

Roger Ebert writes in his review ...

"The Dead Zone" does what only a good supernatural thriller can do: It makes us forget it is supernatural. Like "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist," it tells its story so strongly through the lives of sympathetic, believable people that we not only forgive the gimmicks, we accept them. There is pathos in what happens to the Christopher Walken character in this movie and that pathos would never be felt if we didn't buy the movie's premise .... Walken does such a good job of portraying Johnny Smith, the man with the strange gift, that we forget this is science fiction or fantasy or whatever and just accept it as this guy's story.

Wikipedia sets up the plot ...

Johnny Smith (Walken) is a young New England schoolteacher in love with his colleague Sarah (Adams) when he is involved in a serious car accident that sends him into a coma. He awakens under the care of neurologist Dr. Weizak (Lom) and counts himself fortunate when he notes no casts, bandages or visible signs of injuries on his body. However, the awakening turns rude when he is told that five years have passed since he last knew consciousness: his girlfriend has long since married and had a child.



Not only has Johnny lost his job, his girl and his physical health (he needs crutches and later a cane), he has also been "gifted" with an ability to forsee the futures of those he touches. Soon he also learns that he can change that future that he's seen. When Johnny shakes the hand of political candidate Greg Stillson (played by Martin Sheen), he realizes that Stillson will, as president of the US, instigate a world-wide thermal nuclear holocaust, and then Johnny must decide if he should do something to change that horrifying future scenario. He asks his one friend, his doctor, a hypothetical wuestion ...

Johnny - If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?
(snip)
Doctor - I'm a man of medicine. I'm expected to save lives and ease suffering. I love people. Therefore, I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch.
Johnny - You'd never get away alive.
Doctor - It doesn't matter. I would kill him.

As Johnny prepares to do what he's decided must be done, knowing he'll not survive it, the film has a voice-over of a letter he'd written to his former girlfriend ...

Dear Sarah,
lt is a hard letter to write, so I'll make it short. I can't go on hiding anymore. That's what l've been doing-- running and hiding. I had this figured out all wrong. I always thought my power was a curse, but now I can see it 's a gift. By the time you get this letter, it'll be all over. You never will understand why. Nobody ever will, but I know what I'm doing. And I know I'm right. Just remember there's never been anyone for me except you. Just wasn't in the cards for us, I guess. I'll always love you, Sarah.
- Johnny.

****

Though I liked the movie very much, I'm not sure I subscribe to this idea that to kill one very bad person in order to save the lives of many others is ethical ... it's a kind of "ends justifying the means" philosophy. This is, however, the choice the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer made.


17 Comments:

Blogger Matthew said...

crystal said...
Though I liked the movie very much, I'm not sure I subscribe to this idea that to kill one very bad person in order to save the lives of many others is ethical

I skipped the plot summary because I want to watch the movie and I hate knowing the plot beforehand. However, I thought I'd mention the ethics mantra that one of my philosophy profs always used to repeat: "true ethical dilemmas are inherently tragic".

In other words, it's possible that there is no ethical course: it's unethical to kill the one bad person, and it's also unethical NOT to.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Homo Escapeons said...

I luv Chris Walken, he eats up the scenery in every film. I remember this movie (Martin Sheen is always President?)and it is a million times better than Cronenberg's Crash.
I believe that psychopathic egomaniacal forces of nature like Hitler and Stalin should be eliminated with extreme prejudice.
However if we did interfere with the space/time continuum all sorts of bizarre repercussions would knock the whole thing out of whack.

The secret is to knock off these mass murderers before they really get going. There are government sanctioned operatives who once knew how to do this sort of stuff without getting on the front pages. Make it happen quietly, the death of a Uber-Bully should look natural or accidental.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Mark Mossa, SJ said...

Great movie, right to point out "not to be confused with the series (which currently seems headed in the direction of the movie plot). Also, you should point out that Cronenberg's "Crash" is not the most recent "Crash," last year's Oscar winner.

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Mike L said...

I haven't seen the movie, but the book was great. I wonder if the solution could be considered as self defense? I am not much for premptive attacks, but in this case it seems much more justified than our current case. And in truth, the hero killed no one.

I like Matthews "true ethical dilemmas are inherently tragic."

But at the same time, an old friend used to say, "we pretty much get the government that we deserve." This also has the ring of truth to me. Perhaps the German people do have to bear some responsibility for Hitler, and the Russians for Stalin, and we for our own government. Much easier, and much less fruitful to say it was the fault of ...

Mike L

10:31 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Matthew. That's an interesting thought. It seems to me that doing a bad thing to get a good result is wrong ... that the journey and the destination should not be so disparate, but of course we make these kinds of choices on a small scale all the time and feel good about them .

11:44 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi homo escapeons. I'd have to say that an answer to bad acts that is in itself a bad act would be ... ahem ... bad :-)

11:49 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mark. Oh, thanks for pointing that out about Crash ... I hadn't realized it wasn't the newest one ... erk! delete, delete, delete :-)

I like the tv series - it's pretty good.

11:51 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike. I read the book too - it was very good. I'm conflicted about the pre-emptive strike idea. On the surface, it seems effective and moral, but I have the feeling that tainted acts, for however a good purpose, lead to a bad result ultimately.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

crystal said...
It seems to me that doing a bad thing to get a good result is wrong ... that the journey and the destination should not be so disparate

Sorry to take so long to come back to this discussion...

I think you're saying that it would be nice if good actions always produced good results, and vice versa. But I think experience shows us that this isn't the case. So what do we do if our options are all bad?

Perhaps you let the many others die when you could have saved them ... then you're guilty. Perhaps you kill the one to save the others ... then you're still guilty. Some ethical philosopher (I wish I could remember who) said that the only thing to do is to make a choice and fully accept the guilt of that choice ... to "wear the guilt like a garment", or something like that.

This question has huge implications for my understanding of God, so I have a hard time escaping it. Any insights would be welcome. =)

1:14 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Matthew ... ha! I wish I had some insights to give :-)

Suppose the US government wants intelligence about terrorists and to get that info, they torture suspects. Can any amount of reliable intelligence justify torture?

To say that one is heroically willing to accept the guilt of doing the bad thing for the good result is being disingenuous, I think. I think what that person is really saying is that they do in fact believe that the end justifies the means and that that's ok (there's no true guilt accepted).

If you're thinking religiously, try to imagine Jesus murdering someone to save others. Imagine God signing off on the Crusades or on the Inquisition, for the good end of "saving souls". I can't.

Maybe doing the right thing doesn't mean things always turn out for the "best". Maybe being good means sometimes you let things go to hell?

But having said that, if I was in the situation of having to do something bad to get something I thought was important and good, I probably would do it, though I'd feel wrong.

2:34 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

crystal said...
To say that one is heroically willing to accept the guilt of doing the bad thing for the good result is being disingenuous, I think.

I don't think this is what I'm talking about. There is little heroism in the dilemma scenarios, and there is no single "bad thing". All choices are bad, so all there is to do is to choose the one that you think is the least bad.

Think of the German who's hiding Jews, and has to lie to the SS officer at his door. Think Bonhoeffer.

8:35 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

The lesser of two weevils :-)

I wish I was smart enough to understand what you mean and to explain clearly what I mean. There's an article I found on the web - Six Steps for Remedying Contemporary Ethical Problems © Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., President, Gonzaga University

It divides up decision making into two camps - utilitatian and principle-based. I thinkI'm coming at this from the principle-based side and you from the utilitarian? The twain may never meet :-)

12:02 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

crystal said...
I wish I was smart enough to understand what you mean and to explain clearly what I mean.

On my blog, I have a rule against self-deprecation. But since there seems to be no such rule here, all I can do is waggle my finger at you.

Shame, shame. Crystal is fabulously intelligent, and we all know it.

Anyhow, I'll try to be clearer, because I feel certain that I just haven't managed to communicate yet.

It divides up decision making into two camps - utilitatian and principle-based.

I'll have to take a look at the article, but that's a fairly standard way of dividing up approaches to ethics. On one hand you have deontological (duty-based or principle-based) ethics, and on the other you have utilitarian (greatest good for the greatest number) ethics.

The ethical dilemmas I mentioned expose the primary limitation of deontological ethics: principles sometimes conflict. Sometimes, there are legitimate double binds, wherein you have to choose between unethical option A (lie) and unethical option B (betray Jewish refugees to the Nazis).

Some deontological ethicists (Kant, for example) try to escape from these dilemmas by claiming that inaction is ethically neutral ... that one's ethical obligations only extend to keeping the rules, and not to predicting what the Nazis will do with the Jews after you tell them where they're hiding.

Personally, I think that's a little naive ... actually, it gives me the willies, kind of like Galahad in _The Once and Future King_.

It seems to me that if you can predict the outcome of your action or inaction with any degree of accuracy, you are obligated to make ethical decisions based on this information. In other words, you can't keep your cloak clean by not lying ... telling the Nazi where the Jews are hiding is tantamount to killing them yourself.

I guess that means I think that deontological ethics are fine until you get into a dilemma, and then you have to fall back on utilitarianism.

1:21 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Matthew,

Now you're dragging Kant in - I thought I had trouble understanding before :-). I don't think inaction is ethically nuetral ... you know, that "sin of ommission" thing. And yes, to just follow the rules and pretned the consequences aren't your problem gives me the creeps too.

I think lying to the Nazis would be a good thing in the circumstance you mention ... lying hurts no one and helps the hidden Jews.

But in the other scenario - killing one person to save others - you do have to hurt someone. Would you still do this? Are people widgets with a price tag .... more people are worth more?

The ethical stance that there are intrinsic values that don't change with time, place, culture or circumstance is not exactly the same as following the rules, no matter how dopey they are :-) A quote from that article ...

principle-based ethics holds that “the end does not justify the means,” that is, that one cannot use an evil means to achieve a good or beneficial end. Though principle-based ethics allows one to use an evil means to avoid an even greater evil end (e.g., self-defense), it does not permit the use of an evil means to achieve a beneficial end. Therefore, even if an action should produce a benefit for one hundred people, it cannot justify doing an unnecessary or unfair harm to a single person in order to achieve it.

Maybe at the root of this idea is the one that there are sometimes things more important than life itself. All of us die. I'm not saying that life here doesn't matter, or that suffering here doesn't matter, or that there is some "better" place ot go afterwards that will make up for bad stuff here.

I think I'm saying that even if we can count on nothing else in life, not even that God exists, what we can count on, if we choose to, is our vision of how things should be in a perfect world. People's lives should mattrer, their pain, their hopes, what they love. The only thing that protects and promotes that valusation is one's willingness to do that which serves everyone bst - don't mean by that what keeps the most people alive. I mean that which valuse each single person, even the one person you could kill to save others. If you kill that person, even if they are a bad person, you have bnkrupteded any chance of me believing you care about me, or anyone else who might get in the way of what you want, even if what you want is "good".

See - that's what happens when I try to expalin stuff myself ... utterly incomprehensible :-)

2:40 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

crystal said...
See - that's what happens when I try to expalin stuff myself ... utterly incomprehensible :-)

Jerk. =) Your spelling stinks, but other than that you make perfect sense.

Though principle-based ethics allows one to use an evil means to avoid an even greater evil end (e.g., self-defense), it does not permit the use of an evil means to achieve a beneficial end.

Isn't that what we're talking about? using an evil means (killing one person) to avoid an even greater evil end (the violent death of many people)?

Actually, though, this description is different from others I've heard regarding principle-based ethics. I was under the impression that in principle-based ethics, there was no such thing as an "even greater" evil. There are only evils that you perpetrate, and evils that other people perpetrate, and you should always avoid doing any evil, even if there is the possibility that performing that evil act would prevent another evil from occurring.

I understand that you want to value single human lives just as much as millions of human lives (the good of the many does not outweigh the good of the one), but if you were forced to trade lives for lives, I'm not sure this is reasonable. How can you say that you are valuing the individual lives of the millions if you are willing to trade *their* lives for the life of the one?

BTW, have you read "The Once and Future King?"

8:16 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yes, I've read The Once and Future King ... I like stuff about Merlin and Arthur.

Hey, are you quoting Captain Kirk? :-)

There is the idea, in catholisim, of the lesser of two evils ... depending on one's interpretation of Thomas Aquinas, one might be right in choosing to do a less bad thing rather than a really bad thing, if there's no other choice (I think).

I don't think we'll ever come to an understanding over the scenario of killing one person to save many. Probably we are valuing life in different ways and don't accept the other's valuation. Guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

crystal said
Probably we are valuing life in different ways and don't accept the other's valuation.

Hm. I really think our positions are probably pretty similar.

I accept the value you place on the single life, I just think the rules change a bit when you're having to choose between one life and the lives of a million people, rather than between one life and some abstract "benefit" for a million people.

In other words, my philosophy is lived out exactly like yours, except in this one extreme circumstance.

Oh well.

And yes, I was quoting Captain Kirk. I hoped you would catch that. =)

2:27 PM  

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