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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Saturday, January 29, 2011

John Brown and the trolley thought experiment

This week as I've watched reruns of Stargate Atlantis and of The 4400 I've noticed a couple of ethical dilemnas cropping up in the storylines .... though the examples are different, I think they're about the same basic question - what are you willing to do, what is ethical to do, to achieve your ends?

The example in the Stargate Atlantis episode, The Game, was light-hearted. It began with the main characters, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, Doctor Rodney McKay, Teyla Emmagan and Ronon Dex, eating and talking in the mess hall. Rodney brought up what I think is British philosopher Philippa Foot's ethical thought experiment, the trolley problem .... A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch? ..... What's kind of funny about the Stargate episode is that when Rodney begins to explain the thought experiment, the others ask the unwanted questions any rational person would ask but which never come up in philosophy class, and the dilemna itself is never addressed ...


- Rodney and John

Rodney: Let me ask you a question. Say there’s a runaway train. It’s hurtling out of control towards ten people standing in the middle of the tracks. The only way to save those people is to flip a switch -- send the train down another set of tracks. The only problem is there is a baby in the middle of those tracks.
Teyla: Why would anyone leave a baby in harm’s way like that?
Rodney: I don’t know. That’s not the point. Look, it’s an ethical dilemma. Look, Katie Brown brought it up over dinner the other night. The question is: is it appropriate to divert the train and kill the one baby to save the ten people?
Ronon: Wouldn’t the people just see the train coming and move?
Rodney: No. No, they wouldn’t see it.
Ronon: Why not?
Rodney: Well ... (he sighs) ... Look, I don't know -- say they’re blind.
Teyla: All of them?
Rodney: Yes, all of them.
Ronon: Then why don’t you just call out and tell them to move out of the way?
Rodney: Well, because they can’t hear you.
John: What, they’re deaf too?
(Rodney throws him a look)
John: How fast is the train going?
Rodney: Look, the speed doesn’t matter!
John: Well, sure it does. If it’s going slow enough, you could outrun it and shove everyone to the side.
Ronon: Or better yet, go get the baby.
Rodney: For God’s sake! I was just trying to ...

:) (BTW, I have a past post on the trolley thought experiment, Philippa Foot, Thomas Aquinas, and Rick Warren - Can the ends justify the means?).

The second example is more serious. In an episode of The 4400, Terrible Swift Sword, the question of the ends justifying the means comes up and abolitionist John Brown gets mentioned ("terrible swift sword" is a phrase used in the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the melody of which was taken from the song John Brown's Body). Background ... 4400 people, disappeared over a number of years, have been brought back from where they'd been taken, the future, with unusual powers in an effort by those of the future to change their past/present (and our present/future) for the better. But the present-day government doubts the motives of these "returnees" and the government squares off against the 4400 group in what may soon become a war. Jordan Collier is the leader of the 4400 and though murdered, he 's resurrected by those in the future so he can continue to lead their cause. He courts the help of terrorists to reach his ends, which are undeniably good - stopping a future holocaust - but his friend Shawn thinks this is going to far, justifuing the means with the end .....


- Jordan and Shawn

Jordan: Shawn, I need you to believe in me.
Shawn: You know what I think, Jordan? I think that this whole messiah thing has gone to your head.
Jordan: I'm no messiah - more like John Brown.
Shawn: John Brown? Isn't he the guy who tried to free all the slaves?
Jordan: He surrounded himself with people who believed as he did, who were willing to do anything for their cause. That kind of devotion can change the world.
Shawn: They killed John Brown, Jordan.
Jordan: They killed me too.

John Brown ... was a revolutionary abolitionist from the United States, who advocated and practiced armed insurrection as a means to abolish slavery for good. He led the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856 in Bleeding Kansas and made his name in the unsuccessful raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. He was tried and executed for treason against the state of Virginia, murder, and conspiracy later that year. Brown has been called "the most controversial of all 19th-century Americans." .... and he's often mentioned by pro-life people who see their cause akin to that of his (John Brown’s body turns 150 years old, David Gibson, dotCommonweal). I may be in the minority, but I think John Brown was wrong, not in his cause, of course, but in how he went about it - murder (just as I think Bonhoeffer was wrong).

Of the two tv series episode examples above, I think the first one, that of Stargate Atlantis, is the most realistic. Ethical problems are often presented with only two polar-opposite alternatives, but maybe that's a false dichotomy? Maybe there's a way to save both the day and one's ethics too?


2 Comments:

Blogger Deacon Denny said...

I remembered that trolley post -- a lot of comments, though I didn't add one.
The comments here reminded me of an interview Joan Baez gave where the interviewer tried to pose one set of circumstances after another to discredit her pacifism. Every time, she just kept asking questions (like those in the trolly experiment), until the interviewer got exasperated and posed another scenario.
Finally she called him on what he was trying to do... which was to "prove" that "pacifism doesn't work." And then SHE shifted the subject...and pointed to the billions and billions of dollars spent every year to organize militarism, and asked pointedly if THAT really worked.
I don't know if I'm a pacifist, but I believe in the power of nonviolence over violence. But just because it might not always work or prevail in a given situation doesn't mean that violence would have been the right answer...but rather that those attempting nonviolence weren't strong enough, or wise enough.

In your examples... I think we should try to do the best we can -- humbly. And we should genuinely grieve for our failures, for the sins and losses along the way. There's not one of us that doesn't need God's mercy.

10:09 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

I am a pacifist, pretty much. There are examples where it seems like it wouldn't work - like in WWII and the Holocaust - I guess it's one thing to make the decision not to defend oneself, but harder to decide you won't defend others who need your help. So I'm conflicted. I'm not ready to give up on pacifism, though.

Joan Baez :)

10:33 PM  

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