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Pondering moral dilemmas the sci-fi way

Watching the re-make of Battlestar Galactica I came across a thought-experiment in practical ethics that seems to me far more interesting than the rather trite runaway-train examples I knew from university ethics classes.

The situation for the thought-experiment is this:

The last remnants of the human race are fleeing their robotic exterminators. Owing to what the (human) military commander perceives as a poor tactical decision, the lawfully-elected civilian President has been incarcerated and martial law has been declared. With the support of civilian and enlisted sympathisers, the President has escaped immediate custody and is on the point of disappearing into hiding amongst the populace, supposedly accompanied by her immediate staff and a few abettors amongst the military.

Up until this point, by the nature of television drama, the focus has been on the President herself and senior military officers, both sympathetic and antagonistic. At the last moment, however, it is made clear that even flunkies and acting extras have an independent moral choice, when the President’s principal aide unexpectedly reveals his personal moral dilemma.

“Madam President. I understand what you’re trying to do…but, it’s going to divide the fleet. At the very best it’s going to create an insurgency against [the military commander]; at the worst, civil war. Taking part in that is a line that I will not cross.”

This strikes me as troubling, but far from unrealistic. I am genuinely unsure what is the morally correct action here.

For the sake of this thought experiment, let us accept without question the idea that our protagonist fully believes the President is the rightful and best leader for the human race. Let us assume he is convinced that the best outcome, both morally and practically, would be for the military dictator to quietly step aside and reinstate the President. Let us also assume he genuinely believes that that will not happen, and that internal opposition will materially reduce the prospects of survival for the remainder of the human race.

If we left it at that, most people would agree that he had no choice but to submit to the military in the interests of the survival of our species.

However, this character is clearly thoughtful and reasonable, so let us add in another opportunity for dilemma. Let us suppose, as is strongly hinted at, albeit not explicitly stated in this drama, that although he genuinely believes all the above, he recognises the possibility that he might be wrong.

This creates a genuinely realistic and sophisticated moral dilemma. His best outcome would be for the President’s insurrection to be swiftly and painlessly successful. The worst outcome would be a protracted civil war.

Should he give precedence to his admittedly fallible assessment of the President’s chances, betray her, side with the military dictator he considers illegitimate, in order to swiftly put down the President’s opposition, in the hope of avoiding the total destruction of humanity at the cost of casting humanity into autarky for the foreseeable future?

Or in the alternative, would it be better to be true to his convictions and back the President, in the hope of preserving a free society, even though he believed that in doing so he was placing the survival of our species at greater risk, but recognised that he might be in error in this assessment? In short, the question is not the commonly poses but simplistic one of “should the moral or the pragmatic choice prevail?” but its more sophisticated child: “Given uncertainty about the future, should we cleave to moral certainty despite grave fears of the likely outcome, or betray our preferences for fear of utter calamity?”

To me, these ten seconds in Battlestar Galactica seem far more interesting than almost anything in my undergraduate ethics course. But if this seems too obscure, or too adolescent, treat this posting instead simply as a comment that there is more serious ethical debate in ten seconds of a popular commercial sci-fi drama than in a month of ‘Newsnight’ interviews.

31 comments to Pondering moral dilemmas the sci-fi way

  • Alsadius

    It seems neither too obscure not too adolescent. I agree, that’s quite interesting. I haven’t gotten to that point in the series yet, so I can’t comment on the specifics, but I will say that it’s one where I can’t really fault anyone for falling on either side of things.

  • Richard Thomas

    Hah, I know this one.

    You reverse the phase polarity on the omicron stream, right?

  • Westerlyman

    It seems to me that the correct choice is loyalty to his boss the rightful president. In a real situation he could not possibly anticipate all the variables and know what other players might be doing independently. He should remove at least one variable from his boss’s calculations; that is, his own unreliability.

  • Nuke Gray

    Yes, the excuse, “I was just following orders!” is the perfect solvent, dissolving guilty complexes into government-issued consciences! You should always mindlessly obey whatever orders you are given, if the person has been elected to give them! None of this individualism, or consciencious objection!
    In a well-run libertarian society, every person could have weapons, so this military take-over would be impossible. Q.E.D., what?

  • Ted

    The advantage of runaway train-type examples are that they are quick, simple, easy-to-follow, and cut to the core of a problem without lots of extraneous and potentially misleading guff.

    Whereas in your tale, I got so bored after only two paragraphs that I could take no more and gave up reading.

  • John B

    Franco enabled the longest period of peace and truly sustained development for the people of Spain in recent history.

  • Alsadius

    @Nuke Grey:

    I genuinely don’t know if that’s an attack, a parody, a parody of an attack, a simple result of not reading more than every fifth word, or a failure of medication. But either way, I’m very confused.

    @ John:

    I don’t think anyone was saying that a military takeover is, every single time, a bad thing. But surely you will agree that it is at least possible for it to be bad.

  • Janine McA

    Your comment had the same effect on me Ted

  • Rob

    While there is a chance that the military man had the right approach to defeating the robots the probability of finding the solution would be greater if two factions were to have differing strategies.

    In much the same way that Europe is weaker under central control than it was when split up into individual states, competition in ideas is never a bad thing.

    Also spreading your risk in a more diverse portfolio of locations and strategies might not be a bad idea when considering survival.

    I would go with the President.

  • Rob

    I would add that it seems inconcievable that a human army could out organise a robot/machine one.

    So a freedom fighter/terrorist approach might actually work best, again favouring a split cell attack.

    If they captured the military man he would not know the plans of the other faction and so could not be pumped for info. Much like the Taleban approach, which is working well against a powerful and organised enemy.

  • fake

    It’s a while since i watched it.

    Is it Lee adama who says that (the militiary dictator being his dad to those who havent watched it).

  • In a well-run libertarian society, every person could have weapons, so this military take-over would be impossible.

    But that is not the case, Nuke – never is. What Westerlyman, not because she’s his boss, but because (I presume) she’s his friend and trusts him.

  • ‘What Westerlyman said‘…

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Risk the civil war. You either win, or you surrender if it looks like you’re doing more harm than good. The mere possibility of bad consequences isn’t enough to justify forestalling action.

  • John B

    Yes indeed. The chances are that it (military takeover) would be bad, but not every time.
    Every situation needs to be judged on its own merits. Very difficult when one has been substantially brainwashed to see things a certain way.
    So, I guess, the human condition does need some kind of absolute into which to drop its anchor that is external to the human condition and is based on the truth.

  • Ted

    Janine gave up reading what I wrote after two paragraphs. But I only wrote two paragraphs. I hope these remarkable talents of hers are being put to good use.

  • Janine gave up reading what I wrote after two paragraphs. But I only wrote two paragraphs.

    I would take that as a damning indictment of your two paragraphs 😉

  • Ted

    Yes, clearly the remaining zero paragraphs weren’t worth the effort. Down with boring non-existent paragraphs!

  • Wait, she was actually elected now? It’s been quite some time since I’ve watched the show, but last I knew, she was just the Secretary/Minister of Education who got promoted because everybody above her was killed in the initial robot atack.

    Though now that I think of it, I do remember some sort of campaigning or something, for some reason.

    Not knowing the specifics, I would naturally go with the civilian government on principle. But then again, it is the survival, not of a government, or of a nation, but of HUMANITY. Of course you throw out the precautionary principle, but it isn’t bad to weigh costs and benefits, when the stakes are quite literally about as high as they can get. Liberty doesn’t do you a whole lot of good when you’re dead, not from a jackbooted thug, but from a robot that doesn’t care one way or the other – and so is everybody else.

    But like I said, I don’t know the specifics, so I just say he should do what he feels is right. (How’s that for a cop-out answer?)

  • Mike Lorrey

    Benevolent despots always give the best governance, primarily because they flummox the ambitions of so many malignant or malicious would-be petty despots who aspire to leadership gained by democratic means. Good leadership so often is primarily a game of whack-a-mole.

    Democracy is only stable and gives good governance when there is no imminent existential threat and the entire body politic is educated in the ways of honor, chivalry, good sportsmanship, ethics, civic duty, and parliamentary procedure and the typical political unit is small enough in size that all the voters know each other well enough to judge their true character accurately. When a democracy stops functioning thusly, it is death by a thousand papercuts.

  • Richard Thomas

    Sorry, I had trouble taking the proposition seriously because, honestly, the whole of the politics in the show was something I deliberately had to not think about to allow enjoyment.

    In the first place, there is no way, in that situation, that any commander with a teaspoon full of brains is going to allow any kind of civilian government to exist. He would immediately declare the government null or suspended and any agitators would be summarily executed. A military junta would be put in place and any kind of civilian representative would be kept very strictly in line.

    Put simply, in a fleet of a few thousand survivors in a tiny fleet, there’s no room for dissent. One leader over all. “Lifeboat rules” as Heinlein sometimes called them.

    Of course, I understand that the show allowed things to progress as they did for dramatic reasons and to provide an allegory to current events. Unfortunately, while the writer seemed quite adept at putting in the right-looking things for a gritty sci-fi show, he couldn’t plot worth a damn. Never even mind the Espenson dreck

  • On the less-than-serious side: humanity as a whole has lived in autarky since time immemorial, so I am not that scared of the prospect. Autocracy would worry me more.

    On the serious side: I have not watched the show, Samizdata Illuminatus does not give me enough information to judge intelligently, but here are some of the questions I have (with my opinion):

    1) After the President screwed up tactically, what was her response? Did she (or would she) acknowledge that she is not a capable military commander, and delegate (perhaps temporarily) the conduct of military operations to the professionals? Or did she dig in, and double down on a bad bet? I realize, of course, that control over military operations in this case probably is de facto control over virtually any aspect of life, but that’s the essence of a crisis. I sense some despotic traits in the President…

    2) Is the military commander the best man to lead a military effort, and if so, is he really also pathologically despotic? History seems to suggest that cruel, brutal tyrants were not generally good military leaders themselves. Hitler clearly was not; Stalin definitely was not; Mao was not; Lil Kim I in North Korea is not. One could maybe find examples from the not-so-recent past, but then warfare was quite a different animal. Also, modern military leaders who did take over as dictators – Franco, Batista, Somosa, Pinochet, etc. – while not always savory, committed most of their brutalities against no less unpleasant ultra-lefts, and quite a few of them were also (re)elected at some point. Yes, there are the likes of Pol Pot – but he was not military. Thus, I question – not deny – the “autarky (sic) for foreseeable future” premise. I know for a fact quite a few folks in Eastern Europe in the mid-40’s would have preferred a military junta to the communists.

    3) What are the probabilities of the overall scenarios? This can make a huge difference. If supporting the President cuts the chances of survival of humanity by two-thirds, that sounds pretty bad. If those chances were already only 1%, however, then going from 1% to 0.33%, is a small price to pay for potential liberty in the unlikely case your side wins. In a game of Russian roulette, with some rounding, that’s like having to take six extra shots, but after surviving the first 25(!). Going from 50% to 16.6%, on the other hand… well, that’s like taking six extra shots after you survived the first four. Some food for thought for Bayesians 🙂

  • Mike Lorrey

    I’m with Richard. The BSG writers have continued this democracy obsession nonsense now that they are producing Stargate Universe, with the civillian contractors who WORKED FOR the military Stargate Command and got stuck on Destiny start trying to wag the dog with claims that they should be the civillians in control of the military, that this is “natural” for human culture. I know Mr. Mallozzi and have repeatedly called his bullshit on this, that the proper civillian authority over the Captain is the IOC and US Government which control Stargate Command, that civilian contractors are bloody employees of the defense department who in any military installation know their place is that of glorified technical gofers that get paid a lot more than the enlisted and commissioned rank and file but who are servants of the military, not its masters.

    Mallozzi refuses to get this, and beyond merely needing a source of infantile schoolchild-level drama to attract non-SF-nerds to the show, he suffers from the same liberal idiot ignorance that pervades so much of Hollywood.

  • Paul Marks

    Avoid the last episode of this show – just do avoid it.

    If you think you can not watch the series without watching the last episode – then do not watch the last episode.

    Remember this is an NBC series – no matter how much serious thought is allowed at various points of the series, leftist politics must always win out in the end (that is the way of NBC – even more than with CBS or ABC).

    It really is as brutal as that.

    As for the situation.

    If the elected President needs removing this case should be made to the Council (or the Congress – or whoever has the formal right to do so) perhaps by direct vote of the people.

    A military commander should not remove the President – for then (as so often with the Romans and so many others) another military commander will try and remove him (convincing themselves that they will make better command judgements – and another commander will think…..).

    That is the true path to civil war. Military commanders making themselves rulers.

    It does not work – because they have no LEGITIMACY.

  • Paul Marks

    The above should read – if you think you can not watch the series without watching the last episode then DO NOT WATCH THE SERIES.

  • Laird

    I didn’t watch it, for essentially the reasons Mike Lorrey stated. (Although I hadn’t realized that it was the same producers at SGU, which explains a lot; thanks for the info.) Typical leftist pap masquerading as science fiction. I tried BSG for a few episodes in the first season and then gave up on it. I haven’t figured out why it was so popular with SF fans, who generally have a more libertarian outlook that the general public. (I never much liked the original BSG, either, but either it was marginally better or I was a whole lot less cynical in my youth. Probably both.)

  • Nuke Gray

    The libertarian response should never be- just follow orders! You should always be prepared to question every order, surely?

  • Indeed Nuke – that’s why I said that her being the boss is irrelevant. Otherwise, I really wish I could put it as well as Westerly did.

  • mdc

    As a libertarian, elections don’t carry any greater moral weight than military force (ie. none), surely?

  • No, unless you agreed ahead of time to abide by their results.

  • Paul Marks

    Actually I rather liked a lot of the Battlestar series (the remake).

    That is why the way the whole thing ended was so irrtating.

    It is like someone making you a cake – and you are eating it and thinking some aspects of what they have created are quite good, and then you find at the centre of the cake, a piece of shit.

    It rather ruins the whole thing.