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.