Friday, March 28, 2008

Thought experiments in ethics

In the last week, I received two seemingly unrelated emails. One was from a person whose book club is doing my Rollback, and wanted to locate the reference in the novel to the "Trolley Problem," a standard poser in philosophy and ethics classes that Sarah Halifax mentions in the book.

The other, from an academic, wanted to know my opinion of Tom Godwin's classic SF short story "The Cold Equations," which I, in fact, introduced for CBC Radio's Sunday Showcase when it was adapted for radio, with a script by Joe Mahoney (who, in turn, has a cameo in Rollback), back in 2002.

But, actually, the questions are related, because both Rollback and "The Cold Equations" deal with thought experiments about morality. Godwin's title suggests that we don't actually have any volition in these matters (it's out of our hands; the cold equations of physics or celestial mechanics dictate what we must do); I think there's a lot more latitude (but am standing on his shoulders, and have the benefit of an awful lot of research/noodling about morality that emerged in the Post-World-War-II period (such as, to give just one example, the famous Milgram experiment, not to mention the Trolley Problem itself).

Anyway, the Trolley Problem is discussed in Chapter 19 of Rollback, and you can read more about it in Wikipedia.

And here's what I had to say in response to the academic:

I have a sympathetic weariness for "The Cold Equations."

Why? Because the damn thing is being analyzed with a 21st century microscope, even though it's now 54 years old. Yes, people were sexist, then; yes, we all know now that there'd be so much security no one could sneak aboard a spaceship; yes, it's contrived; yes, there were dozens of other ways to solve the problem besides ejecting the girl. The story is of its time and should be left there, or should be forgiven its trespasses of modern sensibility because of its vintage (just as we forgive H.G. Wells his racism today).

But if you strip the story to its bare essentials, and cast it as a philosophy-class thought experiment, it has some merit:

A child, not knowing that by stowing away aboard a spaceship, he/she will doom a rescue mission to save three stranded astronauts because of his or her extra weight. Because of the way the spaceship works, and the laws of physics, you have only two possible solutions: abort the mission (meaning those who are to be rescued will die), or jettison the child (killing him/her) and continue with the mission. What do you do? And, even if you decide on the latter, could you actually, personally, go from being what you set out to do (a rescuer) to something you never intended to be (a murderer)?

Is it any less murder if you talk the child, below the age of majority, and incapable of sophisticated reasoning, into jettisoning himself/herself, rather than you shoving him/her out the airlock?

Now, consider these variations on the scenario:

1) There's only one stranded astronaut, instead of three. Do you actively kill one person to save another?

2) Same as #1, but the child has no criminal record, and the person you have been sent to rescue is, in fact, a known criminal. Who do you choose to save?

3) Same as #1, but the child is your own child.

4) The child is the child of the person you are to save, and the person you have been ordered to save has told you explicitly he/she would rather die than have his/her child sacrificed in an attempt at rescue.

5) Same as #4, but the person you are to save is your own space colony's sole doctor -- who in turn will be able to save others, whereas the uneducated child is actually of no asset to your colony.

6) Same as #5, but you yourself require treatment by the doctor or you will die

7) Same as #6, but the reason you require treatment is your own damn fault, because you've brought on lung cancer, or some futuristic equivalent, through smoking, or some futuristic equivalent, which you knew from the outset was a likely outcome of your own fully volitional behavior.

8) The person you are to rescue in fact became stranded because of his/her own stupidity/recklessness.

Etc. Etc.

So, yeah, I'm weary because this one story has been so talked about, but I'm mostly weary because the analysis in SF circles tends to the picayune (quibbling over the details of the scenario, rather than grappling with the underlying ethics), and most often amounts to the sort of trickery James T. Kirk evinced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when he explained how he beat the Kobayashi Maru "no-win" scenario as a cadet:
McCOY: Lieutenant, you are looking at the only Starfleet cadet who ever beat the no-win scenario.


KIRK: I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship.


DAVID MARCUS: He cheated!

KIRK: I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. (pause) I don't like to lose.

When the analysis amounts to that -- avoiding the tough moral issue by tweaking the scenario so that it doesn't have to be faced -- I get tired of the discourse around "The Cold Equations." But I've often said that SF is a laboratory for thought experiments about the human condition, and as such, Godwin's half-century-old story still bears consideration.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At March 28, 2008 12:22 PM , Anonymous Jamie Todd Rubin said...

I think you're right that "The Cold Equations" is really more of a thought experiment. Unlike the trolley problem, however, the story tried to demonstrate that the universe is blind to morality. Sure, a poor little girl's life is at risk, for purely innocent reasons, but the laws of physics cannot be changed just because she's a cute little girl who made a mistake, no matter how much anyone would wish it so.

While both the story and the trolley problem center around "acts versus omissions", I don't think the point of the latter was do demonstrate a cold lack of concern for human morality on the part of the universe, but rather to create a set of circumstances where a person has to make a decision (pull a lever) that places a higher moral value on one life versus another. Certainly this is an important them in Godwin's story, but when I first read it, I was much more impressed by the illustration the universe's blindness to morality than I was by the contrived situation it set up.

(Incidentally, Many stories have been written in reaction to "The Cold Equations". The one that leaps immediately to mind is Michael Burstein's "The Cold Calculations".

At March 28, 2008 12:43 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Another response to "The Cold Equations" is James Patrick Kelly's "Think Like a Dinosaur."

At April 06, 2008 8:27 PM , Anonymous Brian L. Raney said...

Love James Patrick Kelly's Hugo award wining story "Think Like a Dinosaur". But I always thought that it borrowed the same moral dilemma found in the National Film Board of Canada’s cartoon short “To Be”, which was about the ethics of using matter transporters. It had a catch tune at the end, too.

See it on YouTube here:

At April 06, 2008 9:27 PM , Blogger David Moisan said...

"The Cold Solution". Don't remember the author but it was in Analog

At April 15, 2008 11:45 PM , Blogger Ahmed A. Khan said...

You have posed some very interesting questions, Rob. I think it would be an interesting - even educational - if we were to record our responses to the 8 "cold equation" scenarios you have worked out.

Personally, I would go for saving the child in every single one of those scenarios.


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