Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Thought experiments in ethics

by Rob - March 28th, 2008.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

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

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