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Would You Kill Millions to Save Billions?

October 5th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Last night I saw the film Watchmen, which if you haven’t seen I would highly recommend for the ethical questions it raises. The most profound question (which the film brilliantly left open to the audience to consider) came at the end, and it goes right to the heart of what Revolution Earth is all about.

The film is set in an alternate 1985 in which Nixon is still president and the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation. A group of super-heroes charged with protecting America throughout the century are trying to prevent the catastrophe. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that one of the heroes comes up with a plan to bring the world’s super-powers together against a common enemy and thus avoid a worldwide nuclear holocaust, but this involves destroying New York City and killing millions of innocent people. By the climax of the film, it’s clear that these are the only two options—deliberately killing millions of people to save the human race, or letting it destroy itself.

This is the same question that constitutes the strongest objection (in my opinion) to the ethical theory known as utilitarianism: the right action in any situation is that which will maximize happiness and minimize suffering. By this calculation, killing one innocent person to save many more would be the morally correct thing to do. But how many of us, with a gun pointed at a child’s head, would actually be able to pull the trigger even if we knew that more children would die if we didn’t?

If you were given the responsibility the heroes had at the end of Watchmen, what would you do? Would you kill millions of people in order to save billions?

What makes this a brilliant film in my opinion is that this is not just a mental exercise. It may be a hypothetical question when sensationalized in a film or graphic novel, but humanity might very well have to face this kind of dilemma at some not-too-distant moment in the future. There is little doubt that industrial civilization as it currently exists is choking the planet to death, and there is no doubt that a great many people are so dependent on this system that they would give their lives to defend it. There may come a time when some kind of radical action must be taken in order to save humanity, but those unwilling to take it will force us to either kill them and take matters into our own hands, or let fate take us where it may even if it means total annihilation.

Hopefully we’re a long way off from being confronted with such a decision, but it never hurts to start thinking of the possibility now. So I’m putting the question to all of you: your finger is on the button that will destroy New York City but save the human race. Do you press it?

[Hopefully this topic will generate some interesting discussion at Revolution Earth.  If you haven’t already done so, join now to participate.]

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