The Ethics of Emergencies, Gotham Style

 Posted by on 25 August 2008 at 11:45 pm  Ethics, Film
Aug 252008


In the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, there is a climactic scene, as follows. Gotham must be evacuated, and part of the evacuation is effected by putting 500 people on each of two ferries. One ferry is filled with civilians, and the other, with convicted felons and their guards. The Joker supplies a dilemma: he has provided each boat with a detonator, and unless one ferry uses its detonator to blow up the other before his deadline, the Joker will blow both ferries up. Hashing out what one would do in that situation became the focus of discussion on at least one blog, which managed to capture the attention of a blog published at the New York Times, “Freakonomics.”

I enjoyed The Dark Knight as a well-made movie with some terrific performances (your mileage may vary). But the ferry dilemma didn’t occupy any mental real estate in my brain once the movie was over, in terms of caring to figure out what I would do. So my reaction upon discovering the fuss about this scene in the movie was first amusement and then bemusement–why did some people still find it such a hot topic for discussion? Then I remembered what Ayn Rand wrote in one of her most famous articles, “The Ethics of Emergencies” (published in her anthology The Virtue of Selfishness).

The psychological results of altruism may be observed in the fact that a great many people approach the subject of ethics by asking such questions as: “Should one risk one’s life to help a man who is: a) drowning, b) trapped in a fire, c) stepping in front of a speeding truck, d) hanging by his fingernails over an abyss?”

Her point was that altruism doesn’t tell you how to live, but only under what conditions you’re supposed to sacrifice your life. Rand explained this approach to ethics as follows:

If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance): …

[A] lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality–since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.

Altruism is the dominant morality in our culture, meaning there are a lot of people for whom morality is irrelevant, most of the time. Yet no-one wants to think of himself as amoral. So when can an altruist take morality seriously? In a hypothetical life-or-death situation. The ferry dilemma in The Dark Knight provides a perfect outlet for seeming to take seriously the morality of altruism–in a fantasy world where it doesn’t matter if you practice what you preach.

For what it’s worth, here’s my take on the ferry dilemma–in 20/20 hindsight. When one is forced to make a decision under threat of violence, all bets are off. The world becomes a topsy-turvy, down-is-up, Alice-in-Wonderland kind of place, where it’s impossible to know what actions would be in one’s own best interest. Nothing the Joker said could be a guide to action; he might just as well have kept his mouth shut, for all the content to be found in the ravings of an irrational psychopath. Therefore, I think the movie sensibly resolved the dilemma: throw the detonator overboard. There was no way to make any rational decision about what to do with it; it was just as relevant to the situation as a rubber ducky. Strictly speaking, the scene didn’t depict a moral dilemma at all. Where rationality is impossible, morality is impossible, too.

(An aside: just what does it say about the screenwriters that it was a criminal who made the correct choice? Inquiring minds want to know …)

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