Four years ago, NBC broadcasted their most well-thought-out and one of the most compelling TV comedies I’ve seen in the last decade; “The Good Place".
It also happens to cover a very broad philosophical ground whilst still keeping the plot moving smoothly and not making it seem too dense for a common viewer who might have no previous experiences with philosophy. The plot primarily revolves around the idea of afterlife, mortality and ethical and philosophical dilemmas. Although these subjects are incessant on their own and have been the subject of many controversies over the years, I’ll make an attempt to capture its mere essence.
In this article, I’ll tackle the most intriguing of them all in my opinion, ethics and philosophy. Let’s start with a classic ethical conundrum that captures the crux of the subject. Imagine this:
“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the sidetrack. You have two options:
- Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
- Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?”
Keep in mind this is the most basic version of this dilemma. Modern versions of this thought experiment add more complexities, to either justify a decision or make it more difficult to further understand the intricacies involved. In all cases, the primary problem arises because at the very core of it, ethics and philosophy is a man-made concept. There are no tangible or concrete laws that govern what is considered “right” and “wrong”. It would be imperative to introduce the well-known concept of “consciousness” at this point. Widely speaking, it’s almost everything you experience, Pain, love, fear, peace, etc. From the earliest days of civilization to this day, the origin and existence of these encounters, also called “qualia”, have been a mystery. Many contemporary and analytic philosophers of mind either reject the presence of qualia or claim that science can never meaningfully research them. This article would be rather short if that statement was valid. And the truth is that if I have a migraine, a sophisticated justification to convince me that my agony is delusional won't reduce one ounce of the misery. Most philosophers accept consciousness as a given and strive to understand its relation to the science-described objective universe. While delving further into this lies out of the scope of this article and the fact that I do not possess that quality of knowledge, it provides enough basis to understand why philosophy and ethics can be so challenging. To prove this point, let’s take another scenario,
“A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor. Do you support the morality of the doctor to kill that tourist and provide his healthy organs to those five dying people and save their lives?”
The implications are the same as the first dilemma, but the notion of sacrificing a stable patient will absolutely be dismissed by most individuals. Does that mean that our moral principles and intuitions are not always consistent, rational, or reliable?
Of course, the distinction made is one that lies between killing and letting die. Active actions versus a passive one.
You might think, “But why?”. These scenarios are, after all, fabricated and would very rarely be applicable in real life. Right?
Actually, it’s not as fictional as you think it is, especially in our modern-day world. For example, would you support human exploitation and environmental degradation? One’s natural response to that would be “No”. But you wouldn’t buy fruit every day if you knew it was merely a product of exploitation of farmers and environmental degradation due to the pesticides and transportation fumes. It is more or less the case in most situations. This is a modern example of the Butterfly effect (the metaphorical example of the details of a tornado the exact time of formation, the exact path is taken being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier).
And voila! Welcome to this conversation the concept of active and passive actions. It doesn't just stop there, in the future we will see the rise of Artificial Intelligence-powered, driverless cars and autonomous military weapons which will be used in situations where they have to weigh the value of “human life” and decide on actions that can be generally accepted as ethical and for the “greater good”. This concept of “the greater good” is also known as “Utilitarianism”. The underlying belief is that every action we take must “add” to the greater good of the people around us or in other words, should leave the greatest number of people happier than what they were before you made that decision. This is what guides most of our day to day activities and even our lives. But it's not quite that simple because there is always the conflict of the self, where you have to weigh others’ happiness against that of your own. What utilitarianism reveals is that the way we humans decide what is “right” and what is “wrong” depends on factors other than just the logical judgment of a given situation or its consequences, as we saw in the trolley problem and the problem involving the surgeon. This is where in our day to day lives, ethics and philosophy become more relevant and practical. “The Good Place” does a great job of portraying these scenarios, and the moral repercussions of each of our actions.
Add to this complex mix of human motives the multiple contrasting philosophical theories given by many famous philosophers and we are left with more questions than what we started with; the cure is the cause isn’t it?
For example, Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative is the principle that we all have to act in accordance with an unfaltering moral framework that has nothing to do with variables of the circumstance. Cheating, lying and other unethical actions can never be justified by Kant's reasoning, even if you lie to spare someone's emotions or steal a loaf of bread to feed a hungry child.
Versus, the doctrine of double effect, coined by Thomas Aquinas. You may behave in a manner that produces an unethical secondary effect according to the doctrine, as long as your primary intent is morally sound. So you might potentially play Robin Hood, lie to spare someone's feelings or steal a loaf of bread to save a starving child in accordance with this framework of ethics.
If I’m being honest, I understand most of us don’t care much for the consequences of our immediate actions, which is why the whole concept of ethics and morality may seem quite far fetched and unnecessary. But if you ask me, I think everyone has at least wondered once in their lifetime, “Is there any hope for me?” and in some twisted way, the idea of ethics and morality breathes life into that question. It allows hope for the less than perfect, that is, for all of us, and that fascination alone has allowed this subject to flourish and grow for centuries and it sure will continue to as long as humans exist in this universe.
And if it isn’t clear already, please watch the show “The Good Place”.
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