The rantings of a beautiful mind

On life, society, and computer technology.

My Photo
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in the Fortress of Solitude. I drive the Silver Beast. My obsession is justice. I used to be a Windows software developer. I retired in 2000 when my stock options helped me achieve financial security.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Do We Deserve to Survive?

On this week’s Battlestar Galactica, a question was raised that I had never really given much thought to. The President of the Colonies told Commander Adama that he must have Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) killed in order to preserve the future of the Colonies. President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) had no doubt that Cain would try to kill Adama. And indeed this was true – unbeknownst to Adama, Cain had a plan in place to eliminate him.

Adama (Edward James Olmos) made a difficult choice: he arranged to have Admiral Cain assassinated. But at the last moment, a talk with a Cylon spy convinced him to “do the right thing.” The spy told him that, prior to the Cylon attack on the Colonies, she heard Adama give a speech at the decommissioning of the Galactica. Adama said that while mankind had struggled mightily to survive, not once did they ever ask themselves whether they deserved to survive. He finally decided that violating all ethical principles in order to continue was wrong.

The same question had been raised in my mind years earlier in an episode of Star Trek called “Mirror, Mirror.” But at the time I was not mature enough to fully comprehend the issue. In that show, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura were accidentally transported to a parallel universe where Earth was imperialistic. The Empire was trying to force the Halkans to give up their dilithium crystals. Kirk was under orders to destroy the Halkans if they did not comply.

The Halkans decided that they would rather perish than violate their ethical principles. At the time I found this attitude rather strange but then, I was rather ignorant and unsophisticated and lacking in wisdom.

The question that both of these examples really asked was, How far must we go in order to survive? Must we sacrifice all ethical and moral values? And if we do so, have we earned the right to survive?

Survival at all costs is a principle that many people adhere to. This is the position of the animal kingdom, where no distinction is ever made on the basis of right and wrong. Survival is the biological and genetic imperative – it is the only thing that counts. Matters of the spirit are purely secondary, if they count at all.

(We won’t get into the discussion about right and wrong being based on logic and practicality. This is another story altogether and one that is distinctly non-humanistic.)

The survival-at-all-costs principle is predicated on the notion that if you don’t survive, how can you ever uphold your ethical principles. This question is actually ass-backwards... The real question should be: If you only uphold your ethical principles whenever you can afford to, then how are they “principles?” Man will always be able to come up with practical excuses for violating his ethics – it is simply the nature of the universe we live in. When survival is the only name of the game, ethical behaviour can never evolve and man can never rise above his animal relatives.

This, I think, is what the church has always taught us, as well. Although I am against organized religion, I do understand where they come from on this point. Are we man or animal? Are we creatures of spirit or creatures of instinct? We can be forgiven for doing evil, but we can never be excused.

“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
Mahatma Gandhi

“War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children.”
Jimmy Carter

If someone puts a gun to my brother’s head and threatens to shoot him if I don’t use an axe to hack my dear friend Stan to pieces, do I use the axe? In the film Nick of Time, Johnny Depp is supposed to assassinate someone in order to save his daughter’s life. These are moral dilemmas we face all the time. We know what the right thing to do is in every case but because some of us are no better than animals, we often make the wrong decisions. If survival is the only name of the game, then there can be no morality, no ethics, no principles, only the cold logic of our biology.

If you ask a Shaolin monk what is the best way to deal with force, he will tell you that the preferred method is to run away. This, despite his skills in kung fu.

You do not meet a wave head-on; it is better to avoid it. You do not try to stop a force – you redirect it. Always try to preserve, rather than destroy. Avoid rather than check. Check rather than hurt. Hurt rather than maim. Maim rather than kill. It is vital to understand that all life is precious. Violence should always be the last recourse.

And even then, you must examine the ethics of it to determine whether it’s the right thing to do.


Blogger Ranganbay said...

This is a great post. I too first heard this question asked on Battlestar Galactica. Needless to say this question is profound and has profound implications.

2:38 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home