Ethics and the Litloves

Yet again a television programme causes much consternation among the members of my family. This time it’s Torchwood, which my husband and son are watching. Not me, I know enough about my television viewing preferences not to go anywhere near it. I have a Cassandra complex as it is, and will predict apocalypse on very little evidence; I really don’t need encouragement like Torchwood to see disaster looming on all possible horizons. Anyway, I was reading peacefully on Saturday afternoon, when the menfolk came through to disturb me with their ongoing argument. Apparently Captain Jack (John Barrowman in my head – he is always himself regardless of the drama and I just wait for him to burst into song, a big toothy smile on his face), has been shot in the chest and is dying in the back of a car, after a bungled escape attempt. He was running off having disabled a piece of alien technology that the CIA was investigating, and which Jack realised was capable of wreaking havoc with civilisation As We Know It.

This is where the episode ended and my husband and son had very different ideas as to what should happen next. My husband’s suggestion was that Jack should be taken back to the place he had escaped from, and reunited with the alien technology which, it seems, might have the power to save his life. This because, in his opinion, Jack is needed to prevent Miracle Day from happening. This must mean something to people who watch Torchwood; I have no idea why, but apparently Miracle Day must not happen, and you’ll just have to take my word on that. My son was horrified by this solution. He felt that the power of the alien technology to destroy civilisation As We Know It should never be witnessed by the CIA officials who would then behave in wildly irresponsible ways with the knowledge, thus hastening the end of the world. He felt Jack should be taken to a hospital, and risk his chances with the NHS, and if he died, ah well, tant pis. There were plenty of other people capable of preventing Miracle Day from happening.

What this all boiled down to, the implausible meanderings of Torchwood to one side, was a debate about saving the many versus saving the special one. Are individuals ever special enough to warrant the (potential) sacrifice of ordinary others? Or should we always sacrifice the one for the greater safety of the masses?

‘So you’re saying that we’ll save Jack, even if it means unleashing a technology on the world that will inevitably destroy it,’ my son said accusingly.

‘The world’s screwed anyway,’ Mister Litlove replied. ‘Jack is the best chance they have of preventing Miracle Day from happening, so they should do everything possible to save him.’

‘Can you believe him?’ my son appealed to me. ‘In what possible situation would you save one person regardless of the danger to everyone else?’

I thought about it. ‘I have to admit I’d probably save you,’ I said.

‘Even if you knew everyone else would die? Even if you knew I would probably die a short time later?’

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I never said it was a rational choice.’ I winked at Mister Litlove. ‘Best not to ask him what he’d do with his ageing parents in a similar situation.’

‘Well, duh! For the rest of the world!’ said my son, in some indignation.

‘Yes but there’s nothing to say that the world certainly will be destroyed by the alien technology,’ Mister Litlove said. ‘Lots of things could happen to prevent it. It’s only a possibility.’

‘Sure it might not happen,’ said my son, ‘like you might win the lottery five times in a row.’

Talking it over later, it was his certainty that we found intriguing. Was this a teenage thing? Certainly I can remember at his age feeling very black and white about any issues put in front of me. Or was it a reflection of the society we live in, in which we are not encouraged to distinguish levels of risk, only to react fiercely when we see risk approaching? Or did he have a real point, and the rights of the individual should be put to one side whenever the concerns of a whole community are at stake?

It was also interesting how strongly my son felt. When we were all dispersing once again to get on with our Saturday jobs, he cornered me in the kitchen.

‘I’m going to make sure Dad never gets to decide the fate of the universe,’ he said. ‘Or else we’re all doomed.’

‘Don’t worry, darling,’ I said. ‘I’m sure the two of us can hold him down, when the time comes.’

Although in fact, I had no idea which side of the argument I agreed with. In all honesty, I felt the end of the world would not be so kind as to signal itself from a distance, and that it was unlikely there would be any element of choice in the matter – I told you I had a Cassandra complex. The rules of narrative suggest that in Torchwood next week, both Jack and the world will be saved by some ridiculous plot twist. But as for the special one vs the many, I don’t know what to think. Is there ever a good answer to that one?


21 thoughts on “Ethics and the Litloves

  1. This series of Torchwood has been quite dreadful, to the point that, despite being a fan, I stopped watching it. Nevertheless I think its brilliant that it provoked such an interesting conversation. Even rubbish TV (or is that _especially_ rubbish TV?) can bring out the most fascinating debates. And who said television was ruining family life?

  2. I thought Jack was supposed to be impossible to kill permanently. So it shouldn’t matter if he dies, because he always resurrects immediately.

  3. Ha ha! What a delightful story, as always. You’ve hit upon precisely the reason I enjoy science fiction shows so much. It’s a great “neutral ground” for discussing these ethical conundrums.

    And now I realize that I’ve fallen behind in my Torchwood viewing as I haven’t watched the Miracle Day series yet. Off to check Netflix now.

  4. I think it’s a teenage thing with your son. I bet I’d have said the same thing, as tactfully as I could, if this subject had come up when I was a teenager. My family has talked about it since then, though, and we’ve all said we don’t want to be saved if the cost is the world (or, in more realistic ceremonies, others in the family). We agree it’s one of those things where we hold a principle about it that would lead us to behave one way (save the world), but we’re not sure we could carry out the principle in real life (sacrifice the family).

  5. Whoa, I thought Torchwood was set in the Old West, with horse thieves and saloon brawls and everything. I was obviously way wrong. It has ambulances and aliens and the CIA? Weird!

    The larger dilemma of the one versus the many makes me think of William Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down, which explores the ways in which we all create a moral calculus for ourselves about when violence is warranted and against whom to commit it if a person has a choice like this. He discusses situations in which governments capture the children or families of enemy intelligence people and threaten to torture them in front of the spies if they don’t talk (sorry, really horrible). Some choose to talk because it’s just too awful to watch these things happen, and others stay silent because they believe either that the enemy government will kill their whole families anyway, or because they believe defeating the enemy government is more important than any individual life. Vollman thinks both positions are morally justified. I just really, fervently hope I am never in the situation of having to make such a choice.

  6. Beyond the plot twists, as they may come, depending on those writers gathered in the writing room and eating and/or drinking god knows what in order to keep writing, I find the Litloves far more compelling in their conversation, humor and perspectives. (and your insertiong of “tant pis” in the first paragraph made me laugh out loud.)
    Not taking this liightly, it has forced me to recall our son in his teens and very honestly, now in his early 20s, he has no lack of black and white answers that roll off his tongue BUT I know he knows and he knows that I know he knows, there is far more to it all as he sets out in the world, on his own, doing his thing (except for us paying his car insurance.) I love hearing it from other families, that universality.

    However, I am also concerned for the future of the universe and wonder if maybe I should watch TORCHWOOD for a fantastical view of how if could/might evolve but then I shake my head and say “nah” and repeat that the TV screen offers only Entertainment, nothing. Surely it is only that.

    Ah, but it spurns a great conversation if we’re lucky.
    Such as yours.
    A bravo to the Young Litlove.
    I am smiling – thanks for sharing this.

  7. Reminds me of a great line from Family Guy, back when it was actually funny (10 years ago): “Peter, there’s no way you could die. You’re the most important character in this family!”

  8. Miracle Day is a horrifying thing, culled from the classics – eternal life without eternal health and youth. The new series makes me ANGRY and the sci-fi is so hand wavey it makes Dr Who look grounded in logic (I still love Dr Who, but you know it doesn’t make sense a lot of the time). The basic premise of what makes Miracle Day scary is pretty solidly grounded though. Who wants to live forever injured, or ageing?

    I think you’re right about the end of the world being unlikely to allow for any choice. Part of the creation of a lot of disaster narratives is about imposing some kind of logical order on the chaos and sometimes finding ways for the characters to beat it. I always find the narratives that resist the impulse to give their characters choices and chances at safety the most disturbing apocalyptic stories (very effective, but they do make you lose faith a little). Still, should the end of the world announce itself in time for you to make decisions I strongly suggest allying yourself with Mr Litlove – he has wood working skills and would put you ahead of the world. I know who my disaster buddy would be.

  9. I guess as a teenager I made stark choices, if only for the comfort of the certainty making a choice offered me. Manichaean youth.

    The conversation you all had reminded me of one of the first Star Trek movies, where Spock dies (apparently), and before doing so speaks of the good of the many outweighing the good of the few. That gets reversed in a later movie.

    If you look at a show structurally–plotlines, investment of the writers and directors in a character, when an event occurs in a season, etc.–you can sometimes see the ‘logic’ behind the storytelling dictates that no one can die, or not then.

    • Thanks JB for bringing up “The Wrath of Kahn”, the best Star Trek movie ever. Spock says “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” just before he takes one for the team. I thought of that as well when reading Litlove’s post.

  10. I thought the same as Emily but I think we both meant Deadwood.
    I hadn’t heard of Torchwood.
    I would rather opt for saving the one I love. We are way too many people on this planet anyway…

  11. I believe I should take this opportunity to respond as there is now a precedence for authors to intervene directly!

    rbentleydavies — It is indeed tosh, a fine example of the perils of too much time to fill and money to spend. So much better when intergalactic incidents are restricted to the immediate Cardiff area.

    Anonymous — Ah, but in this post Miracle Day world everyone is now immortal EXCEPT Jack, and the alien technology is a ‘Null Field’ that appears to locally reverse this fact.. Hence my original proposal to my son that the solution to the episode cliff hanger was take Jack back and restore the ‘Null Field’ as once inside he would regain his comforting indestructibility. The CIA and man’s ceaseless ability to misuse new technology could wait for another day. Cue teenage scorn.

    Teresa —Given how little confidence my son now has in my handling the end of things ‘As We Know It’, I am indeed glad I picked “neutral ground” for the skirmish!

    Chris — Thanks for the link. Looks fascinating to me, but might fail my son’s ‘looks like education’ filter.

    Jenny — Thanks for the reassurance. As the child of a large family in which lawyers are over represented, I learnt early that any conviction expressed was invariably challenged, an experience I occasionally try to provide to my only son. Glad to hear your family is united both in principle and reality!

    Emily — The William Vollman looks very interesting and even at 3,300 pages is probably only marginally longer than these 10 episodes of Torchwood. The concept of personal moral calculus is interesting, as I find nothing is more disturbing these days than those expressing moral certainty (teenagers included but more easily forgiven). I fear one day my son really might want to know with good reason why I did nothing to save the world and my only real defence will to be to share the blame with the rest of my generation.

    oh — Everything look brighter through Litlove’s lens. I imagine like most on this site, your time and efforts would be far better rewarded addressing your TBR pile.

    mrwaggish — Love the quote, sadly these days the convention of not killing lead characters has been widely subverted, Torchwood being a prime exponent.

    bookgazing — Thanks for the vote of confidence, but please let’s not dwell on such considerations as it only makes Litlove stockpile more books around the house.

    JB — As others have commented, the writers have shown a lamentable lack of structure, coherence or plausibility in putting this series together, so in this case your wise words fail to reassure. My quiet confidence for Jack rests on John Barrowman being about the only audience winning asset they have left having discarded those other qualities!

  12. I really like Torchwood but this season has been rather disappointing. Your household was arguing over that great philisophical question. John Stuart Mill (needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few) v. the rights of the individual (I think Kant sets up on this side if I remember correctly). No one has solved it yet. I suspect the writiers of Torchwood won’t be solving it either, they will come up with something that completely bypasses the question as if it didn’t exist and the collateral damage? They were all bad guys anyway and the few good guys that die, they can rest easy knowing they gave their lives for a good cause.

  13. Ruthiella – Not a movie I know, but I can’t help feeling a more Spock moment and a clearer exposition of the ‘few vs the many’ would have been for the speach to end with him sacrificing a couple of red shirted crew! To me the principle of personal sacrifice is noble, but the ‘few vs the many’ is a slippery slope that leads to moral relativism.

    Lillian – Agreed and the specifc is far more important than the abstract

    Caroline – Ah Deadwood – not made it here yet, and not sure Ian McShane will for ever be anyone but Lovejoy for us.

    Looks like Litlove is putting supper on the table so had better sign off. Bye.

  14. DEADWOOD! Thanks to Caroline for that clarification, as I thought I had dreamed a TV series and confused it with reality.

    Also, my own clarification: there is a self-abridged version of the Vollman, which is what I read. Downright slim at only, I don’t know, 800 pages or something.

  15. I have to say this conundrum is reminiscent of a debate in Star Trek between Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk. Spock insists that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” and seems to have the last word when he sacrifices himself to save the rest of the crew at the end of one movie. However, in the next movie, Kirk is back to save Spock despite the inter-galactic consequences when it turns out his body may have come back to life on the planet where it landed. It is Kirk who has the last word, “the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” It seems that Star Trek is in agreement with Mr. Litlove.

  16. Hello all, I am here, not bound and gagged in a corner while Mister Litlove takes over the comments, just in case you were wondering!! Although of course, if he does it too well, I might make him answer them again….

    Stefanie – I think you have got the measure of Torchwood – lol! Not to mention nailed down the proper ancestors of our debate. I think for all our sakes the end of the world should not be decided either by those script writers, or by us! Equally dangerous….

    Emily – Deadwood, Torchwood – so close verbally if so far apart plot-wise! What a fantastic dream it would have been though, had thge program not existed. I have never attempted Vollmann (although I have been encouraged to try) and tempting as that abridged version is, I rather think I still need about 300 fewer pages before it enters my comfort zone. 🙂

    Miriam – I think it’s interesting that the philosophical questions do seem to cluster around the sci-fi programmes as Teresa was saying eariler in the comments. Doctor Who, Torchwood, Star Trek…. not the natural home of Kant and Wittgenstein, you’d think, and then again…

  17. I’m with you in thinking that the moment of choice would probably never come in real life. Real life isn’t like that! (I hope …) Ethical arguments like this one always make my head hurt — I spend too much time seeing the good arguments on both sides and can never figure out what to do. Good thing I’m not in charge! 🙂

  18. Whoa–I really *do* need to get out more–what’s Torchwood? 🙂 Can you tell I don’t have cable–not any of the ‘good’ channels anyway. I think how your son thinks has to do with his age–I’ve discovered I can deal with things less now sometimes than I did when I was young. Maybe I know too much? As for the question of saving the one or the masses—I am reading a war diary about a family in WWII Italy and she talks about the horrendous bombing of civilians–and there is the whole question of do it for the greater good (to end the war–sorry simplified explanation here) or not–as London was bombed horrendously, too, with little thought to civilians–maybe a little tit for tat. I guess it’s not quite the same question, but how do you choose–wreak hell now and end things sooner or let it all drag on and kill more people in the long run. I’m just glad I don’t need to decide such questions.

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