Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Kobayashi Maru

I was recently at work listening to old episodes of Radiolab on my iPod, and I was feeling kind of sad as I don’t think the show will ever be as good as it was in the beginning. I don’t know if there’s been a genuine drop in the quality of the show. Maybe it would be better to say that the show will never be as good to me as it was when I first heard it. The fifth season of the show is over, and while the sixth must be coming soon, the long periods of hiatus between the short, five episode bundles have stopped filling me with the feeling of heavy anticipation. Now? Eh. I could sort of take the series of leave it. I almost think it would be better if there were no sixth season. The fifth season, but for a couple episodes (I liked “Sperm” a lot…teehee), was pretty ho hum. The show doesn’t feel fresh anymore. It’s still impeccably constructed and produced, but I feel like it’s lost a little something that made it special. (Although if you’ve never heard the show, do yourself a favor and check it out. There’s a free semi-weekly podcast, and I’m sure you can find any number of archived episodes streaming at or elsewhere on the web.)

At any rate, I was listening to “Morality,” which is a show from season two (2006). It’s not the first time I’ve heard the episode. I used to listen to the podcasts over and over again in the studio and at work, so I’ve heard this particular show a dozen times or more. It’s got chimps in it, which is always a plus. It also spends quite a bit of time centered around a couple basic morality dilemmas that I can’t recall having heard prior to listening to the podcast the first time, but which sound a lot like the sort of basic thought experiments you might expect a philosophy or ethics professor to use as a conversation starter in 100-level university classes.

It goes something like this:

Scenario One: You’re standing near some railroad tracks. Far out of ear shot, you can see five men working on the tracks. Behind them, you see an approaching train. You see the train. They do not. Nor do they hear it. They also don’t see you, so (theoretically) there’s no way for you to alert them to their impending doom. Beside you is a lever. You can pull the lever and divert the train to another set of tracks where only one man sits working, also out of earshot. Your dilemma, if it’s not yet clear is whether to pull the lever or not. You can choose not to pull the lever, in which case five people will die, or you can choose to pull the lever, in which case you save the lives of those five people, but put another man into harm’s way and effectively kill (murder?) somebody who would have been in absolutely no danger had you decided not to act at all.

Scenario Two: Similar to scenario one, you’ve got the tracks, the train, the five guys completely oblivious to the fact that they’re about to be squashed. Only this time, you’re not on the tracks; you’re standing on a pedestrian bridge that crosses above the tracks somewhere between the train and five guys. There’s no lever. No way to redirect the train. The only hope the five guys have is that the train stops before reaching them. Beside you on the bridge is a sort of hefty man, and as the two of you look down on the situation unfolding on the tracks it occurs to you that if you were to push the man off of the bridge and onto the tracks, the train would hit him and (for reasons not altogether clear to me) that would cause the train to stop. So again, your choice is to do nothing and allow five people to die, OR choose to act, this time by making physical contact with the man and pushing him to his death, and save the five guys. What do you do?

Have your answer? Anyway, as is explained to Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich by various neurologists, when people are presented with these two (virtually identical) scenarios, something like 90 percent of respondents say that they would pull the lever, but far fewer people said that they would push the fat man to his death. The show went on to try to figure out why this was the case or, more specifically, to try to figure out what the physiological nature of the thought process was. Neurologists used an fMRI to figure out what was going on in the brain at the moment where people were making the decision, and it came down, essentially to a sort of frontal lobe battle between emotion and logic. It was all very interesting in the context of the show, but personally, I couldn’t get over the original findings. Nine out of ten people are going to pull the lever? I have to hope that’s bullshit.

It’s not that I don’t accept that this was people’s honest response to the scenario. It’s just that I don’t accept that their honest response is their true response. I hope it’s not anyway. From where I stand, they either don’t understand the question or they’re saying what they want to believe they would do. In this case, for some reason, they choose to believe that the heroic thing to do is to kill the one guy to save the five. Of course, the truth is that choosing to pull the lever isn’t the least bit heroic. It’s murder. And I don’t know what it says about the world if only 10 percent of respondents understand that to be true without even thinking about it.

After the train analogy, they gave another scenario which the guys admitted having taken from the final episode of M.A.S.H. Here it is:

It’s war time, and your entire village is huddled into a basement or hut (do huts have basements?) as the enemy troops search the town. Everybody has to be very quiet to avoid being found out. It’s a given that anybody who is found will be murdered. So you’re hiding out with every man, woman and child of your village with each and every one of you making as little noise as possible. In your arms, is your baby. Your baby has a cold. Your baby could cough at any minute. If the soldiers searching the town hear your baby cough, everybody’s dead. Your option in this case is either smothering your baby or do nothing risk everybody’s life on the hope that your baby will not cough. Why those are your only two choices is beyond me. Anyway, 50 percent of respondents say they’d smother their baby, a statistic to which Jad Abumrad, the younger host, says admiringly “That’s not bad.” Oh yeah? Really? It seems pretty bad to me.

To illustrate the different perspectives (and to my mind, illustrate just how bad it is), they ask the question to a number of New Yorkers on the street. Some saying yes they would kill their baby, some saying no. Everybody who says no says it for the obvious reason: i.e. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I’m paraphrasing. Those who say they’d do it go through a series of obvious rationalizations about the greater good. The needs of the many are really heavy, and all that Vulcan bullshit (Can we all take a moment to thank Eric Bana for knocking those green-blooded, logic-obsessed, pointy-eared bastards onto the endangered species list?). Anyway, almost to typify how absurdly indefensible this position is, they bring out a girl who sounds to be no more than 19 or 20, and she proceeds to stumble through a painfully meandering rationalization that essentially uses the language of “Pro-Choice” advocacy to explain why she believes she has the right to “terminate the life of [her] baby.” A sort of post, post, post factum form of birth control, I guess.

Anyway, the people who choose to kill their baby, or so the argument goes, are the logical ones; just like the ones who pull the lever or push the man. And here I’d always thought of myself as a sort of logical guy. Not that I was necessarily a Vulcan, but maybe a half Vulcan, half human hybrid (Can they do that?*). But as it turns out, I’d always been hiding from the obvious truth. I’m not Spock at all. I’m James T. Kirk. You want to know what my answers to those scenarios are? Fuck you. That’s my answer. Fuck you and fuck all no-win situations.

The Wrath of Khan is all about the no-win situation. The movie opens with Kirstie Alley as the Vulcan Saavik who is seemingly in command of a starship responding to a distress signal sent out by The Kobayashi Maru, a ship which is under Klingon attack. A battle ensues, the bridge from which Saavik is commanding is tossed and everybody goes flying all over the place in true Star Trek fashion. The battle takes only moments. The Kobayashi Maru is destroyed, and everybody on Saavik’s bridge is killed. Or so it seems. A door opens and a silhouetted Admiral James Kirk steps onto the bridge. The lights come up and all of the dead officers rise in good spirits. As it turns out, the whole thing was just a training exercise named for the ship sending the distress beacon, which is designed as a no-win situation to help officers in training learn to deal with circumstances for which no positive outcome exists. It is later revealed that the only cadet to ever beat The Kobayashi Maru was, you guessed it, James T. Kirk.

Later still, it is revealed that Kirk didn’t beat the scenario as it was, he rewrote it so that it could be won. He cheated. Not because he wanted to win, but because he wanted the chance to win. He rejected the premise of the test and any lessons it had to teach him. Saavik is offended when she learns of the stubborn and childish lengths Kirk had gone to avoid the shame of losing. Stupid Vulcan Scientologist.

At the end of Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise is marooned in space as Reliant, a hijacked Federation starship that carries the Genesis device(if you have to ask, then maybe you should’ve stopped reading a long time ago), is about to explode nearby. The blast from both Reliant and Genesis would surely destroy the Enterprise and everyone on it. But the Enterprise has no warp drive, and there’s no way she could clear the blast area on impulse power alone. Without giving too much away, Spock goes down to engineering, repairs the drive allowing Enterprise to jump to warp speed ahead of the shock wave of the blast, but in doing so, Spock exposes himself to the radiation of the warp core and, in one of the most touching sequences in American film history, he speaks to his friend Jim for the last time (theoretically) through a pane of protective glass. This, as Spock explains, was his response to The Kobayashi Maru. The ship is saved. Spock dies. Before he dies, he explains why his decision was the logical one: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. The very justification used to pull the lever, push the man, and smother the baby. But Spock, it’s important to note, doesn’t do any of that stuff. He doesn’t pull the lever and he doesn’t push the man off the bridge. He jumps off the bridge himself.

What Spock understands, and what all of these respondents so eager to pull the lever or push the fat guy don’t seem to get, is that the many includes the fat man. Your baby is one of the many, too. The one? That’s you. And if you’re standing on a bridge trying to stop the train, and the only thing you can think to do is push the guy next to you onto the tracks, you’re not thinking hard enough. Not by a long shot. Mind you, I’m not saying I would jump. I’d probably hope the guy next to me would jump, and then spend the next movie trying to figure out how to bring him back to life. Although, not if it meant listening to those damned Klingon bastards kill my son. That, I think, is a bridge too far.

*That’s a joke, son.

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