Morals and movies: lessons from the silver screen

Morals and movies: lessons from the silver screen

Towards the end of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film (released 15 years ago now, so I hope the statute of limitations has passed on spoilers), the villainous Green Goblin confronts our titular hero with a moral dilemma. He engineers a situation where Spidey’s beloved Mary Jane Watson and a cable car full of schoolchildren are dropped off a bridge at the same time, forcing the webhead to choose one to save.

Undaunted, Spider-Man performs some impressive acrobatics and manages, just about, to catch both Mary Jane and the children. Hanging suspended in the air holding both, he desperately fends off an aerial assault from the Goblin long enough for the citizens of New York to intervene: bystanders on the bridge hurl objects to drive off the Goblin, while a passing rubbish barge manoeuvres under Spidey, allowing him to lower the kids and Mary Jane to safety.

This sort of scene is everywhere in Hollywood, especially in family films. A villain presents the hero with a terrible choice, but the hero outwits her and takes a third option. The general critical consensus on these scenarios is that they are lazy, unchallenging storytelling. Instead of forcing the protagonist to choose the lesser of two evils and live with the consequences of their actions, the filmmakers conveniently arrange things to avoid having them choose. It takes what could be a fascinating character moment and turns it into a cop-out.

The sort of moral philosophy that’s taught to most university undergraduates shares this dim view of third options. Think of the trolley problem, in which you have to choose between taking no action and allowing five people to be killed by a runaway trolley-car, and throwing a lever to move the car onto another track and kill only one person. Or the sort of ‘ticking time-bomb’ thought experiment used to decide whether torture is ever justified. In these thought experiments, the possibility of a third option is ruled out by definition: responding with something like “I’ll jam something into the wheels of the trolley” or “torture doesn’t work” is to miss the point. The poor undergraduates faced with these dilemmas have to pick a side.

At least when it comes to moral philosophy, I think the cheesy Hollywood movies have it mostly right, and the ‘Intro to Ethics’ courses have it mostly wrong.

The ultimate aim of moral philosophy is to figure out how to live and act well. It is concerned with practical knowledge. And practical knowledge is knowledge about our actually existing world – a world in which the overwhelming majority of apparent moral dilemmas actually do have third options, and a world in which being a good person involves learning to imagine, notice, and recognise them. As a teacher of mine once said, the way ethics is taught often makes us dumber, teaching us to rule out third options as irrelevant when in fact they’re critical.

Take the ticking time bomb scenario. In a 2005 debate on torture between John Yoo, George Bush’s deputy assistant attorney general from 2002 to 2003, and Jeremy Waldron, then a philosophy professor at Columbia, Waldron insisted that ‘would you torture a terrorist in a ticking time bomb scenario?’ was a “corrupt question.”

“It supposes,” he went on, “that torture is capable of getting accurate information… The nature of the relationship between torturer and victim means that the victim will tell the torturer what the torturer thinks he wants to know.” And he pointed out that even if torture did sometimes work, institutionalising it as a practice would almost certainly lead to greater evils than it would avert. Opposing torture is not only a matter of biting the bullet and refusing to do evil that good may come of it – it is also a matter of recognising the real-life factors at play and realising that the same aims can be achieved better with other means anyway.

None of this is to deny that artificially constructed dilemmas have their place in moral philosophy – they can sometimes be useful for testing the consistency and plausibility of moral theories – it’s just a much less prominent place than the one they’re currently given. Nor am I excusing lazy writing: ‘third options’ in stories ring hollow when they’re pulled out of nowhere or come at no real cost to the characters.

(For a dramatically satisfying third-option resolution to a superhero’s moral dilemma, see the finale of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Orson Scott Card’s science fiction classic Ender’s Game and its sequels, and the animated series Trigun also make fascinating use of moral dilemmas and third options.)

But in spreading the idea that morality is more about imagining and choosing hidden yet glorious possibilities than it is about about grimly settling for the lesser of two evils, Hollywood is doing something right.