The governor of a colony with a population of eight thousand decides that because of a disastrous loss of food supplies, he must order the execution of four thousand people in order to save the rest. The execution is carried out, but supply ships arrive unexpectedly early, and it turns out that no one needed to die. How does history deal with the Governor?
It does not help that he had a messiah complex and told the doomed colonists that they were dying because they were less productive, less important, less worthy than those who would be saved. The Governor disappears after the supply ships arrive and a burned body is found and presumed to be his, but decades later some survivors have reason to believe that he survived.
In fact, this is the story of a Star Trek: The Original Series episode called “The Conscience of the King,” which takes place in the year 2266, twenty years after the massacre. The colony is a planet known as Tarsus IV and the governor is Kodos, or as he is known at the time of the episode, Kodos the Executioner. The story illustrates an important class of philosophical conundrums known collectively as The Trolley Problem.
The Trolley Problem was first posed by the moral philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 to illustrate an earlier principle known as The Doctrine of Double Effect, which roughly states that good actions sometimes have harmful side effects. The basic Trolley Problem is this: An out-of-control trolley is barreling down a track on which there are five people standing. If nothing is done, the trolley will run them all over and kill them. Fortunately, there is a switch that, if pulled, will divert the trolley onto a siding, saving the five people. Unfortunately, there is a sixth person standing on the siding who will be killed if the trolley is diverted. Another person is standing by the switch; should they pull it and save five by killing one? What is the moral of the story? Is it right to cause the death of one person if five others will be saved? How do we calculate the value of human life, and can we really just add and subtract numbers? What responsibility does the switch-puller bear for the inevitable death or deaths that will occur? The questions are knotty and seemingly endless.
Furthermore, there are many variations of the basic Trolley Problem. What if the single person on the siding is a loved one of the switch-puller? Or what if the person at the switch dislikes or hates one or more of the victims? What if, in order to avert the larger disaster, the sixth person has to be pushed in front of the trolley, or otherwise actively murdered to stop the deaths of the five? What if instead of five people, it’s a hundred? What if you have to kill four to save five, or ninety-nine to save a hundred? What if you’re saving a one-of-a-kind artwork? An easy one, you say? People are always more important than things? What if it’s a pallet full of life-saving medications? What if the outcomes aren’t one hundred per cent certain, as is so often the case in real life? In Star Trek, the Vulcan first officer Mr Spock tells his friend and Captain, James T. Kirk, that sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one; Kirk later tells him that sometimes the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the few or the many.
How to judge the right decision? Linear, arithmetic comparisons of life for life seem not to work. Is there some calculus by which these decisions can be made “correctly?” Makers of self-driving cars are sure to be asking themselves questions like this right now. And Kodos – faced with a trolley problem, he had to decide, and as much as he may have been indulging in a taste for eugenics, he also probably believed that if he didn’t act, all eight thousand colonists would die. He decided to kill four thousand to save four thousand. How do we measure this? How do we know if it was right or wrong? History judged Kodos’s actions as monstrous, and Kodos as a monster, and we TV viewers almost certainly agree.
In fact, there may not be a right answer, and all answers may be wrong. Should we all starve together? Commit suicide like the Jews of Masada? What about Kodos? Could he have been right? What if instead of arrogant megalomania he had approached the problem by asking for volunteers, or holding a lottery? Perhaps he could have put it to a vote of the entire colony, but sometimes there isn’t time for a vote, or to arbitrate between eight thousand strongly held opinions.
So who decides? Leaders , who must take on the burden of being judged for their actions. Sometimes people on the spot can override leaders – or try to – but then they must accept the burden of judgement. Ultimately, this is the contract of leadership. We concede power to you, and you must decide the undecidable and then accept the judgement of history, or at the very least, judgement after the fact. Even in democratic societies, life and death problems come up all the time, and we delegate decision-making power to our elected leaders, or to generals or other experts we appoint to various roles. The lesson is: Choose your leaders wisely, and for wisdom.
Investing too much power in poor leaders can result in authoritarianism and tyranny. Leaders can claim the need to have the power to make unaccountable decisions over and over, and they can be difficult to stop. When is a crisis truly a crisis? We can try to limit our leaders to so-called ‘ticking time-bomb’ scenarios, but the problem is that there’s always a time-bomb ticking somewhere. Leaders will dress up their most horrible decisions and policies as existential trolley problems, but often that’s simply not true. The contract of leadership may hold leaders accountable to history, but that’s little comfort to the people affected right now today. Furthermore, the judgement of history may change.
In what might be history’s starkest example, Harry S Truman, the 33rd President of the United States, made the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 in order to end World War II. He was convinced that casualties in an invasion would be astronomical, with some estimates in the millions of allied troops and tens of millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians.1 By this logic, dropping the bomb would save perhaps millions of lives at the cost of hundreds of thousands.
The debates about Truman’s decision go on decades later –
- Was there a better way?
- Would the Japanese have surrendered soon anyway?
- Was it necessary to drop the 2nd bomb, just a few days after the first?
- Did anti-Asian racism play a part?
Today’s hero may be tomorrow’s villain, and today’s perpetrator of atrocities may be tomorrow’s great leader. Real-life debates about the actions of some of our leaders rage on. Some leaders are truly evil and commit horrible acts that history will and should never see any other way. So in addition to choosing wisely, perhaps we need to find ways to limit the number of trolley problems that arise, or to systemize our response, or to distribute the power to make these decisions so that no single decision-maker even has the opportunity to become another Kodos – or Truman.
Fiction allows us to ask these questions and investigate the possible answers. Science fiction, like Star Trek, can ask the same questions, and more as well. In Star Trek’s futuristic “post-scarcity” world, problems of hunger and want are supposedly eliminated, but how will people immersed in that kind of society react if they are thrown into a situation where their technology can’t save them? How will people of the future judge those who make Trolley problem decisions? Will they want revenge, will they forgive, will there be other options that we in the present don’t have? For all their advanced technology and philosophy, will they really be any different from us? James Kirk is a survivor of Tarsus IV, and he must deal with trauma as it is dredged up by the appearance many years later of a man who may or may not be Kodos, and by the mysterious deaths of other survivors. History has made its judgement of Kodos, placing him in the ranks of humanity’s worst mass murders, and Kirk, having lived through it all, seems to agree.
Does it matter that Kodos has become the great actor Anton Karidian, or that he may regret his actions, at least a little? More importantly, can society – even the enlightened society of the future, deal with the crimes of a Kodos? What will our real-life society finally determine about its own leaders and their decisions? The episode concludes, like the Shakespearean play “Hamlet” from which it draws its title, with tragedy all around, and like the Trolley problem, there are very few satisfying answers.
Written By – Jon Blumenfeld