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Exploding trains, fat men, and trollies. You might have seen this movie.

November 15, 2011
I don’t get it

I’ve recently read an interesting article by a certain professor regarding the blockbuster movie “Source Code”. I saw the movie myself a few days ago and I must say it is rather good, in a “watch once, and maybe watch again just so you can see your friends’ reaction to the plot twist” kind of way.  earlier in the year. It’s actually taken me THIS long to edit and publish this post. On a related note, I would warn of spoilers but it’s been so long you’ve probably all seen it already, discussed it and decided to never think about it ever again.

Anyway, for those of you who do still want to discuss Source Code, here’s my impression of it (after the jump).

Let me start this massive whinge with an admission. I enjoyed Source Code, it was mostly well written (fluff about quantum mechanics and the silly ending aside) and Jake Gylinghaal is a fine actor to carry the movie. The movie does pose some interesting moral questions, such as what is known as the “trolly problem” and by extension the “fat man problem”. Both of which are raised in this interesting essay by professor Brendan Riley.

The writer approaches some of the moral questions that the movie brings up, however the claim he makes that interests me is regarding what is called “the trolley problem” and by extension, the “fat man problem”. The first hypothetical scenario, “the trolley problem” is as follows: there is a hypothetical scenario where a train is threatening to kill five poor souls who have been tied to the tracks. Given the chance to divert the train (killing no-one is unavoidable) would you let the train kill the five people or, at the flick of a switch, change its course, so it travels along a line that has only one person tied to it. The answer is obvious, sacrifice the single person in favour of the five. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

Star Trek is always relevant.

Now the second hypothetical scenario is similar to the first but contains the following ethical dilemma. As its inventor, Judith Jarvis Johnson originally proposed:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

The answer to this second question is less easy for people to answer. Many would want to save five people but hesitate at the idea of sacrificing a person directly. We would rather save the man in front of us instead of the many who we don’t know. This question deliberately reveals the inherent hypocrisy of human reasoning. It’s ok to flick a switch, to divert the suffering, but to be an active participant is much harder. The author of the article writes it as such:

But the movie actually testifies to the short-sightedness of human beings. Being small-group social animals, we revert to small-group psychology, and so we value our word over larger concerns. We value our own comfort (I want to drive everywhere, now, by myself) more than the larger ramifications of those choices. Learning to do differently takes time and social pressure.

Upon first glance this appears to be true, the female lead, Goodwin would much rather honour the soldier’s wishes than wipe his memory and continue using him, even if potentially millions of lives might be saved. This is understandable. A s a society (warning: incoming off-topic rant) I feel that we are more horrified by the corruption of a human being than death. This kind of thinking is widely reflected on TV and the big screen: nudity, bad language and drug taking are all together subject to much stricter censorship  than murder, which happens almost all the time. The movie Rambo (2008) features an old and haggard looking Sly Stallone ruthlessly gunning down the entire population of Burma in an effort to save some people or freedom or something. Now did you ever see Rambo use a controlled substance? No of course not! Rambo, might be a ruthless killing machine, willing to make a million widows in one battle but he would NEVER do crack. That’s just wrong man.

Sometimes it seems that the death of a person is less important than whether or not he/she was a deviant. I sometimes wonder if we cannot help but believe that there is a pure, part of us that we mustn’t corrupt, something separate from the body. It’s a potentially dangerous line of thought, there is no shortage of people out there who consider their own, and others lives to be much less important than the sanctity of their souls or the preservation of a moral ideal. The tagline to Rambo was: “Live for nothing, die for something…your call”. Do you think terrorists watch Hollywood movies?

So back to Source Code. The dilemma that Godwin is faced with, whether to keep Gyllinghaal in the tank or to use him like another resource is what is known as the fat man problem. This comparison, although interesting to discuss, I believe is limited. The world we are dealing with (in the hypothetical world of trains and fat men) is an absolutist one: If you do not engage in a morally ambigious act, people will die. However, in the world of “Source Code”, one based on reality, we have no idea if people will definitely die if Goodwin chooses to take Gyllinghaal off life support. The source code machine is not the only source of anti-terrorist intelligence, nor is it certain that it will be needed to prevent another terrorist attack. Although head of operations suggests that Jake Gyllinghaal is the perfect candidate it is not certain that they cannot find another candidate or perhaps even use the technology on someone who is actually willing. There are so many possibilities for the future of anti-terrorism that I feel that Goodwin is justified in turning off life support, even if it is perhaps for the wrong reasons. It’s an interesting question, the fat man problem, that raises some interesting speculation on why people would find it to be a difficult ethical dilemma*, but like many hypothetical questions, lacks the sophistication to be applicable in the real (or even movie) world.

Strictly hypothetical folks

The film does raise some unique ethical questions of its own. Questions that are mostly brought up by the sentimental, forced and nonsensical ending. Throughout the movie we are told that this is essentially a simulation of the memories of those that died. The past is the past, it cannot change, something about quantum physics yadda yadda yadda. However, the last 15 minutes turn this movie-based fact totally on its head, no longer are we simply inhabiting the memories of dead people, the hero is actually creating an alternative universe every time he travels back in time. Suddenly the moral dilemma is clear, is it right to cause the suffering and deaths of the train passengers who inhabit these numerous universes in order to prevent a future disaster in your own universe? Since these people turned out to be just as real as the people who inhabit our universe, our their lives not as valuable?

The ending reveals that these realities the hero travels to are not simulations but true alternative universes which he is traveling into. What happens to the hero now that he has occupied the body of Sean? The film appears to have forgotten at this point that a man’s body, mind and life have been occupied by Jake Gillenhaal (or you know, the character he plays whatever). In fact, through consistently showing the audience Jake rather than the actor playing Sean the movie conveniently avoids the potentially disturbing image of the hero romancing another man’s love interest through another man’s body. At the end of the movie we see the happy couple (or is it a triplet?) in chicago contemplating their future life together. The sergeant is now faced with the difficult task of occupying the teacher’s former life, pretending he is Sean to this man’s family, friends and  lover until he dies. He will have to live in the same world as his parents, utterly unable to communicate his feelings to his dad. That might be a good sequel actually, Jake Gyllinghaal learning to live with a massive lie whilst all the while trying frantically to piece together the pieces of Sean’s life so he can be a convincing replacement. Does Hollywood read my blog? Hello?

*This difficulty, I believe, reveals that we can’t help but believe a little in fate. Somehow it’s ok to use a switch to kill, since the train was already travelling and the people were already tied to the tracks. It was as if someone was meant to die that day so it’s ok to kill someone, it’s simply a matter of who. However in the fat man problem, the fat man is an uninvolved casuality, it somehow feels wrong, it wasn’t his place to die that day until you forced it upon him.

**Note that it is a fat (or fatter if you are already fat) man, not a normal sized one that you are pushing. Otherwise the moral thing to do would seem to be to throw yourself off instead. Also, I am assuming that there are no other heavy objects nearby and that this hypothetical scenario exists in a world exclusively inhabited by trains and fat people.

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