Moral Luck in Battlestar Galactica

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Ron Moore, who runs the redux of Battlestar Galactica that appears on the SciFi Channel, has a blog that he doesn't often update. His latest post was over two months ago, and I've been wanting to comment on it since then but haven't had the chance to put my thoughts together. (I'm glad I waited, because the mid-season finale just over a week ago gave me a couple more elements to talk about.) He often responds to viewer comments in his blog entries, and one comment he answers struck me in how it exemplifies our evaluation of people's characters. I don't think the fact that this is fiction makes a difference. We do this sort of thing in real life too. I think Moore's response is interesting, because he seems to be insisting on a view about moral evaluation that no one really holds. I hope that will be clear once I get the dialectic going. Here is the comment he's responding to:

I'm curious as to what characters we are supposed to like at this point in the second season. Adama, Roslin, the XO, and Apollo have all been disappointments. Adama has been a non-factor due to his injury but is at the root of the martial law problem along with Roslin since they begin working at cross purposes. Roslin has turned into this Jim Jones/David Koresh type figure and added a drug addiction to it which I find off putting. The XO can't make a good decision (other than to go back to Kobol) and has turned into more of an alcoholic than ever. He's let his wife manipulate him for worse as well. Apollo seems like an ingrateful whelp with a chip on his shoulder, going against both the military and his father. Starbuck hasn't been much better, going against Adama and then tooling around Caprica reliving her old life and playing ball games. Which character has shown any redeeming values this season?

I have to agree that Moore has shown negative elements of the personalities of just about every character, but this is something he's been doing from the beginning, and he gives a reason why:

It's up to you to decide who you like and who you don't. Personally, I like all of them. I like their flaws and I like their virtues, and for me, it's not a matter of finding redemption for anyone as much as it is a matter of allowing each character to be true to who and what they are and finding the most emotionally truthful storyline for them each week.

He didn't want this to be a show about people who rise beyond the ordinary person. He didn't think that would be realistic. He wanted it to be about how ordinary people would respond to the end of human civilization at the hands of a threat created by humanity. He wanted to see how people would deal with that. The pressures of constant war, personality clashes, political differences, and competing visions for the survival and goal of what remains of the Colonies have led to some pretty bad character traits rising to the surface. This is one of the most interesting things Moore has done with the show. A friend of mine complains that there aren't really any heroes, and one reason you turn to fiction is to see the heroism that's rare in real life, but you do see heroism. As Moore goes on to say, he hasn't made the characters all bad. He's simply made them a mix of good and bad:

Sure, Tigh's made bad decisions and he'll likely make more, but isn't it interesting how all the good he did last season, all the good decisions he made, are suddenly overshadowed by the few bad choices he made this season? Tigh saved the entire ship during the miniseries, held the crew together through the nightmare of "33", located the lost fleet in "Scattered" and knew how to defeat the Centurion boarding party in "Valley of Darkness," but now that he's made a few bad calls (and some were really bad) he's called a worthless loser. What does that say about the nature of heroism? Does it mean that bestowing the title of Hero is less about discerning the intrinsic nature of a man than it is simply another example of the old game of "Yeah, but what have you done for me lately?" We love you today, but if you screw up tomorrow, you're history. Maybe that's only fair. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to work. Maybe. Again, it's up to you to decide, you're the audience. Me, I love Tigh and Starbuck and all of'em. Warts and all.

There are heroes on the show. They've done some pretty heroic things. Some of these very people can also be promiscuous, alcoholic, lying, mistrustful, arrogant, heartless, calculating, rebellious, and even mutinous. Moore thinks he can work in enough good to counterbalance the bad, and in the end you should appreciate the character as roughly ok. This viewer's response says something about how people really evaluate each other's moral character. It's not like that at all. We don't see people who are bad half the time as half good. We just don't. It's a stretch to call someone a hero who occasionally does a heroic thing but most of the time is quite a jerk. We consider such a person a jerk. I'm not impressed by the character of Colonel Tigh. He's not a good officer. His conscience sometimes won't let him do what he naturally would do, but he's not someone I would see as having very much moral character, at least in general. He's no Dr. Baltar, who seems to be pathological in his lack of moral sensibility, but he's not what I would call a hero.

Commander Adama has been more upstanding, I would say, but he's certainly had some moments of weakness that have led to drastic consequences. When it really came down to it, he was the one who did what was necessary and brought the fleet back together, because he knew it was the right thing. That's truly heroic. But it's a heroism that can easily be shattered. If he were to let the same things happen again, we might question whether he's got a consistent character of heroism or if he's simply an occasional hero with a poor character but who sometimes does the right thing anyway. It takes a track record of heroism to demonstrate good character. Moore is wrong to think that you should just accept a mix of good and bad. We shouldn't like a character with as much bad as good in a way that treats those bad elements as warts. They're more than warts. They're bad character traits, and it should affect how we evaluate the person.

Moore seems to me to be treating this as if it's just an unfortunate element of how we do evaluate people. He doesn't want it to be the correct way to evaluate people. But he's out of step with an important tradition in the history of philosophy. Contemporary philosophers call this moral luck. Martha Nussbaum calls it the fragility of goodness.

Moral luck is simply the fact that we evaluate people in moral ways because of things not entirely within their control. Sometimes someone's character may come out better or worse simply because of the situation they find themselves in. Someone who didn't face disaster might not have been a hero but might have been ordinary Joe Schmoe. Someone who happened to be in the wrong line of work wouldn't have had a Cylon manipulate him into helping her shut down the colonial defenses to enable them to initiate Armageddon. Baltar might have been a bad character to begin with, but he's much worse for the situation he was in and what he did. How you evaluate someone who crashes a car while driving under the influence depends in part on whether the car hit a fire hydrant and just caused repairable damage or if there was a person in the way who got killed. We have no control over such things, but it affects how our actions ought to be evaluated.

One place this comes in is more relevant to the Battlestar Galactica storyline, and Ron Moore even refers to it once in his response. He calls attention to that fact that it seems as if what matters most is what someone has done recently. He unfairly portrays this as "What have you done for me lately?", but there's no reason to see it as selfish. It's simply looking at what the person has done lately. Has there been a progression in character? Did Adama do the wrong thing in initiating the military uprising against the President of the Colonies when he didn'tlike her decision as Commander-in-Chief to retrieve the Arrow of Apollo in order to find Earth? I say yes. Was he responsible for how it spiraled out of control when he was on death's bed as Tigh made bone-headed decision after bone-headed decision? He's responsible for allowing the situation to get to where it was when Tigh inherited it. He's responsible for dealing with the mess when he recovers enough to return to duty. I'm not sure what I think about if he's responsible for the effects of Tigh's mishandling of things. I don't think he's fully responsible, anyway.

What is clear, however, is that once he realizes that it's gone on too long and is truly bad, he comes to see through the insistence of Dee that it's on him to fix it. It doesn't matter what the president has done. It doesn't matter that she led his people, including his own son, to mutiny. What matters is what needs to happen if the human race is going to have any hope, and he decides to go after her to pursue reconciliation. This was a real moment of moral courage, and Adama really came through as a hero to do something that no one else could. Something similar happened in the latest episode, when Tyrol and Helo hear the pilots from the Pegasus talking about the rape of the Cylon prisoner as a forecast of what would happen to Sharon. Their heroism was intended to stand out as something morally above and beyond what either one had ever done previously in the show. They'd both done heroic things previously, but this setting provided them with an opportunity to give up everything they had to protect her. Helo had been defending her for a while, but he had wanted to abandon her once he discovered that she was a Cylon. It wasn't until he realized she was carrying his child that he had a change of heart, and even then it took a while. Tyrol didn't even reconcile himself to this Sharon until the end of the previous episode. Is this a sort of redemption?

In the long run, continued heroism on the part of people with sketchy track records will make the track record look better. If it's a downward spirial, that's bad character. If it's still a spiral with good and bad but tends to move upward, we evaluate the person as generally moving in a good direction. If the heroism is extreme but mixed with bad character traits, but it's generally a movement toward heroism, then we might see the person as a hero. I don't think Moore is trying to delve this deeply into it, but he does want to portray characters who aren't just heroes and aren't just evil in every way. No character on the show is truly at either extreme, but this is what you should expect. Nazi war criminals went home to their families at night and were often good fathers, relatively speaking. They cared about their children and wanted to raise them as upstanding citizens. Many elements of their moral code were what we would want. The only problem is that they were committing genocide.

This also came out in the latest episode. The Pegasus crew had survived some difficult things, and they've now shown up to join with the Galactica, almost as heroic saviors. They had killed plenty of Cylon ships (though I'm wondering how, because they should have been shut down immediately by the Cylon virus). They were right in many cases to point out faults with the Galactica crew's past decisions and even some of their current practices. It's generally a bad idea for a son to be serving under his father in a military situation. There really were some wrong choices that were overlooked because of the survival situation and the need for people who were good at what they did.

But then you see what the Pegasus crew was really like. There were hints at it earlier in the episode. Admiral Cain welcomed them back to the fleet, but they were a fleet. She just had one ship. What does that reveal about she thinks of herself? She makes promises to Adama that she certainly didn't keep regarding his command of his own ship. She fosters a culture of rape with regard to their Cylon prisoner, overlooking the serial rape by many members of her crew of a prisoner, all in the name of trying to get information. Would you expect a woman to allow this on her own ship? What's going on here? Something's really lacking in her moral compass for things to reach this level, even if you assume that a Cylon has no moral status as a machine, because she's fostering in her crew the practice of enjoying rape and using it as a method of revenge. Besides, you wouldn't be raping a Cylon over and over again and enjoying her torture if you didn't think of her as a person who has moral status. Revenge has much less meaning if the people receiving it don't appreciate what you're doing to them, and if they're not even people but unthinking machines it's completely lost. Cain takes it even further by trying to kill all the witnesses to what her man was doing before any Galactica personnel can get to them. Combine that with what probably was an accurate report that she had killed her XO for not carrying out an order, and it's pretty clear that she's keeping people in line by making them complicit in her own wickedness.

When you compare the Galactica crew to that, they seem downright holy. I'm sure the contrast between Tyrol and Helo's heroism and the culture of rape aboard the Pegasus was deliberate. But what's the difference? There were elements of things along these lines throughout the show, just nothing quite so bad or so concentrated. Why didn't it turn into this? Galactica people call the Cylon human models toasters. One of them killed the first Boomer. The president pushed another one out an airlock and wanted to do the same to the second Sharon. They could easily have slipped into the kind of strict control you see on Pegasus. Adama resisted the president's first attempts to do so early in the show. A few key decisions reigned those tendencies in. Admiral Cain apparently didn't do that and went the other way. Moral evaluations in these two cases, both involving large numbers of people, vary because of a few decisions by a few people, with drastically different results. Colonel Tigh really does seem like a hero compared to Admiral Cain, and it's not because of what he's done but because of who we're comparing him to.

One consequence of much of this is what Martha Nussbaum calls the fragility of goodness. As Aristotle pointed out something like 2500 years ago, someone can live a very good and full life, full of excellence of character, and then at the very end do something pretty awful. How will such a person be remembered? Good character is fragile. You can do all sorts of wonderful things to show that you care about someone, but one misstep often sets you back a lot more than one good deed would. One very nice deed is far less likely to change someone's view of you if you're a jerk than one terrible deed would if you were an upstanding person. This is something Moore didn't take into account when supposing that making someone 50% bad and 50% good would make people like characters. That's just not how we evaluate people morally over a longer period of time, and it never seems problematic to us when we evaluate in such a way.

I don't have any real point to all this. There's a lot that philosophers have said about this issue, and some of the character development in Battlestar Galactica seemed to me to be an excellent portrayal of so many of these thoughts, so I just wanted to reflect a bit on the ways these things have come out in the show. I think the fact that the audience response to what the creators of the show have created is a good deal beyond their control in terms of whether the characters are going to be viewed as good or bad or wherever they might be on the continuum between the two. I also think this has enormous relevance to the Christian view of sin and the corruption of the universe due to the fall of humanity, but that would take another long post to explore really well. The one thing I will say is that I think the strange and unexpected conclusions I've taken in this post, completely independently of anything Christian, make so much more sense given the Christian view of sin, the fall, and corruption not just in our natures and capacities to do good but even our ability to evaluate good and evil. Perhaps that will show up in another post someday.

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BSG Moral Philosophy from Unofficial Battlestar Galactica Blog on October 2, 2005 9:26 PM

It has been awhile since Ron Moore posted in his blog, but a new post by Parableman offers some excellent insight into the concept of moral luck also know as the fragility of goodness visible in the characters of Battlestar Read More

4 Comments

I, too, like how we're not told how to feel about the characters. They have their moments of triumph, they have their failures.

Adama has not reacted especially heroically to being shot. Helo's devotion to a Cylon is aggravating, given the fact the Cylons just about wiped out the entire human race. Ditto for the Chief. Tigh is a drunk.

On the other hand, there is compelling drama in watching them deal with this seemingly hopeless situation, of fleeing the Cylons with a ragtag fleet, and only a handful of humans left.

This is actually just a response back to Jeff's comment that Helo's devotion was aggrevating. Actually, if we apply the POV of the blogger, Helo sparkles with moral luck. Through his devotion, his life and the lives of many others have been saved (CD, Farm, Home, Home 2, Pheonix). In one particular episode, his Sharon leads the President to the tomb which holds the coordinates to Earth (Home 2), and in another she saves the whole fleet and the remnants of humanity from certain death from a Cylon task force (Pheonix). From the POV of the orginal poster, Helo is one of the greatest heros and an epitomb of goodness, regardless of the fact that Sharon is a Cylon.

I wouldn't say that someone is one of the greatest heroes simply because some inadvertent consequences were very good. We do consider people heroes if their efforts to achieve something good turn out good, and we don't give them as much credit if they fail. That doesn't mean accomplishing things they didn't intend are always going to be filled with such glowing praise. In this case it's particularly mixed, because his motivation was mostly to save her from the Cylons who would kill her for betraying them, but he may have had in mind that she could help them. If so, then he is to be credited with the successes due to her, but he's also to some degree at fault for some of the bad that happened because of her presence, even if the people doing it are much more at fault.

Also, I wasn't endorsing everything people say about moral luck. In fact, my comments about sin and corruption in the world were partly to suggest that we don't always think properly about these things, so the fact that we evaluate people the way we do doesn't show that it's right to do so. Most moral luck observations are about how we do evaluate people. Some people take them as a sign that we should, but some want to resist it on some or even all points (as I'm sure Immanuel Kant would). I wasn't really giving a point of view. I was simply musing on what many philosophers have said about these sorts of cases and how the show illustrates those points very well.

The reality of Battlestar Galactica's characters is that there is no differecnce between Cylons and Humans. They're both sentient beings. Both are essentially human and human counterparts. Resolve this point and the storyline comes into a clearer view. The difference lies in their belief systems about each other and themselves. The differeces between them could, like one post stated, be like the difference between Nazis & Jews or Slaves and Slave Masters or or any other oppressor / opressed group but with an in teresting twist. Consider this: Give an oppressed group the power to nearly annihilate their oppressors who barely escape extinction. Throw in the mix that both oppressor and oppressed have strict black and white beliefs about the opposite group and you have the conflict of the Cylons and Humans in Battlestar Galactica. Then make it interesting by developing cracks in each group's belief system regarding the other group - then what happens? Moral Cylons emerge...or possibly Christian Cylons emerge lining their actions up with their beliefs regarding their one true God? Humans loving Cylons? Humans and Cylons working toward reconciliation, healing and forgiveness and peace where they both celebrate their similarities and differences? Maybe. Maybe not. Both groups are fragile in their character and potential for both evil amd good, herosim and despotism and everything in between these continuums. The genious of Battlestar is that it holds us to a mirror revealing us for who we really are as humans and our human nature - in that our character is on a continuum influenced by belief, experience, circumstances both in and out of our control, our thoughts, feelings and our choices. We're not as good as we think we are and we're maybe not as bad as we think we are in regard to moral comparason of each other and ourselves, hence moral fragility. In this light everything seems somewhat subjective and relative. Objectivity or relativeism in moral character comes in who we compare ourselves to. If it is to each other and ourselves it is relative, subjective and fragile. If we compare ourselves to something or someone much higher than ourselves who is perfect and unchanging in character or nature it shows that although we all may work within a moral continuum of good and evil we're all basically the same or at least in the same boat regardless of the belief system we attest to. Battlestar precicely points this fact out even if we don't want to see it this way because we want clear cut heros and villians. We all fall short. We're all capable of great acts of both good and evil just like Cylons & Humans. Who then do we compare ourselves to to get an honest perspective about human nature? Probably to something beyond humanity. Probably to something within the Christian (possibly Cylon) worldview regarding Good and Evil, sin and redemption and the perfect nature of God in comparason to our pendulum swinging, changing nature on the continuum of good and evil, sin or redemption in the light of free will to choose life or death.

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