Ethics: February 2006 Archives

Tom Brown just left the following comment on my Moral Luck in Battlestar Galactica post. Despite many serious spelling errors, I thought it was an excellent comment, so I'm highlighting it in a post of its own.

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 continuuma of good and evil, sin or redemption in the light of free will to choose life or death.

Eugene Volokh presents a paradox about blackmail in response to a letter someone sent a senator who was planning to vote for Alito that threatened to reveal that the senator was gay unless he voted no, a pretty despicable act (whether the senator is gay or not). The paradox is as follows.

1. Free speech rights allow me to publish embarassing information about someone (in many cases).
2. There's nothing immoral or illegal about asking for money in exchange for a service (in most cases).
3. But when 1 and 2 are combined, we call it blackmail and make it illegal. How can it be that the combination of two legal acts could make something illegal?

As I said in the comments on Eugene's post, there is a moral issue that comes in once you combine the two issues. That issue is what we call coercion. It's not coercion to make an offer to do something positive for someone if they do something for you. If they turn you down then you are no worse off. If it's wrong, it would have to be on other grounds. But if someone threatens you with a negative consequence if you don't do something for them, you are indeed worse off if you turn them down. That undermines the consent of your doing the action and thus puts it in a category with coercion. It's not coercion in the sense of being forced to do something with absolutely no choice, but it's like being forced to choose between a negative consequence and doing the unawanted action. That's indeed what happens when someone puts a gun to your head, so it's coercion in that exact sense. You can risk taking the bullet and not do what they ask, but it's a huge risk. The greater the risk, the greater the coercion.

As a non-lawyer, I can't comment on the legal issues, but that's the moral issue that makes combining 1 and 2 immoral while 1 alone or 2 alone is at least less immoral or even not immoral (depending on the circumstances, perhaps). These are the sorts of moral issues that laws often rely on. So I don't know if it's really counts as a paradox, or at least if it does then it's one that's easily solved.

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