Monday, May 05, 2008

Why ethicists needs to watch Star Trek

I have gotten grief over the years for my enjoyment of science fiction. Many see it as an art form devoid of maturity, suitable only for adolescent boys seeking wish fulfillment. But the fact is that science fiction is the story form of the moral dilemma. It allows one to put a character into extreme situations where ethics are pushed to their limit, and it works out the proper course of action. From 1984 to Star Trek (Guardian on the Edge of Forever) to The Matrix, it helps us to find the edges of our morality and find the human answers to hard questions.

The reason I bring this up is a new report from the American College of Chest Physicians which attempts to figure out how to properly triage patients during a worldwide pandemic. In an attempt to provide objective, universal guidelines, they have laid out an Orwellian nightmare where doctors are choosing which of us have more or less value. The old, the handicapped, and those with mental diseases are to be put to the bottom of the list. Is it reassuring to know that John McCain (old man), FDR (paralyzed from the waist down), and Abe Lincoln (extreme, crippling depressioN) might be left to die under these guidelines?

But science fiction has crossed this rubicon many times, in many different short stories, novels, television shows, and movies. The real human method of triage is simple and the same one used in battlefields all over the world. Treat the patient LEAST likely to die first, then the next, and so on. The only judgement required here is medical in nature, not ethical, and thus no doctor or medic is forced to make the impossible choices of whether a retarded boy, an old woman, or a seriously injured soldier is more "worthy" of treatment. The only question to ask is, "Who am I mostly likely to be able to save.

We need to send these people the DVDs to Firefly. Seriously.

1 comment:

Ward said...

It continually frustrates me when people with no imagination fail to grasp the deeper issues found in good sci-fi. Sure, there is some real junk out there in the sci-fi realm that doesn't do anything. But the original intent of science fiction was to bring social issues to the forefront by putting it in situations that were removed from our "reality" so that we could objectively consider the moral issues of the day.

From racism, nationalism, all the way to homophobia and virtually every human condition...It's all been tackled in science fiction. Used properly, it's an incredible medium for discussing the ills of society.