The Courage to See, the Courage to Kill

Featured image’s source is NASA.

The struggle between enlightenment and spirit, detached reason and emotionally embedded life, is one of the characteristic conflicts of modernity. It has played out in arguments and in art, in politics and policy. Charles Taylor has traced the contours of this and related conflicts with remarkable skill and subtlety.

The 1954 science fiction story “The Cold Equations” is a useful example. A middling midcentury parable that is long on exposition and short on plot, it sets up a stark scenario in which fellow feeling and detached reason are at odds, but the latter must necessarily triumph.

Author Tom Godwin describes a future in which resource constraints on the frontier of space allow for almost no margin of error. They give ships just enough fuel for the exact amount of mass they are carrying. So any stowaway must be tossed out into the void immediately, or there won’t be enough fuel to decelerate, and everyone aboard will die.

When the pilot realizes a stowaway is aboard, he seeks a cold, detached outlook:

He leaned back in the pilot’s chair and drew a deep, slow breath, considering what he would have to do. He was an EDS pilot, inured to the sight of death, long since accustomed to it and to viewing the dying of another man with an objective lack of emotion, and he had no choice in what he must do. There could be no alternative — but it required a few moments of conditioning for even an EDS pilot to prepare himself to walk across the room and coldly, deliberately, take the life of a man he had yet to meet.

If you empathize with the stowaway, if you give in to natural human impulses and see the horror of what must be done, you may not be able to go through with it. And  it was what must be done; there could be no doubt about it.

Of course, his mental preparation is thrown through a loop when he discovers that the stowaway is not a man, but a 16-year-old girl. Godwin spends a lot of time establishing that, as someone who had never been on the frontier, she had no idea of the stakes, the razor thin edge that life rested on out there. She was on her way to see her brother, knew she was breaking the rules, but figured that at most there would be a fine.

The pilot checks to see if there’s another ship that could get her, but there isn’t. There are no other options. The rest of the story is quite straightforward; the girl slowly accepts her fate, and then meets it. Her fate is conferred on her by a cold, unforgiving universe, and the equations which dictate its logic.

Existence required order, and there was order; the laws of nature, irrevocable and immutable. Men could learn to use them, but men could not change them. The circumference of a circle was always pi times the diameter, and no science of man would ever make it otherwise. The combination of chemical A with chemical B under condition C invariably produced reaction D. The law of gravitation was a rigid equation, and it made no distinction between the fall of a leaf and the ponderous circling of a binary star system. The nuclear conversion process powered the cruisers that carried men to the stars; the same process in the form of a nova would destroy a world with equal efficiency. The laws were, and the universe moved in obedience to them. Along the frontier were arrayed all the forces of nature, and sometimes they destroyed those who were fighting their way outward from Earth. The men of the frontier had long ago learned the bitter futility of cursing the forces that would destroy them, for the forces were blind and deaf; the futility of looking to the heavens for mercy, for the stars of the galaxy swung in their long, long sweep of two hundred million years, as inexorably controlled as they by the laws that knew neither hatred nor compassion. The men of the frontier knew — but how was a girl from Earth to fully understand? h amount of fuel will not power an EDS with a mass of m plus x safely to its destination. To him and her brother and parents she was a sweet-faced girl in her teens; to the laws of nature she was x, the unwanted factor in a cold equation.

As Taylor commented, the implicit defect in those unable to yield to the cold equations is not stupidity, but cowardice. The pilot must be brave enough to see beyond the sweet-faced girl in her teens to the immutable reality of their situation. The stowaway must have the courage to see beyond the unfairness of it all and die without resisting. No one denies the unfairness; every official they contact understands the breech in protocol in not having killed her immediately. But the unfairness changes nothing of consequence; she must die.

This story was not written at the beginning of the Enlightenment; it shows signs of a world that has passed through the Romantic critique and the many struggles within and across each side. The defender of courageously detached reason can acknowledge the validity of the romantic’s feelings while caging them inside a hard reality understood on their terms. To say that the pilot should have done otherwise because the girl was young and didn’t know any better, or lived a life surrounded by love, or simply because it isn’t fair—that is childish naivete. And that is all. The cold equations are what they are, and fairness doesn’t enter into it.

It is, as I said, a story of middling quality. Not bad, but not especially remarkable. What keeps it from being forgotten is the manner in which it has distilled an aspect of this conflict, and a particular picture of the relationship between each side.

Who can deny the inescapable, unforgiving facts?

When the battleground overwhelmingly favors the enemy army, only a fool would march in to meet them there. So it can be conceded that “The Cold Equations” is a parable that reveals something, without proceeding to apply its message to every conceivable situation.

Similarly, “don’t read the comments” is generally good advice, but I must admit this one (on the Chinese one-child policy) tickled me when I read it:

Some idiot on the internet wrote something claiming that a story like Cold Equations is written so we can vicariously push a girl out the air lock. There is no rule that says the story has to go that way. If you want to search endlessly for examples where forced abortion makes you feel alright about your priors, please be my guest. We do not live in that world.

There’s a rhetoric to stories, and especially how they are invoked. Courageous and detached reason can all too quickly be transformed into cowardice of a different sort. The kind of cowardice that shrugs and says “I guess it is written in the stars that I have to kill you on this day,” thereby absolving yourself of responsibility.

And what is this detachment, anyway? In “The Cold Equations,” it only matters at all because the life of the pilot matters, as do the lives of the six people he is on his way to deliver lifesaving medicine to. We must be careful not to detach ourselves too far, lest we stop caring about why we’re using this detached reason in the first place!

Attachment to the ideal of detached reason runs deep. Every attempt to resuscitate it in philosophy struggles to smuggle in other ideals that reason is not so detached about. Adam Smith spoke of an “impartial spectator,” “the man within the breast,” whose judgment we should seek to align with. Applying John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” entails judging a situation like the one “The Cold Equations” without knowing whether we would be the pilot or the stowaway.

These ostensibly bring other ideals in because all that has been detached are those facets that cloud our judgment, such as our interests owing to our particular role in the situation. An impartial spectator isn’t inhuman; he simply doesn’t have a stake in the situation. The veil of ignorance is a thought experiment in which we have a stake—in that we could turn out to be any one of the people in the given situation—but it’s probabilistic; we could end up getting the short or long end of the stick.

Each form of detachment requires a theory of what offsets it. Pursued alone, it becomes dehumanizing.

The ambitions of Cartesian or Lockean reason simply overreach, in my view. We can recognize the importance of having the courage to face terrible facts, and the integrity to face duties that run against our interest, and the humility to reach out to other people when we know our own perspective has become too confining. But this does not seem so very different from the many ethical struggles we face every day.

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