Singer, Nussbaum, trolley problem

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Philosophy in the World:  Choice and Humanity in “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.   To me, an important part of philosophy is the critical examination of topics and problems within our lives, in order to gain a greater understanding of them.  I find that video games provide a particularly interesting method by which to explore philosophical questions due to their inherent design as a creative and artistic medium.  Firstly, unlike any other medium (literature, film, etc.) the player is actively engaged; instead of watching a relatively abstracted character make choices, they must make the choice themselves based on the information available and take responsibility for the consequences.  Secondly, the ability to build a vastly intricate and detailed universe that can be explored at the player’s own pace provides an opportunity to delve deeply into complex issues in a manner that the comparatively compressed and linear nature of other artistic mediums cannot.  Both of these elements are skilfully integrated in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (stylised as Deus Ex: Hum∆n Revolution) is a 2011 action/stealth role-playing game and prequel to Deus Ex (2000) developed by Eidos Montreal and published by Square Enix.  The basic plot is thus:  The year is 2027.  You, the player, are placed into the (cybernetically enhanced) shoes of one Adam Jensen, an ex-SWAT officer who is now head of security at Sarif Industries, a private biotech company which is at the forefront of so-called “Augmentation” technology (“Aug” for short)—essentially, biomechanical enhancement of the human body through cybernetics and advanced prosthetics.  The plot starts with Sarif Industries preparing to announce a revolutionary technological breakthrough in the field of augmentation, when its headquarters are attacked by a mysterious team of enhanced mercenaries.  Jensen is fatally wounded and it is only through extensive augmentation surgery that he is able to survive.  Six months later, having recovered, he is tasked with uncovering the motive behind the attack, and stumbles upon a web of conspiracy that stretches from Detroit and Montreal to China and Singapore, and ultimately a high-tech research facility in the Arctic Ocean.

Although the game is rather delightfully over-the-top in certain respects (the protagonist has a pair of retractable sunglasses built into his face, and the main villains turn out to be the literal Illuminati), it poses several thought-provoking philosophical conundrums.  Although the world of Deus Ex is painted as a futuristic dystopia, it is one that is often uncomfortably close our own world.  With the current rate of real-life technological advancement and societal unrest, it is not difficult to imagine ourselves in a similar position within the foreseeable future, and the questions raised in Human Revolution, though fictionalised, bear close examination.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution essentially poses the question:  how would the people of today react to augmentation technology?  Humanity is at the cusp of a veritable technological Renaissance, and biomechanical marvels are produced at a rate never before seen; yet wealth disparity is huge and society is more divided than ever, corporations operate with little to no restriction, and corruption is endemic.  The optimism presented by the potential of augmentation is counterbalanced by the unethical machinations of shadowy organisations determined to twist these technologies for their own purposes.  Augmentation is a controversial topic that suffuses every stratum of society.  On one hand, it grants a decisive advantage: anything from artificial arms capable of throwing a vending machine with deadly force (yes, you can kill enemies with vending machines in this game), to a “social enhancer” that can manipulate other people via pheromone secretions.  This puts those with the wealth to afford augmentations in a physically superior position to those too poor or unhealthy to afford them, exacerbating societal inequality as people are essentially forced to become augmented in order to remain competitive.  However; there is a high cost to augmentation, as all enhanced human must take regular doses of specialised drugs for life or risk rejection syndrome, and must face the possibility that their augmentations may soon become outdated.  Augmented humans also face societal discrimination, which escalate to full-scale violent anti-aug riots as the game’s events progress.

Throughout the game, Jensen interacts with a variety of characters, each of whom provide a different perspective.  Some will compliment or express envy at your state-of-the-art augs; others will disparagingly refer to you as a “hanzer” (short for “enhancer”, i.e. enhanced human) or “chrome boy”.  Still others just wish you’d leave them alone and let them get on with their lives.  The pro-augmentation side is best represented by David Sarif, the founder/CEO of Sarif Industries and Jensen’s boss, who believes that augmentation is the natural and inevitable next step in human evolution—essentially embodying the philosophy of transhumanism.  On the other side, there is the Humanity Front and its leader William Taggart, who lobby for heavy government regulation of augmentation.  No view is presented as being morally right; each have their own valid arguments and drawbacks.  While Sarif genuinely believes in the future of augmentation technology, exudes an air of bonhomie, and cares for his employees, he also has an unpleasantly pragmatic dimension and is willing to do questionable things in order to accomplish his goals.  Taggart initially comes across as uptight and demagogic, and more dubiously has connections to anti-aug terrorist groups, but nonetheless makes a very compelling case for increased governmental restriction of augs.  The issue is framed like a Socratic dialogue, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions.  By examining this conflict through the eyes of Adam Jensen, who has a personal stake in all this, the player is forced to engage the debate head-on.  Ultimately, no choice is inherently preferable over another; it is up to the player to decide whether Adam feels gratitude or resentment for his unwilling transformation into an augmented human.

Another pertinent question posed in Deus Ex: Human Revolution is that of what constitutes humanity itself, in a world where extensive augmentation surgery is increasingly becoming the norm.  The name Deus Ex itself is a play on the Greek expression Deus Ex Machina (literally “god out of the machine”), both a pun on the literary plot device and the concept of transhumanism, which allows humans to evolve beyond the limitations of the human body through technology.  However, despite his new-found power, Jensen is clearly uncomfortable with his current state.  It is heavily implied that he has fallen into severe depression and questions his own humanity as a result of the Sarif incident and his involuntary “upgrade”.  As the game progresses, Jensen encounters and fights the mercenaries who attacked the Sarif HQ, who themselves have replaced their natural limbs with mechanical arms with retractable miniguns or unguligrade leg prostheses, becoming more akin to living weapons than actual human beings.  This is especially highlighted in the penultimate “boss fight” of the game against the mercenary leader Jaron Namir, which takes place in a maze-like room filled with life-sized Bodyworlds-esque statues.  The only part of Namir that still appears to be organic is his face; the rest has been replaced with armoured plating that closely resembles the human musculoskeletal system—a skilful yet obviously artificial facsimile of the human body.  The contrast highlights the question: what is the cost of augmentation?

On a personal level, I find that a close philosophical examination of an artistic work helps me gain new insight into my own life and the world around me.  Video games are particularly adept at deconstructing and examining an issue.  Although a video game is ultimately a fictional simulation with no real-world consequences, the decisions made can be meaningful nonetheless.  One particularly noteworthy example in Human Revolution is a near-replica of Thomson’s Trolley Problem.  At one point in the story, Jensen infiltrates a mysterious facility owned by a private security company, and discovers a secret research complex in which kidnapped prisoners are being forcibly experimented upon.  A dissident lieutenant-commander and a scientist working there are willing to turn whistle-blower and expose the unethical doings of the base, but when the base’s commander catches wind of Jensen’s presence, he issues a lockdown order and releases a poison gas that will kill both the prisoners and the scientist.  The gas can be re-directed to save one or the other, but not both.  Suddenly, I was forced to make a complicated moral choice under time pressure.  Is the life of a single person more valuable than the lives of a hundred?  Does the exposure of the facility justify the cost of letting innocent people die?  These were the questions I was asking myself as the timer was counting down.  A Utilitarian such as John Stuart Mill might argue that the exposure of the facility would ultimately prevent more such incidents and lead to greater happiness in the long run (according to the Greatest Happiness Principle)—after all, without intervention, prisoners and scientist will die.  On the other hand, if “right trumps utility”, then it is surely preferable to save the lives of several hundred prisoners held against their will as opposed to a single scientist who voluntarily chose to work at the base (albeit without full knowledge of the ethical violations).  While I was familiar with the Trolley Problem in its various iterations, I never before had to confront the consequences of actually making a decision like this myself.  By being placed at the epicentre of a moral conundrum, I am forced to consider a perspectives that ordinarily may not even have occurred to me.   It is examination of moments like this in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and other works that have allowed me to gain a greater understanding of myself and the world around me.


Works Cited:

Plato, The Apology, 38a.

Eidos Montreal, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011).  Video Game.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Trolley ProblemThe Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, No. 6 (May, 1985)

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)

The Walking Dead

“The Walking Dead” TV show on AMC, based on the comics by Robert Kirkman, can be examined as a morality play that consistently deals with philosophical dilemmas through the characters and plot. The show creates an ideal philosophical situation where morality is constantly questioned through the need for survival versus the greater need for humanity. The philosophical conflicts are achieved by stripping the world of a structured society through a zombie apocalypse. This forces the characters to rely on their intuition and question whether there is a moral standard that is common among all humans. In particular there are two characters that contradict one another by showing the opposite arguments of the utilitarian debate. After season 2 Carol had become a pure utilitarian, arguing that the sacrifice of one for many is worth the pain since there is a greater amount of good achieved. She is opposed by Morgan who believes that lives can not be measured quantitatively, therefore no life should be spared for a greater purpose to achieve the highest amount of good in the world. This long-running debate examines a similar issue of the Trolley Problem, as proposed by Thomson. To me philosophy questions whether there is an inherent morality across the human race, as does the Trolley Problem proposed by Thomson and the characters within “The Walking Dead” universe.

The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment that presents a difficult moral decision. There is a trolley going down a hill and it has lost its ability to brake, therefore the trolley must choose a direction out of two paths. Currently it is going on a path where five people stand, thereby killing them if that path is chosen. The other path has one person standing, thereby killing them if that path is chosen. To chose the path with the singular person, the train conductor must change the path using the gear. In addition to this scenario there is another where you are a bystander who can change the path by pushing a gear on the side of the tracks.  Both of these scenarios apply to the show, where Morgan and Carol show the extremes of both sides. The dilemma lies in how one sees the gear shift. It can be viewed as killing the one or as saving the five. This distinction creates the foundation of ones morality, and the differences between Morgan and Carol.

Carol began the show as a mother of a young girl and a wife of an abusive husband. As her story progressed she experienced hardships that affected her and made her a tougher character, one that is willing to sacrifice anything for the greater good of the group. On two distinct occasions Carol showed how she is a pure utilitarian in her actions and choices. The first is in season 4 where the group, currently residing at a prison, is in danger due to a sickness spreading across the camp. This sickness seems to be deadly, but at the current moment it is contained to two people who are quarantined. Carol then takes it upon herself to save those in the group by burning the infected alive, thus killing them and the sickness. This can be paralleled to the Trolley Problem with the bystander, Carol sees an opportunity to hit the two people with the cart so save the hundreds. This is a mathematical and purely analytical utilitarian approach where the greatest good was achieved but at the cost of two innocent people.

Morgan was a father and husband to a wife who had become a zombie. After also facing pain and losing his family, he takes a different approach to coping with the hardships and becomes a non-violent and peaceful man. Morgan believes that all people can be saved, whether it is from others or themselves. He holds no value to a human life, only saying that every life must be defended and protected. This morality was seen in Morgan even before the pain he faced throughout the apocalypse. Morgan faces two dilemmas that puts his morality and ethics into question. The first is in the pilot episode, where Morgan must decide whether he should kill his zombie wife who roams the streets. He sits in the attic of a house aiming the gun on his former wife, a bystander not directly in the conflict. Morgan is incapable of completing the action because even though she has no more personality left or humanity, he still values her life as one not worth ending. This is mirrored in the Trolley Problem where one path is to let the cart continue as it should through the street and let it kill the five people, or kill the one. Morgan can not kill the one and instead let’s her roam free, eventually leading to his own sons death.

The second event for both characters is when they face one another and their conflicting ethics. In season 6, the camp is threatened by a man of the “Wolf” gang, he is captured by Morgan. Instead of killing him, Morgan chooses to rehabilitate him by keeping the Wolf in a cellar without the rest of the camp knowing. Carol finds out and the morality battle ensues. In this situation they are both the drivers of the trolley since they have been directly involved. Morgan views the Wolfs killing as exactly that, a murder. Whilst Carol see’s his potential death as the protection and saving of the rest of the camp. This difference is the moral dilemma of the Trolley, killing the one or saving the five? It is all dependent on the viewing of the situation. Morgan momentarily wins the argument by locking Carol in the cellar, during this time the Wolf escapes and eventually kills another member of the group. This moment illustrates Morgan’s ethics downfall, it shows that perhaps in a dyer situation there is a certain morality that must be used.

Although Morgan’s views almost always failed him, by having Carol counterpart him the audience can see that each person has a different set of inherent morals. They are formed through personal events and are very specific to how each person copes with their emotions. Without a society to create a standard of morality that is spread across the country, each person has a moral path that is true to them specifically. This perhaps proves that humans do not have an baseline of moral values, but instead humanity is defined differently by each person. Through the Walking Dead comics and other works of fiction, I take certain qualities and aspects of the most inspiring characters and engage in philosophy by creating my own moral grounds to follow based on what I believe is morally “good”.

Works Cited

“The Official Site from Robert Kirkman.” The Walking Dead. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “The Trolley Problem.” The Yale Law Journal 94.6 (1985): 1395. Web.

“The Walking Dead.” AMC. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.