Babylon 5: Believers. The Trolley Problem.

This discussion started in the Babylon 5 fan group. There is a rule in the group that disallows all politics and religion that isn’t part of the show from being discussed in the group. If a post strays too far into the real world, the moderators will delete it. I know why moderators do this, but I don’t honestly care. It is unrealistic to expect human beings to be able to separate their beliefs from the entertainment that they enjoy. This is especially true of shows like Babylon 5 or Star Trek, shows that are always tweaking politics and religion in the course of their storytelling. Discuss any episode of the show without straying into weighty matters of philosophy or politics. Go ahead and try.

The long and the short of why I started the article this way is, I have no idea how long the writing I’ve done on the subject will exist within the Facebook group. It just takes one religious zealot, one antitheist, and the thread goes poof. Can you blame me that I want to export the writing so as preserve it?

This image is from the Babylon 5 episode Believers. Here is a link to a synopsis of the episode in case you haven’t seen it or if you don’t want to spend an hour watching the show right now. Also, you should stop reading now if you don’t want any spoilers before you watch the episode, because this article will be full of them.

Still with me? Okay then, here we go. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The OP included this statement with the image, “I still remember how outraged I was when I saw it the first time.” A sentiment that I wholeheartedly endorse. When the episode aired back in 1994 I was furious when the credits rolled. As a young parent myself, I couldn’t imagine how any parent could be so blind as to do what the parents did in the final scenes of the episode. The story revolves around a sick child:

Shon, a young alien boy, has developed a “congested blockage in his upper air passages.” When Dr. Franklin explains to Shon’s parents that Shon’s condition can be cured by a fairly routine surgical procedure, the parents seem bewildered. “You will cut him open?” they ask, and explain that the “Chosen of God” cannot be “punctured” — for their souls will escape.

The main conflict of the episode, quoted above, is introduced in the teaser opening. The show starts this way for a reason and develops the way it does specifically in service to the moral quandary of the problem the episode will focus on. “Oh, but his soul!” say his parents. The soul is unmeasurable, unidentifiable. The soul, for the purposes of this episode, is non-existent. The McGuffin, in scriptwriting terms.

There are other episodes of the show where the soul is treated as a physical or at least a detectable energy presence. The episode Soul Hunter, eight episodes before this one in the first season, springs immediately to mind as an example of this. So the problem isn’t that there are no souls in the show, or that the writer, David Gerrold, didn’t flesh out the story well enough. It is simply necessary in this episode that the presence of the soul cannot be detected because if it could be verified as being present after the surgery, then there is no moral quandary. There is no story to tell.

When I ran across the thread discussing the episode it already had over 100 comments. However, in reading through the comments I found a near absence of understanding of the purposeful moral dilemma presented by the story. Comments like this one,

Sorry, but I call BS on that one. “Unmeasurable, unidentifiable; AKA, non-existent.” Is nothing more than an argument to silence. For the vast majority of human history things like cells, atoms, and gravity were “Unmeasurable, unidentifiable;” so they were “AKA, non-existent”, right? Just because it is not (yet) measurable does not mean it does not exist. 

As I have mentioned a number of times about this episode, the reasons for this particular belief were not addressed. That’s either a failure of Franklin or David Gerrold.

His willingness to blame the writer and actor simply reveals his beliefs on this particular subject. His rejection of the argument is far more revealing of his moral rigidity and lack of understanding of the mechanics of storytelling than it is a truthful observation about the episode and the moral quandary that it contains.

Like the trolley problem, there is no right answer to this problem. In the trolley problem you are asked to choose between taking one life or five under varying circumstances. When the problem is framed one way, you predominantly get an answer that underscores utilitarian ethics; i.e. most people will choose to sacrifice one life to save five. However, when the problem is framed another way, usually requiring the person making the decision to take an active physical role in the decision by pushing a person onto the tracks to stop the trolley, as one example, most people will chose to allow the five people to die.

The problem here, narrowly defined, is medical intervention vs. natural selection. The doctor is required to help his patients. He makes a reference to this fact when he alludes to taking a medical oath to do no harm. The good doctor saw his moral obligation as at least attempting to save the child’s life. The child will end up dead no matter what the doctor does. Of course, neither he nor the audience knows this until the reveal at the end.

The parents knew their child was dying. They expected to find him dead when they are summoned back to the medical lab the final time in the show. They’d said their goodbyes. The struggle was over. When he was instead alive and well when they returned, they knew that the doctor had violated their beliefs and saved the child against their wishes. So they acted on their beliefs and did what they thought should have been allowed to happen in the first place.

If the soul is measurable, produce a measurement. If it is definable, define it in a way that can be demonstrated empirically. In this specific episode of Babylon 5 there was no measurement, no definition. In the world that we exist in, believers have been trying to prove the existence of the soul for hundreds of years. They have yet to demonstrate a single method for determining the properties of a soul, and yet few humans will step forward and say they have no soul. Why is this? The soul cannot be shown to be real by any measurement that we humans can attempt, and yet we all still believe that we all have a soul. That it is important we not deny the existence of our own souls.

The doctor is certain that the parents will see reason. He is certain about what his moral path is. The parents are certain that their child should be dead. They are certain of their moral path. The conflict is unresolvable, on purpose. You are supposed to question “what is the moral course?”

Delinn asks the only important question “Whose beliefs are the correct ones?” when she refuses to help the parents stop the operation. Whose beliefs are correct, and how do you demonstrate the correctness of your beliefs? What would have happened if the parents had accepted that their child was healthy but unchanged? If they had taken him home to their planet, would the rest of their people have recognized him as a demon on sight? Or would they have blithely accepted that medicine had saved the boy without sacrificing his soul? They wouldn’t know that he had been cut unless they could sense the change in his body like a soul hunter would in that other episode.

The boy’s parents did know, because they said goodbye to him minutes before he would have died only to return and find him alive and well. But if they could have accepted him, would anyone else have noticed? This was the lesson I learned from the episode and I’ve carried it with me ever since. You cannot save a child from their parents without removing the child from the parents. The separation has to be physical, and the child has to accept that this is the right thing to do. Without that action, without the agreement of the person you are trying to help, you will simply deliver the lamb to the slaughterer at another time and place, and you might as well have not bothered to make the attempt in the first place.

Act or not act, the outcome is the same in this story. The only question is, what was the moral thing to do? I still side with Dr. Franklin. You, however, are free to disagree.

The avalanche has already started; It is too late for the pebbles to vote.

Ambassador Kosh

Author: RAnthony

I'm a freethinking, unapologetic liberal. I'm a former CAD guru with an architectural fetish. I'm a happily married father. I'm also a disabled Meniere's sufferer.

Attacks on arguments offered are appreciated and awaited. Attacks on the author will be deleted.

%d bloggers like this: