Apocalyptic Revelations Regarding Contemporary Ethics

Movies are made to entertain today, not to predict tomorrow. Unfortunately, movies are the only reference frame that most non-specialists have for thinking about the future. As a result, plot elements used for entertainment value are frequently treated like realistic best guesses about the future.

Inaccuracy on matters of fact costs a film little entertainment value. Audiences notice neither guns that knock back their targets without recoil nor isolated hobbit villages with all the material benefits of global trade. By contrast, failures to endorse common sense morality will be immediately upsetting. Films like Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto portray societies with extremely non-modern moralities. To appeal to a contemporary audience, such movies must present protagonists who mysteriously embrace the morality of our society rather than their own. Thus, while popular film provides an unreliable guide to possible reality, it provides a reliable guide to our actual morality.

As the president of the Singularity Institute, my greatest professional challenge is to convince people to embrace common sense morality even when common sense is in agreement with carefully laid out philosophical arguments. It is therefore convenient, when asked “Is this morally obligatory?” to be able to answer that “It’s treated as morally obligatory in the film Terminator Salvation”. Movies are one of the most ethical ways we can watch global genocide, as we work out our real feelings about such difficult moral questions as “Is genocide good?”.

“The living will envy the dead”

The conventional wisdom with regard to nuclear war is summed up by the phrase “the living will envy the dead”. If we believe it, then how convenient for our heroes that after the nuclear war there are abundant killer robots available to help them to enter the latter category. But wait… John Connor is our hero… and it turns out that he’s the guy responsible for making all these poor survivors go trudging on through life. This is surely not for their benefit. Then why is it the right thing to do?

Is it for the children? I don’t think so. We normally consider it irresponsible to disadvantage one’s children by bearing them out of wedlock, perhaps as an unemployed teenager with no social network. As disadvantaged situations go though, that’s just peanuts in comparison to being tossed into a resistance squadron to wage all-but-hopeless war for a slim chance of living to walk free through a radioactive wasteland!

Obviously then, the worthy motivation that keeps Connor and his men going is concern for future generations who might some day again walk upon the restored Earth. This sort of concern for future generations is something people necessarily find in any culture that lasts long enough to be remembered. One can easily do the math, count the people who could live in their trillions, their trillions of trillions, and their trillions of trillions of trillions, but you don’t need the calculation to feel the right answer and know. And yet the most common excuse I hear for why it isn’t worth doing anything with a whole of the future at stake is that we shouldn’t count future generations, that morality is only about the living, and that it doesn’t matter if people will die so long that there is no one left to notice. For those who really think that, I say tell it to the public. Tell an inspiring story that assumes the moral neglect of everyone who could be. Convince your audience that once the world has been ruined we should pity those poor, confused resistance fighters and root for the terminators.

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