Tuesday, May 05, 2009


If you could read my mind, would you?

If you possessed the power of mind control, would you use it for the good of society, or would you consider such use to violate a fundamental human right?

Screenwriters and novelists seem to be of two minds about these important ethical questions. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien displays a lively awareness of the moral dangers posed by superpowers. In The Hobbit, for instance, Bilbo's ring of invisibility must be handled with care. Almost as soon as it falls into his hands, Bilbo is tempted to take advantage of it. He resists the urge to kill Gollum under cover of invisibility, but he can't quite overcome the temptation to sneak up on his friends the dwarves and then take full credit for his amazing ability to evade detection.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, can be entrusted with an Invisibility Cloak with no real danger to his moral well-being. He uses it to circumvent Hogwarts' rules and regulations, especially those regarding curfew, but he is never seriously tempted to become a bully or a sneak.

Mind-reading must be an even more dangerous superpower, as mind-readers become accustomed to a routine violation of the most fundamental boundaries of personhood and privacy. On Heroes, Matt Parkman seems to have some ability to control his power: in order to get into the minds of his enemies (or girlfriend), he has to do a little squinty glance, jutting his chin out for emphasis. (Facial expressions are extremely important on that show: time-travel, for instance, is linked to squeezing your eyes shut and scrunching your nose.) It is taken for granted that Parkman is entitled to use his power. Certainly when bad guys are chasing him (as they generally are), he has to use whatever means are at his disposal to evade capture. Using mind control to get his ex-wife to remarry him, however, is taboo. There are some limits on the legitimate use of superpowers, but much more emphasis is placed in the show on the moral imperative of tolerance: the true ethical dilemma is not for the Heroes to use their powers responsibly but for the rest of society to accept and tolerate their presence. There is, of course, the standard choice between good guys and bad guys, but so long as you're not slicing people's skulls open, you're good.

If fantasy writers tend, as a group, to reject a wholesale ban on the use of superpowers, they also tend to avoid the opposite ethical position: that those with superpowers have an obligation to use them for the good of humanity. In the Twilight novels, for instance, Edward has both superhuman strength and the capacity to read minds. At one point in his life (or, rather, his undeath), he was a crimefighter, tracking down murderers and sucking their blood. Edward now rejects this uneasy compromise between appetite and conscience and leads a vegetarian lifestyle. Even when Bella is being stalked by would-be rapists, Edward recognizes a moral imperative to restrain his anger but does not consider himself bound to use his abilities to prevent similar crimes from being committed against other victims. In Meyer's Edward's-eye-view version of Twilight she makes it clear that Edward arranges for the would-be rapist to be conveniently arrested, but this brief foray into crimefighting is a sideline rather than a full-time vocation. Indeed, at no time in the original novel are readers asked to consider whether it is right for Edward to spend his time pretending to attend high school and spooning with Bella rather than eliminating the various horrific crimes that he is uniquely equipped to prevent.

That omission - both on Meyer's part and on most readers' - reflects, perhaps, the general principle that our moral obligations are influenced by proximity. My strongest moral duties are to my family; beyond that I have a duty to those with whom I have a relationship either personally or professionally. This circumscription of my moral duties reflects my own limitations of time and resources. But superpowers tilt the scales a bit. What if I have abilities that no one else has? Can I spend my time playing chess and composing piano pieces, acknowledging obligations only to my family? Or do I have a responsibility to do for the rest of humanity the things that only I am equipped to do?

What do you think are the ethical obligations of mind-readers? Would any use of such power be an unjustifiable violation of privacy? Would such a power incur an obligation to prevent crime? Or are mind-readers entitled to live their own lives just like the rest of us?


jess said...

Great topic. I haven't been here in a while.

Have you seen Hancock? Explores the choice between leading a private life and sacrificing the chance to, using his superpowers to help people.

It's a very Biblical theme, dontcha think? For ex. Jesus had the choice between living a normal human life (love, marriage, home, children, etc), watching humanity slowly die and trading all of the chances at a "normal" life for sacrifice.

Actually that's a pretty common theme in comic book narratives. Spider Man, Batman..I like the idea that comics are our culture's mythology and have much deeper themes than they appear to on the surface.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I'd say that anyone -- whether he has superpowers or not -- has an obligation toward what's in front of him. So for example if you see a cat stuck in a tree, and you're a good climber, you have an obligation to rescue the cat. However you do not have an obligation to find all the stuck cats (or whatever) in the world and rescue them.

If I were a mind-reader I'd live in a cave to drown out the noise!

Bea said...

Jennifer - But what if you're not a good climber, but you CAN fly. If rescuing the cat means blowing your cover, are you justified in letting the cat stay stranded?

Veronica Mitchell said...

It's worth comparing how we view the power of wealth: to what extent are we obligated to use wealth for other people's benefits vs. using it to maintain the boundaries and pleasures of a private life?

Your last two paragraphs reminded me of a point Harriet Jacobs made about slavery in her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She pointed out that slave-owners' promises and duties were to their family first, and to their slaves last. So if their children would be financially hurt by emancipating their slaves, they would leave the servants in bondage, even if they had promised otherwise. The primary moral obligation was to family, so they claimed righteousness even as they broke promises and perpetuated misery.

Gwen said...

Say wha? You couldn't possibly be a professor of literature, could you?

Having your mind read is super-creepy: I once knew this guy who sort of could--long story--but didn't when I asked him not to because he was, you know, an ethical hero (at least in his own mind). I think his powers depended on proximity, too, though, which seems like it would probably be de riguer for mind reading, right? So I don't know that mind reading would be a superpower that has wide scale use, really, since you'd always have to figure out where the bad guys were and then get there to stop them, and that in itself could be prohibitively time consuming.

There is this idea, though, that saving the world takes some tremendous personal sacrifice. Only it seems as if the the so-called saintly aren't exactly prepared to do it. Think, for example, of Paul Farmer (the Haiti doctor, whose wife and daughter live far from him in France) or Greg Mortensen and his 3 cups of tea (also generally far distant from his family). I mean, it's kind of great for these men--they get offspring and supportive wives and still get to feel all noble about saving the world. But what about their children, who certainly didn't sign on for this particular life and get the pointy short end of the parenting stick?

Or says the child of missionaries who shipped her off to boarding school so they could concentrate on doing god's work (not bitter, nope, not me.).

Mad said...

Well it's a continuum right? The question is, where does one align oneself?

Pure Libertarian: the person with super powers is only ever answerable to him/herself and has no obligation to society as a collective whatsoever.

Socialist: The person with superpowers should use those powers primarily for the benefit of society as a whole because that is what will bring fulfillment to the greatest number of individual lives. The use of the superpower must, however, be governed by a collectively established ethical code.

Fascist: the abilities of those with superpowers supercede the rights of others such that they can use those powers to invade the privacy of all if it would mean seeking out and punishing the few whose behaviours are deemed deviant.

Of course, that's a reductivist breakdown on my part and there are ethical issues that impinge on each philosophical/political stance. There is also the reality that "society" as I have used it above is not a fixed entity but rather a collective that is always in flux and that often stands in opposition to other collectives (e.g. region vs nation; local vs global).

My question for you is, "are you trying to elicit comments from us that will show the inner workings of our own minds such that you can then claim the super power for yourself?" Because if you are, I fell for the bait hook, line and sinker.

Bea said...

Veronica and Gwen - There's a fascinating tension between your two comments, in that Veronica talks about a situation where someone justifies a clearly wrong action by citing a duty to one's children, while Gwen talks about the reverse problem - those who neglect their children citing a duty to the world at large.

The single principle that applies to both cases, though, is that the moral duties that are most onerous are the ones only we can fulfill: if you have children, NO ONE else can take your place in their lives - others may step in and do their best to make up the shortfall, but there is no way to replace the parent. The same cannot be said about work serving the community, where the ability and responsibility to help is generally more widely shared. In the case of a slave owner, however, the slaves have the same claim that children have - if YOU won't help us, no one else can.

The bystander effect testifies to our instinctive sense of this rule: if I am the sole witness to a crime, I'll step in to intervene, even at personal risk, but in a crowd I'll hold back because responsibility is diffused amid the group. And clearly there is still a responsibility to act in cases where no one else WILL, not just cases when no one else CAN. But I don't think the first class of moral duties can ever trump the second - that is, it's never right to neglect the real needs of your children for the sake of a larger cause.

This is part of my point in relation to superheroes, though. As non-superheroes, we have the luxury of being replaceable - our moral responsibilities are limited precisely by our ordinariness, the fact that there are other people with similar or even greater abilities all around us, equipped to meet the needs that we aren't meeting. But if you have a superpower, it's almost as if you become a parent to the entire world, equipped to help everybody in ways that nobody else is.

Which still doesn't really answer the question of whether it's right to read people's minds, even for a good cause.

Bea said...

Mad - Bwahahahahaha! Also, I love you.

As for the fascist option, is it problematic only because those powers would inevitably be abused and perverted to the purpose of consolidating the power of the government? Or is there something more inherently wrong with placing crime prevention ahead of the principle that people's minds are essentially their own? If there could be some kind of guarantee that this power would only ever be used responsibly, SHOULD the user be willing to use mind control for the sake of preventing crime?

Mad said...

Bea: I guess it comes down to where you stand on the whole "innocent until proven guilty" pillar of justice. In my fascist example, I was equating the superpower with martial law. In a situation of martial law, the governing body has the power to supercede individual rights without due cause. It is true that Fascist regimes tend to be corrupt but even if there was an ethical overlay, an enlightened despotism, say, there is still that niggly problem of due cause getting in the way of superpower use.

Mad said...

It is clear that I lean toward socialist on the contimuum, though. But you didn't need me to say that, did you, b/c you had already read my blog, er, mind.

Bea said...

Somehow I completely forgot the highly relevant designation of the Imperius curse as an Unforgivable Curse in the Harry Potterverse. Again, it's something that's taken basically for granted - you have a significant body of people with the power to control the actions of others, and the Ministry of Magic has placed that power completely off-limits, not to be used for good OR evil. (Not that that stops Harry from using the curse when necessary in Book 7. Apparently, the need to save the world justifies turning someone into a human puppet.)

Andrea said...

I liked Jennifer's and Veronica's points, and I think there is danger in seeing our own powers as "ordinary." They seem ordinary to us because we are surrounded by other people with the same powers; but the wealth, resources, powers and freedoms enjoyed by those of us in the western world are tremendous. It's like we're all mind-readers living in a society of mind-readers, where some lucky few can also fly. Adn we focus on the rarity of flying because we've all learned to take mind-reading for granted.

You already know which direction I lean on this one: if I can do something, whether or not someone else can do it (or even if they can do it better), I have a moral obligation to do so--unless there is a competing claim that is greater. So, I wouldn't ignore Frances's diet, shelter, education for a moral cause; but I might very well ignore her toy chest etc.

Obviously it's a standard that invites daily failure, but I still believe this. We *are* all superheroes; and we use our superpowers to build up superwardrobes and superknowledge of supercelebrities.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Well, let's see. If by blowing your cover you're impacting your ability to save any cats in the future... I don't know. Maybe one could mask one's flying as climbing.


In Ursula LeGuin's fantasy stories, the all-powerful wizards are obliged NOT to act -- until the work in front of them can only be done by them & no one else. Partly I think this is about not interfering in the unfolding of the universe; partly it's about not being lazy; and also, you never really know if your actions are for good or ill.

Have you read The Lathe of Heaven?

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I'm an equivocator so LeGuin's stance appeals to me. I'm probably right but I might be wrong, so --- hm. I'll wait. Maybe the issue will resolve itself.

Bea said...

Jennifer - As I recall, the reason given in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone for the secrecy surrounding the magic world is that if people knew about wizardry, they'd lose all incentive to solve their own problems. Does that play into the obligation not to act in LeGuin's books? - the idea that powerful wizards might have a dehumanizing effect on those around them who are robbed of the opportunity to develop their own problem-solving skills?

Bea said...

Andrea - I think the global situation is such that now most of our moral instincts let us down. It's instinctive to feel less moral responsibility for those far removed from our day-to-day lives, but it's no longer the case that our actions have no effect on those who live thousands of miles away from us.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

LeGuin's wizards are obliged not to act because they might upset the balance of things.

In her world no one gets anything for free. Harnessing the power of the wind to move one's boat, let's say, robs wind from elsewhere in the world. And who knows whether the wind was needed in that other place? --- She's saying that not only should one take care in interfering in other people's lives, but that one should take care in interfering with the functioning of (for lack of a better word) nature.

Also wizardry has serious consequences for the wizard. In her world a wizard would rather climb a tree to rescue a cat than fly up there.

Another writer with this philosophy is Molly Gloss (see: Dazzle of Day).

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Query: If mind-reading gives the mind reader an incapacitating migraine, does that affect his obligation to act?

Mad said...

This post and these commenters here? This is why I love the Internet.

Jennifer, you make me laugh out loud.

Andrea said...

Jennifer, I think it depends. If you're mind-reading to get someone's coffee order, then the migraine's not worth it; if you're mind-reading to figure out if someone's planning on assassinating the king, the migraine's probably cheap.

It's all a cost-benefit analysis, isn't it? There's a cost of acting and a cost of not-acting, and a benefit of acting and a benefit of not-acting. On balance, one will have a lower cost/higher benefit than the other, most of the time.

I like le Guin's philosophy, and it has some parallels in wicca--magic will only work if you are also busting your ass in the regular way. No shortcuts. (eg. if you want a job, the world's bestest and most fanciest spell will not get you a job unless you are also handing out resumes.) Would this apply to superpowers? Would mind-reading *work* if you could just ask someone what they were thinking and get a reasonable answer?

Bea, I think that's true, and I also think that we often call something a "moral" when it's really just selfishness. I'm under no illusion that when I buy Frances a nice outfit from Baby Gap that it is, essentially, an immoral thing to do--it makes her happy and it makes me happy to see her looking lovely and being happy, but on balance the cost far outweighs those small benefits.

I wouldn't call our kin-biased calculations of effort and reward morality, in other words. I'd call it a canny evolutionary strategy for maximizing reproductive success, and the very definition of selfishness.

Bea said...

Andrea - I'll concede that the Baby Gap outfit could be an act of selfishness, but would you make the same point for the time and effort we squander on our children, which is far out of proportion to the time and effort we spend on the other six billion or so people in the world? If I devote several hours of each day to the emotional well-being of my children by playing with them and fostering their language development, am I giving them more than their fair share of the energy I ought to be dividing equally among all citizens of the world?

painted maypole said...

fortunately I don't believe people can actually read minds, otherwise i would be very, very paranoid

Andrea said...

No, because no one else can give our children what they need from us; parents are irreplaceable, and our attention and devotion are what allow them to grow up and become functional, empathic adults as opposed to axe-murderers. Saving a portion of the rainforest is not worth producing another psychopath.

But there is a point beyond which attention and devotion not only harm and stunt the child (preventing them from becoming independent, teaching them narcissism, etc.) but which seriously reduce the adult's ability to be an adult, participating in the wider community. I mean, Frances gets plenty of my time and attention; I still volunteer. And I consider that an important part of parenting her.

There's a balance, right? There's a point at which it's disastrous to the child and the community *not* to spend more attention on the child; there's a point at which it's disastrous to the child and the community to spend too much attention on the child. I'd call neither of those morality.

Lisa b said...

I'll earn no participation marks today but I enjoyed the class professor bea ;)

Carrien said...

Just for fun I'm thinking of some other shows that ask a similar question.

In 24, torture or illegal action, forgetting a prisoners rights for 15 minutes or so are always justified by the greater crisis of needing to save millions of other lives by extracting information form one person. Sacrificing one person's life is justified to save many. But the show always asks at the same time if it really is necessary. Jack doesn't have super powers, but her does have interrogation skills. There is always something only he can do or lives will be lost. The show actually addresses this issue of responsibility and power quite consistently, always coming down on the side of justifying action for the greater good in the end. (But this season is kind of sucking and I find myself just waiting for it to be over already, all the characters are like puppets of themselves.)

I find myself thinking of Lost as well, season five after reading some of Andrea's comments. There is the episode where Sahid shoots 10 year old Ben Linus in order to stop him from growing up to be so evil, and Jack refuses to operate on him and save his life, because he grows up so evil, and by doing that they both unwittingly create the very thing they were hoping to destroy, (Thanks to time travel for that to be possible.) The irony is perfect.

OK that's a bit off topic.

FOr my real answer I"m going to go the theological route and claim that, since God, all powerful, etc. seems to restrict himself for the sake of our freedom being real and meaningful, and chooses to mostly work through people who are choosing to be obedient rather than do it himself in order to preserve our freedom, I'm going to guess that using power unethically would be wrong even if the end seemed to justify it. It's certainly not something Jesus ever did even when he answered people's thoughts. oops, conundrum yet again. darn. thought I solved it. :)

Mary G said...

I like Marion Zimmer Bradley's take on it; her laran gifted characters use their powers to the benefit of society. They are a public service caste.