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?
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
If you could read my mind, would you?