Philosophy and Movies

Just because a movie is mediocre doesn't mean it isn't any good. You just have to pay attention.

The movie I, Robot came out last year. It was based on the book of short stories by Issac Asimov. We don't learn this until the end of the movie, but the specific short story it most resembles is "The Evitable Conflict" - the last story in the book. SPOILER ALERT! The movie reverses the message of the book. In the book, the master computer was making subtle changes to reduce the power of its opponents so that it could better pursue its goal of protecting mankind. This was presented as a good thing. In the movie, it does the same thing, only violently. At the climax, the computer explains that it had been trying to protect humanity, but people still insisted on smoking, going to war, etc. So it had to take control, which meant killing or imprisoning anyone who opposed it. This was presented as a bad thing.

That movie reminded me of the movie Rabbit Proof Fence. In that movie, the Australian government had a policy of removing mixed race children from their aboriginal families. The purpose was to prevent the establishment of a "third race", i.e. a mixture of white and aboriginal. At the end of the movie, the Kenneth Branagh character says: "If they'd only understand, we are doing it for their own good".

A year or so ago, PBS ran a documentary about eugenics in Germany under Hitler. It started as a program to prevent genetic diseases. The idea was that if people with those diseases could be prevented from reproducing, then those diseases would disappear. The doctors involved in the program knew that it would take centuries for the program to work (because recessive genes don't show up readily) but they weren't discouraged: they were excited to be taking part in a program that was so much bigger than they were. The documentary then showed how it changed step by step: first coercive sterilizations, then 'euthanasia' in hospitals, finally the death camps. In those camps (e.g. Auschwitz) physicians were used to separate those prisoners who could be used for labor from those who would be killed immediately. They didn't have to use physicians, anyone could pick out able-bodied men, but they wanted to convince people, including themselves, that the process was scientific.

It's striking that what began in such idealism ended in such horror. That was hardly the only time that has happened. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union. The question is why it keeps happening. My answer is that they started with the wrong question. The question they started with was: How can we make the world a better place? The question they should have started with was: How can we protect people's rights?

When someone starts a project to improve the world, he believes it is good (because it will make the world a better place). If it doesn't work (it usually won't) he figures that it needs more effort. If it still doesn't work, then it needs still more effort. This process happens so often that it has been given a name: the politics of frustration. A good example is Prohibition during the 1920s. If the person pushing the project is politically powerful (e.g. a dictator) then he will conclude that the project is failing because it is being sabotaged by his enemies. So the only way to make the project work (and make the world a better place) is to destroy his enemies. So the horror begins.

The next question is: What if someone wants to make the world a better place? What should he do? The answer is: go into business. The difference between government and business is that business requires voluntary cooperation. The businessman can't force anyone to support his project. If the project doesn't work, the result isn't an ever increasing drain of resources. The project just dies. A good example is the Edsel. On the other hand, if the project works, then the world does become a better place. That's what happened with the Model T.

When people think (in a political context) about making the world a better place, they naturally think about expanding the powers of government. When they think about protecting people's rights, they think about limiting those powers. The philosophers are right: it's more important to have the right question than the right answer.

Posted 2005/June/12