Beautiful people striving valiantly to save their marriages, their lives, their world, and their pets… That’s really all you need to know about Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster movie 2012. And that the star is my friend John Cusack (well – I was walking through Leicester Square two years ago and saw him stepping out of a car onto a red carpet at the London Film Festival).
There is one interesting moral dilemma, however, within all the syrup and special effects. [Warning: medium-sized plot spoiler follows.] An elite and self-chosen group have the chance to save themselves from the impending cataclysm, and to give hope that in them the human race might survive. But to do this with the greatest chance of success, they need to preserve their resources, and abandon another group of survivors that desperately needs their help. If they do help, they might jeopardise the possibility of anyone surviving. The answer seems obvious. With so much at stake, of course you would abandon the others and go it alone.
But then there is one of those Hollywood speeches, and it’s quite effective. It goes something like:
We may get through this. We may not. But if we do, will we want to look back at this decisive moment in our history and admit that it is a moment of betrayal? Will we want to live with the knowledge that our new civilisation is founded on an act of raw selfishness, of injustice, of cruelty? Perhaps it would be better to risk death together than to walk into a future without them?
I know, it’s a bit cheesy; and I might be hamming it up a little (and mixing metaphors). But it presents a tight non-utilitarian argument in the middle of a disaster movie – an argument that says the end does not necessarily justify the means, the moral cost is too high, the damage done to relationships and to the hearts of the people involved is worse than the loss of life that might follow. And it is more than just the old ‘too many people in a balloon or on a raft’ dilemma, because it brings in this extra element of historical consciousness, of looking back to the present as a time of unique significance. The implicit reference, I assume, is to the way the indigenous peoples of North America were treated in the founding moments of US history. It’s about how a nation’s continuing identity can be scarred by an original sin.
It got me thinking more widely. About how, in a certain sense, every moral dilemma we face becomes a foundation for the rest of our lives, a turning point to which we can look back with shame or gratitude. This doesn’t mean we should become obsessed about over-analysing all our choices; and it certainly doesn’t mean that all choices (moral or otherwise) are of equal weight. But it’s nevertheless true that every moral choice we face is significant, and pushes our life in a certain direction. We can’t pretend that any moral choice is just in the background or at the edge; in some way it will define us, and define our whole future. We are constantly living with the possibility of making our present actions moments of original sin, or of original blessing.