#FrancisOnFilm: Mission Impossible

02 August 2018

Mission Impossible: Fallout is an intensely escapist movie, but it's also a deeply philosophical one. Go see it, right away, for all of the fantastic stunts: one motorcycle chase scene pulls you in so you feel like you are part of the chase (I saw it in 3D, which may have made it especially good). And Tom Cruise did the stunts (really!). But come away from Fallout thinking, too: should you be the kind of person who saves his friends and risks millions of lives, or the kind of person for whom saving the millions matters to the exclusion of all else? Even before the title rolls, Ethan Hunt faces this choice: whether to save his companions Benji and Luthor, or risk of losing three plutonium cores large enough to make bombs that could kill off millions of people.


One versus many problems are the standard stuff of introductory philosophy courses and psychology experiments about moral attitudes. There are the discussions of the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, featuring on the one hand utilitarian calculations about how many lives actually were saved, and on the other hand objections to actions in war that harm innocents along with analyses of whether citizens of an aggressor nation are truly ever innocent. There are all those hypotheticals about whether to torture the terrorist in order to get information about the location of a bomb set to go off within a few hours, designed to get students to explore how far they would go in harming an individual and what beneficial ends justify the harm.


And then there are the trolley problems. A trolley is hurtling down a track, and you are in control of a critical switch that can change its direction. There are four (or five, or ten, or however many) people at the end of the track and the trolley will kill all of them unless you flip the switch. However, if you flip the switch, the trolley will hurtle down a different track, where it will kill one person. Should you flip the switch?


This thought experiment was originally proposed by Philippa Foot in her analysis of implications of the doctrine of double effect for decisions about abortion. It came to robust fame in a thought experiment designed by Judith Jarvis Thompson to test intuitions about whether there are differences between letting die and killing, and what these differences might be. It has multiple iterations, the most (in)famous of which being whether it would make a difference whether you must flip the switch or roll a fat man off a bridge to stop the trolley. This version has generated controversy about how innocents may be treated, what kind of interventions are morally permissible, and whether it evidences fat shaming or disability discrimination.


Trolley problems have also been used in cognitive science experiments collecting fMRI data about brain activity when people are asked to solve versions of them—and in myriad other studies of how we reason morally. You can play around with trolley problems by participating in this online test.


But Fallout asks a different question: should you be the person who simply saves his friends, because that is what he does, or the person who thinks first about the millions, whether for the best or the worst of motives? What kind of a character would you have if you were the one, or the other? What other characteristics might you have? How is being a friends-first kind of person related to virtues such as trustworthiness or loyalty, and what do these relationships tell us about the meaning of trust or loyalty?


These are classic questions of virtue theory. Fallout helps you to see how they are different from questions about whether to be a consequentialist or a non-consequentialist in moral theory. Ethan Hunt doesn't think about whether he is a consequentialist or a non-consequentialist and what he would do if he were; he just acts in character and deals with the aftermath later. But Fallout also challenges you to think about virtue theory itself and what it requires.


Fallout is great suspense: will the MI team manage to defuse the bomb in time? But it's also great for thinking about virtue theory: what if Hunt fails, bringing not only the MI series but part of the world to a tragic end?

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, August 7, 2018 -- 11:32 AM

I suppose this is the Mother

I suppose this is the Mother of Trolley Problems. I guess I flunk the test: 'the risk of losing three plutonium cores, LARGE enough to make bombs that COULD kill off millions of people' is too contingent for my taste, 'companions' notwithstanding. Sure, saving the world from imminent incineration would demonstrate altruism, but saving the companions 'could' pay dividends towards saving millions more, while the game is afoot. As RW also wrote in his previously mentioned 1994 book, 'Evolution happens in amid uncertainty and all natural selection can do is play the odds'. Ultimately, trolley problems and prisoner dilemmas are about playing the odds(and posing philosophical questions). Finally, the ultimate(perhaps) philosophical question: Does Mr. Kim (for example) in North Korea really intend to kill off the rest of the world? Answer: a resounding NO. He may be crazy, even power-addicted, but he is not stupid---WE would be, to think so...