Ethics of Stargate: Universe “Air”

Dr. Rush, the lead scientist in Stargate: Universe, is a character who embodies a non-standard moral stance compared to the usual characters in Stargate. The following observations on ethics and morals are used considering the initial character only, how he was presented during the series premiere “Air” and not how he was developed over the remainder of the series.

Society by Consensus

With the notable exception of reality competition shows (Survivor), most North American television programs carry a moral imperative in favour of cooperation. “Good” characters value being aware and sensitive to the feelings of others, and attempt to synchronize their own views with those of other members of their group;

Among “good” characters, actions which deviate from the moral code established by group consensus are actions used to drive the plot. The central story of Stargate: SG-1 Shades of Grey revolves around Colonel O’Neill seemingly deviating from the synchronized moral stance of the rest of his group; the driving interest of 24‘s Jack Bauer as a character is his strongly independent moral code.

Usually, valuing consensus and cooperation is limited by excepting the need to incorporate the values or opinions of extreme outliers. Characters with beliefs far different than surroundings are usually established as ill, insane, or evil, and thus may be safely ignored when building consensus.

Dr. Rush is interesting in part because his moral code is independent of that of his peers. He acts on his own judgment of the best decision for a situation without spending time to establish consensus and letting it override his decisions. The consequence? A huge step forward for the plot as he strands the cast on a space ship far from home.

Consequentialist and Deontological Morality

Consequentialism versus deontological morality are often illustrated via a pair of hypothetical scenarios:

  1. A train is rushing down the track towards five people. With the flip of a lever, you can redirect the train down a track towards one person, saving the five others. Do you flip the lever?
  2. A train is rushing down the track towards five people. If you push one person off a bridge you can stop the train, saving the five others. Do you push the person?

The consequences are the same in both cases (kill one person to save five). In the first scenario, the life is lost indirectly, while in the second scenario you are directly physically responsible. In consequentialist morality, both cases are an equivalent exchanges of lives. In deontological morality, some things are unthinkably evil, so the difference between indirectly causing a death (scenario 1) and directly causing a death (scenario 2) are distinctly different moral choices.

When the air on Destiny was running out, Dr. Rush concluded that many could be saved at the expense of one life. He realized that the choice of who died could potentially have large consequences for the continued survival of everyone else. He demonstrated consequentialist morality by considering on which other character was most expendable and voicing the opinion that the sacrificed character should be deliberately selected. The surrounding characters (Eli, Chloe, Scott…) found this unthinkably evil, subscribing to deontological morality in their opinion that they would rather all die than face the decision of picking someone to sacrifice for the survival of the rest of the group. Dr. Rush gained moral authority for his willingness to face hard choices even at the cost of the wrath of the group for breaking from the moral consensus (choosing consequentialist over deonotological principals), then immediately abandoned this authority by refusing to take responsibility for making the hard choices when he denied responsibility for ordering a man shot.

This post is the result of lively debate with M. Chudek.

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