**I'm planning a mini series on peculiar narrative logic where I don't have a TvTropes link to fully express my feelings. I'll use these posts as explanatory links in future reviews.**
If we're the heroes of our own story, then our friends are the supporting cast and the people we don't meet-- the woman we bump into at the grocery store, the man hurrying along on the street, the nameless and faceless multitude who become the statistic of the nightly news-- they are, at best, uncredited walk-ons. For the purpose of our narrative, they don't matter. To quote a phrase misattributed to Stalin, "One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic." And this unthinking logic is often carried into the books we read. The protagonist will do anything to save that one child, that one distressed damsel, that one friend, even if it puts all the crew, all of the city, all of humanity at risk.
And in terms of Book Logic, sacrificing the Many to save the One--even if they're not the Chosen One-- is often the Right Thing. Anyone who crunches the numbers and argues that the Greater Good is served by letting the one die in exchange for the many is practically guaranteed to be a villain. It's exquisitely rare to see Greater Good argued in its pure form for a choice that doesn't involve sacrificing principles. All too often, the protagonist has a choice where greater good isn't the same as personal good because the One has a face and a name. And then, according to Book Logic, it's morally right to save the One, or at least morally wrong to save the many instead. To quote the outraged Matthew Swift from Kate Griffin's Midnight Mayor:
A simple bit of mathematics, the bigger picture, let the evil live so that the good need not suffer extraordinarily...will their deaths buy you the way into heaven, or do you suppose at the pearly gates blood is blood regardless of whose heart it was squeezed from? Greater evil, lesser evil, let's do a risk assessment analysis, weigh up the pros and cons...let's vote and kill a stranger.
Book Logic employs the inverse of the Greater Good, possibly because such maths have so often been abused in the past. As soon as you turn casualty into a sum, you're putting a numeric value on someone's life. You're judging them. Are people actually equal? Is a baby's life really worth the same as a lonely, unhappy nursing home resident faced with dementia? It's an ugly, troubling question. And if, from your perspective, a person has a face or even just a name, it's hard to condense them into a number. As Lois McMaster Bujold put it:
Lives did not add as integers. They added as infinities.
If you're familiar with mathematical analysis, you probably know that summing two infinities of the same cardinality still equals an infinity of that cardinality. But when your protagonist is stuck with an infinity of bad choices, they need to make a decision: when should one life outweigh a multitude of others? If you're forced to make a choice, you're weighing those lives against one another, and why should one regular cast member be worth ten redshirts simply because we can put a face to the name? On the other hand, how many lives should be sacrificed to protect a president or a prime minister? It's ugly and sordid, but at some point, numbers have to matter. To stretch the metaphor a little more, there are an infinite number of cardinalities of infinities. Some infinities are actually greater than others. In typical book arithmetic, if the death doesn't impact the narrative, then it evaluates to zero.
There's a philosophical problem that's probably going to keep coming up in this series called the Trolley Problem. In this incarnation, due to a communication mix-up far above the conductor, a train is speeding along the tracks towards a dangerous junction. One leads to damaged tracks and certain death for all passengers. The other has a workman named Fred on the tracks who will be certain to be killed if the train goes down it. You must make a blind choice, as it's not clear which way the junction is currently set. Which do you choose? (Note that neither the conductor nor Fred are responsible for the tragedy, and there is no defined default-- you're forced to choose one way or the other. I'll tackle blame and inaction later.) How many people need to be on the train before you choose to kill Fred? One? Two? All of humanity?
As for me, I'm just glad I never have to face the arithmetic of life and death.
** Next up: Book Logic #2: Do No Harm-- Let Inaction Do It For You **