**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. (Previous post: Forget the Many, Save the One)**
It's a phrase we've all heard, over and over. In every decision you make, you have the choice between action and inaction. Both have the potential for good, and both have consequences. But due to a deeply ingrained cognitive bias that we all carry, the harm we cause by our inaction doesn't really feel like our fault.
First things first: heroes, being inactive? Aren't heroes effectively defined by their tendency to meddle in cosmic affairs? Well, yes and no. Book heroes are pretty much guaranteed to get involved when it's a question of doing the risky and potentially deadly Right Thing, where "Right Thing" is all-too-often defined as "Forget the Many, Save the One." Heroes inevitably prefer doing something over doing nothing-- until they hit a hard decision. However, when they're forced to make a choice between damaging their principles /actively hurting others versus inaction that will cause even more harm? At that point, inaction becomes the rule of the day.
As you might have guessed, I'm going to bring up the Trolley Problem again, but this time, in its more common formulation:
A train is barreling towards an innocent group of workers on the track. If it continues on its course, all of them will die. You have the opportunity to pull a lever that will switch the train onto a different track, but there's a man on that one too, and your action will kill him. What do you do? What if the train was originally heading towards him?
An impressive number of people feel that it's right to do nothing. It doesn't matter how many people die; the only thing that matters is not pulling the switch. This is thrown into even starker relief by the next version:
A train is barreling towards an innocent group of workers on the track. You're on a bridge above it, standing next to a fat man. If you push the fat man off the bridge, you'll save all those below but kill him. What do you do?
It quickly becomes a messy problem. How many ethical boundaries should get crossed, given that someone is going to die either way? How responsible are we for situations where our inaction has consequences? This problem isn't quite as simple as the previous one--and that one wasn't simple. Ultimately, we can't be responsible for all the evils we could have prevented but didn't; it's just too much. In some ways, "Do No Harm" is practical because it creates a sharply delineated moral line. But if we start thinking in terms of one decision rather than another as opposed to action versus inaction, it all starts falling apart, and no action leaves us with clean hands.
How does this come up in books? In some ways, this is just another facet of my previous Book Logic post, "Forget the Many, Save the One," and it manifests in much the same way, but there's a subtle difference. In the previous case, Our Hero neglects the nameless multitude to save the one person (s)he relates to or cares about. In this case, Our Hero is faced with an ethical decision: actively do harm, or do nothing and let much more harm be done.
In a memorable example--in fact, the book that triggered these posts--the hero is faced with the option of (1) killing one willing sacrifice to save an entire city, or (2) risking everything on a million-to-one chance that might avoid the aforesaid killing, but was guaranteed to cause the deaths of hundreds or thousands during the panic and destruction as he fumbled around figuring out his "lesser evil" solution. Guess which one he went with? Even though he could have intervened to save hundreds or thousands of lives, he considered it morally indefensible to actively take that one life. And other than a mad priest who is painted as the villain, no one called him out on it. No one pointed out that his "nobility" created more tragedy than it obviated. In some ways, it's a selfish non-act: the hero is willing to sacrifice the multitude to preserve his own rectitude.
Yet again, there's no easy answer, but I like my books to at least acknowledge the moral quandary. In lots of genres, it's not even a question: the white knight must stay pure, even if other people must suffer the consequences of his intransigent integrity. In fact, one of the reasons that I find the hardboiled genre endlessly appealing is that the detective always sticks his nose in where it doesn't belong, and always has at least one moment where he considers getting out and going home, but feels the risks of his actions outweigh the consequences of inaction. And quite often, he ends up making a soul-tarnishing decision, and not always in the right direction. (One of the major failings of hardboiled is Book Logic #1, usually targeted towards a damsel in distress.)
On the rare occasions that this is reversed, you're pretty much guaranteed to be in a dystopia, because dispensing with "Do No Harm" is practically a steep slope greased with Teflon. If you've ever read "Minority Report," then you'll know that within the story, absolutely all of the characters take it for granted that putting innocent citizens in prison camps to save their putative victims is the right thing to do. It's an incredibly spooky book for precisely that reason.
Many wrongs have been done in the name of prevention and preemptive action, but just as many have been done through inaction and neglect because of the fear of doing harm. If only more books would admit it.
** Up Next: Intended Consequences: It's Not Murder If You Don't Pull the Trigger**