September 26, 2010

And the Dragon Said... Would YOU Press the Button?

I just recently finished watching The Box, starring Cameron Diaz.  Some of you may remember the story.  A mysterious gentleman, horribly disfigured, gives a box to a married couple with a son.  He then gives them a simple proposal.  Press the button on the box and receive one million dollars.  The catch?  Someone in the world will die, who they do not know.  They have twenty four hours to decide.  If you watched the movie, you know Cameron Diaz pressed the button.  And she soon found out the choice wasn’t simple at all.  It raises a lot of questions, not the least of which are ones about morality.  Ignoring the supernatural elements of the story, if presented with a similar choice, would YOU press the button?
Most of you would probably say no.  But think about it.  Consider your financial situation at the present moment.  Are you living paycheck to paycheck?  Are you unemployed like so many are?  If a stranger arrived at your doorstep tomorrow, mysterious box in one hand, and a million, tax free dollars in the other, your first impulse might be different.  For many people, one million dollars represents financial freedom.  Being able to feed and clothe your children, pay off all your debt, and even buy a few extra creature comforts, can be very alluring.  And in a way, the mysterious stranger makes the choice easier by keeping the victim a stranger as well.  It seems easier to ignore the consequences of your actions, if you never see them.  You press a button on a box in your kitchen, and five hundred miles away a person dies.  So they happen to die at the exact moment you pressed the button.  It could just be a coincidence.  Realistically, someone, somewhere in the world dies every few minutes.  There is nothing we can do to prevent it.  Often, we don’t even know about it.  It is easy to rationalize the guilt of what we have done.  It would not be so easy to justify or ignore the consequences if the victim were someone you know.
In the movie, it soon becomes clear the stranger will give the box to someone else, and the immediate thought is now Cameron Diaz will die.  She will become the next victim.  It goes on to suggest that each time a couple is faced with this choice it is the woman who takes the fatal step.  One can almost hear echoes of another tale, an ancient tale, where a couple is tempted with knowledge and it is the woman who bites first, thus condemning mankind.  That too was a morality tale.  So there are implications within the story.  The obvious one, trading your moral values for materialistic gains often lead to sticky ends, and the not so obvious, women are more easily tempted and therefore more likely to trade morality for materialistic gain.  (While most people would agree with the first conclusion, arguments will probably ensue over the second.  After all, men make as many poor choices as women when it comes to money.)  But perhaps The Box is really a retelling of that ancient tale, put in a modern context, where mankind will be saved… if they do NOT press the button.  The overall point of the story is clear.  The Box is a morality test.  Mankind’s fate apparently hangs in the balance.
In the movie, the ethical choice seems to be black and white.  Murder for money, however it occurs, is wrong.  Obviously the protagonists make the incorrect choice, and they pay the price.  But let’s change up the premise here.  Let’s say the stranger offers a different choice.  The couple’s son is dying of a rare disease, and they cannot afford the cure.  The parents have exhausted all options and their young son is going to lose his life.  The stranger can save his life, but the couple must press the button.  Doing so will cause a stranger somewhere in the world to die.  But in exchange for doing this, the son receives the life saving medicine.  Furthermore, the person in the world who will die is a child with the same condition; there are two people sick, but only one dose of medicine.  The exchange is now a life for a life.  Careful now.  The basic morality of the choice is still the same.  Our couple will have to murder someone in order to save the life of their son.  Does the fact that their actions will save a life even as they destroy one make the choice right?  (You might find it easier to shift condemnation from the parents killing the stranger’s child to the man offering the choice, but in this circumstance his motivations are still the same as they were in the original story.  Furthermore, the tempter’s morality is not in question here.) 
Ethical choices are seldom black and white, but are often layered in shades of gray.  The Box is a morality tale designed to make us think about our choices, both as individuals, and as a species.  And it does this very well.  But at the end of the day, such uncomfortable contemplations are often shelved in favor of more comforting thoughts.  The sad fact of the matter is people rarely apply cautionary tales to themselves.  This is one reason why such stories often fail in their attempt to instigate change.  People often make comments or relate stories in which they indicate the world and human behavior must change.  And many, many people say they agree.  “Yes, yes!  We need to change.  But not me.  Not me.”  And nearly every person says the same thing.  It takes strength and honesty to truly look at ourselves and say “I am wrong.  I am not going to do that anymore.”  It is also rare for an individual to truly know how they would react in a given situation such as the one related in the movie, or the alternative I proposed.  It is easy to say with smug confidence you would never do such a despicable thing.  When faced with the situation, your choices may surprise you.  So think carefully about your answer.  I did.
Would you press the button?
GA Lanham

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