In last week’s episode of The Leftovers, “Crazy White Fella Thinking,” Kevin Sr. stumbled upon a man on the verge of killing himself. The man, doused in gasoline, asked Kevin, Sr., a question: “Two infant twins are born. One of them will grow up to cure cancer, but only if the other one dies now. Would you kill the baby?” Kevin Sr., said “Of course not,” and the man said, “That’s exactly what I said,” and then lit himself on fire.
The man had apparently given the wrong answer.
This week, we found out who asked that question when the same question was posed to Nora Durst by two physicists as a condition for entering the machine that would supposedly take Nora to the place where the other Departed 2 percent went. Nora told the doctors that she would kill the baby to cure cancer, and yet, she had apparently given the wrong answer, as well.
So, if one person said that he would not kill the baby and another person said she would, and they both gave the wrong answer, then what is the right answer?
The Internet has a lot of theories. Some good, some bad. Some are suggesting that there is no right answer, because it’s all a scam anyway (but if it were a scam, why not take the $20,000?) Some are suggesting that it’s not the answer to the question, but how the question is answered. Some others say that Nora was rejected not because of her answer, but because she is pregnant (which is both ridiculous and kind of make sense in light of recent events: Kevin asked to have a baby, they had sex in an airport bathroom, Nora gave a blood test, and Nora and Kevin heartbreakingly broke up, but it doesn’t take into account the IUD, so …)
Anyway, I did some research on this question. It’s a variation of the Trolley Dilemma, which asks: If a trolley was barreling down the tracks headed toward five people and you had access to a lever to divert the trolley, would you divert it to save those five people even if you knew that diverting it would kill one person who is on the other track?
It’s the doctrine of double effect, and my God, there’s a lot of academic study on this. I read quite a bit on this, and after a couple of hours of studying some incredible morbid scenarios, I think I understand the wrinkle: It’s regret.
From a moral standpoint, passive killing for the greater good is acceptable, which is to say: A nod allowing the death of the baby would be permissible (it’s less so if Nora were asked to actively murder the baby). But, morally speaking, it’s important that the person who allows the death of someone else to serve a greater good feel some regret about it. Nora seemed to express no regret in her decision once she eliminated the possibility that it was her own twins and that the baby wouldn’t suffer.
“Kids die every day,” Nora says. “What’s one more? And I get to cure cancer? Of course, I nod.”
See? Yes, she chose the right answer, but she had no misgivings about it. She expresses no regret, which is a crucial element in this moral equation. Yes, you can opt for the greater good, but you must feel bad about the dead child, and “Kids die every day, what’s one more?” is the opposite of regret. And if we’re being technical about it, morally speaking, the person also has to make the decision altruistically, and here Nora suggests that killing the baby would make her a hero. That’s not altruism.
Why one must be a completely morally upright person to enter the machine, however, is a question that I do not have an answer for, but if we’re looking for the middle ground between the answer the man who committed suicide gave and the answer that Nora gave, I believe it is in the expression of remorse, or lack thereof.