Eye in the Sky: A Not Really Movie Review

Eye in the Sky stars Helen Mirren and that guy from Breaking Bad (the kid, not the old guy). And Alan Rickman is in it too, which made me feel sad because of his recent death.

The premis (no spoilers!) is that British and American forces want to bomb a house in Somalia with four notorious terrorists whom they know are about to suicide bomb a crowded marketplace. But there’s a little girl selling bread next to the house, and she’ll be killed if they bomb the house. If they don’t bomb the house, however, then more people (including children) will die when the terrorists strike.

It’s a heartbreaking dilemma. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It reminds me of the trolley problem, which philosopher Philippa Foot first proposed in the 1960s. It concerns a long-standing debate about ethics. Utilitarians argue for the greatest good for the greatest number. But what if enslaving a small minority benefits the majority? Is that okay? Deontologists argue that the rules are the rules. Slavery is wrong, so it doesn’t matter if more people will benefit. Lying is wrong too. But what if the Nazis show up and ask if you’re hiding Jews in your attic? If the rules say you can’t lie then do you tell the truth?

The trolley problem asks you to imagine that a trolley is about to go off the tracks and kill five people. What if pushing a fat man onto the tracks will stop the trolley and save five lives? One man dies to save five – that’s the greatest good for the greatest number. But the rules say killing is wrong.

Foot was less concerned about what people chose than why they chose one or the other. It turns out that most people would not push the fat man onto the tracks. Actively killing one person feels worse than passively doing nothing, even if five people die. That ethics is primarily based on emotion with reasoning being more like a post hoc justification is one key finding. And that people are motivated to avoid taking responsibility for a situation is also important.

But the trolley problem is kinda silly. No one can really imagine being in that situation. The fat man’s body probably won’t stop the trolley. And you could just yell at the bystanders, “Hey, you morons, get away from the goddamn tracks!”

Eye in the Sky turns the trolley problem into a plausible, real world dilemma that anyone could imagine being in. Do they bomb the terrorist’s house knowing the girl will die? Or do they save the girl knowing that the terrorists will kill even more people? You’ll have to watch the movie to see what they decide.

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Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.