Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Dubious Ethics in Atlantis?

After watching all ten seasons of Stargate SG-1, I have seen the characters on that show exhibit an unusually high sense of morality, perhaps to an unrealistic extreme. They constantly put themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of those around them and attempt to negotiate at every chance they can. This is particularly true of Daniel Jackson, who has repeatedly tried to convince various hostile alien races (and numerous human factions) to take a peaceful approach.

Seeing this sets a high standard for the characters in the spin off series, Stargate Atlantis. However, there have been numerous occasions in Atlantis when the main characters take approaches that are difficult to justify in an ethical sense. Many are done with the standard aim of security and survival in mind, yet there are occasions when a perverted sense of ethics comes into play and has a surprisingly little impact on the other characters.

The episode that made me initially question the ethics used in the show is about a popular issue to debate in a “post 9/11-world”: torture. In the episode “Critical Mass”, it is believed that a bomb is hidden in Atlantis and that a code is needed to deactivate it. In reality, the city’s operating system has been rewritten in a way that will overload the power generator (the ZPM) and cause the city to explode (which is pretty much the same situation). So in order to prevent this destruction, the crew tracks down one of the lead scientists, who they are convinced has the deactivation code. He insists that he has no idea what they are talking about, so the crew members converse about whether it’s permissible to torture him. They are split about the decision, but decide to do it anyway with little argument from the dissenters. The suspected saboteur passes out before the torture can begin, and it is later revealed that he had no involvement with the attempt to destroy the city. Although Elizabeth Weir, the head of the expedition, doubts herself for a brief moment at the end of the episode, it has no lasting effect, and those who raised concerns about torture before are mysteriously silent.

We could explain this scenario away from a utilitarian perspective: that brutality is permissible to save the lives of a greater number. Yet doing evil in the name of good is still evil, and should not be excused or dismissed as readily as it is. Furthermore, the utilitarian perspective cannot be used to justify the next scenario we will review.

Throughout Season Two of Stargate Atlantis, Doctor Beckett creates and refines a retrovirus aimed at transforming Wraith soldiers into humans. This is particularly effective because their technology is organic in nature and relies on their Wraith DNA to operate. However, an “unfortunate” side-effect of this retrovirus is memory loss. The first test subject, whom the team dubs “Michael”, loses his memory and the team engineers a life story to give him. He eventually remembers the truth and questions his new captors. The Atlantis crew claim that he is better off as a human, an utterly baseless and condescending claim for them to make (even more so considering the lack of knowledge that the Atlantis crew possess about the Wraith). Despite his memory loss, Michael stays rational and eventually regains his memories. Some of the crew members, notably Doctor Beckett, feel bad for Michael, but make no attempt to help him and every attempt to help each other feel better about what they’ve either done or allowed to be done to him. He eventually escapes and without continuous treatments, reverts to being a Wraith once more.

As bad as this scenario is already from an ethical standpoint, a follow-up episode at the beginning of the next season compounds the situation. After Michael aids the team against other Wraith factions, he is held in Atlantis, as he knows that the city has not been destroyed, as previously thought. Fearing that Michael would inform the other Wraith of this information, the Atlantis team hold him captive and want to use the retrovirus on him again, purging him of his memories. He begs for his own death, rather than have his memories erased, because of the pain he felt when unsure who he was. Regardless of this, his memories are erased again (the “humane” thing to do?) and he is dumped onto a remote planet with other Wraith-turned-human captives. He eventually regains his memories and is killed when the Atlantis team uses their spaceship to destroy the settlement where they have kept him.

The Atlantis team did not know that the retrovirus would erase Michael’s memories, so although they are responsible for it, we can choose to forgive this “accident”. However, when they fail to tell him the truth both times and use the retrovirus on him again, there is no excuse. It is simply unethical. Michael begs for death and if survival or security were really the goals of the Atlantis team, they simply would have killed him on the spot. Yet their desire to help everyone around them and not directly kill anyone perverts their sense of justice and equity to the point where he is treated in a completely unethical fashion and the Atlantis team feels they have acted appropriately.

The team is not without hope, though. It is not that so much has been perverted that causes the Atlantis crew to act the way they do, as much as the combination of their desire to annihilate their enemies when there is no other choice and save them any other time causes them to act in a dubious fashion. This prospect on its own may be noble, but the poor implementation of it has led to definite unethical behavior in the Stargate universe. As the phrase goes, 

“the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

“Stargate Atlantis” Television Series: Episodes “Critical Mass”, “Michael”, “Misbegotten”.