An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
A few years ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and it went something like this:
“What if a gigantic asteroid was heading right for Earth? Suppose we could build an ark-type spacecraft to save a good portion of the human species, along with samples of every other species we could store or genetically sequence. And what if the only viable way to build that ship was to resort to slave labor? Should we do it?”
The answer, of course, is yes.
A similar conversation has been bothering professional interrogators ever since the TV series 24 took off back in the late ’00s, and it goes something like this:
“What if a terrorist has a nuclear device capable of leveling a city planted somewhere in every major metropolitan area in a nation? And what if the only way to get that terrorist to give up the locations and disarmament codes for the weapons was to torture them? Should you torture them?”
The answer, of course, is yes.
These answers should scare you, more than a little bit.
Hi, you’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running series I’m writing to tackle thorny modern problems, and this one isn’t so much modern as it is a problem that resurfaces every few years. Today we’re talking about existential threats, and what they do to human morality. Specifically, we’re talking about how they can destroy it.
The two scenarios I posited just a moment ago are examples of what are known as existential threats, which is to say events that threaten the survival of an entire nation, people, way or life, or if you scale it up all the way, the survival of everyone.
More specifically, both of these scenarios are examples of philosophical problems called ticking time bomb scenarios: a terrible event that is on a timer, and therefore subject to intervention, but only over a short span of time.
Even more specifically, note that each scenario was presented in a way that the only viable option was an awful one. This was done intentionally.
There are two points to make with regard to these types of ticking time bomb scenarios and existential crises in general. The first point is that these scenarios do exist.¹ Global warming is a great example of an existential threat on a timer. The second point to make is that the shorter you make the timeframe, the greater the sin that might be forgiven to prevent the threat.
Think about the famous Trolley Problem; there’s always a right answer, and it’s to choose the path that results in the fewest people dead. But that’s still a horrifying choice to have to make, since most of the time the problem isn’t presented in a fashion that allows you to build a new track.
And here’s our danger. This is why I’m writing an article about the death of decency during crises. Anyone who can convince you that an existential threat exists, and will happen soon, can probably convince you that anything is justified to prevent it.²
Let’s take a modern example. Who remembers the Cheney Doctrine? This was also known as the “One Percent Doctrine,” and it was coined by then-Vice President Dick Cheney after the events of 9/11/2001. In short, he argued that if there was even a 1% chance of an unimaginable terrorist attack happening, you should take any action necessary to prevent it.
That got the United States into the war in Iraq, among other things. That war cost something in the neighborhood of 300,000 Iraqi civilian lives (not to mention 2,000+ American lives), either killed in the invasion or since the invasion as a result of fighting. An additional 1.3–1.8 million Iraqis became refugees. That’s an enormous human cost to prevent a theoretical event (the deployment of Iraqi WMD in a terrorist attack) which turned out to be not even remotely close to reality.
This doesn’t even touch the cost in treasure. That’s also extremely depressing in absolute terms; there’s a reason the US doesn’t have universal healthcare, and it’s probably impossible to calculate how many millions of American citizens die preventable deaths as a result of US budget priorities during the War on Terror.
Starting to get the picture? The US killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions, and altered our entire financial and social structure because a guy convinced the most powerful man in the world that an existential threat existed, and that it had to be prevented right now.
Think about all the other existential threats that you hear pop up on certain news channels every day. The illegal brown people are coming to displace white Americans/white Europeans. The Muslims/Christians/Hindus are coming to kill all the nonbelievers in a jihad/crusade/holy war. The Jews are coming to fire a space laser. The liberals are coming to turn your children gay and send dissenters to concentration camps. The socialists are coming to steal your money and send you all to concentration camps. The UN is coming to impose a world order and (checks notes) send you all to concentration camps. There’s a theme to some of these, admittedly.
The point is that these are the stories that are told to get people to, metaphorically, hit the switch for the trolley. Except instead of choosing between one death or several, the danger of existential threats in modern propaganda is to force a population to choose “death” when none need die at all.
Decency dies in existential crises, because the crisis is frequently presented in a way — the ticking time bomb — that does not allow for the option of good choices.³ Perhaps some of these crises do exist, but I haven’t seen any recently. Mostly they get made up, over-inflated, or simply hijacked for the use of unscrupulous people who want power. Nothing is quite as good at centralizing power as a good crisis, and no crises is quite as good at this as an existential crisis.
Worse yet, decency drags a lot of its friends to death with it in these circumstances. Democracies have a very hard time surviving existential crises; ours is severely struggling right now as a result of the US right wing having created a whole slew of fake existential crises to justify their policies over the past forty-odd years. Israel has arguably become a theocratic ultra-nationalist apartheid state⁴ as a result of their own struggles; a similar situation has already happened in Iran (where the national catchphrase is, apparently, “death to America”). Meanwhile, nations like Poland and Hungary are teetering on the edge of dictatorship as a result of racist and ultra-right wing crisis rhetoric.
National pride, goodwill, and human bonds die too. Any existential crisis that seeks to set one group of people against another by definition removes any possibility of peaceful coexistence. Any existential crisis that seeks to allow actions contrary to treaties or the international order by definition removes a nation’s perceived obligations to obey such things. This harms a nation for decades beyond the triggering event.
It is a sad truth of humanity that those who would be our leaders quite often wish to be our masters, and thus seek to create the conditions where only they can save us from a supposed existential threat. There’s an orange man running around the US currently who is desperate to push that narrative.
So, what do you do with this information? Simple. Whenever someone claims that they are going to defend you from a time-critical existential threat, your first reaction should always be doubt. Always. Before you do anything else, you ought to triangulate that information, which is just another way of saying to look around and see who else is claiming the crisis exists, and why they are claiming the crises exists.
The next response should be to take a really close look at the proposed course of action. It’s not as simple as just taking them at their word either, you should be critically evaluating what the proposal would actually do. If that course of action is focused on a specific demographic group of people, under no circumstances should you believe that the crisis even exists, much less put any stock in that solution.
Only once you have evaluated the motives and proposed actions of someone who is claiming an existential crises exists should you try to make a decision about whether or not the person’s claim is valid. Here’s a rule of thumb: if the crisis involves people fighting each other in any way, it may be a crisis, but it most likely isn’t an existential crisis by default. If the crisis involves a natural event, it may very well be an existential crisis if it affects enough people — but it probably isn’t very tightly time-constrained.
If someone is claiming, for example, that a particular race or ethnic group is responsible for a particular problem, and the solution is to remove that race or ethnic group, for the love of God don’t believe that claim. That’s how half the horror of history got started. Anyone who claims this type of existential crisis exists needs to be immediately run out of town, and preferably thrown into the nearest large body of water, for the sake of everyone else’s moral souls.
There is no sin that justifies the wholesale genocide or ethnic cleansing of an entire population. Period, full stop. Quit trying to find one. If you don’t understand why, you need to seriously reexamine your moral compass, because it is seriously broken.
Similarly, if the existential crisis in question requires that a society funnel vast sums to money to the military-industrial complex, you should probably take a hard look at the arguments behind that idea. Because more than likely, that’s a money grab and an attempt to create a rally-round-the-flag effect.⁵
The only type of existential crisis that you should believe is one that has ample scientific evidence to support it, will definitely impact everyone in a major geographic area, and that make no distinctions of race, creed, or other demographic categories.⁶ An existential crisis like this might be, for example, a worldwide epidemic, asteroid strike, or extreme volcanic event. These may very well be time-constrained events, and they might very well require the immediate investment of significant resources to try to save lives.
Otherwise, you should be constantly on your guard against people who try to manufacture existential crises in order to suit their agenda. These types of crises are usually moral dangers that directly threaten the inherent decency of the societies in which they spawn. They are best avoided or shouted down when they pop up, if you want to avoid your nation turning into a parody of justice and rational action.
¹Sort of. There’s never actually been a known case where torturing a terrorist would yield information about a ticking time bomb-type scenario, which is odd when you think about it. But an existential threat like an asteroid strike absolutely does exist, just on a really long timeframe.
²There’s actually a fantastic fictional example of the end moral state of such an extreme existential crisis, and it is the literary, grimdark universe of Warhammer 40k. Yes, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, that’s a silly name. But the setting as a whole is incredibly well fleshed-out by dozens of novels, and it drives the point home over and over again that sustained existential threats create the worst possible society imaginable.
³The nuclear weapon build-up of the 1950s/60s is a fantastic example of this. Both the US and the Soviet Union were so terrified that the other would gain an edge in a nuclear war that they radically increased the odds of such a war occurring, while also massively increasing its destructive potential. It remains one of the most depressingly silly results of international politics in history. If you ever want to white-knuckle your way through an otherwise peaceful evening, read up on the history of Broken Arrow events.
⁴This is not an antisemitic statement. Don’t come after me for that. I’m not saying a damn thing about Jewish people in general, I’m saying that the nation-state of Israel is rapidly devolving. Mostly because the Israelis elected the wrong people. Be warned, and do not elect right-wing theocrats.
⁵I.e., a con to grab power by appealing to blind patriotism.
⁶Of course, there’s a catch: you have to know who to trust. I have other suggestions on that front.