"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Last of Us Season One Finale: The Limits of Utilitarianism

Well, the season one finale of The Last of Us, just up on HBO Max tonight, was everything it could be and even more.

[And there will be spoilers ahead ... ]

So, first, here's what happened.  Turns out, at least as far as the docs in the hospital that Joel and Ellie finally get to, think: only by destroying Ellie's brain can her immunity to the fungi be disseminated to the rest of humanity.  We never find out if they're scientifically right or wrong, because Joel, once he finds out what the docs plan to do with Ellie, kills the doc about to perform the surgery and everyone else in his way so he can make good his escape with Ellie.

But here, then, is the question: was Joel right to do this?  Was he right to go against the fundamental principle of utilitarianism of the greatest good for the the greatest number, and deprive humanity of its rescue from death, all so one person, Ellie, can survive?  I tend to be utilitarian in many things, but ...

I would have done exactly what Joel did, had I the lethal prowess, to save Ellie.  Does that mean I'm weak?  Did Joel ignore logic and give into his emotions? Well, he did follow his emotions, but that doesn't mean he was weak or even illogical. Maybe there's a higher logic at work here.  The logic of going with your deepest emotion, if that emotion is love.

Joel acted on that principle, but he's not a philosopher.   He unconsciously refuted the utilitarian principle, and then he compounded that ethically dangerous action by lying.   Parents often lie to their kids -- the younger the kids are, the more often they're not told the truth, presumably for their own good.  I said Joel was right to save Ellie.  The docs could have been wrong.  Even if not, he was right to save her.  But was he right to lie to Ellie at the end of the episode when she asked him if he had told her the entire story of what had happened back at the hospital? Here I'd say, probably not.  I'm pretty sure I think he owed Ellie the truth.

On the other side of both of these issues, we have Marlene. She kills Ellie's mother Anna, her friend, after she'd given birth to Ellie, after Anna had been bitten, on Anna's instruction. She saved baby Ellie's life. Marlene is able to think clearly, rise above her emotions, and make tough decisions. The decision to kill Ellie, the baby she saved, years later, was an even tougher decision. She went with her head, not her heart. John Stuart Mill would have approved. It's tough to hate or even dislike her, because she was really trying to do the right thing. Unlike Joel, she told the truth. But Joel had to kill her -- fittingly, the last person he killed -- to escape with Ellie. I think he made the right decision here, too. 

Being right two out of three times in these hellish circumstances ain't bad.  And The Last of Us was 100% right to give us such an ethically wrenching season finale.  I'll certainly be back here with more reviews when the series resumes.

See also The Last of Us 1.1-1.2: The Fungus Among Us ... 1.3: Bill and Frank ... 1.4: Gun and Pun ... 1.5: Tunnels ... 1.6: Joel ... 1.7: Riley's Wise Advice ... 1.8: Ellie vs. the Resort

I talk about The Last of Us, beginning at 40mins 40secs

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