Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Exogamous Human Female

I've been thinking a lot about ethics lately, more even than morals. But you can't really separate the two from your total view of the universe when worldbuilding for an Alien Romance novel.

Chabad is offering a course, titled Talmudic Ethics about how the great Rabbis of yore solved ethical problems (find list of courses at chabad.org ). They developed a very methodical way of solving these problems, but I haven't taken the course and I know nothing of how they'd solve these kinds of problems. Here's an example of an old classic dilemma they've posed, a word problem:

You are waiting at the train tracks for the train to pass, suddenly you notice that there are 5 people tied down to the tracks. You want to save their lives (I hope) so you jump out of your car and as you are running over to the people, a man stops you and says: flip this switch to make the train change tracks - here is the catch -- if you do force the change, you will kill one person that is tied down to the other track. What should you do? Can you stand by and do nothing and see FIVE people get killed, or should you save five and CAUSE one person to die?

Now you have to understand I'm a Star Trek fan and sharpened my ethical teeth on James T. Kirk's problem solving method. (does it count as alien romance when you have a crush on a fictional character?) Remember the Kobayashi Maru?

And I have always flunked word problems in algebra even though I was very very good at algebra itself. I never manage to understand the problem correctly.

So my first solution is to yell at the man to turn the switch to divert the train, grab flares and anything sharp out of my car's trunk and run to release the single victim, tossing lit flares at the train as I run, preferably into brush where they'll start a visible fire. I'm not so good at running these days, so that might not be an option. But it's easier to get one person loose than 5, especially if the nit-wit manning the switch comes to help.

My second solution would be to yank off my blouse or dress or anything bright colored I was wearing and run at the train waving it down -- naked. (this is a Jewish ethics course so there's a modesty issue here but I just don't have that much modesty that I would hesitate to strip to save a life.) I might also drive my car onto the track and get out quick then run at the train waving anything I could strip off in time.

But before even thinking of how to solve the problem as presented, my questions to the person posing the problem would be about the missing vital details that I would have in a flash if this were a real-life problem.

Are the 5 people already dead -- or maybe the one person is already dead? Is there brush on the side of the tracks? Do I smoke and have a lighter in my pocket? What's in my purse?

What's in the trunk of my car? What am I wearing? Is the grade up or down and is there a cliff on one side? How fast is the train moving? Do I know anything about trains and tracks? There's a lot of computerized equipment routing trains today -- I could smash something and make the dispatcher stop the train by radio.

What kind of train is it, passenger or freight, and if passenger are there people aboard? If freight, what's it carrying? Is there a third siding track with no danger or some other danger? How fast can I run? How fast can the other person with the bright idea of switching tracks run?

Where does he get off trying to trap me into an ethical dilemma? Who does he think he is? Those are really 6 dummies on the track and this loud-mouth is my real enemy. He wants my fingerprints on that switch -- the train hits the dummies, derails and bankrupts some business his boss is trying to buy and I get the blame. I knock him out with the crowbar and call 911 while tossing flares to stop the train.

Or, having assessed my resources, I would consider derailing the train. My car trunk might yield a crowbar, or the guy standing there telling me to divert the train might have one. Pry up one section of track and the train is stopped. Now that might cost some insurance company millions of dollars -- in fact, it might well put me in jail for the rest of my life, but it would stop the train. Two of us working together might manage that (if he's not the bad guy).

Another bit of data missing is whether the guy giving the advice is the one who tied the people to the track -- and whether I know this guy or any of the victims or not. What if the 5 people had tortured me for days in a basement, and the one guy had rescued me?

See why I flunked word problems time and again all the way through school?

But let's play the school-kid game and take the problem at face value.

It is a classic no-win scenario, and the only thing that makes it a problem at all is the unwillingness of the test taker to think outside the box, to take personal risk, to accept personal damage, and to defy the authority of the test-giver and change the parameters of the test, as James Kirk did in the Kobayashi Maru test.

The test-administrator is trying to define your world for you, and to convince you that you know things you in fact do not know. (like whether or not you can save all the people) The way I approach these tests and life in general is that I make my own rules and no human being tells me what I can or can't do.

If you don't let the test administrator mess with your head, and you proceed on the assumption that it doesn't matter what the odds against you are, but you only care that you do the right thing -- you will change the rules of the game and generate new solutions that defy all odds. The impossible WILL happen -- or it won't. But you will have stayed true to your own character and not let any petty authority figure dictate the parameters of your world. You may die, but not with blood on your hands.

So can't you see The Authorities administering tests like this to Aliens who land on the White House lawn trying to find out if they share our ethics?

What has all this to do with the human female's exogamous tendencies and Alien Romance worldbuilding?

Now I get to make up the word-problem and mess with your head, if you let me.

Your soul-mate turns up in your life, but you defy all his rules and finally find out his big secret. He's an alien from outer space sent to Earth to fix our health-care delivery system for us. You are a major diversion that's kept him from his job. That has put him in trouble with his employer.

He has two solutions to offer Earth, mutually exclusive solutions. He says because he's in love with you and you're human, he will give Earth whichever solution you choose and it'll be free, initially. But you can only choose one plan.

While romancing you, he has set his orbiting ship to collect all the medical records data in computers and on paper all over the world, all the medications, searched the medicinal plants now growing, even ones not yet discovered, catalogued it all along with all human medical knowledge.

A) Now he can create a Best Practices database that will let any doctor prescribe the cure that has worked best for the most people with a given condition. All this would be Earth-based state-of-the-art equipment and data we could maintain and grow. But everyone would be treated as an "average" person, therefore people on the out flung tails of the bell curve would die -- shrinking our genetic diversity.

B) He can use all that data to program an army of robots (enough to serve the world) who are able to diagnose individuals and select a treatment based on that particular individual's idiosyncrasies. But the robots would only last two hundred years, and there would be a replacement and maintenance charge that he can't waive.

Either plan can be fully implemented within two weeks.

Then he tells you that you're pregnant by him and he has to leave in two weeks on a dangerous mission and might not be back. He can't take you with him - not won't, can't - because you would die. But you are soul mates, and he does love you, and he believes he will reincarnate as an Earth human with you again for a lifetime. But he must complete his job honorably for this lifetime to earn that. He can't decide which system to leave behind him -- you must choose for Earth and for the future you.

If you need a clue read this news item -- I'm hoping it'll still be available when you read this:


Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Wow. My brain hurts now, but I thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and "food" for thought. As for the first problem, it reminds me of the question: You become stranded in the ocean with your spouse and child. You can only save one from drowning, which would it be? I don't know the answer, but every once in a while, I stew over it.

  2. Ciara - yes, these apparently sterile intellectual puzzles are the stuff of the truly Great Novels and films. They are timeless and new to each generation.

    My question had to do with what leverage love might give a woman, and the ethical dilemma that power over a man gives you.

    But it's worse than that. See my previous Tuesday post about half the human race surrendering to the other half.

    Can you solve the problem by accepting the parameters of the problem decreed by the other party? Or are you only making it worse by surrendering?

    And what will it cost you?

    That's the stuff of great Romance, the cost vs profit calculation. What is love worth? Yourself?

    There's a book titled DO I HAVE TO GIVE UP BEING ME TO BE LOVED BY YOU. Food for thought indeed.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Great topic! RE exogamy, I hope you've all read James Tiptree's story "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side." The premise is that human beings are programmed for exogamy, because mating with strangers keeps the genes circulating. It's the instinct that not only promoted "hybrid vigor" but ensured we remained a single species rather than fragmenting into many species that couldn't interbreed. In Tiptree's story, humanity has gone to the stars and met many kinds of aliens. In this situation, the drive toward exogamy becomes counter-productive, because matings between human and alien partners are sterile. The old space hand who tries to warn the newbie insists that the obsessive desire for union with aliens is bleeding away the soul of the human race.