An Ethical Dilemma Posed in a Stephen King Novel
What if…the world, humanity, could only be saved from total obliteration by torturing children to death?
Spoiler alert! If you intend to read King’s latest novel The Institute you may not want to read this as it contains some details about the plot. I will not, however, give away the ending.
The Institute is not your typical King novel if there is such a thing. It’s not exactly a horror story although it is a horrifying story. It contains some sci-fi elements and some violence but it’s nothing like “It” or “The Shining” or “Pet Sematary.” I would compare it more with “Mister Mercedes” or even “The Stand” in terms of tone.
Like most of King’s novels and short stories it carries within it an ethical dilemma. What’s the right thing to do in a grievous situation where there does not seem to be a right thing to do?
Of course, there’s often the hero who intuitively knows the right thing and does it.
But here is the intriguing question embedded in The Institute: If the world, humanity, the whole of nature on earth, could only be saved by kidnapping and torturing children with the inevitable result that they die, would doing that be ethically justified?
The plot presents a scenario that is, of course, unbelievable. But it is conceivable. The world is on the verge of total nuclear holocaust that will destroy everything and everyone. Most people don’t know it. But a certain group of people around the world know it and have set up “institutes” where children with psychic abilities are brought involuntarily. In the institutes they are subjected to various tortures intended to enhance their psychic abilities. These sometimes work and some of the children (between ages six and sixteen) are able to cause the deaths of certain individuals known to have the intention of doing things that will lead inevitably to worldwide nuclear holocaust.
Implausible? Of course. But the underlying question isn’t.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Now, rule number one for readers who intend to comment: Play along with the question even if you think it could never arise. It probably won’t, but it is conceivable that it could.
The underlying question within the novel is this: If it were the case that the whole world could be saved only by torturing children with deadly consequences for them, would it be worth it? Would it be morally and ethically justified?
The people operating “the Institute” at the center of the novel argue vehemently that what they are doing is justified because it is necessary for the survival of humanity. They know there are people in the world who are planning to do things that will lead to nuclear wars. These “institutes” have been keeping nuclear wars from breaking out for many, many years—at least since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They know that if they did not do what they are doing with the children nuclear holocaust would happen. And they can prove it.
The only way to “enhance” the children’s latent psychic abilities, which include causing the deaths of certain individuals whose future decisions and actions will inevitably lead to nuclear holocaust, is to subject them to tests and enhancement techniques that cause their great suffering and eventually death. When they die they are cremated. Nobody knows about these institutes except an elite international team. Presumably (although King never reveals this) heads of state know about the institutes and support them.
The question could be put another way: Why would it be wrong to torture children if it were the only way to save the whole of humanity? The leaders and workers of the institutes conclude it is wrong but necessary. They regret what they have to do—up to the point where they get used to it and stop caring. As anyone who knows King could guess, however, someone stops believing it’s justified and intervenes to save the children.
Clearly implied by the whole story is King’s (apparent) belief that it would not be justified morally or ethically and that it is probable that without the institutes and their work the world will end in a nuclear holocaust.
There are really only two ways to go with this imaginary but conceivable scenario. First, one could argue that torturing many children to death is justified if it can be proven that it is the only way to avoid a nuclear holocaust that will end humanity and the earth’s ecology. Second, one could argue that torturing many children to death is never justified no matter what.
But the question that lingers over the second “way to go” (answer) is this: Why? What would make it absolutely, unconditionally wrong—given the proven, assured, beyond-question consequence of not doing it?
Now, just this once, I invite non-Christians to participate so long as they take the question seriously and do not just say “This could never happen.” (This rule applies to Christians as well.) Either play along or don’t play. Give a yes or no answer and explain and defend it. No other comments will be posted here. And any comments that are snarky or dismissive or disrespectful will also not be posted here. This is not a discussion board so do not respond to others; respond only to my post above with your best thought-out answer.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).