The Matrix Resurrected, moral dilemmas, and making choices.
The first in a series of posts on how we make decisions and how it affects our world.
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What goes around comes around. So did The Matrix. If you've never seen at least one of the original three, you must have lived in a basement on the dark side of the moon. When the first one came out, this starry-eyed undergrad was bound for New York City to work in the United Nations. Naturally, I found parallels between the workings of the world in the international arena and the blue pill/red pill waking up ideas of the movie. Who gets to decide what happens under what circumstances? Who pays for what? How does the world hear of decisions affecting everyone and ideas impacting the fabric of our societies? Who gets paid? Who gets listened to? There were many layers of reality, convoluted, and complicated ways of influencing world politics, probably more than I was ready to absorb and make peace with. Hence, the warning of my Political Science professor that most who work for the UN end up drinking a lot.
By the second and third of the trilogy came out, I was heavily steeped in yoga and Eastern philosophy. I must have watched the whole trilogy at least three times until I caught every reference to Hinduism, Buddhism, and the many references to Christianity, Greek mythology, and whatever else was there, down to the mantra for enlightenment playing during the credits. Those were fun times, trying to figure out why the Merovingian and Persephone are together. I mean, one is a hedonistic determinist, described as an "old powerful program." The other, a Greek mythology goddess, married to Hades, god of death. The mythological goddess comes up from the underworld to get life started every spring, and she sure got things started in The Matrix. Clearly, clever writing!
Fast forward twenty years, and The Matrix resurrects questions about the nature of reality. At the same time, the simulation apparently finds increasingly more ingenious ways to keep people hostages to their own devices. Noticeably different is the exclusive focus on the love connection between Neo and Trinity. OK, they were hot as a couple twenty years ago. But now Neo needs a haircut. Trinity is still a badass. I get it. He can't just let go of her. I wouldn't either. I remember aspiring to be like her. I just couldn't figure out how to teach yoga in a tight, shiny bodysuit. Seemed more appropriate for my tango dancing adventures. Possibly.
IMHO, the most important line in the whole movie comes out of the bad guy's mouth, the Analyst. (The "Analyst" as in the "shrink.") Bad guy says, "the key to it all, you… and her, quietly yearning for what you don't have, while dreading losing what you do. For 99.9% of your race, that is THE definition of reality. Desire and fear, baby. Just give the people what they want, right?"
Thus, my mind went places, conjuring up a line of inquiry into our world, how we make decisions, what we prioritize, how we ended up so divided, duped, and demoralized, mistrusting everything, each other, even what's good for us. Did we ruin everything? Who's responsible? Can we fix it? What would it take? But more about all of this in subsequent posts. Stay tuned. Make sure you've subscribed!
Even the Matrix apparently went from enlightening in The Trilogy to selfish as resurrected, the characters divided, suspicious of each other, and motivated by different ideals.
In the first three movies, choice revolved around the idea of creating the most good for the greatest amount of people. Humans fought the machines who used them, enslaved them, and exterminated them. Humans freed minds. Humans defended Zion, the cradle of humanity and birthplace of hope for a better future. In the fourth movie, Zion shrunk to Io, and Neo's focus narrowed to saving Trinity, despite his old ally Niobe telling him to cool his jets and think of the civilization he can potentially destroy after all their progress.
So, there you have it, the everlasting theme of what's more important – the greater good or my good, and how do we define what's right and what is wrong to do.
Enter the age-old ethical theories of deontology and consequentialism. You know consequentialism by the name of utilitarianism, which seeks the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Thus the end could justify the means. All is well that ends well. Deontology begs people to follow universal moral rules, saying that the results are not as important as what you do to get there. Kant said, "don't lie" because it's a universal moral good. Something is universally morally good when universalizing its opposite would produce an unlivable society. In other words, if everyone lies, we all will go mad. Sound familiar?
It sounds like both should work, even work together. Most of the time they do. As in when we decide that we should all drive on our respective sides of the road. That way, we don't bump into each other so much so that we essentially render the road unusable and kill one another. We abide by Kant's "don't kill," AND we accomplish the greatest good for the most people by keeping the roads orderly. But what would happen if one driver decides not to follow the rule? You get Trinity on the freeway in LA. She saves Neo's life, evades the bad agents, and a few cars get flipped. Actually, a lot of cars get flipped. Trucks, too. Goods and lives lost, supposedly. But not real ones. It's the Matrix, after all. But for the people in said trucks and cars, who don't know that they are in the Matrix, it must be awful. I assume.
A classic example of the tension between the two moral philosophies is the trolley dilemma.
A trolley coming down the track is about to hit five workers working down the track, and you have no way of notifying them. You control a switch and could divert the trolley onto another track, but down there is a worker you also cannot warn to get out of the way. If you divert the trolley, you will kill this one worker but save the lives of the five. If you don't, the five will die. Will you divert the trolley?
A trolley coming down the tracks is about to hit five workers working on the track, and you have no way of notifying them. This time, you are standing on a footbridge above the tracks, and you walks a huge stranger. If you throw the stranger off the bridge onto the track, you will kill him but stop the trolley and save the lives of the five down the tracks. Would you do it?
And the really tricky form two:
Same as above, but the person you must throw off the footbridge is your cousin Joe or your best friend. Will you do it then?
If you said yes to the first one, you are like most people who seem to prefer the utilitarian approach, intuiting that the right thing to do is assure the greatest good for the most amount of people. However, most people hesitate when it gets a bit closer, and you must throw a real person off the bridge. And when that person is someone you feel close to, most people turn deontologists, invoking universal moral principles.
Psychologists have theories for why we struggle to stay consistent. On the one hand, we've evolved to form social bonds with people, not trolley switches, so when we need to use people as a means to an end, it goes against our evolutionary grain. Yet, we use people as a means to an end every day and most don't feel bad about it. Think career climbers, or asking for favors, nepotism, or selling something on craigslist that you know has a problem, but you don't disclose it just so you can get rid of it.
Back to The Matrix, Neo is not ready to throw Trinity under the trolley, so he chooses to let the trolley potentially run over Io. And he uses others to accomplish his mission. At least, he's transparent in his intentions and allows them to choose. After some rules are broken, some risks taken, and some good people die, all ends well. Now the two of them can serve the greater good together. The end justified the means.
The question of freeing minds from The Matrix keeps coming up, but who's paying attention! Apparently, the Analyst had it figured out. You can't free people who don't want to be free. They like their dramas suspended between longing for what they desire and fear of losing what they already have. It's life juice! It powers the system.
While longing for what we desire, we consider the right thing to do, acting like deontologists. We feel morally restrained from stealing, cheating, lying, hiding, etc. But we also don't want to work too hard for it, questioning how much work is the right amount of personal sacrifice we are willing to make. We struggle with finding the courage to throw our bloated baggage off the footbridge to stop the trolley of mediocracy and give our freed selves five better chances.
In the end, we survive. We never know if we did it right, only if it felt right, justifying our choices and actions. We make friends with the Merovingians who inspire respect for the laws of cause and effect, automatically expecting like-kind opulence. But we fail to properly appraise the constraints of present conditions and the context we live in. Most of the time, like him at the end, we get stuck in the rut and shadows, unrecognizable to anyone but our own imagination, with nothing but a memory of what we used to be and fainting dreams of what we could become.
What next? I guess we wait for Matrix 5 to show us? Or we get busy freeing minds, binding together, and refusing to be manipulated. Not even by our own misunderstandings, biases, and wishful thinking!
More to come.
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I own a dog. That's as close I am ever gonna get to parenting. Luckily, I don't have to share her. But it's becoming increasingly obvious to me how much parents in co-parenting situations struggle. I don't usually write about kids. They mystify me. Honestly, I can only tolerate fun ones who own cool games, don't throw food across the table, and keep their voices within the range of pleasant. I do sympathize with adults trying to decide how to raise their children even though they no longer want to be together. A fellow writer, Mihaela, recently wrote a piece about this struggle offering some great insights. I chimed in as a guest writer, explaining what adults must focus on. It ended up a "together" piece. My first ever. That's cool!
So, here's the post "we" wrote on co-parenting. Check it out and if parenting is your life, consider following her writing.
Feel like you want to get something off your chest? Comment, please. I am reading all of the comments!
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