The Great Good; A No-Win Scenario With An Infinite Number of Possibilities and A Single Outcome

It’s a common psychological experiment; imagine you’re a conductor of a train throttling down a set of tracks whose end features three workers. You cannot stop the train, but what you can do is reroute the train to a set of tracks with only one worker. What do you do? Rather, consider the answer for a moment while i pose another question; you have the capability of creating a utopian universe, and all you have to do is end the life of the infant of a single species on Earth. Do you kill the child, or do you spare it, knowing that not doing so costs the universe a state of paradise and bliss? What do you do? Rather, consider the answer for a moment while I pose another question; you’re out fishing with your spouse and child when the boat starts sinking. You can only save two people on the boat, including yourself, so what do you do?

No, really. What do you do? Do you follow logic and save the lives of the many over the lives of the few? Do you carry out Spock’s utilitarian philosophy and adhere to the arbitrary rules of a mind game? Do you refuse to answer, all the while knowing in your heart that you’ve just found yourself ranking the importance of the closest people in your life? Or do you point out the inherent flaws in playing such a game, all the while forcing yourself to accept the truth that, for a moment, you considered ending the life of an infant to insure the perfection of your universe? Again I ask, what do you do?

The decisions must be made immediately, and under every circumstance, regardless of the choice you make, lives will be lost, and a sense of failure will creep into your mind. This is a fact, regardless of how many lives you may save, there are others that have been discarded, and almost disregarded in an act of cold hearted logic. Or perhaps not; perhaps the choice you made was to save the lives of the few over the lives of the many, rationalizing that doing so was the best possible option under a set of arbitrary rules and guidelines you’ve suddenly developed. Or perhaps you’ve decided to not act; after all, the only choice that guarantees victory is to not play at all. In this circumstance, all guilt is absolved, as you’ve understood your situation, accepted your fate, in addition to the fates of those around you. Except, for a moment, your situation once again finds itself at the beginning, since you (under no circumstance) have the right to decide the fates of anyone but yourself. You, despite being the person in control, have no right to decide who lives and who dies. No human being, no being, no single intellectual creation, has such a right. So again I ask, what do you do?

For a moment, however, I must mention Spock again. The logical Vulcan Science Offer on the Starship Enterprise within the fictional Star Trek universe (and later an ambassador for the Star Fleet Federation, and an all around cultural icon), Spock is the definition of cold, intelligent, unfeeling logic. As an example of his dominance over petty emotions, the Vulcan designed the Kobayashi Maru exercise, which places the participant in a no win scenario, similar to the situations outlined above. The willing participant is placed in the position of the captain of a vessel that receives a distress signal from a civilian ship in a neutral zone. The captain is left with two choices; they can either save the Kobayashi Maru, and start a war by violating the sanctions of the neutral zone, or ignore the distress signal and lose the passengers on the Kobayashi Maru all while avoiding hostility and a potential war. The test forces the captain to act in a no win scenario, where their choice consistently leaves them with lives lost. The only difference is that the test also places the captain in harm’s way, forcing them to also consider and include their own lives as a potential loss.

The test is impossible to beat. Simply put, one cannot pass the Kobayashi Maru, as it is designed to place the participant in a state of absolute terror, where the test taker is judged on their ability to perform under absolute pressure, knowing that regardless of what they do, lives (potentially their own) will be lost. Interestingly, like the aforementioned exercises (with the train, the boat, and the baby), the Kobayashi Maru is also simulated; the test is taken under controlled (often entirely computer simulated) conditions and apart from the test taker, and a few extras (who are often cadets, or real officers, just wasting time), nothing else is real. There is no real danger, there is no real choice to be made, and there are no real lives hanging in the balance. Despite these facts, however, the test taker is forced into a position to act like the test is real, and any action they make is treated like it will have actual repercussions, which it often does, as the Kobayashi Maru acts as a buffer for potential officers. Essentially, if any Federation member wants to become an officer in the Star Trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru will, no doubt, serve as their final test. To test the merits of cadets, and potential officers, the exercise challenges the participant on every conceivable level; for the purpose of this article, the test serves to ask the same question: lives are in the balance, so what do you do?

Truthfully, I’ve thought about the Kobayashi Maru far more than Dostoyevsky’s conundrum (with the baby), or the train car dilemma, and I’ve actually given the least thought to the fishing trip paradigm, as the answer seems simple to me: sacrifice myself for the betterment of my two marine loving companions. The Kobayashi Maru it seems to be the scenario that is the most defined; There are few choices I can make, and all of them result in the loss of lives, so to save the most lives, I would ignore the signal sent by the Kobayashi Maru, avoid war with a violent and blood thirsty enemy (the Klingons, in the Star Trek example), lose the lives of the passengers, but save the lives of my ship’s crew. By making my choice, I subject the crew of the Kobayashi Maru to certain death, as there is nothing that anyone else can do to save them; however, I save the lives of my ship’s crew, and the lives of many other Federation crews since I’ve avoided war. In short, logic dictates that the only answer is to avoid losing far more lives to save those of a single ship’s crew.

That being said, there is no such thing as a no-win scenario; certainly, it often appears the be the case that a decision is forced upon us where victory is impossible to ascertain, and these scenarios often force us to make choice “for the greater good,” but I reject these conditions entirely. The Kobayashi Maru is not real, and any philosophical query that forces a participant to make a fictional choice where fictional lives are lost is not real. The Greater Good queries are designed to force a person to think about what they hold important, and what they truly consider to be the “best and only” option. In essence, the Greater Good query is designed to make a person think, and this is ultimately achieved once an individual so much as reflects on the possibilities. The concepts of altruism, logic, egotism, equality, fairness, and judgement are only some of the infinite thoughts that one is expected to experience if a real no-win scenario were to present itself.

The Greater Good query isn’t designed to be answered immediately either; regardless of what one believes, once an individual tries to answer a TGG query in the fastest possible way, they have already failed the test. Simply trying to deliver the most logical answer is also pointless since a no-win scenario requires an emotional response, and psychological consideration. Logic certainly is everything, but what is and isn’t logical depends entirely on the situation at hand, and the repercussions that a decision will have. Simply going for the least lives lost teaches nothing and, more often than not, solves nothing, which leads to the most important point.

TGG queries have no solution; yes, a person can answer the question in whichever way they please, but there is no right or wrong answer. That, in essence, is what makes the Kobayashi Maru such an important test; when a no-win scenario manages to make itself evident in a real life example, there is no right answer during. It’s only afterwards, when one looks back and thinks about their choice and the choices they could have made does the truth become clear: there is no right answer to a no-win scenario, it all depends on how one thinks about it.

This, I suppose, is the idea that should be gathered: there is no right answer to a no-win scenario, apart from thinking. Once one thinks, and truly considers the problem, they have passed (regardless of how many fictional lives are lost in the process).

As always, this has been your Admin, the Avid Blogger; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

-EK

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