214 – Moral Dilemmas

The Mythcreant Podcast

Sometimes your hero is stuck between two choices, neither of which have a good outcome. Will they allow the villain to escape or shoot said villain in the back? Will they destroy one city to save another? Will they eat less at dinner so they have more room for dessert? Those are all moral dilemmas, which is our topic for this week. Listen as we discuss common problems with moral dilemmas, how to avoid those problems, and what moral dilemmas can add to the story. Plus, why doesn’t Dragon Prince’s Claudia carry a meat cleaver with her at all times?

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Star Trek Discovery

The Truman Show

Infinity War

Dragon Prince

Avatar: The Last Airbender 

The 100

Legend of Korra

Harry Potter



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Generously transcribed by Bellis. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.

CHRIS: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]

OREN: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…

CHRIS: Chris…

OREN: …and joining us for the first time in quite a while is returning guest host, Kristin.


OREN: The last time you all probably heard Kristin was on our FAITH review, which was super fun. And she was also on podcasts sometime back. Kristin, why don’t you remind everyone who you are and what you do?

KRISTIN: Yeah, so most recently I was doing the FAITH one-shot. And then before that I did a couple narrations for the fiction series.

OREN: Yeah, that was good.

KRISTIN: And then I used to be a copy editor for Mythcreants as well.

OREN: Excellent. Well, we are happy to have you back.

All right, everyone. I have a bit of a moral dilemma. I want to tell you what the topic of this episode is but if I do, something bad will happen. So what should I do? Do I have a way out of this moral dilemma that I’m in?

CHRIS: I feel like that’s a good segueway to bad moral dilemmas. Cause that’s clearly not a good moral dilemma. [laughter] I feel like you need compelling stakes on each side. That was very contrived, I just gotta say.

OREN: Extremely.

KRISTIN: Yeah. And what is this “bad thing” that’s going to happen? Are there any parameters surrounding it? [laughs]

OREN: A bad thing. Okay. It would be bad, like… [trails off, laughs]

Okay so today we’re talking about moral dilemmas because authors love them. Storytellers in general love them, but they sometimes don’t work super well because they’re not as simple as setting out a trolley problem and being like “Bad thing will happen either way, what do you do?” You need to– They need a little more thought and they can be very irritating when they are done incorrectly.

CHRIS: Right. So I think a lot of the errors I see feel like they’re not actually making either a dilemma where each side is compelling or they are making a dilemma where each side is compelling, but then the storytellers clearly think that one side is just right. [laughs] And just go with that. Or some other weirdness.

Obviously there are some– It’s surprising how often I see stories that I just feel have really weird values. [laughter] Do you really think that’s okay? Obviously sometimes they’re just cultural differences, but…


OREN: That is one of the main problems. One of the most common problems with moral dilemmas is either because the storyteller has weird values or simply because they didn’t think things through properly, it really feels like this is not actually a dilemma or if it is a dilemma it’s being rushed into way too quickly.

Like my favorite example of this, that I talk about a lot, is on Discovery season one, where they try to set up the Klingon conflict as a moral dilemma where it’s like, “Oh man, we’re in a real dilemma here because we either have to fight a war or get murdered by space Nazis”. [laughter] And it’s like, um, for most people, that’s a very obvious choice. That’s not really a dilemma. Like, yeah, war is bad, but the alternative is getting eaten, literally eaten, by space Nazis. There’s really not a two sides to this scenario here. And I see that– that’s not an uncommon scenario.

KRISTIN: That really reminds me of the fact that, I think, The Truman Show is designed to be set up as a moral dilemma. And this thing of, here’s this guy who’s been living his life in front of the camera and once he finds out, he’s supposed to give up his life to continue living in front of the camera because the American people love it. Oh and by the way, the executive producer is getting a lot of money for this. To me, it seems very much like it’s a one-sided moral dilemma where it’s like, no, really it’s not a good thing, but we’re going to tell you that it should be the other way around.

OREN: Is that set up as a moral dilemma? Hm, fascinating, I didn’t realize that.

CHRIS: Well, Truman does leave the show, but at the same time, there’s quite a bit of dialogue–

KRISTIN: –surrounding the fact why he shouldn’t leave the show. [laughs]

CHRIS: Right, yeah. And it can be hard to tell, what is the storyteller endorsing and what they’re not, but a lot of times storytellers speak through their characters. And so when you spend that much time having characters being like, “No, but Truman, think of all the people who’ve been inspired by watching your journey!” You know, at least the audience starts to wonder about that.

OREN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, If you’re not trying to set that up as a dilemma, why would you have so much dialogue about it?

KRISTIN: Exactly. Yeah.

CHRIS: I think a good example that feels like that to me – this is weird – so Infinity War has this really weird thing where there’s big questions about what the storytellers actually think is good in this scenario where we have the big bad Thanos. He has this whole plan of, he’s going to save everybody from themselves by annihilating half of all creatures? Because he thinks that there’s going to be, we’re going to just run out of resources or something, which is just invalid. And I didn’t think that the storytellers actually intended this to be a sympathetic viewpoint in any way.

But then we had a post from a really good blogger, Mira, on the site talking about villains that work for the greater good and Thanos in particular. And she lays out all the details and it really does look like the people who wrote this movie thought that this was supposed to be a viable solution to this problem and their actual commentary is on whether it’s okay to sacrifice anybody for the greater good.

KRISTIN: Yeeaah… [uncomfortable laugh]

CHRIS: And one of those things that really bothered me throughout this movie is time and time again, we know that we have this big bad villain who’s going to kill half of all life. Like dude, just horrible things. And he continually gets his way by just holding a single person hostage and threatening to kill them. Every single time this happens the good guys just give in to him without even thinking about it, without even debating it.

And it’s like, this should at least be a moral dilemma, right? Like, “Hey should we sacrifice– let a friend die for the greater good?” That should be a dilemma. But instead it’s treated like a moral absolute where the issue is whether or not it’s okay to sacrifice anybody for the greater good. But it’s so lopsided: one person’s life for everyone, for like half of all people. [laughter]

It’s just very messed up.

OREN: Right. Especially considering that if Thanos succeeds, there’s a 50% chance that person will die anyway.

KRISTIN: That’s true.

OREN: Much higher if we consider what would actually happen if half of the world’s population just disappeared. [general agreement] I mean, the movie’s clearly not considering that, like the answer is complete societal collapse. But whatever, that’s a separate argument.

[Kristin laughs]

CHRIS: Yeah. And so my conclusion is that I just don’t think moral absolutism works with moral dilemmas. [laughs]

OREN: Yeah

KRISTIN: That’s true.

CHRIS: The whole point of a moral dilemma is that we don’t necessarily know what the right answer is. That’s why it’s a dilemma. [laughs] And just having any character, that’s like, “It’s never okay to do this for this in any circumstances, no matter how extreme”, just doesn’t really work.

OREN: Yeah. Especially when it just feels like they’re making it very simplistic, right? Like I can stretch my suspension of moral belief a long way. If a character is like, “I believe in this, this is the way I live my life and even if it has bad consequences for me, I’m going to– That’s a deep thing for me.”

Even in the situation of Star Trek Discovery, if they had a character on the show who was like, “I am a total pacifist. I don’t believe in fighting back. I would rather the Klingons kill me than I kill a Klingon defending myself.” It’s like, okay, I don’t agree with that, I can’t imagine living my life this way, but if you make that– that’s how you are, okay. I could accept that. But that’s clearly not what’s happening in Discovery, right? Like they’re clearly not pacifists. Their ships are strapped with weapons. [laughter] Those are not, you didn’t put those there because you assumed you would never have to fight anyone.

KRISTIN: Yeah. For me, Ender’s Game falls pretty solidly in that same category where you’ve got someone who is hiding the facts from the people who are making the decision. In this case, Ender is being told that he is only fighting simulations, and this is being told to him by someone that he trusts, no matter how sort of misplaced that trust is and stuff. So you get this thing where someone is being told the wrong information. And so they’re no longer the ones making that moral decision, even though they are making the moral decision. [laughs]

OREN: Right. I mean, I always liked that at Ender’s Game where it’s sort of like Ender’s Game is a moral dilemma that the hero is not allowed to know about, because if he did, he’d be like, “Oh man, I could destroy the aliens’ whole planet to win this battle, but that seems wrong”, but he doesn’t know that. He thinks it’s a game and he’s like, “I figured out how to win the game”. And it’s like, yeah, no, that was great. That’s my favorite part of Ender’s Game.

KRISTIN: Exactly. Looking at the books further into it, he actually gets really depressed about the whole situation and he goes off and stuff like that. So there’s actually huge consequences for Ender, in the – what’s his name? Mazer – in Mazer’s decision to hide all this from him, that the simulations are simulations.

OREN: I mean, I wasn’t a huge fan of the later Ender’s Games books, but yes, it was nice that they actually took something from that and Ender didn’t just shrug it off and was like yeah it’s fine, whatever. Nbd.

KRISTIN: Yeah, yeah! [laughs]

OREN: One thing that I’ve noticed that is a big problem with many moral dilemmas, is that when a character makes a choice that is supposed to be the good choice or at least the kind choice, the more ethical choice, very often it falls flat because what they are sacrificing isn’t actually them, they’re making a sacrifice on someone else– they are making someone else sacrifice. And I see this happen a lot.

It happened in Dragon Prince, the current season two, where there’s this moral dilemma where it goes by very quickly, because nothing in Dragon Prince is ever given the time it needs to develop properly. But in a flashback, we find out that the king was approached by ambassadors of the– actually, you know, hang on. Chris, you described this. Do you want to talk about this one?

CHRIS: [laughs] Okay.

OREN: I realize I’m stealing your idea.

CHRIS: [laughs] It’s fine. So, okay. So in Dragon Prince, we’ve got a king who is set up as being super generous and always trying to do the right thing and being there for his people. And then one day, a couple, they’re actually monarchs from another kingdom, come and beseach him that their people are starving and like a hundred thousand people in our kingdom are going to die without assistance. So his kingdom doesn’t actually have food to spare. There’s a big winter coming. So it’s really about, can they make it through the winter? So he just declares that he’s gonna, they’re going to share all they have with this other kingdom. But because that doesn’t actually generate any more food and he doesn’t have food to spare, all that does is shift the number of deaths so that half of the people who die will be from his kingdom.

And I see this a lot with characters where basically the storyteller is trying to set up the character as being selfless, you know, being morally upright. But when you have a character in a leadership position, the sacrifice absolutely must be personal on their part and not a sacrifice of the thing that they’re leading or the people that they’re leading, because it doesn’t come off as a selfless sacrifice.

In this case, he just comes off as a really reckless leader. [agreement] And we saw scenes of his people, it’s like, “Oh no, they all understand”. It’s like, they would not understand. They would be up in arms. They would be rioting in the streets.

OREN: Yeah, that’s how monarchies– that’s how revolutions start, man, when you tell people they’re going to starve.


CHRIS: So it’s just, this kind of thing just doesn’t really work very well as a dilemma. If you want a sacrifice, it just looks a lot better if the person who is making the choice that somebody should be sacrificed is actually paying for it themself and making a sacrifice for themself in some way.

KRISTIN: They’re the ones making a sacrifice, not ordering other people to make the sacrifice.

CHRIS: Exactly.

KRISTIN: Yeah, yeah. Which is something to me that war movies rely way too heavily on, the whole thing of, we’re going to sacrifice this for our country or for our freedom or whatever. And the person in charge goes, “Okay, you guys, go march up this hill or take this hill!” and he’s at the back protected. And then you have– The military group has gone up and over the hill and taken it with massive losses. [laughs] I think that that’s something the Dragon Prince, that’s sort of where they’re taking the idea of ‘someone orders someone else to do something’ and it’s a moral dilemma for them, but they’re not partaking in that moral dilemma.

CHRIS: Yeah, I think this is why it makes sense for a lot of stories, even if it’s realistic of a battle scene for the commanders to actually stay behind the front because they can command better there, or they’re just protected there and they’re actually really important. It’s just, it’d be hard to sympathize with a character in a riveting battle scene who was commanding people and not actually being at the front of the charge, right?

KRISTIN: True, true.

CHRIS: That just would be, I don’t– Oren, you know more about what is actually realistic in these kinds of scenarios?

OREN: Well, okay. So in a war situation, I think the rules do change a little bit. Cause I mean, we’re getting into the question of, who has to sacrifice, right? [agreement] And I would argue that a general in most situations who decides to put himself or themself on the front lines, because it’s like, “Yeah, now I’m sharing in the suffering of my men”. Usually that’s actually a selfish decision because if the leadership of a fighting force is destroyed, that fighting force will almost certainly lose and then they will lose even more people. So, I think that there’s a balance here.

I do think you could have a moral dilemma of a military commander who has to make the choice to sacrifice some soldiers to save the rest. That’s a quite… There’s a give and take there, right. And I think you would have to set them up differently, is what it is. You have to show that this is something that the commander understands, and if you can show the toll that it takes on this commander.

The reason why in Dragon Prince it’s so weird is that the king doesn’t even make an effort to alleviate the suffering any other way. He just immediately declares that 50,000 of his people will starve so that 50,000 people in the other kingdom won’t.


OREN: And it’s like, I mean, I don’t know, maybe sell your tapestries or something, right? I mean, this is part of the problem with Dragon Prince in general, that everything is super rushed. So maybe if we’d had a couple episodes to devote to this, maybe we could have done that and we could have had the king in a situation where eventually he has to make a choice like that.

But in a military situation it’s just, it’s more complicated. You know, war is complicated, more news at five.


CHRIS: Right. I mean, if we set up a situation in the Dragon Prince where the king had made commitments thinking that they would have another source of food and then that fell through and then he had the choice of either letting some of his people starve or leaving this other allied country to fend for themselves… Because really this is just set up as a motivation for him to do desperate things to feed his people. That’s honestly the purpose of this in the show. But him just making an open declaration without actually treading carefully, it just feels reckless.

OREN: Yeah. It feels like he doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation he’s making. Like his minister had to point out to him that people in their kingdom would starve too. It’s like, you’re just a bad king aren’t you?

KRISTIN: [laughs] Oh dear…

CHRIS: But it doesn’t faze him, right? It doesn’t treat it like he’s surprised by that. [laughs]

KRISTIN: Huh. So having not seen Dragon Prince, I have to say that this makes me less likely to maybe want to watch it just because it seems like the characters don’t actually think through their actions. And that really annoys me. [laughs]

OREN: That is an absolute problem the Dragon Prince has. All the time. Characters are always doing things for really unknown, vague reasons that don’t make sense. And then they just kind of work out, is what happens, just because the show is just badly storyboarded is it’s problem. I don’t know if it’s just trying to cover too much in too little time or what. I just know that a lot of the character actions just don’t make sense and only work if you know that they’ve also read the script.

KRISTIN: Got it. Got it.

CHRIS: Yeah. I mean, it’s too bad. If you’re a big fan of the Avatar franchise, you might still like some of the features it has, but it’s just rough around the edges all around at the very basic level. You know, stringing things together, putting scenes in the right order in some cases.

KRISTIN: Oh dear. [laughs]

CHRIS: It’s just rough. It’s rough.

KRISTIN: All right. All right.

CHRIS: Yeah.

OREN: Although, just so that no one thinks that I view the original Avatar with rose colored glen– er lenses. Rose colored glenses? [laughter] Rose colored lenses.

There’s another very common problem with moral dilemmas, which is the contrived solution. There’s two bad choices and we’re not willing to make either choice. And then to make sure that we don’t have to make a hard choice, suddenly a third magic solution will appear. And it’s not that having a third way out of your moral dilemma is always a bad thing, in fact sometimes it’s important because if you never have a way out of moral dilemmas, your universe starts to feel nihilistic, like nothing matters.

CHRIS: Like The 100. [laughs]

OREN: Yeah, well, [clears throat] excuse me.

CHRIS: Sorry, this is– The 100 is like Moral Dilemma: The Show. [laughs] It’s really dark. They’re always really dark moral dilemmas too and it just goes from one after the other. And that’s what it does.

[Kristin laughs]

OREN: Right. But if you want to set up a third way, if you want to set up an escape hatch to your moral dilemma, you actually have to set it up. It actually has to work. And it has to feel like it was earned. Whereas in Avatar: The Last Airbender at the end, they have this actually, what I felt, fairly compelling dilemma of Aang being like “I have to–“, being told he has to kill Ozai, but Aang is an extreme–he doesn’t kill–

KRISTIN: Pacifist.

OREN: I mean, pacifist isn’t exactly the right word because he can defend himself. But he has a fighting style that’s all about avoiding and his attacks are very soft and I believe that Aang has not killed anyone. Right. Like, I don’t believe that Zuko has never killed anyone or that Katara has never killed anyone, but I’ll believe Aang hasn’t.

KRISTIN: [chuckles] Okay, yeah, yeah. I can go with you on that one.

CHRIS: Right. And they don’t set it up as like, “Oh no, it might be wrong to kill Ozai despite all the horrible things he’s done”. [laughter] It’s very like, no, this is about Aangs beliefs. Right?

OREN: Right. It’s like, this is Aang’s personal belief. This is core to who he is. And it’s not that he thinks it would be wrong to kill Ozai because maybe Ozai has got some good in him or whatever, it’s because it’s wrong to kill anything in Aang’s view. So that’s an interesting dilemma. I like it.

I hate their solution. Their solution is like, “Hey man, I’m a lion turtle. Here’s some extra magic.” And it’s like, oh, okay. Okay, I guess, sure, why not? It could have been anything at that point. Maybe the lion turtle gave him the power to make Ozai good. Who knows? It’s all equally as contrived.

CHRIS: Yeah–

OREN: And so that’s– Hm?

CHRIS: Yeah. I think that’s at least somewhat kind of deus ex machina-ish. Is one of the issues with that, like any solution, it kind of pops up out of nowhere.

KRISTIN: [disappointed] Yeah.

OREN: Right. And Star Trek does this a lot too. They’ll be like, there’s a moral dilemma, “Oh no, we might have to leave this person behind.” It’s like, “But! If we tech it hard enough…”, [laughter] and then they just spout some technobabble that is meaningless. And it’s like, yeah, I mean, I guess, [sighs] sure.

Anytime you have magic or technology that is so vague or inconsistent that it can be used to solve any problem, it just stops being satisfying when you use it to solve problems, because it’s like, yeah, I mean, I guess you solved that problem with the magic tech. I don’t know why you don’t solve all your problems that way.

Dragon Prince is actually a fun example of a magic system that does that because the human magic system is so vague and can do basically anything that they can basically have the mage lady–I forget– Claudia. They can have Claudia do anything they need to make the story move forward. Cause she can just be like “Another random magic animal body part lets me do a magic spell that solves the problem”. And the only saving grace is that Claudia is technically a villain. If Claudia was a good guy, this would be insufferable.

[Kristin laughs]

CHRIS: I feel like if Claudia was a good guy what they would probably want to do is when they actually set off on a journey, we make it clear ahead what supplies she has with her and what she can do with them. Right. So we know the constraints that she has. So then when she decides to use one of those parts, and hopefully some creativity, hopefully like “We have this part, it can only do this kind of weird thing, but hey, maybe we could use it in a really creative way to solve the problem”. And that would be pretty satisfying.

KRISTIN: Because then when she uses it, you know that she doesn’t have two or three more in her backpack that two seconds later, she can turn around and do something else with.

CHRIS: Yeah. We just understand what constraints she’s working under, as opposed to right now, she just has a generic bag and anything could be in there. And the magic system is complicated enough. It’s an eclectic magic system where we have all of these different animal parts that can do who knows what. The possibilities are endless as far as the audience can see. And so every time that she solves a problem with magic, it does feel like it’s just kind of made up on the spot.

Whereas if she was a protagonist and we saw her set out, but she’s like, “Hey, I have– these are the parts that I have with me.” And we have some idea, okay, well, this is a sky animal part, I could possibly create some wind with it. This is– And we see her supplies dwindling as she chooses to use them up. And that way we’ve set up ahead of time what she can do. And then when she uses it, right?


OREN: Right. Also just for the record, Claudia should have a giant meat cleaver and other butcher’s tools. It really bothers me that she doesn’t. Her entire magic is based on animal parts and like, man, she doesn’t know how to take apart a magic carcass.


KRISTIN: You mean she does not go around butchering animals left and right to get all these parts?

OREN: She should be. I don’t know why she isn’t.

CHRIS: Because it’s a kid’s show, that’s why. I’m betting you anything.

OREN: Yeah, no, that’s definitely why, but it’s not– I didn’t set up this magic system, they did.


KRISTIN: It would explain why she’d have so many.

OREN: But so if we want to see an example of a good moral dilemma that had a third way out that actually worked, that was earned, let us turn to the third child of the Avatar animation family – it’s really the second, Dragon Prince is the third – but the second one is Legend of Korra. Where in season four they have an interesting dilemma where the bad guy for the season is General Kuvira who is becoming a military dictator of the Earth Kingdom and is expansionist, and wants to reclaim lost Earth Kingdom territory, which is gonna cause a bunch of wars.

And she’s great, I love Kuvira, but she’s clearly a villain. But removing her means kind of going back to the Earth Kingdom monarchy, which we spent all of the third season showing was terrible. And there’s a reason Kuvira was able to take over. So we have this dilemma and they don’t agonize about it in the show. Like it’s understood that they need to stop Kuvira now because she’s the current problem, but it’s there, in the background, it’s like, okay, what happens when Kuvira is gone?

And the way that they solve this is that the Earth King who is reinstated after Kuvira is defeated declares an end to his kingdom. He abdicates and says we’re going to be a democracy instead. And the reason that doesn’t come out of nowhere is, he’s actually had a small growth arc in the background of the season.


OREN: So him being like, “You know, actually the solution is for me to give up power because having one person with all the power isn’t a good idea no matter who that person is.”

CHRIS: Yeah.


OREN: Right. And so that’s a great way to resolve a moral dilemma with a third way out. You just need to be willing to set it up ahead of time and do the work.

CHRIS: Foreshadowing.

KRISTIN: Hey! [laughs]

CHRIS: So Kristin, do you have a moral dilemma you want to talk about?

KRISTIN: I mean, as many problems as Harry Potter has, I do love Harry Potter. [laughs]

OREN: Yeah, yeah.

CHRIS: I also love Harry Potter. I criticize it all the time, but I criticize it because I love it.

KRISTIN: Exactly, right? [laughter] But I think that Harry Potter has actually two very large moral dilemmas in it. And you get the first one being Dumbledore sacrifices himself for the quote unquote Greater Good, capital, but on the other hand, he’s doing this when he’s already dying. So how much of a sacrifice was it? But then also his sacrifice meant that Snape was able to get in better with Voldemort, know more plans and all sorts of stuff and everything.

So you have that sacrifice, but the bigger one I think is Harry who is expected to sacrifice himself and he’s expected by Dumbledore to sacrifice himself. The problem, of course, being, he doesn’t know he’s supposed to sacrifice himself until the very end of the series and rereading it as I have done many, many times, you do kind of get the sense that there are some things that have been foreshadowed a little bit with the needing to set up that Harry is going to need to eventually sacrifice himself. Of course, the prophecy being the biggest one, but… And eventually it’s going to be to save all of the Wizarding world.

And then of course magic steps in and he doesn’t actually die and he just kills Voldemort. Yeah, that whole thing, which kind of goes into the magic sort of solution, which is the third solution. Yes, he sacrifices himself, but not really guys. [laughs]

CHRIS: Yeah. But we do hear from Dumbledore– I think the really interesting part about that, so we hear from Dumbledore his perspective as he was basically being Harry’s mentor, right?

KRISTIN: Yes, yes.

CHRIS: And the fact that he really cared about Harry, but he knew what the conclusion had to be. And so he felt like he was raising a kid for slaughter.

KRISTIN: Yeah. Which in some respects because Harry was there at Dumbledore’s sacrifice, how much of that also was, “I’m doing this, this is what I expect you to do as well”? Sort of lead by example.

OREN: For me the interesting dilemma there is actually the one that Snape has. And I don’t like Snape, I think Snape is a bad character. But leaving that aside for a minute, Snape’s dilemma over whether or not he can kill his friend Dumbledore in order to get better in with Voldemort, that’s actually a cool dilemma. I like that. Even though we only find out about it afterwards. And in that, there is no third way out of that one. He just has to do it. Even though Dumbledore is already dying, it’s still a hard thing for him to do, right.

KRISTIN: Yes, very much.

OREN: So that’s the one that I like. I find the whole Potter resurrection thing to be pretty… ugh. It’s like, I guess, sure…

KRISTIN: [laughs] It’s the handwavy magic thing.

OREN: Right. It feels a little bit like a technobabble solution to me.

CHRIS: Just, I have to say, interestingly enough, we’ve been reading through Narnia recently and it– I mean, we don’t know where Rowling got her inspiration, but it really does feel like the whole old magic Harry Potter resurrection thing comes straight from Narnia.

OREN: It does.

KRISTIN: I can see that. I can totally see that.

CHRIS: Yeah, yeah. Anyway.

OREN: So we are definitely out of time for this episode.

CHRIS: We didn’t even talk about Tuvix! Poor Tuvix.

OREN: Oh, we did not have time to talk about Tuvix, but maybe we’ll talk about Tuvix another time. My dilemma was that I needed to call time to this episode, but we were having a really great discussion so I didn’t want to do that. And it turned out there was no magical third way out. So I’m just going to have to call it quits. Thank you, Kristin, for joining us.

KRISTIN: Yeah, thank you for having me, it’s been fun!

OREN: And before we go, I just want to say thank you to two of our patrons. First Kathy Ferguson, who teaches political theory in Star Trek. And second Ayman Jaber, an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel.

[voiceover:] If you like what we do, send a few dollars our way through our patreon. Every cent goes into the hoard of gold we lounge on like dragons. Just go to patreon.com/Mythcreants. [Outro Music]

This has been the Mythcreant Podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.

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  1. DvD

    “Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.”—Lord Farquaad, Shrek. 2001

  2. Tifa

    Oh, this is such an interesting topic. I greatly enjoyed listening to it.

    I have noticed the ‘contrived solution’ show up so much, especially in stories that so desperately want to appear ‘deep’ and ‘meaningful’, but fall flat for one reason or another. >.<

  3. Fay Onyx

    I’ll attempt to recreate my lost comment.

    I think that the biggest factor in whether or not an alternative option to a moral dilemma is satisfying is whether that alternative involves a shift to a new moral framework. This new moral framework presents new options for solving the conflict and the old moral dilemma is revealed to have been a false choice. Shifting to a new moral framework resolves the moral conflict by taking it in a new direction that provides a solution. Without this shift to a new moral framework, the third option simply becomes a sidestepping of the moral dilemma that fails to resolve that conflict.

    The earth king’s choice to create a democracy is a great example of this. Through his growth as a character he is able come to the realization that no one person should have all the power (this is the new moral framework) and from that realization he finds a better solution.

    • Fay Onyx

      I did want to add that tricksters can sometimes get away with sidestepping moral dilemmas with trickery. When done well this can take two different directions.

      1) The trickster is operating out of a different moral framework (sometimes this is less obvious) that says that they don’t have to make these sort of choices because there always is an alternative. In these situations they aren’t really sidestepping the moral dilemma, so this continues to be satisfying (assuming their solutions are clever).

      2) The trickster is sidestepping a moral dilemma for a period of time but ultimately comes to a situation where they are forces

      • Fay Onyx

        That second one should read:

        2) The trickster is sidestepping a moral dilemma for a period of time but ultimately comes to a situation where they are forced to make a choice.

        • Bellis

          Thank you, Fay, this is really insightful!

          *takes notes* “shift to a new moral framework!”

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yay, this comment was reconstructed from the ether!

  4. Lucy

    This was an interesting listen, as always – thank you!

    I think writers often just want to have their cake and eat it. Moral dilemmas are interesting and can make for very compelling reading … but they are also, by definition, kinda horrible. Either you have to come up with a third way (and risk it coming across as contrived, as you say), or accept that your story is just going to be a bit of a downer. I think people often fall in love with the ideas, but just can’t bring themselves to go through with it. The, uh, dilemma of writing a moral dilemma? (sorry)

    I was reminded of Doctor Who, which constantly pulls contrived solutions out of nowhere, and Torchwood: Children of Earth, which …. really didn’t. They went through with the whole ‘you’ve got to kill one innocent person to save a whole bunch of other innocent people’ thing, and it was pretty brutal.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah you really have to be sure you know what you’re saying with moral dilemmas, otherwise it just comes off as contrived or depressing. Fay is really onto something with solutions that change the moral paradigm though, wish we’d thought of that on the podcast.

  5. Sarah West

    Great episode!

    I don’t think the end of The Truman Show was setting up a moral dilemma between Truman doing what’s best for the audience/show (staying) versus himself (leaving). I think it was supposed to be a choice between safety and freedom. Staying in the show meant that he’d be protected in a predetermined, but not real, life.

    We discussed this movie in my 9th grade Advanced Studies unit on philosophy (*NNNNNEEEEERRRD!*). The Truman Show is meant to be like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where he’s only experiencing the “shadows” of reality in his safe little world, and he has to make the choice of leaving, even though it’s dangerous. The show’s audience represents all of us viewers making this decision with him as they live through him and route for him.

  6. TheKazz

    I think there are really two key points of making good moral decisions. First is a making all the different options matter and result in a meaningfully different end state and ensuring the net results of those choices have some amount of logical equivalency. And second providing a logical justification as to why one of the limited number of options needs to be made.

    Because you were talking about infinity war I am going to use that as an example on why it fails on both of these key points. The first one you touched on is that there are many times were Thanos gets his way because the heroes are essentially being selfish and saving their friend rather than half of the universe. Clearly in the grand scheme of things one life has no sense of logical equivalency to half of all life.

    The other way in which the moral dilemmas fail in infinity war are all around Thanos and his motivations and the logical conclusion of his actions. He States that he only wants to kill half of all life to save life which is the first issue because it’s quite clear even before the end of infinity war let alone the start of end game that more than half of all life on Earth is killed by the snap. Sure he may have only snapped half but immediately after we see a helicopter crash into a building that had it’s pilot snapped which more than likely killed other people who did not get snapped how many people died in car wrecks has half of all the divers on the freeway got snapped. How many of those who survive are killed because their doctor got snapped or starved because farmers got snapped. How many committed suicide because the people they loved got snapped? So you immediately have this issue of clearly not having half of all life resulting it a net result that is distinct from just all life becoming over populated because they basically both result in this dystopian end state. So you have no sense of equivalency because your choice is between a dystopia in the distant future where people get to be happy until then or you have a dystopia right now caused by force with much suffering. So yeah not really much of a dilemma on which of those is better. The second issue with the motivation of thanos is that he didn’t need to make that choice. He had literally unlimited power to change the entire universe. If he was trying to save the universe from ever running out of resources he could have snapped an infinite amount of those resources into existence he had other options an infinite number of other options to solve the problem he was trying to solve.

    Personally I think they should have kept the comic book motivation of thanos trying to impress the goddess of death instead of trying to make him sympathetic and relatable

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Strongly agree. Changing Thanos’ motivation without changing his actions leads to some serious dissonance in this movie.

  7. Bellis

    For the leader (monarch, general, etc) who has to make a sacrifice but can’t sacrifice their own life because that would be selfish, while sacrificing someone under their power makes it not their sacrifice: I think a possible solution – if done well – would be to make a decision that will save lives now, but cost them their power and possibly life soon.

    A military commander could go against orders to save their troops, civilians or even enemy lives, knowing they’ll face court martial and execution.

    A ruler could do what’s right and put the lives of poor and disenfranchised people over the business interests of the rich and influential, knowing it will result in their loss of power or even an assassination attempt.

    I think for this to be a meaningful sacrifice it would have to be done knowingly and the consequences should come swiftly. If they didn’t anticipate the consequences, it feels more like a tragedy or unjust world or bad luck; which is worthwile to write too, but would be something else. And if the consequences are vague or come much later, it comes off as cheap.

    In order to make it a moral dilemma, the non-sacrificial choice would have to be shown as equally justified. So my examples don’t work super well for that. They could be modified though, for example if the orders the commander ignored were reasonable and the attempt to save lives is super risky and doesn’t work out perfectly, creating a situation that’s not actually better than if they’d followed those orders. Basically, they meant well and did their best, but ultimately it didn’t do more good than harm.

    The ruler could face the choice of doing something nice now but lose power to someone who’ll roll it back, or make compromises that go against their conscience in order to stay in power and be the lesser evil.

    A thing that infuriates me about badly done moral dilemmas is when they don’t adress the point the villain made. Like Thanos pretended to ‘adress’ resource scarcity and climate change, but in the end we’re supposed to cheer for the restoration of the status quo??? Including ongoing climate change? A full team of super rich superpowered geniuses and literal gods with super-tech and time travel and the support of world leaders and masses alike can’t even figure out a possible attempt to tackle this problem, that doesn’t involve sacrificing some people for the greater good??? I don’t buy it. They didn’t even try.

  8. Oren Ashkenazi

    Ah hah, a transcript!

  9. Arix

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen it so I could be misremembering something, but in Dragon Prince, I feel like Harrow’s decision to help the starving kingdom wasn’t supposed to be a good thing. It was supposed to demonstrate his fatal flaw – his shortsighted idealism, his belief that just being altruistic would make everything work out. After all, the show clearly shows the consequences of his decision – his people starve, which leads to him attacking a magical creature to fuel a spell to save them, which leads to his wife’s death in the attack, which leads to him killing the dragon king in vengeance, which kickstarts the entire show.

    Again though, been a while since I’ve seen it, so I could be forgetting something.

  10. Jeppsson

    This is an interesting topic. A colleague of mine recently blogged about how he thought both Susanna Clarke’s “Piranesi” and countless Doctor Who episodes sidestep ethical dilemmas in a cowardly way. I agree that Doctor Who often does this, but I didn’t feel this when reading Piranesi.

    The titular Piranesi is told that either he has to kill Ketterley (whom he used to think was a friend but is actually his enemy), or Ketterley will kill him. In the end, though, Ketterley drowns in a flood.

    I can sort of see how someone might think Ketterley gets too much of a Disney-villain death here, but… I personally didn’t find it problematic, for two reasons:
    1. The person who told Piranesi that it’s either kill or be killed is himself a pretty nasty character, who doesn’t much care for human life. We don’t have reason to trust his claim that this really is a dilemma with no third option, and Piranesi himself doesn’t seem to accept it.
    2. That flood, on the other hand, HAD been built up as a serious threat to Piranesi’s life. Ketterley then arrived for his murder attempt earlier than expected, for various reasons, making him present during the flood. It was also well established that Piranesi is more used to the environment of the place and has better survival skills. The whole Disney-villain-death sequence thus seemed sufficiently in-universe plausible to me.

    So I accepted all of this while reading it, but on hearing my colleague’s criticism, I can still sort of see why it bugged him… writing a hero who escapes a moral dilemma sure is tricky business!

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