ad astra per alia porci

anonymous virtue
July 24, 2009, 5:47 pm
Filed under: diary, the arts | Tags: ,

Can a person find peace with himself when he sacrifices the lives of people personally acquianted with him in exchange for the survival of an anonymous mass of people? Is the death of a friend worth exchanging for the survival of tens of other strangers?

This was the central recurring struggle that tormented the lead character Martin McGartland’s conscience in Fifty Dead Men Walking. I just watched the movie with J and I was well-entertained. While the cinematography and pacing were excellent and Jim Sturgess’s performance as a more animated and cocky counterpart of Tony Leung’s brooding, taciturn undercover cop character in Infernal Affairs was outstandingly believable, it was the fundamental conflict McGartland faced that most fascinated me.

As the title of the movie would suggest, is it morally, or at least personally, justifiable to sacrfice family and friends in exchange for the “greater good” of letting say, 50 men who one has never seen or heard before and are supposed to die, live?

Aside from the question of whether a crude and unfeeling utilitarian calculus can be used to justify or rationalise the sacrifice of human lives in exchange for others (e.g. 1 life can always be justifiable exchanged for 2 lives because 2 is more than 1), the problem of whether one is able to morally justify, and live with, the consequences of sacrificing everything that is real, tangible and personal in pursuit of an abstract ideal that seems so removed from one’s immediate concerns and perceptions.

In some sense, fidelity in this form is similar to religious belief. The Muslim God in particular has no physical manifestation, and in fact Muslims frown upon depictions of God. Hence to believe in God is in a way to believe in a pure idea, a non-corporal entity or ideal. Just like how McGartland betrays his “mates” (as he affectionately calls them) for the higher ideal of saving abstract lives, religious fundamentalists seek to fulfill their version of God’s abstract purpose and will by blowing themselves and others up.

I was also reminded of just how similar this form of love for the right is to the Duke Orsino’s rather ridiculous predicament in Twelfth Night: he was in love with the idea of love, and it took the trickery and cross-dressing of Viola to get him out of his self-imposed romantic stasis. Perhaps fidelity to an abstract ideal can indeed be counterproductive and undesirable, stymieing the proper order of life.

In the end each of us chooses his own poison. Life is perhaps a question of trading precious and finite time, health and effort in exchange for meaning and value, in the form of whatever endeavour we choose to focus on.

At the end of the movie I felt that McGartland was a hero. Yes, lives were sacrificed along the way and he had to betray his closest connections. But his bravery, courage and steadfastness were admirable, and the fact remains that his unintentionally Machiavellian ways did save many lives. In a perfect world everyone is a saint, but clearly perfection is a dream. In an imperfect world where circumstances are often out of the control of the hands of men, McGartland did the best he could while listening to the voice of his conscience.


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