Heroic sacrifices, the great person theory of history, and you.

Note that this is a fantasy hypothetical; note who wrote the OP. If you don’t like these but are still reading, you are clearly a masochist, a malcontent, or some sort of elf.

First the short version. Earth is about to get hammered by an asteroid like the one that offed the dinosaurs. Your hypergenius friend Cree has built a machine that might save the planet, but at the cost of her own and several others’ lives. Out of Cree’s presence, another of her associates, Toby, gathers everyone qualified to assist her; that includes you. Toby says that Cree’s genius makes her too valuable to humanity’s future to lose. Though he himself still intends to go through with the plan, he wants the people not playing Horatius-at-the-bridge to keep Cree out of it so she can go on being the distaff Reed Richards.

Do you agree with Toby? Is the life of a genius worth more than an ordinary schmo’s? Regardless of that, do you volunteer for the heroic sacrifice?

Okay, that’s enough to vote on. If you must have more details, check the next post, which should be up in about a minute, and the poll a little after that.

Some time ago, astronomers discovered an asteroid that had previously gone uncharted because of its extremely low albedo. The asteroid is on collison course with Earth; the impact will be an extinction-level event. No conventional technology has a prayer of stopping it.

But all is not lost. You see, fifteen years ago, your friend Cree–a genius polymath, humanity’s greatest expert in field theory and several fields of engineering–had a breakthrough that let her invent artificial gravity, inertial dampeners, force shields, and finally faster-than-light travel and communications: in short, everything you need for a starship. She’s built two multi-purpose ships, the Roonwit and the Glenstorm, and a much slower transport ship, the *Gadget[/] no other such vessels exist. The two ships are exploring the stars together. You’re the shipmaster of Roonwit; your friend Jamie is the skipper Glenstorm; Cree commands the fleet. Five years ago, y’all discovered an Earthlike planet a hundred parsecs from Sol and suitable for colonization. When news came of Earth’s peril, the little fleet had just deposited the latest load of settlers on Tellus Secundus, bringing its population to about 10,000. Cree naturally dropped everything. Glenstorm and Roonwit set sail for home. She and the crews’ biggest brains set about devising a plan to save Earth.

Three months later, when Glenstorm and Roonwit reach the orbit of Mars, doomsday is 48 hours away. At 1900, a visibly exhausted Cree addresses the bridge crews of both ships for an announcment whose details you already know. They’ve completed work on a super-repulsor she believes can save the day; it’s installed on Glenstorm. In firing, the ship will have to position herself directly in the asteroid’s path , and the repulsor will burn out all the ship’s systems; she doesn’t expect anyone on board to survive. Thus, at 0600 tomorrow, everyone but a skeleton crew will board Roonwit. The skeleton crew–Cree, seven engineers, and six bridge crew–will then complete the mission. If they succeed, Roonwit can proceed as its skipper deems best; if they fail, it is to go back to Tellus Secundus to join the colony there. With that, she tells Jamie to ask for volunteers, then goes to her quarters to get her last night’s sleep.

Once Cree is out of earshot, Glenstorm’s chief engineer, Toby, takes the floor. The first thing he says is that he’s volunteering for the skeleton crew; the second is that Cree left out a pertinent detail. While at least fourteen people must be on board Glenstorm to make the plan work, Cree doesn’t have to be one of them–and je doesn’t think she should be.

“Let’s have no false modesty,” Toby says. “Every member of these crews is extremely bright, and several of us are geniuses. Hell, I’m one of three Nobel laureates in the group. But next to the commodore, we’re all Neanderthals. The repulsor cannon and all our primary systems are the fruit of her brow. Not just the theory: the actual engineering. She’s already begun taking humanity to the stars. If Earth survives this, she may do something even more miraculous; if it doesn’t, she’d be a tremendous asset to Secundus. But only if she’s alive–and she’ll never agree to let one of us die in her place. Now in a moment, Doc Billingsley will give her a sedative that’ll let her sleep for about six hours–unless I beep him. If I beep him, the doc will up the dose so she’ll be out longer–long enough to get her onto Roonwit and that ship to pull back, leaving Jamie to command Glenstorm on this last mission.”

“Which I am willing to do,” Jamie puts in. “But that means we’ll need at least one more bridge volunteer for the skeleton crew–and frankly, without Cree’s great big brain available, we’re better off with three more, for a total of nine bridge crew. But I can’t order that. I can say that I need to know who’s willing right now. If I get at least seven bridge volunteers, we go with Toby’s plan. Otherwise we proceed as the skipper described. Hands, please.”

Do you think Toby’s plan is best? Does Cree’s genius truly make her life more valuable than others? Regardless of that, are you willing to give your life for hers? For the world? Why or why not?

Wait for the poll, or not. I ain’t your dady.

Sounds like it is a reasonable goal to keep Cree alive, especially if it’s happening thanks to volunteer replacements. I’d be less happy with the idea if Toby grabbed the ordinary schmo and ordered him to die.

I’m not sure from the hypothetical how likely it is that Cree would need to be present to fix any unexpected problems. Toby says not, but it’s a poll option…

As for volunteering: I didn’t pick any of the poll options. I would not be the first to do it, but if we’re looking around the room and everyone else says absolutely not, then I’d be willing to step up. It’s more my wife I’d be thinking of than myself and maybe there are enough single people who would step up first. Dying to save the planet and a super-genius sounds is not my first choice, but if it has to be me, I’d do it.

Posted without reading others’ responses.

I voted:

*I will volunteer for the suicide mission regardless of where Cree is.


I don’t get the significance of the name, but I still want dessert. *

I believe in the great-person theory of history. Vast and long-term social forces gave us the world we have today, but key individuals have made a big difference, too, at crucial turning points. The American Revolution probably would’ve been lost without George Washington. Winston Churchill was absolutely vital to British resistance to fascism. Albert Einstein’s theories have revolutionized science for generations.

Cree sounds like she’s in that same rarefied company. It would be for the best if she survived this Earth-threatening crisis, but I hope I’d do my part regardless of whether or not she was kept safe.

I hate these, but I can’t stop reading and voting. Clearly something is wrong with me. Not sure I’m some sort of elf. Peach cobbler trumps apple crisp any day of the week. I probably wouldn’t assist anyone named Toby.

Peach Cobbler, please, with soft serve ice cream.

Toby is right, Cree is a bit too valuable to risk on a suicide mission so knock her out and keep her out of harm’s way.

As for participating in the mission itself, no thank you. I am getting a bit old to believe I’ll continue to make all my saving throws anymore and dying gloriously just doesn’t hold the appeal it used to. But, like dracoi, if we are all kind of shuffling feet and looking around the room, well, decisions have consequences so time to mount up and die gloriously. Hopefully battle with the asteroid will be worthy of story and song and earn my seat at Valhalla.

Toby should be talking to Cree. It’s her decision to make.

I’m of the opinion that having a super-genius around elevates everyone else, and thus I’d prefer having Cree kept alive even if she’s not super thrilled about it. I am, of course, assuming she doesn’t suicide out of guilt once she wakes up.

I didn’t answer whether I’d be willing to die because I need more info on MY situation. Is this past me, single and without kids? Then sure, someone has to make the sacrifice, I’m no better than anyone else. Is is current me, with a wife and 2 small children to raise? My sons need their father. Is it future me, with my children grown and on their own, while my wife has preceded me into the last great adventure? Then yea, final sacrifice for humanity sounds good.

(normally I’d got for cake, but my wife made cupcakes for Valentine’s day, so it’s apple crisp for me)

You mean one of the people who lack critical thinking skills? Hard to imagine why you’d be concerned, given that you think STEM majors are mentally damaged.

I assume you’re jesting. I never opined that STEMs lack for anything. I started you linked to because I was mocking thanatic.

I believe the Great Man* theory of history is bunk, but in this particular case, there are good arguments on either side, so I voted “I don’t know” as the closest to how I feel, which is actually “I’d be OK with either outcome, really.”

As to whether I’d go, I’m assuming the “me” in this scenario isn’t real-life “me”, with my wife and kids waiting back home - in which case I’m happy to volunteer regardless of the Cree disposition. If it is real-life me, then no, I’m too pretty to die…

  • It’s all well being PC, but it really is the Great Man theory. That’s how Carlisle put it, that’s what it is.

We’re talking a species-ending event and since no plan is fool-proof and may need tweaked as it goes along, I say send the super-brain along. I’ll go too but I don’t think any life has so much value as to override the choice that life makes. If Cree didn’t want to go, different story.

This is all about expected outcomes. We’re talking about an extinction level event here. We’re essentially weighing the entire future of humanity against one particular human’s skills. That idea is ludicrous straight up. That said, there MIGHT be an argument if one could show that this person going along would either not improve the odds at all or that it would be so negligible as to be outweighed by some other future massive benefit. But one would have to work very hard to sell me that latter idea as even as great as the greatest mind in the world might be, how much greater is it than the next greatest? Hell, we can’t even say that possibly narrowly dodging an extinction level event and the heroic sacrifices wouldn’t inspire many others, though perhaps not as great in mind as Cree, might in totality add more. Thus, in short, we HAVE to go with what we CAN guarantee, and that’s maximizing the chance of humanity surviving the event.

Further, though I don’t put much stock in the idea of great men of history, in that they are defined by their deeds, they are who they choose to become, Cree may be a great person in current context, but her greatness could be defined by how she reacts to this event. Consider, how many great men in history are remembered, in part or in full, because of the manner in which they died. Might they have gone on to do even greater deeds? Maybe. We’ll never know, for instance, how the presidencies of some well regarded presidents might have gone had they not died early or been assassinated. Or, perhaps, some people accomplish their greatest deeds young. For instance, Einstein’s magnum opus was finished decades before his death and many consider those remaining years largely squandered.

So, maybe Cree could go on to do even greater wonders, maybe she could have already accomplished it all and end up living long enough to tarnish how she is seen now. Or maybe her greatest calling, as being the one that brought humanity to the stars, is to ultimately sacrifice her own life to that end and be martyred forever. Which one makes her the greater person? If her motivation is, at it’s core, to see utterly selfless survival and betterment of mankind, are we not fundamentally disrespecting who she is and all that she’s already accomplished by not allowing her to make the choice for herself?

Also, I’d be willing to volunteer, but for me it would be driven, again, by that goal of maximizing success. If I have the skills to maximize it, I would go, and if I’m not, I wouldn’t be bound to some idea of heroism and would also step aside for whoever would do a better job than I would. Honestly, I cannot understand the mindset of saving an individual, oneself or anyone else, above humanity.

Regarding volunteering, your reasoning is the opposite of mine. If my wife & kids are back on Earth, I’m going to insist on going. I’d be saving them, not Earth. If I’m one of the captains, presumably I’m one of the most qualified bridge officers, and if that’s true, my family needs me to make the sacrifice. And I’m not interested in outliving them anyway.

(Though, as I think on it, the asteroid that offed the dinosaurs didn’t kill them all immediately. Assuming the big mission fails, I’d certainly want to try to rescue them and take as many as possible to the colony world. Which is probably an argument against me being captain.)

For similar reasons, I think Cree should be the one commanding the save-the-world mission. As someone observed upthread, the plan cannot possibly be foolproof – the asteroid-swatter was conceived, designed, and built literally on the fly – and if anything goes wrong, she’s the only person with a prayer of improvising a solution.

The situation reminds me of a Star Trek novel whose title I can’t recall. Picard was testing Yar, asking her whether, in certain situations, her duty might not be to preserve herself over civilians, so she could continue to contribute to society with her talents and training. Yar blew up at him, pointing out that the argument was completely circular. Similarly, Cree can only contribute to human’s destiny if humanity still exists. (And hypergenius or not, she’s going to be of limited use on the colony world, which cannot have much of an technological base for her talents to exploit.)

I’m not volunteering for any suicide mission. Life is way too sweet. Also peach cobbler, yuck.

I’m really confused then. As I read the scenario, if I don’t volunteer, the planet is still saved, it’s just that the supergenius who knows more than I do and thinks she belongs on board will die.

Edit: on rereading, I see that they’ll still need more volunteers. So, yeah, absolutely–if my death is what it takes to save my family, no question I’m putting my hand up. I’m just maybe doing it kind of slow, in case there are others a bit more enamored of glory or less enamored of life than I am.

So the question is, do I decide not only that I’m wiser than the supergenius, but that I’m also entitled to overrule her choices about her own life?

Hell no. Deciding to keep Cree around because she’s good for other people is diminishing her, relegating her from having inherent value to having only utility value to others. It’s her life, it’s her choice to make.

Even if Cree had recently suffered severe brain damage, it’d still be her decision to make as long as she were mentally competent.

I might propose an alternative: are there more than enough volunteers, enough the save-Cree proposal roster? If so, maybe we present Cree with this roster when she wakes up, and say, “We’re willing to take your place, under the condition that you pledge yourself to another great work that will save the lives of at least three more people” or something like that. Make it clear that she’s not being saved as a gift, but rather as the volunteers’ opportunity to do something indirectly good for the rest of humanity.

If she’s volunteering because she doesn’t want to ask someone to die in her place, that might change her calculus, and allow her to freely make a different decision. If she’s volunteering because she feels it’s her destiny, or because she’s tired of life, or because she’s really super-curious about how asteroids go Boom when hit with a repulsor beam, she can stick with what she wants to do.

The important thing is, it’s her decision, not mine.

The facts that (a) the job is probably suicide, (b) Cree os still willing to do it, and © she is still calling for help implies (to me, anyway) that she cannot do it herself, and thus that the wrong volunteer could still fuck things up. Surely the ship’s doctor is a very bright person, but she or he isn’t being tapped; only engineering and bridge crew.

So Cree needs help to save my family. I don’t trust anyone more than myself to provide that help, as it is, after all, my family I am seeking to save. The fact that Kanye West is being saved by my death is an unfortunate side effect.

Note my edit: I misunderstood the volunteer count, thinking more volunteers were only needed if we were gonna slip Cree a Mickey.

With the additional volunteers, if it’s just warm bodies that are needed, I’ll raise my hand…slowly. If for some reason the ship needs someone familiar both with third grade common core standards and Pathfinder rules for determining the area threatened by a large biped, well shit dude, nice knowing you.

How the heck is she supposed to PROMISE to discover something else? She can only promise to try.

Anyway, I doubt the question is worth asking. It’s like Alfred saying to Batman, “Mr. Wayne! You’re too wounded to fight the Joker and his minions tonight! You must let the orphans die!”