The Morality of Time Travel

Okay, forget Let it Be. The exact song wasn’t really the point. So let’s generalize the question: Would it be okay to take a popular song back in time and ‘write’ it and sell it before the original artist did? Is it plaigarism to steal ideas that the inventor hasn’t thought up yet? There are two cases that matter, I think. The first is if the original author would have written the song in your parallel universe if you didn’t publish it first. Then you could make a case for theft, I suppose. If there were a time police, they’d probably bust you.

But what about a situation where the original author doesn’t write it? Let’s say that when you go back in time you appear on a street, causing a car to swerve and kill the guy who would have written it. Can you think claim the song for your own?

I’d smother the baby, eminem.

Why is that a cop-out? If you believe time’s Arrow travels only in one direction, then the only explanation of time travel that is truly consistent with it is that a person who goes back in time has already been there. “Futurama” is not nearly the only one to cover this (though they were one of the funniest); Harlan Ellison and other science fiction authors have eschewed the traditional reverse causality model of time travel, and it makes a lot of sense given a linear interpretation of time.

Frankly, when used in terms of story, I feel that reverse causality (i.e., the standby “Star Trek” time travel plot device), is more of a cop-out. It can lead to some fun stories, but it almost always ends up being a way to cheat their way out of an unwanted ending.

Just so this isn’t a complete hijack… as to the OP, if one assumes reverse causality is possible, then I think there is no moral dilemma. Humans make choices without knowing the future consequences of them all the time… is there a moral dilemma there? So, were I to be in a position to prevent Pearl Harbor (or warn against it), why shouldn’t I? I don’t know what’s going to happen, sure, but at least I know I tried to save some lives. What’s so different about that from the other choices I make all the time?

Ken Grimwood’s book Replay is a nice examination of this idea, how little variations in choices can have big repercussions. It reminded me of how this is really happening every day, but we rarely notice because of our perception of linear, unidirectional time.

I have to agree with Czarcasm that it is a cheap cop out. After all, if you’re really serious about stopping Booth, you’re not going to show up at the last possible second and try to wrestle the gun out of his hand. You’re going to show up far enough in advance so that if the first attempt fails, you’ve got plenty of time to try again. Showing up at the last possible second and botching the job is just a way for lazy writer’s to not have to think about what might have happened if Lincoln lived through his second term.

That’s one of the reasons why I hated that one time travel show which had the characters travelling back to the past to make sure that Edison or whomever invented the lightbulb. Come on, guys, we know what happens, we’ve lived it! I’d have found the show worth watching if they showed Edison how to invent the integrated circuit decades before it was accomplished! Or if they taught Hero practical applications of his steam engine. (And, hey, they could have shown him how to build a difference engine as well! Imagine that! Or heck, if they’d just taught the Greeks how to make gun powder! Would have kept those pesky Persians and Romans in line, I’m sure.)

Instead, we get some crappy morality tale about how “you can’t change the past, so don’t even try.” Come on, if you’ve got the technology, use it fer crissakes! Even a morality tale about how we’re better off with things happening they way they did, instead of the way they might have, is an improvement over simply saying, “Well, it has to happen that way.”

Read the short story Who’s Cribbing? by Jack Lewis.

While reading on the subject of time travel once in a book on scientific quandaries, this subject was addressed. There appears to be a paradox involving time travel, say where you kill one of your ancestors before they had procreated, thus you wouldn’t be alive to time travel in the future etc. A physicist suggested that it may be impossible for you to partake of any action that would alter the future to any large degree, and had some theoretical work to support his position. When asked how can the laws of physics stop you from killing your parents on a time travel trip, if you wish to; he replied that you can wish to walk on the ceiling all you want in present time, but the laws of physics prevent that. It smacked of weaseling a little bit to me, but it seems the fellow had put some thought into it.

Sam I am sure it would be entirely legal to sell a song written in the future by someone who has not yet written it, since in our time bound legal fabric, the one who wrote it down first was the original author.

However, that is a legalism. In your heart, you would know that you did not write it. You would always know that it was someone else’s creation. Is it legal? Yes, under the law that exists at the time you stole it. So, is it moral? No.

Of course, under the laws of the thirty seventh century, Temporal Police are entitled to confiscate your property if you have engaged in atemporal theft at any time during your existence, past or future. And if your atemporal acts have caused any sentient not to exist, or experience an alteration of life length not of their choosing, your own life length may be altered as well. So, be careful.


Superfreakicus, you can use my pillow.

Read the short story “All You Zombies” by the late great Robert A. Heinlein. Easily found online with any search engine, or in bookstores as part of one of his collections.

It discusses temporal paradox in a most enlightening and thought-provoking way.

Back to the original question, I believe it would be wrong to change history since you would not know the consequences. Suppose you went back to Pearl Harbor and somehow got the navy to get the fighters in the sky before the invasion, and as a result the attack is repelled. Then the US would be in much better position to start the Pacific war, and it might have ended much sooner. Perhaps then the US would not have had the incentive to start the Manhattan Project and the bomb never got dropped on Hiroshima. So the US never built the bomb, but suppose the Soviets did?

Or suppose you went back to September 11, 2001 and stopped the terrorists at the airport. Maybe the war on terrorism never happens, then they regroup and strike at a different time, with more loss of life.

It is possible that bad events in history prevented even worse events, so to interfere would be a gamble that should not be taken.

There was a Twilight Zone (I think) episode in which an Elvis impersonator went back in time and accidentally killed Elvis. He decided that he had to live Elvis’ life for him. The thing is that the real Elvis was SHOCKED (before he died) by the performance that the impersonator was giving. The real Elvis wouldn’t have gyrated his hips and such. So, how moral was it for this impersonator to become Elvis? He knew that Elvis was a fraud, but history needed Elvis. Interesting story.