“Black Mirror” Ethics


I finally am getting around to examining “Black Mirror,” the British anthology series that explores, sometimes in a science fiction context, ethics issues involving technology. It is a critical hit, and has just had its  third season posted on Netflix.

Technology ethics is a dynamic and crucial topic. I sure hope the series is better than the  first episode, “National Anthem.”

If you are going to do a series about ethics, knowing something about ethics is mandatory. This episode is so absurd and its resolution so idiotic that it’s barely worth analyzing, No spoiler alert necessary, because I’m only going to reveal what would be in any preview synopsis. The Royal Family’s princess is kidnapped by terrorists—I think that’s a fair description—and they release a video on YouTube in which the terrified young woman announces that she will be executed unless the Prime Minister has live sex with a pig, on all TV networks.

The rest of the episode’s 60 minutes involves the PM’s “ethical dilemma” as social media weighs in and his staff and family apply various kinds of pressure. I wouldn’t waste an Ethics Quiz on this alleged “dilemma.”

It is idiotic. The first rule of ethics hypotheticals is that they have to be plausible in some context, and the ethics problem presented has to be one with multiple competing options.  This fails on all counts. It is unethical for any nation to comply with terrorist demands and extortion, unless the choice is between national annihilation and something less final. No responsible nation would pay ransom for the release of a hostage—well, maybe the current U.S. government, but it is neither ethical nor responsible—because it would encourage more and worse terrorism threats.The episode wants to make a statement about the power of social media, but this situation would and should never get within social media’s influence, and no competent government would allow it to do so.

The demand in “National Anthem” is worse than ransom, arguably more costly, and opens up a slippery slope so steep and dangerous that any fool should be able to see that it cannot be considered. Next time, make the PM have sex with his daughter, or…well, you think about it. There is no ethical dilemma here, in any realistic context. The answer is no, never, and even if they subject the Princess to a slow salami slicer and mail her to Buckingham Palace in 700 manila envelopes, it is still never.

Verdict: Bad hypothetical, bad ethics, bad episode.

Cute pig though.


10 thoughts on ““Black Mirror” Ethics

  1. “The first rule of ethics hypotheticals is that they have to be plausible in some context,”

    Like the perennial “there’s 5 guys on a railroad track and you could stop the train barreling on them by pushing another person onto the track” scenario that ethicists like to foist on people during “scientific studies”?

  2. I haven’t seen the show, but just by your description, it reminds me of some shows on American networks, which base their ‘dilemmas’ in scenarios so silly and implausible that it removes any sense of seriousness from the show. If a show/book/movie isn’t explicitly based in sci-fi or fantasy, do you think that the writers have an obligation to at least make the show plausible?

  3. This was basically the plot of Olympus has Fallen. President and cabinet is kidnapped. First thing the President does is order everyone to NOT negotiate with the terrorists. For the next 90 minutes, they then capitulate to EVERY demand of the terrorists.

    Cabinet members are tortured to reveal nuclear launch codes. President is a pussy, so tells them to give the terrorist the codes to stop the torture. Terrorists demand the United States withdraw from South Korea, or they will kill the President. Acting President Morgan Freeman withdraws the US troops. Meanwhile, the terrorists hack the system and get the remaining launch code, and the world is almost destroyed. But the President survived….

    Garbage movie that filled me with patriotic rage to watch.

  4. I think you may be missing the main point of the series, Jack. If you are expecting the series to show people making ethically sound decisions you will be disappointed the entire time. The Black Mirror shows horror stories about the way technology can be used by society (and individuals) to magnifiy our worst impulses. It is an examination of how quickly and thoughtlessly humanity can make the grotesque and unethical our new normal, and it can start by with something as innocuous as pushing a button or signing up for the newest social media craze. The technological advancements in recent years have changed us drastically already. These are cautionary tales about where we could end up if we aren’t careful.
    I haven’t seen the entire series, and it has been awhile since I watched the first season, but from what I can remember all of the protagonists are very much a part of the system they live in, and are supposed to be stand ins for the unthinking masses who react with emotion, not rational thought.
    The ethical question posed in National Anthem is not whether the goverment should ever pay ransom to save a life, even of a beloved public figure. The question it asks is how does instantaneous feedback from an emotionally shortsighted public affect just how far our elected officals will go to retain public good will, or to protect their legacy. It is such and awful and absurd demand on purpose to really highlight how far from acceptable it is. The constant bombardment of minute by minute reactions sway the Prime Minister make his choice, not because it is sound policy to give in, but because he feels like it is the best option he has. In my opinion it is presented as the wrong and horrifying choice, not the most ethical one.
    The series as a whole is definitely hit or miss episode by episode. I think Fifteen Million Merits (Season 1 episode 2) and Nosedive (Season 3 episode 1) are the strongest I’ve seen, both in cohesion and in relevancy to current trends. I would love to hear what you thought of them if you do decide to watch any more.
    I love this blog! I think the world would be a much better place if more people cared and thought as much about ethics as you do.

    • I just watched the second season “White Christmas” episode, which was much, much better, and the Facebook friend-blocking reductio ad absurdum was nicely nightmarish. I’ll still be happier when the scenarios don’t require absurd leaps of suspension of disbelief. Why would anyone accede to having their consciousness endangered to the extent that they could be cut off from real world contact and communication? It has a ways to go to reach the Twilight Zone’s plausible horror, as in the future where everyone is expected to undergo surgery to be beautiful. That was prophetic, AND plausible at the time it was first broadcast.

      • I haven’t seen that episode yet, I forgot they added a Christmas special to the end of season 2.
        It is definitely not the Twilight Zone, which is too bad. I would love to see new episodes of that! Black Mirror is not as grounded, and does not have anywhere near the level of subtley and realism. Sadly, I think most people have become so desensitized that a show that was would not be successful today. Which is kind of a commentary on where we are as a society by itself. But I do think it is closer to plausible insome episodes then I am comfortable with! I hope it inspires people to think, and maybe even create better shows themselves.

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