The Moon Colony Question

Sometimes, small talk is boring. When I’m tired of discussing the weather, my go-to is my favorite hypothetical question, one I’ve asked dozens of people to answer for me. (The original version belongs to my friend Kyle, and I have blatantly stolen it.)

You are the leader of a moon colony with 5000 residents. Over the years, you have become almost entirely self-sustaining, growing your own food, recycling water, and generating your own oxygen. Currently, all of this is contained under an air-locked dome, but a terraforming system is being tested and may be successful.

Reports from Earth have been coming in about an alarming disease, a pandemic on a scale the world has never seen before. Those infected don’t have any visible symptoms for several weeks, but they can often sense a change in their health before then. The disease is highly contagious and always fatal.

Soon, your attempts to communicate with Earth go unanswered. You can only assume that enough people have died that technical systems are failing. Several days of silence go by, and then you receive a transmission from a spacecraft approaching the moon.

They claim to be a ship from Earth, bearing news that everyone on the planet either has or will soon die. They were quarantined and insist that none of the 100 people on board have any sign of the disease, so they are requesting you to lower your shield and allow them into the colony. Also, the oxygen on their ship ran into issues on the way. They only have ten minutes of air left.

As the colony’s leader, you must decide between one of two options: do you let them in, risking contaminating your colony and possibly eradicating the human race? Or do you leave them in space and let them die?

(Are you thinking about your answer before you read what other people said? Good.)

When I give this scenario, the first thing that happens is that everyone tries to look for a third option. (You don’t have time to send up a doctor for examinations, you do not have a separate docking bay that could contain contaminants, you are not allowed to resign your post as leader, and it doesn’t matter if this scenario makes no scientific or medical sense.)

So, assume I told you that your clever loophole doesn’t work for some obviously contrived reason.

Next, people ask questions. This part is the most interesting to me—the answers people feel they need in order to make a good decision. Here are just a few I’ve been asked:

  • Were these one hundred people randomly chosen, or are they all rich politicians and military leaders who forced their way in?
  • Do I know anyone on board the ship?
  • What kind of leader am I? (Elected, dictator, etc.)
  • Do we have any way to verify that all or most humans on earth are dead?
  • What is the anticipated public response if I let these people die?
  • Are most of the people on the ship babies? (This is the best image ever. Enjoy. And yes, someone actually asked me that.)

Mostly instead of answering, I ask people why or how their answers would change if I said yes or no.

Finally, people have to choose. All of the people who have answered this for me fall into one of three groups:

One: People who let the spaceship in, usually motivated by compassion. Most women chose this option (with one exception, mentioned later). The general idea they expressed was that they’d rather do what they felt to be right and risk the consequences than live with blood on their hands. Many (but not all) Christians who took this option, interestingly, had a very high view of the sovereignty of God. They explained that it was their duty to do what they believed to be right, and leave the power of life and death to God.

Two: People who felt they would have to let the 100 people die, with different degrees of agony depending on the person. This was a smaller group. Some decided right away that this was the best option. (Most of my writing friends, regardless of gender fell into this group, possibly because it gives the story more of a plot.) But there were also people who agonized back and forth, taking the question very seriously. They finally felt that as a leader, they had a responsibility to their people and the human race in general to make a painful choice and deal with the fallout, both from their citizens and with their own conscience.

Three: People who refused to answer or still manage to weasel out a third option despite all of my attempts to stop them, like shooting down the spaceship in the sky to make their deaths quick and painless, then holding a colony press conference where you lie your head off and say it was an attacking ship so you don’t have to deal with the fallout of intentionally killing 100 potentially innocent people. (Yes, really. Two people suggested something like that.)

So, if you’d like to share your answer in the comment section, here it is: would you let ship from Earth enter your colony, potentially killing every human on your colony and maybe in the universe? Or let them die even if you weren’t sure they had the disease, ensuring the safety of your own people?

13 comments

  1. I LOVE thought-provoking scenarios, but I’m generally not a huge fan of super-forced hypotheticals. To me, life is about exploring the myriad of options, both mundane and highly creative, that we have access to every day. Too often I watch people say “I had/have no choice.” The amount of times we don’t have a choice (and, in fact, dozens or hundreds of choices) is so rare it’s like a unicorn riding a dragon. We almost ALWAYS have a huge number of options, some good, many bad. (That is to say, “we” in terms of 1st world countries. There are places on earth where options do not abound. America is not one of them, though.)

    So to lump it into “A or B” and allow no C, that makes me feel unable to be fully human. We’re analog, not digital. There’s always going to be a C, D, E, etc.

    If you want me to feel icky and robotic, I will go with Answer B, where you let them all die. I go with this because, if I’m not allowed to be fully human, this answer makes the most sense. As a species, we feel the need to continue. We can’t continue if 100 people disease our last 5000. Those 100 are out of luck.

    This actually reminds me of a conversation I had with an atheist friend recently. He said, essentially, that if we boil it down “progress” means having higher numbers of humans because more humans = more of our species, and statistically more = better. My argument was that you CAN’T boil it down to that point, because it is no longer human. It might work for roaches or bears (and even then I’m not sure) but if you try to boil it down for humans to just numbers, you lose the very humanity that makes up our species. The fact that humans DON’T act that way means it isn’t the logical “boiled down” point. We don’t do everything we can to only make more babies. In fact, a lot of our world is built on preventing such things. 😛

    At any rate, if I’m allowed to be human and not a robot, and as such given permission for Option C to exist, I expect my first attempt would be to immediately deploy our largest ship. We must have one (or many) because having 5000 humans on the moon with no way out is a disaster of an idea. That ship would be piloted either by automation (best case) or a skeleton crew of volunteers (even if that has to be me, which I don’t want, but we’re trying to save lives and I accepted this position of power, yeah?). This ship would tether to the incoming ship to provide either sanctuary or oxygen.That would solve the immediate issue, removing the problematic 10-minutes-of-air thing. If nothing else, we could provide portable air tanks to keep them alive long enough for a better temporary solution.

    From there so many variables exist that I’d have to play it by ear, I imagine, but my goal is to both save the 100 people from Earth and also protect from disease the 5000 in my care. Having a bit more time, I could hopefully get more details from the 100, like where they were quarantined and why they left. And, MOST of all, why the smack-muffins they waited until they were at our door before radioing in. That is SUPER weird, and I want that answer ASAP. 😛

    All in all, small talk is usually boring, not just sometimes, and the sooner we can build relationships to get past such things and onto deeper topics the more full and robust our lives will be as both individuals and communities. 🙂

    1. I like your option C, and I do sometimes allow it, as long as I learn as much about the person by their escape plan as I would by forcing them to choose a more conventional option. 🙂 I think you have a great justification both for allowing a third way and for the particular way you chose. Nicely done!

  2. Speaking rather jokingly and in the vein of “let’s find a loophole anyway,” I say letting them in is probably fine because the Rapture/Tribulation/Millennium is the end of the world, not a pandemic, so we should be fine. Also the people on the ship would be wrong about everyone on Earth being dead or almost dead because things in Revelation clearly happen on Earth so. Basically I’ll either shoot the scenario to smithereens because of my particular eschatological position, or pick option A for the same reason. Though I like the option C that J.K. Riki argues for (and he makes an excellent point about the whole timing thing, too).

    1. Haha, I love the theological loophole you’ve got there, Grace! (I do wonder, though: what if while you were on the moon colony, the events of Revelation did happen on earth, and the plague was part of it? Not highly likely, I suppose, but possible, especially if you believe in the Second Coming of Christ at the end of it all and not in the early rapture of the church before the tribulation…but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

  3. If I take your scenario at face value and simply accept that that there is no way at all to save the 100, I regrettably have to choose to not let them in in order to protect the 5000 and the future of the human race in general.

    That said, I’d probably do everything I could to make a third option work anyway as long as any of those 100 were still alive – see if we can get their air systems fixed, see if we can hook up a system to feed them air, etc; until such time as we can confirm 100% for sure if letting them in would be safe or doom the last 5000 living humans known to exist.

    1. I agree, that there should be a third option unless your colony is super incompetent. Or possibly there were nationalist (moon-ist?) terrorists sabotaging all attempts to save the 100. That could be interesting…

      1. “Or possibly there were nationalist (moon-ist?) terrorists sabotaging all attempts to save the 100. That could be interesting…”

        Now that’s REALLY starting to sound like the plot of a sci-fi thriller (even more so than the basic scenario).

  4. The answer is A. I would let these 100 in. Jesus’ words – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – apply in even the strangest of hypothetical situations. My first duty is not to my constituency, as if protecting my own were somehow a bedrock principle. “My People First” is completely out of touch with the kingdom of God. It’s best to make decisions based on actual information, not merely on possibilities and fear. The actual information allows for the possibility that these people are disease free, though it’s possible they are not. This is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego doing the right thing even if God doesn’t miraculously protect them. This is putting love before humanity. Risk all of life for the sake of love.

    1. I love that reasoning, Stephen! And the principle that making a decision based on fear is not good is always a helpful reminder.

      I think if I were on the ship with the 100 (to reverse the scenario) I might have a much harder time deciding whether to even ask the colony to let us in, since we might be carrying the disease. Several people deciding what to do in this scenario wondered if the people on board knew they were or might be contaminated…which makes it a little harder to decide to let in deceiving bio-terrorists. Then again, you can’t be sure they’re lying, at least in the way this is set up. So…fun!

  5. I see a few people have said we should let the 100 die for the sake of the 5000 and I understand the reasoning but supposing it were only 2 (instead of 5000): you and one other random person you’ve never met (hey, it’s a hypothetical scenario). And you can’t defer the decision to them because of .

    As far as saving them because , what if you were told that they had the virus? Would you then decide to let them die in space (this is like the question about passive euthanasia which Christians are often willing to accept)? If so, then the question is how sure you have to be to “know.” Certainty is a tough thing to nail down so you are going to end up making a decision based on some measure of uncertainty no matter what. It seems as though you are deciding to save them against the arguably *high* likelihood that they do have the virus (given what we know about earth). So if you were willing to let people you thought had the virus die in space, you need to have more than a good Christian reason to save these people.

    If I were willing to risk sacrificing 2 people to save 100, I think I should be willing to risk sacrificing 5000 because I don’t think the value of human life can be quantified by head count. The same logic could be applied to the spaceship: what if there were 1 person on the spaceship and 5000 in the moon colony? Given the position of leader and the responsibility to make the decision on my own and all the other anti-get-out-of-jail-free conditions, I would say I would answer based on what I knew of the trustworthiness of the people on the spaceship (a lot more could be said here but I’ll respond if someone asks something rather than writing my own blog post in the comments). To give an actual answer, based on the blog I would tend towards saving them.

    Amy, are you setting us up for a post on refugees/immigrants? Either way, I think you need to do a follow up post telling us how you would reason through this decision.

    1. Super interesting response, James! Have you watched The Imitation Game? There’s a similar ethical question in there, and I would have hated to be in the position of the people making it.

      Nope, not a setup for a refugee post. The situations aren’t similar enough for me to make a comparison. This is all about people-watching.

      Since I’m probably not going to put it in a second post (I don’t think there’s enough here to stand on its own), my first response to this question a few years ago was that as a leader, I’d have the responsibility to make the hard choice to protect my people (and possibly the human race) and not let the 100 in. Then I worried about what sort of society that might create a precedent for. So I had a dramatic idea that I would use the ten minutes to go to the spaceship, explain the situation, and die with them. The purpose of that being to establish that if you’re going to choose duty to the many over compassion for the few, there should be a cost attached. Basically, if civilization survives, this is going to be a critical story in our history, and I want it to be a better story. However, I will also admit that in practice it might be a terrible idea for continuity of leadership (but really, I would be a terrible supreme leader anyway, so I’m assuming my second-and-command would be better anyway) and possibly also a way of avoiding fallout from my choice.

      1. Hi Amy,

        Yes, I had been thought of Imitation Game when I was writing that response. It always creates an interesting ethical dilemma when you put people’s lives in the hands of other people who have some motivation not to save them. Another movie that springs to mind is Dark Knight (which is one of my favourites because of how Nolan uses it to explore ethics in so many characters).

        It’s interesting to me that Kacey mentions refugees in another comment without you using the term. It seems like there’s plenty of parallel; there’s risk to doing something humane and the obligation to act “humanely” is arguable.

        I’ve long since realised that the only way I could be a supreme leader is if I were the unquestioned dictator but still, I doubt I would last long… If you want an interesting narrative ending, I think the idea of the leader going to the ship and dying with them is a good idea – maybe you’re related to someone on board. It may also be interesting to let them die and then introduce a new problem within the moon colony that requires the same decision: e.g. discover that the virus may be contained in everyone who has red hair but there’s no way to test until it starts multiplying and by then it’s too late.

  6. I lean toward letting the refugees come, but for reasons other than I think have been stated. If there’s any chance that the refugees on the ship are infected, what would be the point in their coming to the moon colony? For the refugees, it would be a matter of dying on earth of the pandemic or going to the moon to die of the pandemic–along with all other remaining humans.

    If an escape from earth was being organized, I imagine the people in charge would do all that is humanly possible to ensure that the expedition is not in vain and that all refugees are not infected. If the infected can feel a change in their health for weeks, the refugee leaders should be able to warn the infected that if they attempt to join the expedition anyway, they’re dooming all humanity.

    I suppose we can’t trust that the refugee leaders aren’t cowards who just want a few more weeks to live, but how many people would risk wiping out the last remnant of the human race to allow themselves a few more weeks of miserable, guilty life, watching civilazation fall before them?

    Also, since most conceptions of space docking ports involve some sort of air pressurizatioin chamber for dockers before entering the main complex, I don’t know why you couldn’t keep them there, with extra food and supplies (and ship parts?) for some amount of time if need be. (Probably technically a third option…)

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