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?