This weekend I saw Infinity War. Actually, to be honest, I saw it twice. And I loved it.
There have been many helpful movie reviews, but surprisingly little has been written on the key moral question behind the film. Let me explain.
The Moral Question
The movie begins with Loki having to decide whether to give Thanos the tesseract, which contains the space stone that Thanos needs as part of his journey to destroy half the beings in the universe, or allow Thanos to kill his brother, Thor. Should Loki sacrifice one life to save the rest?
Scarlett Witch must similarly decide whether to destroy the mind stone embedded in the forehead of Vision, and thus end Vision’s life. Doctor Strange faces the dilemma of allowing Thanos to kill Iron Man or give up the time stone. And Star-Lord also has to decide whether or not to kill Gamora (at her request) rather than allowing Thanos to use her to get the soul stone.
Although these various scenarios have subtle (and important) differences, Infinity War invites thoughtful viewers to consider a pressing moral question: Under what conditions is it morally just to sacrifice an innocent life (or lives) to save others?
The Question Matters
This is not merely an academic question. In fact, it underlies many ethical issues of our day: Are drones morally just even if some innocents will die? Is euthanasia permissible if it preserves resources to protect others in the future? Is abortion permissible if the life of the mother is in jeopardy?
I am not going to pretend to answer these questions in depth. But allow me to offer two key distinctions for thought.
There is a massive difference between someone willingly laying down their life to save others and someone forcibly taking the life of another. Vision is an example of the former. He knew that the removal of the mind stone would cost him his life. But regardless of the personal cost, he was willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others.
Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13, NLT). Vision was prepared to make the most noble sacrifice. Out of love for others, he was willing to pay the ultimate price of losing his own life. And so was Gamora.
In contrast, Thanos forcibly took the life of Gamora against her will. Acquiring the soul stone requires sacrificing someone you love. In the words of the Red Skull, the guardian of the soul stone: “A soul for a soul.” And so Thanos threw Gamora off the ledge and she fell to her death. When Star-Lord discovers the fate of Gamora, he says to Thanos, in clear contrast to his own genuine love for her: “This is not love.”
There is a world of difference between willingly offering your own life as a sacrifice for others, and forcibly taking someone’s life against their will.
Pro-lifers unequivocally condemn the murder of abortion doctors. But why? After all, if abortion involves ending the life of an unborn precious person, why not protect them by killing the doctors first? And if pro-lifers are against killing abortion doctors, how can some support an attempted assassination of Hitler?
Besides the utilitarian logic behind the killing of an abortion doctor (murder an individual the sake of saving many), another reason some pro-lifers condemn killing abortion doctors, but are okay with attempted assassinations of Hitler, is that all options have not been exhausted to protect the unborn . Pro-lifers have many legal avenues to try and protect the unborn, such as pregnancy resource centers, persuasion, and court rulings, and these are making a difference. But Hitler was leading a systematic extermination of Jews, and the resistance movement had exhausted all their options.
In Infinity War, Captain America says, “We don’t trade lives.” He refused to have Vision’s life exchanged for others. Yet there came a point in which taking a life (at the person’s request and permission) was the only apparent option to save the lives of others. Scarlett Witch destroyed the mind stone, at the request of Vision, which ended his life (even though Thanos turns back time and brings him back temporarily before killing him). And Star-Lord tried to fulfill his promise to Gamora to kill her when she was in the hands of Thanos (even though Thanos turned his laser into bubbles and later killed Gamora himself).
Interestingly, Thanos argues that the only option to save the universe, and to bring it into proper balance, is to systematically wipe out half of its inhabitants. He claims to be motivated for the greater good. But how do we know there is no other option? It seems hard to believe that such a technologically sophisticated universe would lack the resources for another solution. And even if it were, would that justify taking the lives of people by force, against their wills, as Thanos does?
Infinity War raises some important ethical issues. I hope you will take some time to think them through.
Remember, there is a difference between someone have their life taken against their will, when their may be other alternatives, and someone willingly laying down their life as a sacrifice for others. In fact, there is an infinite difference.