Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

The Damsel Effect

April 28th, 2009 · 4 Comments

We’ve all watched this scene play out in some movie or other, right?  “Hand over the codes to the Ultimate Genocide Ray or I’ll kill you, Hero Guy!” — “Never, Doctor Evil!” — “Very well, hand over the codes to the Ultimate Genocide Ray, or I’ll kill your girlfriend!” — “Gasp… you win, Doctor Evil!”  And while we’re all relieved when, against all odds, Hero Guy saves his girl and stops Doctor Evil from using the UGR, there’s a handful of us (or maybe just me) thinking: “Wait, was it supposed to be less chickenshit when he agreed to risk the lives of millions to save the girl rather than himself?”

In real-world political debates over ethics in wartime, however, it sometimes seems like the Damsel Effect kicks in to warp our evaluation. “I’ll do whatever it takes, killing innocent along wtih guilty, in order to save my own skin!” Obviously the sentiments of a grotesque, amoral coward. “We’ll do whatever it takes to protect the American people”? The credo of selfless patriots.  Holding the relevant numbers constant, if it would be wrong to do something in order to save yourself, it should be no less wrong to do the same thing on behalf of a third-party you’ve been deputized to protect. The perils of fiduciary ethics…

Tags: Moral Philosophy · War



4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben // Apr 28, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Is that really a justification people waging war make? I’ve usually gotten the sense that persons expressing such sentiments as a justification are operating under the assumption that their actions, while regrettable, will ultimately result in less life lost overall. That is, we will kill ten Iraqi civilians in order to save one hundred American ones.

    As an element of deterrence, on the other hand, the threat to kill ten of theirs for every minor inconvenience to one of ours seems useful and proper, since deterrence is supposed to be a little daft.

  • 2 digamma // Apr 28, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    In the 3rd season of 24, a bioterrorist is trying to release a plague all over the US, and Hero Guy lets him escape in order to save his wife.

    So all of the US would die, and she would get to live in the postapocalyptic wasteland without her family or friends, apparently. 24 is dumb.

  • 3 Ben // Apr 29, 2009 at 8:33 am

    Sure, I’ve seen that countless times in fiction, and I’ve always thought it was dumb. However, I haven’t seen anyone seeming to make such reasoning in real life.

  • 4 Kevin // Jun 9, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I always viewed this “Damsel Effect” differently than you: that the hero wants to save himself, but has the strength to take the ethical choice and sacrifice himself for others, but when faced with losing something even more dear than his own life (the girl) he isn’t strong enough to still take that moral path. Indeed, if the lesson people take from such scenes is that it’s more ethical to sacrifice the lives of millions to save yourself or your girl it doesn’t bode well for our society.

    The ethics of war are a bit more complex with the addition of civilian casualties and each battle contributing to overall success or failure of the war, but I think it’s more about self defense than simple choice between saving two sets of innocents. A more apt analogy might be if a robber threatened to kill you and your family, would it be ethical to shoot at him and risk innocents with a fire fight in order to try to save yourself and your family?