The Ethical Conundrum of The Martian, According to a Harvard Bioethicist

Ethically speaking, we should have just let Matt Damon's character die out there.

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself stranded and alone on Mars, in THE MARTIAN. Photo by: Twentieth Century Fox

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself stranded and alone on Mars in The Martian. / Still via 20th Century Fox

Glenn Cohen liked The Martian, which this morning earned itself seven nominations in the Academy Awards, including a slot in the coveted Best Picture category. The Martian, Cohen says, was one of his top 15 movies of the year, “maybe top 10.”

But Cohen isn’t a film critic. He’s a Harvard Law School professor who specializes in bioethics. And the narrative thrust of The Martian—a Herculean effort to save a stranded Matt Damon—tickled Cohen’s inner ethicist. Not long after seeing the film in theaters, Cohen wrote a short blog post titled “Identified versus Statistical Lives at the Movies.”

In the post, Cohen argues that we latch onto individuals in peril when they have a name and face and become a sort of cause célèbre in the media. We will go to great lengths to save the identified individuals, financially and logistically. But when populations are in peril, when we’re presented with statistics rather than individuals, we’re less likely to take meaningful action.

Cohen writes:

Imagine you had 10 million dollars to spend to save the life of one person whose name you knew or 10,000 whose name you didn’t? How would you spend it? What would you think of a government policy that chose to save the 1 person rather than the 10,000? I would think pretty badly of such a government, but that’s exactly what happens in some popular new movies. And the expectation of the filmmakers (and my own take on audience reaction) is that the audience cheers.

The Martian isn’t unique. Stories need characters that resonate emotionally with audiences. The problem, Cohen asserts, is that this situation isn’t confined to the silver screen. It plays itself out in the real world, often to the detriment of poor and marginalized populations.

The movies are accurate insofar as Governments indeed tend to spend much more on saving the lives of identified individuals than the same number (or indeed many more) statistical lives — those who exist but are relatively undifferentiated. Think about how many lives in the developing world, or indeed in America, the money spent to bring back Matt Damon’s character could have saved instead.

As for The Martian winning Best Picture, Cohen isn’t confident. “These days, with the academy having a much larger set of nominees, I think it just eeks in,” he writes. “My bet is Spotlight or The Revenant.”