Is Jack The Good Guy or the Bad Guy? A thought experiment

Dancer, Benjamin | October 18, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Choose your track by Thomas Leth-Olsen | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Readers of my eco-thriller Patriarch Run tend to struggle with the character Jack. It’s hard to know what to make of him. Is he the good guy or the bad guy? Intelligent people can disagree on the answer to that question.

I wrote the novel, as I am writing this post, as a bit of a thought experiment: a piece to provide some conversation about the strong feelings Jack evokes. That being said, beware: there are plenty of spoilers below.

Because Jack is motivated by the unintended consequences of continued population growth, let’s start the conversation there.

Any population that is growing will eventually double. That is a mathematical fact. Even with a growth rate as low as the current growth rate of the human population, around 1%, it only takes 70 years to double, which is about one human lifetime. Moreover, a population that perpetually grows will eventually become too large to be sustainable. I think we can all agree on that without deciding on a precise number for an ecological tipping point.

A supposition that might be more controversial, though it shouldn’t be, is that the vast majority of the global concerns that vex you and me (concerns such as Climate Change, declining liberty, hunger, national security, the rapid extinction rate of other species, environmental degradation, mass human migration, economic challenges, etc.) are all unintended consequences of continued population growth. Notice, by the way, that the problems cited above span the political spectrum. That’s because the unintended consequences of continued population growth are bipartisan in their scope.

Back to the story. Jack made a calculus in my eco-thriller regarding the fate of the human species. He examined what he knew of our innate biological and psychological drives and calculated that the probability of our species voluntarily reducing its own growth rate to zero (or less) was lower than the probability of zero growth being forced upon our species. In other words, he calculated that left to our own devices, we’d likely run our species off an ecological cliff.

If we do nothing and wait until nature puts the brakes on our population, according to Jack’s way of thinking, those brakes will take the ugly form of an overpopulation-induced apocalypse, resulting in billions and billions of deaths.

Thus far Jack’s logic works as follows: people aren’t going to fix overpopulation; nature’s fix will result in an unacceptable number of deaths; therefore, the moral thing to do is to choose the lesser of two evils and precipitate a super-genocide. In other words, according to Jack’s morality, murdering about 7 billion people (including me and, unfortunately, you, along with all the people we dearly love) is a better alternative than allowing many more people to die, at some point in the future, when the human population would be much larger. That future population might be as massive as 10, 24 or 30 billion people, depending on what the actual limit of the human population might be before it triggers its own collapse. As an aside, the population was about 6.884 billion in 2010, the time of the narrative, and Jack probably assumed a few million of us would survive in the world he created.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t say much here about Jack’s chosen mechanism of destruction, except for that it is (unfortunately for you and me and everyone we love) a realistic threat. As a matter of fact, many prominent national security experts have endorsed the realism of Patriarch Run’s depiction of that threat. So let’s all be thankful that Jack is only a thought experiment. I wouldn’t want him walking among us.

Apart from Jack’s obsession with mass murder on a scale never seen before in human history (and a unique skill set that actually makes him capable of pulling it off), he’s a pretty likable guy. So readers really struggle with the question: is Jack the good guy or the bad guy?

The moral calculus presented here might remind the reader of a classic ethical dilemma known as the trolley problem. Sarah Bakewell described the problem in the New York Times like this:

Basic Trolley Scenario by John Holbo | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0
Basic Trolley Scenario by John Holbo | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

You are walking near a trolley-car track when you notice five people tied to it in a row. The next instant, you see a trolley hurtling toward them, out of control. A signal lever is within your reach; if you pull it, you can divert the runaway trolley down a side track, saving the five — but killing another person, who is tied to that spur.

Which is the correct choice? In surveys, most people, 90%, opt to pull the lever, choosing one death instead of five. In other words, 90% of us calculate the morality of the situation like Jack.

To make the question more interesting philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson presented The Fat Man version:

Bridge Situation by John Holbo | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0
Bridge Situation by John Holbo | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track toward five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you–your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Although most people are willing to pull the lever in survey questions, very few can see themselves pushing the man. The number of lives at stake are the same in both scenarios, so why do people feel more comfortable pulling the lever than pushing the man?

Jack is clearly in the minority now. He would have pushed.

This thought experiment is a useful tool in examining our morality. Ethicists tend to boil the dilemma down to this: we can act on a rational and utilitarian calculus, intentionally killing one to save five; or we can respect the subrational instinct that makes us recoil at the thought of pushing a man to his death, choosing not to act, thus allowing the avoidable death of the five.

Patriarch Run can be viewed as a fleshed out version of the trolley problem. The story assumes a scenario in which the exponential growth of the human population threatens the extinction of the species. One man, Jack Erikson, has an opportunity to stop the unfolding ecological crisis, but to do so he must sacrifice even his own family. Depending on how you choose to solve the trolley problem, Jack is either the villain or the protagonist of the narrative.

I’d be really curious to know how you answer, or perhaps even reframe, the question, as all this makes for interesting conversation.


benjamindancerBenjamin Dancer is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, the first book in a series that will include Fidelity and The Story of the Boy. He also writes about parenting, education, sustainability and national security. He is the Director of Public Relations for the Colorado EMP Task Force On National and Homeland Security, which is the Colorado branch of a Congressional Advisory Board. Benjamin also works as an Advisor at a Colorado high school where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. His work with adolescents has informed his stories, which are typically themed around fatherhood and coming-of-age. You can learn more about Benjamin at BenjaminDancer.com.


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  • Ram

    People throw around the term “exponential growth” in the context of human population growth, whereas the rate of growth is below exponential and has been decreasing, more or less
    steadily, for the last 50 years. The growth in consumption has far outstripped the growth in population. I cannot but conclude that it is a massive case of intellectual dishonesty, if not outright fraud, to talk about the population growth with only a cursory mention of the consumption problem. I see a refusal to see the simple fact that consumption can be reduced so much faster than population numbers. And also the ignorance or avoidance of the fact that wherever people’s living standards improved, there has been a drop in fertility rates.

  • Mike Hanauer

    I think IF OUR NATION IS EVER TO COME TOGETHER, it will be OVER TWO OVERARCHING ISSUES:
    1. Special Interests controlling our government and the media, which makes it impossible to pass any meaningful legislation. Good government must be able to create strategy for where our society should be heading and plans to get there for the common good of the people, future people, and the planet. Private companies may fill a role to provide goods and services to fulfill that strategy within the plans.
    … and
    2. Our culture of looking to (eternal) growth is the SOURCE of most of our problems, NOT the solution. The USA doubles its GDP every 40 years and doubles its population every 60 years. Growth overwhelms all else we try to do to help the environment and our society and to achieve true sustainability. Climate Change is one of the many symptoms, as is crowding, overfishing, pollution, the need for franken foods and the anthropocene. So is income inequality, loss of quality-of-life, and always more revenue needed to accommodate quantity rather than quality.
    Sign onto CASSE at http://steadystate.org/, or better have your organization sign on; see also http://www.growthbusters.org/.

    To me, these two overarching issues should get way more attention than they do get – by both individuals and organizations.

    All else, IMHO, is to a large extent a symptom of these two overarching issues. Is your organization including these overarching issues in its program? Probably not – unless you put on the pressure!

  • Sailesh Rao

    There is no question that human population must decline in the near future, but the question is how? Population growth is systemic. So is climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia and speciesism. An growth oriented socioeconomic system that is based on mindless consumption as its organizing value and competition as its organizing principle is bound to exhibit all these morbid symptoms.

    The solution is not to persist with this socioeconomic system since it will inevitably lead to the planned or “natural” genocide of billions of people in the near future. The solution is to formulate a new socioeconomic system that is oriented towards human creativity and not endless growth, that is based on compassion as its organizing value, and not consumption, with collaboration as its organizing principle, and not competition. Compassion and collaboration are infinitely sustainable characteristics, while consumption and competition are blatantly unsustainable.

    Please note that the UN IPCC AR5 reports that while human beings consume 1.54 Gt of dry matter biomass annually, our livestock alone consume 7.27 Gt, almost FIVE times as much! Therefore, the Earth can adequately support such a socioeconomic shift towards a compassionate, equitable human society as well as a thriving biosphere.

    How much longer are we going to pretend that this uniquely Western “pursuit of happiness” through mindless consumption is a valid pursuit? As Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

  • jason G. Brent

    We must stop population growth to save humanity from destruction. Almost every human problem is caused by the exploding human population. If we do not stop population growth civilization will collapse with the deaths of billions leaving a very very very small number of survivors. Therefore, almost any action that stops population growth is moral and that means executing one or two billion people who continue to have more than two children is the moral and proper course of conduct. Jason G. Brent jbrent6179@aol.com