The Moral Quandary of “Tuvix”

So, as SF Debris returns to new videos in October, I found myself pondering a commentary on an older video, that of the Voyager episode “Tuvix”. Now, I’ve only ever seen anything from this episode through Chuck’s review, and can’t even watch it again to refresh my memory, but I was thinking a bit about it and want to highlight its moral quandary, and how that moral quandary would be solved by the three main ethical views: Deontological, Consequentialist, and Virtue Theory.

So, let me summarize the episode. Due to a transporter accident, the characters Tuvok and Neelix are merged — along with, it seems, a plant — into an entirely new being, with a completely new and different personality and mentality from the other two. Tuvix thinks of himself as a completely separate person, not as merely an amalgam of Tuvok and Neelix. Eventually, they discover a way to use the transporter to separate Tuvix back into Tuvok and Neelix. Tuvix doesn’t want to undergo the procedure, arguing, essentially, that the procedure is nothing more than killing him. He appeals to the rest of the crew to help him avoid the procedure, but no one helps. Eventually, they get him down to Sick Bay, where the Doctor refuses to perform the procedure as doing so would be a violation of his oath as a doctor. Janeway performs the procedure herself, with Tuvok and Neelix restored and Tuvix eliminated.

Chuck, in his review, definitely took Janeway to task for this, if I recall correctly, taking the side of Tuvix, and arguing that this was, essentially, the murder of a sentient person. However, that interpretation is valid only if one considers that Tuvok and Neelix were, in fact, actually dead. If not, then we have to consider their wishes and situation as well, and things get far more complicated. For example, while the Doctor might be said to have a duty to do no harm to Tuvix, what duty does the Doctor have to Tuvok and Neelix? Does he have a duty to cure their condition? What demand can they make on him as his patients as well? After all, again, they aren’t really dead; they in some sense exist in Tuvix. So you can’t consider Tuvix merely a separate entity, but instead as a separate entity formed from two other entities. Given that, the interests of Tuvix have to be considered, certainly, but so do the interests of Tuvok and Neelix.

Given this, let’s look at how the various moral theories might approach this question, from the perspective of both the Doctor and Janeway:

Deontological: Many deontological theories are based around duty, and the context of the decision make it easy to evaluate this from the context of what each has a duty to do. As a doctor, the Doctor has a duty to do no harm to any of his patients, so he can’t sacrifice one of them to save two others. He can perform triage in situations of limited resources, and one can argue that this is indeed one of those cases: given the resources the Doctor has, he can either save Tuvix or save Tuvok and Neelix, but not all of them. However, this would be rather shaky, as the Doctor would have to take a direct action against Tuvix to save Tuvok and Neelix, as opposed to simply not taking time or resources. It is reasonable to suggest that taking a direct action to sacrifice the life of one patient for that of two others — essentially, directly killing one to save two — is a violation of his medical ethics, as no one would expect, say, that a doctor letting someone die so that they could use their organs to save other people would be acting in line with medical ethics. So it is reasonable to think that, here, the Doctor’s decision is the one that he is indeed compelled to make by his medical ethics.

But does that make it inherently wrong for Janeway to do it? I think that many people over-interpret the universality of deontological ethics. Just because one person would be, under a deontological view, morally constrained from taking an action, that doesn’t mean that everyone is, therefore, also so constrained. If I’ve taken an oath against committing violence, then I can’t morally take any violent action because that would violate my oath. Someone who had not taken such an oath would, however, to be able to take violent actions — if moral otherwise — because they wouldn’t have an oath stopping them from doing that. Here, the Doctor’s oath as a doctor constrains him from performing the procedure on Tuvix … but Janeway has taken no such oath.

So we need to consider what Janeway is morally bound to do under a deontological view, and I think here it also returns to duty. Janeway has also made an oath, and it’s an oath to protect her crew. While you can question how well she did at that throughout the series, morally she is bound to protect the well-being of her view. Tuvix may be considered a member of her crew, but Tuvok certainly is and Neelix has more of a claim on that than Tuvix does. Even if she considers them all equal, she has to consider that performing the procedure will be sacrificing one of her crew to save two others, which is something that starship captains have to accept: sending a crew member off to die to save others, if there is no other option, which there isn’t here. And that’s if she even considers that Tuvix really is a distinct individual, as opposed to merely an amalgam of Tuvok and Neelix. In that case, she’d have no duty to save Tuvix and every obligation to save Tuvok and Neelix. So I think that, under deotological ethics, it is reasonable to say that she is morally obligated to perform the procedure. Only a very strong rule against killing — like the Doctor’s medical ethics — could change that.

Consequentialism: While things are probably more complicated, this comes down to the idea that you can sacrifice one person to save two. Under almost all views, this would result in better consequences if we are judging the morality of the action by its consequences. You can make a case for the Doctor that doctors having a strong proscription against sacrificing their patients is overall better even if there are cases where it isn’t, due to the above example of sacrificing a patient to harvest their organs, but there doesn’t seem to be even that argument for Janeway. This is one of the reasons why consequentialist theories can actually seem heartless and downright evil, at times, as they can only justify individual autonomy by appealing to the consequences of having it, not to something inherent to either the moral view or to the individual themselves.

Virtue Ethics: The most relevant virtue here, for Janeway and the Doctor, is probably also duty, and the oaths they’ve taken. As such, this probably works out the same as it does for deontological views. The difference is that, under this view, it is them as persons that is evaluated here; they act as only they can given the people they are and the commitments they’ve made, and aren’t just following the rules. If Janeway is a proper starship captain, she performs the procedure; if the Doctor is a proper doctor, he refuses. You might be able to appeal to other virtues like, say, compassion … but as soon as you start considering Tuvok and Neelix themselves in the mix and stop thinking of them as dead, they deserve compassion just as much as Tuvix does, which means that it doesn’t help (Virtue Theory does not, generally, merely sum the impacted people). Duty, however, seems to work out reasonably well.

So, contra Chuck, I think that the Doctor acted properly, as did Janeway. It’s only if you think of Tuvok and Neelix as dead or otherwise unworthy of consideration that it becomes clear that performing the procedure is morally wrong. Once their interests are considered, things get more complicated, but ultimately at the end of it all performing the procedure is probably the more reasonable option for most people.

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