Recently I saw the movie “Transformers: The Dark Side of the Moon“. I almost made it through the whole thing without a single thought about worldviews, philosophy, or apologetics. But, alas, near the end, something happened that my mind couldn’t ignore (I pulled out my phone and immediately started taking notes).
For those who are unfamiliar with the Transformers’ basic premise: there exists three species in the universe that are essentially battling for survival and a “leg up” on the others: humans, Autobots, and Decepticons. Typically, the Decepticons are trying to achieve something that would have the implication of destroying the humans and/or Autobots. The Autobots are the more “noble” of the two robotic species that join forces with the humans against the Decepticons. This particular installment had two characters that I will be focusing on here: Optimus Prime and Sential Prime (Primes are the leaders of the Autobots; they tend to be the wiser and more powerful individuals). SPOILER ALERT: the rest of this post contains storyline details that take place in the last minutes of the movie, so if you haven’t seen it and plan to (and don’t want it ruined), stop reading now.
Near the end of the movie a specific line caught my ear. Sentinal Prime and Optimus Prime were in a battle over Sential’s betrayal of the Autobots to the Decepticons, that put the survival of the human species in jeopardy. Sential informed Optimus that “All I wanted was the survival of our species- that’s why I had to betray you.” If the survival of a specific species is the determining factor of objective morality, then we have the survival of two species in direct odds with one another, which means that we have two “objective” moralities in direct conflict with on another. On a naturalistic worldview, there is no factor to break such a tie. Which means ultimately, morality is relative to the species. Any morality that is based on a species’ survival, is ultimately relative; it is not objective.
On what grounds is Optimus Prime mad at Sential Prime? There are two possibilities: Survival of a species makes right or betrayal is always wrong.
Survival of a species determines “right”
Optimus obviously does not hold that morality is determined by the survival of his own species (otherwise the betrayal to continue the survival would have been right). His morality is determined by the survival of the human species. But what makes humans superior to the Autobots? Its not consciousness nor intelligence. Its certainly not size or weight. On what foundation does Optimus rise up against the actions of Sentinal? If “might makes right”, then the Prime makes right. But we have two Primes in direct conflict over an action that has ethical value.
Allow me to step outside the story for a bit to look at the writers. The only way to explain such a decision on Optimus’ part (which is in direct conflict with naturalism- see below), is to appeal to the writers’ assumption that humanity is more valuable than any other possible species. But then, the same question that I ask of Optimus, I now ask of the writers, since they have projected their view of morality onto the character Optimus Prime. The question also stands to any naturalist who wishes to look upon Optimus’ reaction to Sentinal as “right.”
Betrayal is wrong at all times
It could also be that Optimus Prime was offended by the very act of betrayal- nevermind the obvious survival advantage it would provide. This ethic comes from one in which the objective good is “love”. Whatever action demonstrates the most love is the right action.
Sentinal Prime tried to provide a defense for his decision. He stated that his goal was to accomplish the survival of the Autobot species. He implied that had he not betrayed the Autobots, then the Decepticons would have eliminated them. Sentinal’s decision to betray would lead to the survival of his species- certainly a greater act of love than to allow them to die off.
Optimus’ perspective is that betrayal shows a lack of honesty in the betrayer. It sets up a relationship of suspicion between the two parties. Certainly not an environment where love might thrive or even exist.
The problem that we have here is that we have two perspectives. One short-term, one long-term. But which one is to be preferred as “right”? How would Sentinal know if the further survival of his species would not lead to continued oppression and suffering under the rule of the Decepticons? How would Optimus know that it would not?
In the movie, it seems that Optimus is in the “right”, but not for any reason listed here. But because the survival of the Autobots could be accomplished another way. What’s odd is that the alternative way was not in the sight of Sentinal when he made the decision of the betrayal (a long time ago). So now, we have time playing in as a confusing factor. Without the knowledge of the alternative way, was Sentinal right in his betrayal? Without recognizing Sentinal’s lack of knowledge at the time, is Optimus right in his outrage against Sentinal?
The movie takes place in a world where all three species (humans, Autobots, and Decpticons) evolved by naturalistic means. This is how the fictional world of the movie attempts to overlap with our own, to give the viewer kind of sense of possibility (to make them more emotionally and psychologically involved with the fictional world and characters). If the connection to our world that the movie attempts to establish is correct, how can we believe that Sential was “wrong”, in either our world or the world of the Transformers?
In the movie, Sentinal Prime and Optimus Prime are battling each other during their discussion about Sentinal’s betrayal. A third option to determine if it was “right” is see who wins the battle. Optimus Prime defeated Sentinal Prime, so his view is seen as “right” in the movie. But what if Sentinal had defeated Optimus? Would that make Sentinal’s betrayal “right”? Does “might make right”? If it does, then morality is not just relative to the species or culture, but subjective to the individual (even if that individual attempts to ground their morality on one of the options above).
Many wish to say that objective morality can exist in a naturalistic universe. But, on which of the three grounds presented here is objective morality established? Is it even possible to establish objective morality in a world without God?
William Lane Craig debated Sam Harris on the topic of whether or not God is required for objective morality. Check the link here: William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris Debate Audio