The Cold Equations

by Tom Godwin

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Are the pilot's actions in "The Cold Equations" good or bad? Provide examples.

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Whether the pilot's actions are good or bad is ultimately a matter of personal opinion, based on one's own personal moral judgments, reasoning, and intuition. Furthermore, it might even be worth asking whether terms such as "good" and "bad" can adequately reflect the moral quagmire that Godwin poses. In any case, Godwin's story expects readers to grapple with the moral dilemma it poses, with no one clear and definitive answer where such questions are concerned.

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Brutal as it may sound, I would argue that the pilot's actions are good. He is simply upholding laws and ensuring the safe passage of everyone who was legally on the cargo ship heading for Woden.

On one hand, it seems barbaric that Marilyn should be jettisoned to her death, given that all she wanted was to see her brother, and she genuinely didn't know that the penalty for her actions would be death rather than just a fine.

Barton, however, is placed in an impossible situation when he realizes that Marilyn is on board. Simply put, Marilyn's presence means that the entire missions is doomed, because EDS vessels carry the bare minimum amount of fuel required to get the vessel and its payload to the planned destination. Keeping Marilyn on board would have saved one life, but it also would have meant that the mission is doomed and that the colonists, including Marilyn's brother, would die. He therefore sacrifices one life to save many lives, making his action a good one.

In addition, Barton shows Marilyn compassion which I would argue goes above and beyond the call of duty. He allows Marilyn to speak to her brother before being jettisoned. Even though her deepest wish of seeing her brother again was not granted, she got to speak to him thanks to Barton's mercy.

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This kind of question has to be based on your own opinion. No one else cannot tell you how you ought to to react to a story; this is a topic you must grapple with yourself.

In any case, personally, I tend to be suspicious of labels such as "good" and "bad" altogether where stories such as "The Cold Equations" are concerned. After all, when we talk about "the lesser evil," there is still the recognition (within the very language itself) that said action still represents an evil, even if there is no better alternative. From that perspective, I personally cannot call the pilot's actions good in any capacity. Even given the stakes of the mission, and the fact that the alternative was that both die and the mission fail, these circumstances should not erase the fact that a young woman was shoved out an airlock and jettisoned into space. It's a horrible situation for both parties, and I rebel at the thought of calling anything about it good.

At the same time, the root of the problem might go deeper than the pilot himself. There is a legitimate reading by which "The Cold Equations" ultimately seems to be a story about institutional negligence. Consider that this entire crisis emerges specifically out of the context that these emergency missions are so streamlined that the appearance of a lone stowaway would cause catastrophic failure to the mission. From that perspective, I think there's an argument that, seen from a larger perspective, this entire situation represents a failure of policy, with missions so removed of all redundancy that they can no longer account for unforeseen complications.

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This is largely a matter of opinion, but on the whole I would argue that Barton's actions are the right ones. In evaluating the moral actions of the respective characters, it's necessary to distinguish between the intrinsic nature of the acts and their consequences. In and of itself, ejecting Marilyn into deep space is a bad thing as it will lead to her certain death. At the same time, the consequences of Barton's act will be to protect the lives of those people on Woden who desperately need the medical supplies he's due to deliver.

By the same token, Barton's decision to allow Marilyn to contact her brother before she dies is a good act in itself because it shows compassion. But once again, the consequences for himself and his mission could be dire indeed. The rules are clear: stowaways must be ejected into space the moment they're discovered. In his own way, Barton is disregarding the rules no less than Marilyn, with the same potentially damaging consequences.

We can adopt the exact same approach to Marilyn. Stowing aboard the ship because she wants to see her brother can be construed as a good action, because it shows how much Marilyn loves her brother. Then again, when looking at the potential consequences of Marilyn's action, they are much less benign. Not only is Marilyn risking her own life, she's also risking Barton's life and the lives of countless others on Woden.

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I think you could make an argument for either case, depending on whose point of view you consider. From the point of view of the girl, Marilyn, who stows away on the spaceship, the pilot's actions are bad. She will be jettisoned into space and die, and had not considered the reality of what had to happen once she was discovered. There is a regulation in place that says that stowaways are to be ejected immediately; even then the pilot might have let her stay--he did let her stay as long as possible, and allowed her to contact her brother. But ultimately the pilot had to make a choice that was for the greater good. His ship was carrying supplies and medicine to a colony on a far away planet, and was carrying exactly enough fuel to arrive there. If he did not get to the colony, all would die. This is the case for the pilot's actions being considered good. He really had no choice, and it hurt him to have to send the girl to her death. Even she understands it is the only choice, as it is for the greater good.

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