After an incredibly tense and upsetting episode of The Leftovers this week that saw Kevin and Nora fall apart, there was one major question that had the internet buzzing: What’s the right answer to “Would You Kill a Baby to Cure Cancer?” question?
Recall that in last week’s episode, “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” Kevin Sr., came across a man doused in gasoline about to set fire to himself. Kevin Sr., tried to talk him out of it, but the man asked put this question to Kevin Sr.: “Would you kill a baby to cure cancer?” Kevin said, “Of course not,” and the man said, “That’s exactly what I said,” before setting himself ablaze. He had clearly answered the question wrong.
That question surfaced again in this week’s episode when the two physicists asked it of Nora as a condition of being able to use the machine that would reportedly zap her into the place where the The Departed went seven years prior. “Two infant twins are born. One of them will grow up to cure cancer, but only if the other one dies now. Would you kill the baby?”
Nora said that of course she would. This is the opposite of the answer the man who committed suicide gave, and yet, according to the physicists, it was also the wrong answer to the same question.
So, what is the right answer?
The internet tossed around a few theories, including that there is no right answer because there is no machine, and a more far-fetched (but totally reasonable in light of the events of this show) theory that the physicists weren’t ever going to say yes to Nora because they discovered during the course of the blood test that she was pregnant. I did a lot of research on the question myself, trying to find the wrinkle. The question is a variation on the Trolley Dilemma, or the doctrine of double effect. From my own study of several academic papers on the subject, I surmised that the wrinkle might be “regret.” Morally, according to some who study this question, it’s OK to kill someone for the greater good as long as the person doing the killing feels regret about it. Nora, once she eliminated the possibility that the infant twins were hers, expressed no regret. “Kids die every day. What’s one more?” she said.
As it turns out, I was also wrong. Haley Harris, who wrote the episode (and also wrote ten pages of Kevin’s Bible) — suggested that IndieWire critic Ben Travers “covered it best.” It wasn’t about the answer to the question at all; it was about how the person answered the question.
Here, Nora had follow-up questions: Do the babies suffer? Are the babies her own twins? These follow-up questions elicited a smile from Dr. Bekker, who understood that it didn’t matter how Nora answered the question at that point, because by asking follow-up questions, Nora expressed a concern with the existing world. People who are going to be transported to another world shouldn’t be invested in what happens in their existing one, as Travers writes:
It’s not about what you do, it’s about what you don’t do. There is no family. Stop wasting your breath. Nothing matters. The stakes posed in the cancer question only matter to someone who’s invested in the outcome, and no one who’s ready to die to see their children should care about a past or a future. They’re going to another world where these things don’t matter
In other words, the best answer to the ‘Would You Kill a Baby To Cure Cancer?’ question is: “I don’t care.”