Master Chief Morality

"Halo 2" | Art by snatti89. Used with permission.
It wasn’t until I watched Halo: The Fall of Reach that I began to understand the enormous issue that surrounded the creation of John-117 and the other Spartans.

Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 was created with a purpose: to bring an end to the Insurrection, the undeclared civil war occurring between the United Nations Space Command and groups of rebels in the Outer Colonies. Over the course of 43 years, the Insurrectionists had increased the severity of their actions, moving from peaceful protests to terrorist tactics. This is the political climate of the Halo universe that spurs on the SPARTAN programs.

I grew up playing through the Halo campaigns, and I thought about the history involved as much as the next person; that is to say, not very. “I’m a super human and I’m killing the bad-guy aliens.” That’s about as far as it went. What I didn’t appreciate or understand at the time was the vast moral and ethical dilemma that surrounded the game’s premise.

In the face of great injustice and evil, is it ethical to suspend our own morality to protect people?

In Halo: The Fall of Reach, Dr. Catherine Halsey, a young genius, has a plan that she thinks will bring about the end of the Insurrection. If one soldier could be created that could replace 100, even at a high cost, isn’t that worth it? Especially if this one soldier can’t be outgunned or outmaneuvered by any regular Insurrectionist? If this soldier could be created, strategic targets could be removed with the precision skill of a scalpel.

But, what is the high cost of these super soldiers? Dr. Halsey knows what it will take to create her Spartans: children. They needed to start with children. Halsey looks far and wide for six-year-olds who fit particular genetic and intellectual criteria, of whom John is the first of 75 others.

The training of the Spartans is rigorous, including daily classes in strategy, extensive physical exercise and after years of development, biological augmentation. The children themselves are only half of the equation. The other half is the sophisticated MJOLNIR power armour. Initial tests had proven that normal humans could not withstand the heightened strength and speed of the armour. But with greater bone density and stronger, more regenerative muscle tissue, the Spartans would have no issue wearing the armour, thus they go through an augmentation phase. There are “drop outs” (i.e. deaths), a known risk of the program, but the greatest losses occur during this phase. Dr. Halsey is confronted with the tremendous cost when 36% of the candidates do not survive augmentation.

Halsey’s response is that the program is their only option if they want to win the war. “History will absolve me for the greater good,” she says. She doesn’t try to diminish the loss of these children by calling them candidates, in fact, as time goes on, Halsey continues to refer to each of the Spartans by name and even seems personally attached to them, especially to John.

I wonder whether or not the unfolding of time can grant absolution for our actions, however. Again and again, throughout The Fall of Reach we see Dr. Halsey struggling with this issue and repeatedly she affirms her actions by saying that they are for the greater good. She believes that the immense pain and, in some instances, death that these children endure is worth securing peace within humanity.

In the face of great injustice and evil, is it ethical to suspend our own morality to protect people? Some of the world’s greatest thinkers have set forth to give an answer to this question and still we don’t seem to have a consensus.

What’s interesting is John’s response to this issue. Upon being given command of the other Spartans, he is constantly vigilant so that not one under his command is ever left behind. He would take a bullet for one of his squad members, preferring that he would die rather than one of them.

His reaction to the loss of the recruits who did not survive augmentation shows, again, his sense of responsibility to those under his command as he approached Officer Mendez (the officer who oversaw the training of the Spartans) and asked what he could have done to protect his men.

“It is acceptable to spend lives,” Mendez told John, “it is not acceptable to waste them.”

If one soldier could be created that could replace 100, even at a high cost, isn’t that worth it?

This, I thought, was a strange situation. How could John possibly feel responsible for those who died in augmentation? The answer shows just how deeply the identity of squad leader ran in John. Just previous to augmentation, Mendez tells John that his next assignment is to survive. John understands augmentation to be a mission. Just as he might expect to bring all of his troops back from a reconnaissance mission, John expected to bring all his troops back from augmentation.

Dr. Halsey knows the cost of her actions, but she also knows the cost of her inaction. Without these soldiers, she surmised there would be much more death, loss and suffering. She accepted that what she did was not moral, but to not act was even worse.

I understand the logic of this decision, but I’m still not sure that I’m okay with it. If I was in her shoes, I don’t know what I would do. Honestly, it places much too much responsibility in my own hands, a level of responsibility that I don’t trust myself with. How can I believe that I know what’s best for the majority of others?

I doubt I’ll ever find myself in a situation like Dr. Halsey’s where I would need to sacrifice a few lives to save many, but I would, at least, like to believe that my response would be more like John’s. I would much rather seek out ways to ‘spend’ my own life, serving others, than to discern if someone else’s life needs to be spent for a greater purpose. I hope I never have to face such a decision because I’m really not sure what I would do in a situation like that except run from it.

Dustin Asham

Dustin Asham

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Dustin Asham is like HAL 9000; ruthless, emotionless, and the only song he knows is Daisy, Daisy. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Providence University College and splits his time between his young adults ministry, his wife Cassie, and beating his friends at board games.
Dustin Asham

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