BreakPoint: “Westworld” and Why Be Good?

What Cruelty Does to Us

There’s a question raised by the HBO series “Westworld.” It’s a question I’ll try to answer.

In late April, the long-awaited—at least by its fans—second season of “Westworld” began on HBO.

Since most of us don’t subscribe to HBO, a little background is in order. The show is loosely based on a 1973 film about an amusement park where robots, which are called “hosts” in the HBO series, enable visitors to act out their darkest fantasies in a setting free from judgment or real-world consequences.

In both the older film and the newer television series, things go very wrong. The “hosts”—that is, the robots–increasingly resist being mistreated by the guests, and they revolt.

Now let me be clear. This HBO show is incredibly violent, and full of nudity. I’m not suggesting you watch. In fact, don’t. But you can still join in on an interesting and worthwhile discussion the show has sparked. It’s among the most basic of human questions: Why should we be good?

Producers of “Westwood” want viewers to feel sympathy and even anger for the robots when the park’s guests “kill” or otherwise brutalize them, even though the hosts aren’t really “dead” and all memories of what is done to them are erased. Still, viewers know something’s wrong with the whole arrangement. The question is–what? Or as a recent New York Times article asked: “What’s Wrong with Cruelty to Robots?”

The authors of the article, psychologist Paul Bloom and new atheist Sam Harris, attempt to answer the question. They say that what makes it wrong is that the hosts possess consciousness, and with consciousness comes the capacity for suffering.

Now without getting too far into the show’s weeds, only one robot exhibits traits that might suggest consciousness. Or it may even be an extremely sophisticated bit of programming, a kind of artificial intelligence with human features.

So then Bloom and Harris make two additional claims: first, that few “philosophers and scientists” doubt that “consciousness emerges from the material world,” and second, that “the creation of conscious machines is possible.” To put it politely, they’re talking out of their hat. There’s no shortage of scientists, much less philosophers, who doubt that very much.

Their backup argument is that even if the hosts don’t possess consciousness, they mimic us so well that it’s “irresistible to see this creature as a person . . . regardless of what its creators told you about how it was built.”

But human experience tells us that this is no shield against cruelty. The ancient Romans had an expression, homo homini lupus est, “man is a wolf to his fellow man.” We have no trouble preying on people we know possess consciousness. So what would stop us from doing so to a machine that we know doesn’t?

The answer is suggested by the owner of the park. While he doesn’t believe in an all-knowing God who judges our actions, he knows that many of his guests do, which restrains their actions outside the park. So the guests “wanted a place hidden from God; a place they could sin in peace.”

Now of course, no such place exists in the world. Nothing is “hidden from God.” Ask Jonah. Or David, who himself asked in Psalm 139, “Where can I flee from your presence?” The answer—nowhere.

Ultimately, the only answer to “Why be good?” is that all of human existence is lived, to use another Latin phrase, “Coram Deo,” which means “in the presence of God.”

And we should also consider how God made us. C. S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, “every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different than it was before . . . all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature.”

In other words, acting with cruelty, no matter who or what is on the receiving end, makes us more fit for Hell than for Heaven.


“Westworld” and Why Be Good?: What Cruelty Does to Us

As John concludes, our choices–whether they are to do good or to be cruel–shape and define us. As believers we want to be conformed to Christ’s likeness, to practice His presence in our daily lives and in our daily choices. For more discussion on this topic, check out the resources linked below.


Mere Christianity
  • C. S. Lewis | HarperOne
It’s Westworld. What’s Wrong With Cruelty to Robots?
  • Paul Bloom, Sam Harris | New York Times | April 23, 2018
Most Popular Theories of Consciousness Are Worse Than Wrong
  • Mario Anzuoni | The Atlantic | March 9, 2016

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  • Buck Rogers

    In other words Harris and Bloom define person-hood according to what we do rather than what we are which is a very dangerous proposition indeed.

  • Dwight Weese

    I really want to see the Biblical “answer” fleshed out some more as this issue is more than just a TV show idea – Role Playing Gamers face this situation all the time where they must choose how to act in the make-believe universe and sometimes the appeal in playing is not feeling constrained for a few hours. Only about 1/4 of the article today addresses this from a Christian Worldview broken into 2 parts which could be refuted as indicated:
    1.) God sees all – and he sees I am playing in a make-believe world
    2.) Each decision I make moves me either more like God or not – really? based on what? just because CS Lewis said it? Where does God say that in His word?
    Some reference to the following could strengthen this last point but imagine there are more.
    1 Cor 10:31
    So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
    Col 3:17
    And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

    • Indigo Blue

      Be holy -seperate- as I am holy would be another. Along with how Jesus states that our thoughts and attitudes – and therefore fantasies- are exactly what condemns us. The heart is exceedingly wicked… It’s not what goes in the body but what comes from the heart that defiles a man. Or whatever a man thinks in his heart, so he is. Definitely could have been a stronger biblical viewpoint, but maybe it was a rush day? Or the point was to argue from philosophy on the case instead of the Bible. *Shrug*

      As a role player, gamer, and fiction writer this is definitely something that has to constantly be evaluated by me when I play or create in these spheres. And it’s definitely not clear cut across the board. Different styles of imaginative play have levels of immersion. The worst trap is equating all imaginative play as purely outside reality without understanding how stories shape our psyches. While the exact line varies a bit depending on conscience, there are definitely some games and some narratives and some imaginative play that the Christian has no business meddling with, and that we need to fight against for the sake of the non-christian.