An Ordinary Plea
My entry in the EA Forum's creative writing contest
(This is a revised version of a play I wrote in 2017, which I’m crossposting as part of the Effective Altruism Forum’s creative writing contest. If performed live, the gender of the main character is unimportant and gendered words can be freely changed to fit the preferences of the actor. I of course do not endorse my character’s actions.)
Good people of the jury, today is an ordinary day.
In the next few hours you will decide a man’s fate, and you will go home to eat dinner with your families. Most of you have been in this situation before, though perhaps you did not recognize it at the time. There is always death, there is always suffering, and there is often something we could have done to stop it.
Really the only unusual aspect of the present situation is that today the man whose life sits in your hands has been given the chance to look you in the eyes and plead his case. Today I have been given fifteen minutes to persuade you my life has some sort of value worth preserving. My lawyers have advised me to use this statement to elicit sympathy, to convince you that I have repented from my crimes and thereby avoid an execution.
I need you to understand that I am a scientist. I am not here to manipulate you. I do not deal in “feelings” or “hunches” or any of the other specious nonsense we hide behind to avoid facing what is real. I deal only in facts. You have heard those facts our legal system has deemed most relevant to the case: what I have taken, the people I have taken it from, and what happened to some of them thereafter. My only intent in our time together is to spell out what remains: those facts which do not shield me from the law, but which I believe serve to justify my actions.
I was seven years old the first time I thought seriously about my future. A man who carried himself with authority came to speak at my school, saying we could find purpose in “the place where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." We were given time to examine our own interests to see if a career in music or journalism or sports might be right for us, and so to start to work towards a specific goal.
Even then I knew there was little that made me glad -- certainly not in any way that could be described as deep. But in time, as one does, I came to terms with who I was and who I was not. I learned to lend a shoulder to cry on, so tenderly that even those who could best read me could not have known they were alone in their grief. The prosecution has alluded to my condition as a closely-kept secret, but you bear witness to the fact that throughout this trial I have made no attempt to hide it.
The fact of the matter is that ethics is simply not all that difficult. It costs three dollars to buy and distribute a malaria net, and a thousand nets to save a life. In the past year I have sold everything I own but this outfit and a sidearm, and I have saved twenty-three lives. You must not think I am a hypocrite. I would not ask anyone to sacrifice anything I had not given up myself.
Here is another fact: the thirty-four men and women I stole from had access to a combined 1.9 million dollars in savings, investments, and credit. They were not particularly wealthy, but neither were they poor. I certainly would have preferred to take from those with more, but with increased wealth comes increased security and chance of failure. There is a probabilities game to be played, and I assure you that I did so to the best of my ability.
My dear friends, I understand that it hurts to hear stories of loss. I am not asking you to give up empathizing with those who are down. I would never pretend you ought to feel comfortable with how I obtained Miss Willers’ bank information, or to palate the six or seven strikes it took to shatter Mr. Green’s femur. But you must understand that right and wrong are not a question of what is sad, but of what is best for the world. We must weigh not only what affects us, but the costs and benefits thereof to people we will never meet.
This is my purpose. This is where my gladness has met the world's hunger.
And this is what brought me to meet Mr. Green, who we are here to discuss today. Mr. Green had enough savings and stock to purchase twenty-seven lives. Perhaps he could not see past his possessions. Perhaps he simply did not care about other people. I do not know. I have never seen a man refuse orders with a gun to his head.
I will not upset you by recalling the details of his final hours, except to say there is nothing you cannot justify doing to a man who is letting twenty-seven others die. It was my belief that he would crack under pressure and do the right thing, as even Miss Willers had. I am as unhappy as you that this proved to be incorrect. I assure you I did not expect him to die.
My lawyers have advised me to say that I regret my actions. As before, I intend to tell you the truth. There is always regret. I wish Miss Willers had repented fully intact, and Mr. Green’s fate certainly brought me no pleasure. But I cannot tell you I am ashamed of what I did. I sacrificed two people and the belongings of thirty-two others to save more than six hundred lives. You and I will never meet these people. They will not know what I have done, nor the consequences I have suffered. But they are people nonetheless, and the facts of the case before you have given them life. In happier circumstances, I might hope to be called a hero. Instead, I can only tell you that I do not wish to die.
The clock tells me I have a few more minutes, but I have never been one to let needless words obscure the facts. This is who I am. This is what I have done. I am not Miss Willers. I will not beg you for my life. I hope you will see that what I have done is at the very least understandable, and let me live my days in the peace of a private cell. If you cannot, I am well prepared to die for what is right. I only ask that you be ready to do the same. Thank you.