The 100 for Ethics
Updated: Jun 24
In 2014, on E4, a dystopian drama called “The 100” was aired, late in the evening. I fell in love with it very quickly and have followed it through 4 seasons so far. I have been talking about this programme a lot at CPD / INSET sessions regarding A level ethics, and I thought it high time that I wrote something more formal about what I do with this and why it is useful.
Premise of the Show:
The 100 is a story about a group of humans who have fled planet Earth on the eve of a nuclear apocalypse. The survivors watch as the bombs are launched, and the surface of the earth is ravaged. Since this time, they have been living on a space station in Earth’s orbit for 97 years and most of the people on the space station, known as The Ark (note the religious imagery), have only ever seen Earth from space. They dream of a time when they will return ‘home’.
The Ark has limited room and resources, so they have a harsh, legalistic, ethical code and punishment system. Any human, over 18, who breaks any rule is not considered worthy of sharing the precious resources on The Ark and so they are ‘floated’. To be floated is to be executed by being released into space. Young people who break the law are imprisoned until adulthood before being floated for their crimes.
It becomes apparent that the Ark’s life support systems are failing so, they look back to Earth for a way to survive. If they return, and radiation levels are too high, they will die. It will be impossible to launch themselves back into space again. They decide the only way is to send 100, underage, tagged criminals, who are on board the ship, to test the earth. If they survive, the ark will know and so they will be able to join them. If they die, they were scheduled for execution anyway.
The 100 are sent to earth on a shuttle, they crash-land and find Earth is liveable, but wild, with evidence of existent radioactivity, to which the 100 seem resistant. As criminals in the eyes of The Ark, they defy their orders and find ways of removing their tagging devices so that the Ark will think they are dying and they can be free. They struggle over leadership in a, Lord of the Flies, brutal manner. Then they discover they are not alone. There is other human life on Earth that has survived the apocalypse and who are not happy to have newcomers occupying their land.
This show has everything you need to teach ethics to A level standard. There is scope to teach any ethical theory that you choose, be it deontological or teleological ethics.
Deontological Ethics (Natural Law / Divine Command / Kant) and Capital Punishment.
The Grounders (People who have been on earth all along) have a strict ethical system which means that anyone who threatens their people must be punishable by death. Their motto is ‘blood must have blood’. To prevent an all-out war in season 1. It is necessary for main character, Finn, to be punished by the grounders for his crimes against a small village, when he panicked and killed 18 unarmed grounders. However, Finn was not in his right mind at the time, he believed the Grounders to have captured and even killed the woman he loved, and to kill Finn means to cause even more mistrust between the grounders and Skaikru.
· What should happen?
Before the move to Earth, Clarke’s father, Jake, is discovered to have committed a crime by trying to reveal the state of the Ark’s depleted resources to the rest of the space station. His wife Abby, Clarke’s mother, reports his crime to the authorities as she fears it will cause mass panic and he is floated for treason. Clarke is discovered to have been intending to help him so, as an under 18, she is imprisoned.
· Did Abby do the right thing?
· Is it always wrong to kill?
Teleological Ethics (Situation Ethics, Utilitarianism) and Nuclear Weapons as a Deterrent
In the finale of season 1 the grounders have declared war on the 100. The 100 find out and make the decision to try and defend themselves. They build defences around the damaged shuttle that brought them to earth and plan to use the last dregs of rocket fuel to lift the shuttle off the ground enough that the attacking forces will be destroyed by the heat of the burning fuel, whilst the 100 are protected inside. They remain visible to lure the grounders into the shuttle area. In the ensuing fight, Finn and Bellamy get drawn into the skirmish as they wait for enough grounders to get within the blast zone. Clarke, the unofficial leader, is forced to decide: do they shut the doors and carry out their plan, killing their own crew members, or do they wait and risk the lives of the entire crew?
· How would Bentham or Mill decide what should be done?
· Apply the agapeic calculus to plan the best solution to this problem.
· Would it make a difference if part of the plan was to warn the grounders in advance?
Teleological Ethics (Utilitarianism / Situation Ethics) and Medical Ethics
The Maunon are descendants of government officials who hid inside a mountain bunker to escape the apocalypse. They appreciate art, music and culture. They have become self-sufficient but have never been able to go outside without special protective clothing. They are working on a medical solution to overcome their reaction to the radiation outside. If it succeeds, none of their number need ever worry about radiation exposure again and they will be able to leave their mountain prison. The treatment involves harvesting blood from someone resistant to radiation and transfusing it into the Maunon’s bodies. Since the grounders are enemies and would never agree to help the Maunon, it must be done under force by capturing grounders and anaesthetising them before taking their blood. They are forced donors, kept in cages. It is the Maunon’s only hope of freedom and survival. If there are fewer harmed grounders than Maunon that are helped –
· Is it ethical to pursue this treatment for the greater good?
· If this treatment cures some mountain men, then no more grounders would be needed as mountain men could share their immune blood. Doesn’t this make it acceptable for the greater good?
· Is it loving to allow the mountain men to remain prisoners for the rest of their lives?
· Couldn’t we find it more agapeic to allow them to do this in such extreme circumstances?
Similarly, the grounders have discovered that Nightbloods, who have dark blood, are able to survive the intense radiation on earth after the apocalypse. There is a medical procedure to become a Nightblood and only Nightbloods can become commanders. As the radiation intensifies in season 4 when nuclear reactors that were left on earth are being used by an artificial intelligence to destroy human life, Skaikru and the grounders work to try and find out how to simulate night blood to save human life. It doesn’t have the desired effect at first and they look for people to test it on. Early tests seem to result in death. Clarke has a grounder with her who was not a member of Skaikru.
· Should she test the Nightblood serum they have developed on her?
· Sacrifice the one to save the many?
· Emori lets in another grounder and tells Clarke that he is a criminal. Do they now have a new test subject?
Later episodes show the rest of the ark attempting to come to earth. Skaikru have invaded Grounder land, they are not welcome, yet they can go nowhere else. They have different culture, ethical norms, dress codes, technology and medicine. The Grounders kill to preserve honour yet the Skaikru seem reluctant to continue capital punishment now they are on the ground. This is especially true when it is a member of the Skaikru who has done something the others dislike.
· How can Skaikru integrate successfully with the Grounder groups?
· Must they leave the area? Should they be given their own separate land?
· Can they stay if they adopt all grounder customs or can they retain their own culture?
Groups could try and come up with a way of helping the groups to integrate and share the land, but then could try and find problems with the ideas from each other’s groups. E.g. Skaikru could placate the grounders by offering them medical knowledge that they have in return for peaceful sharing of land. The Grounders are mistrustful and may take any drugs or procedures offered as potential aggression – especially if a medical procedure goes wrong (this happens in one episode) This could be taken as an act of war and could damage Skaikru chances of successful lives.
As each series goes by, the depleting heroes (like Star Trek, some characters appear, only to be killed in their only episode!) face more ethical dilemmas and find themselves making increasingly morally dubious decisions and paying the price for them. Meta-ethically it is possible to find yourself questioning how we can know what is good or not. Is it possible for the Skaikru to know or discover any natural ethical law by investigating the earth, or the society that they find themselves in? They don’t seem to have any shared instinct for what is right or wrong, and their moral compass is very confused after they land on earth and are not subject to The Ark’s necessary restrictions.
In the past, have given a PowerPoint with a brief rundown of the plot and divided the class into groups, each trying to work out how to apply situation ethics to this dilemma. However, as a revision lesson, you could look at each group taking a different ethical theory. You could take different dilemmas from the same show and get students to use the same ethical theory to decide what to do – are their answers morally consistent?
I hope that they will get a 5th Season off the ground (lol) in the UK again, but in the absence of such joy, I would recommend You Tube for some great extracts. If you get sucked in, it would be best to watch it from the start so that you get the idea of what you are getting into. I would argue that it is not suitable to show GCSE groups, but the A level groups could cope with the violent scenes. It is rated 15.