It had started with a Google search when he was twelve.
> how to do the most good
A few clicks later and he was reading about effective altruism, and how if you wanted to give to charity, you should give to the best charity, rather than the one that made you feel the best. When he read that, he thought about the food drives that his ma had been a part of, how she had bought cans of food from the grocery store and put them into a donation box. Buying a can of food at retail for 69¢ bought someone a portion of a single meal.
There were other things that you could do for that 69¢, if you actually cared about doing the most good.
For a dollar, you could give to UNICEF and they would deliver a vaccine that might save the life of someone in the third world. But that wasn’t the whole story, because the vaccine, which cost 84¢ a dose, only protected against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenza B, and not every child would get one of those diseases, and not every child would die if they did get it, but you also had to think about the long-term impacts on health for the ones that didn’t die, and herd immunity, and it was all really, really complicated, especially if you were twelve.
But it wasn’t so complicated that you had to throw up your hands and just buy canned food for 69¢ at the grocery store. Heck, there were people who had already done the work and ran through the numbers and figured out all the complicated things, and they said that if you were going to give money to charity, you should give it to a charity that gave bed nets to people in Africa so they didn’t get bitten by mosquitos and die from malaria.
Clark liked that there was an answer to that question, but he was also a little troubled by it. He didn’t want to think less of his ma for buying canned food and giving it away, because at least her heart was in the right place. It was like how people said, ‘no matter how slow you run, you’ll always lap the guy who stayed on the couch’. But that didn’t change the fact that they were running really slow, and life wasn’t just about what people intended to do, it was about what they actually did.
But the answer to
> how to do the most good
wasn’t just that you should give your money to the Against Malaria Foundation, because there was a step missing there, which was how you went about getting the money in the first place. One of the big things that the effective altruists talked about was that donating your time was almost never worth it. Clark’s pa had sat at a booth for a few hours selling popcorn at the last church bake sale, with the money going to charity, and they’d raised a hundred dollars after the cost of the popcorn was paid for, which Clark’s pa had been pretty proud of.
But Clark’s pa took on odd jobs all the time, and he usually made twenty dollars an hour fixing an engine, setting up some shelving, or making something in his shop. Because Clark’s pa had those skills, if he really cared about doing the most good, he would have sat in his workshop making birdhouses to sell and then used the money to hire a teenager to sit at the booth for him, which would have made all the popcorn money plus all the birdhouse money, and turned a better profit when all was said and done, and all that profit would’ve gone straight to charity. More likely, he should have just skipped the booth altogether and sent the birdhouse money over to the Against Malaria Foundation for more mosquito nets.
So if you wanted to do the most good, you had to think about what you were going to do for a living. If it was between being a schoolteacher and being a computer programmer, you should be a computer programmer, because a computer programmer made more money, and that money could be used to save lives. Obviously the idea wasn’t that everyone should be a computer programmer, but the effective altruists thought that if you really wanted to be a force for good in the world, you couldn’t just do the things that you wanted to do, not when there were lives on the line.
Up until a few weeks before typing his search into Google, Clark had thought that he would like to be a reporter in Metropolis. He had gifts, his ma called them, he was fast and strong and could almost fly, he could hear things happening miles and miles away, he’d been hit by a truck and the worst that happened was he’d put a dent in it. He was special, his pa said, and he was getting more special with every passing day. So he’d thought that he would be a reporter, because then he’d have a reason to know about things right when they happened, and he’d have the cover to carry on a mostly normal life.
Three weeks ago, two bad things had happened at once. He’d heard some commotion at one of the oil rigs that dotted the Kansas landscape, something about a loose line and an explosion, and almost at the same time, he’d heard the honking of horns at an intersection everyone agreed really should have a stoplight, followed by the crunching of glass and the twisting of metal.
Clark had gone to the oil rig without really thinking, but in hindsight maybe it was the fact that it seemed like a bigger emergency to him, like the kind of thing you’d see on the evening news. As he ran, he’d slipped on the mask he always carried with him, because this wasn’t the first time he’d done something like this, and his pa had said that there would be problems if people came around asking questions that didn’t have answers. Clark tried his best not to listen to the sounds coming from the site of the car crash, tried not to focus his hearing on the heartbeats to see whether the people there were getting better or worse, because he wasn’t going to be able to help them, not if he need to be at the oil rig at the same time.
When he got to the oil rig he helped them tighten their valves and secure their lines. It took just a few minutes as they directed him where to go, and then he was off to the car accident. When he got there, the little girl in the blue car had died, and her father was bleeding out, so Clark had picked the man up and raced him to the county hospital, careful to go slow enough that the speed wouldn’t kill him or make things too much worse, but by the time Clark got there, the man’s heart had given up.
And when he’d come home with his clothes all bloody, he’d explained things to his ma, and she’d said that there was nothing more he could have done, but as the days went by and he thought about it, he decided that she was just saying that to make him feel better. He’d had a choice, and he’d chosen wrong, because when he made the choice he wasn’t really thinking things through, and he could make time crawl by when he wanted to, so he didn’t have the excuse most people did. And maybe the oil rig was the right call after all, but he hadn’t even weighed it, he’d acted on instinct, and now two people were dead.
So he’d eventually sat down at his computer and typed in:
> how to do the most good
And needless to say, he wasn’t planning on being a reporter anymore.
There were two words that Superman lived by, and they were “pay me”.
His time was auctioned off in blocks of five minutes. He didn’t need to sleep, so he stopped sleeping, which meant that there were 288 blocks of his time available per day, with ten blocks set aside for administration. It was rare that any of these blocks went for less than a million dollars, which meant that after his first full year in operation as Superman, he made over a hundred billion dollars. If he were a nation, he would have been ranked 63rd, just below Morocco.
Some of that money went towards administrative expenses. Man of Steel, Incorporated had a staff of two hundred, including accountants, attorneys, PR people, and over a dozen managers to make sure that everything was orchestrated down to the second. There were ethicists, engineers, and scientists on staff too, people to support Superman in less direct ways, whether that meant analyzing ethical risk for any contracts taken, pricing in the loss of utility inherent in taking certain contracts, building special equipment for Superman, or doing an analysis of Superman’s effects on the environments he traveled through. There were a handful of computer scientists as well, mostly there to make sure that the company could stay in contact with its primary asset, though some were used for data collection, visualization, and analysis.
Clark didn’t talk to people anymore. There were meetings, endless meetings, and he’d tried to attend them early on, but it was an enormous waste of time. He sent representatives where possible, and when it wasn’t possible, he did his own brand of teleconferencing through miniaturized equipment hidden away in his ear canal and stuck to his throat. The equipment was a unique engineering challenge, since it had to survive rapid, repeated acceleration and deceleration, as well as compensate for the extreme Doppler shifts the receivers and transmitters were subject to. MoSI had a standing contract with Iridium, one of the major satphone companies: MoSI got unlimited priority sat time, and in exchange, Superman gave them satellite inspections every six months, with close-up video of every part of the satellite. Repairs, deorbits, and launches were all charged for, of course, because he was running a charity.
Most of what he did involved space. It cost between $50 million and $200 million to launch a satellite. For that price, you could hire Superman for between 250 and 1000 minutes, about 4 to 16 hours. In terms of price, there was simply no comparison, and fueled launches quickly became a thing of the past. There was a haze of bureaucracy that Superman was only dimly aware of, flight plans and collision calculations, but all of this was taken care of by MoSI, who would give him a telemetry to match and help him match it. It didn’t take long for satellites to start having special mounts to take the stress of a Superman launch, and they quickly ballooned in size, because weight really wasn’t much of a problem for Superman.
His other projects were largely infrastructure, carving through mountains, leveling land, or digging deep holes. Sometimes, but only rarely, he was tasked with deliveries, either extremely time-sensitive or very heavy. Occasionally he was asked to scout, to look through buildings and give a report on who or what was inside, though there were some court cases related to that which MoSI was preparing for, and the scouting was on hold for the time being.
He worked for the military, though never in a combat capacity. He was on retainer with all major world powers to provide short-notice nuclear missile defense. In addition to that, he provided target confirmation for the United States military so they could rain bombs down on insurgents in the Middle East. That always left a bad taste in his mouth, but doing it for them was better than the alternative of the government doing guesswork, and MoSI’s analysts said that every million dollars was equal to another thousand lives saved, given current interventions. (A Patriot missile cost $3,000,000, which Clark always wrote out with all the zeros so that people could appreciate the magnitude of evil inherent in what the United States chose to spend its money on.)
People made jokes about Superman endlessly turning a crank at a constant speed in a basement somewhere. The problem was that the real issues in the world of energy were ones of transmission and distribution. MoSI had spent tens of thousands of manhours on what was internally dubbed “The Crank Problem”, trying to make sense of the math and engineering, some of which wasn’t just engineering, but theoretical engineering, and some of the theoretical engineering was meta-theoretical engineering, where the engineers were trying to figure out what kind of costs would be involved in doing enough research that there would be a practical underpinning necessary to try doing something that worked in theory but had never actually been tried.
The big problem was that in order to convert the world to crank power, you would need to build a facility to harness the “limitless” power of Superman, and the upper limit of how much energy could be extracted from Superman per dollar investment would be determined mostly by materials science. That facility would take at least five years to build and cost billions of dollars, and then in order to maximize output, billions more dollars would have to be spent on infrastructure to handle the power flow. And this wouldn’t actually be worth it with current technology, not until Superman’s time fell below half a million dollars per hour. Clark wasn’t looking forward to the day that the MoSI board would sit down and tell him that they were going to go ahead with the crank (though it wasn’t actually a literal crank).
He had just come up from fixing a cut underwater cable when a call came through on his headset. He flew on to the next destination, which was over the Atlantic, where an Airbus with five hundred people had lost radio contact.
Catching a plane with a blown engine as it fell from the sky sounded really exciting, and to be honest, it was, but Clark had only done it once. Most of the time, when the job was finding a plane that had lost radio contact, he found the plane just fine, and if he ever heard anything about it later, it was a problem with the plane’s internal communications systems. The people who ran the airlines had their own analysts who had run their own numbers and determined that it was cheaper to have Superman fly out to a false alarm a hundred times than to not have Superman there the one time there was a major fatal accident. The cost to an airline of a crash was in the hundreds of millions of dollars once you included the cost of the plane itself, the settlements paid out to families, and the loss of revenue from people not being willing to fly with them anymore. And the insurance companies that provided insurance to the airlines had run their own numbers, which mandated Superman’s involvement anyway.
It was the same in lots of industries, at least those where Superman had a track record of making positive interventions. That meant that a lot of Superman’s time was spent going to places where they didn’t know whether they needed him or not, and a lot of the time it turned out that they didn’t need him. He understood the math, because it was pretty simple math. If there’s a 10% chance that something will cost you $10 million, then that was, for most purposes, at least in the long run, the same as a 100% chance that it would cost you $1 million. There was more complicated math (Clark resisted the urge to think of it as ‘fancy’, a word his pa would surely have used) that altered things a little, adjusting the numbers based on confidence and the time-value of money, but that didn’t really change the core of it too much.
Superman had finished finding the plane, another false alarm, when the call finished buffering and was ready for him to hear. He stopped in mid-air over Bangladesh and pushed his sense of time to an appreciable fraction of its limit as he synced up with the series of beeps that were there in the recording for just that purpose. At x1000 speed, he listened to first the identification information that came at the start of the call (Lois Lane, his chief of staff) and then to the smooth female voice that was being played back to him as fast as a state-of-the-art speaker could modulate its output while maintaining something resembling acceptable audio quality.
“Hi Supes,” said Lois, “We’re looking at the forecast for the upcoming year and the inevitable decline is looming. Red tape is slowing down space launches to only a fraction of Year 0 standards, which means that we’ve got at most four a day from here on out, less if the collision calculation treaty gets signed by the UN. We’re lobbying hard on it. Red tape is also choking out infrastructure improvements, even with the fast tracking we’ve been doing, and it’s slow as hell anyway. That leaves weather and accidents to make up volume for the most part, if we’re talking high value, and we’re not actually talking high value, because of the asteroid thing.” At a minute in, Lois had finally gotten around to her point.
“There’s a company in Vancouver that’s delivered data to us on a rock that’s worth about $20 trillion. We’ve run the physics calculations on it again and think you can bring it down without major risk to Earth.” It went without saying that it wouldn’t be a risk to him, no matter how large it was and how fast it was moving. “It’s going to come very close to Earth’s orbit in the next two months, which would be an ideal time for you to fly up there, nab it, then set it down at our Nevada site. The rock’s about two and a half kilometers wide, billions of tonnes, but in terms of payout it’s well worth the risk and effort. Maybe it wasn’t, back when we started out, but looking at the slump ahead of us, we need some more low-hanging fruit to grab if we want to keep up the pace.”
Clark frowned as the message continued. This was all well-trod ground by this point, and he had his reservations.
“I know you’re worried about X-risk,” said Lois, as though reading his mind from thousands of miles away and a few minutes in the past. “But, look, so much of it depends on assumptions and axioms. There are differences of opinion in the physics department about how dangerous this actually is, and I should point out that they’re all at least 70% confident that you can actually pull it off, which rises higher if we take more conservative approaches for metals extraction. The quants argue with each other all day, you know that they do, and depending on what we want to say about the time-value of money, the risk of an uncertain global economy, the problems inherent in liquidating more mineral and metallic wealth than anyone in the history of history has ever had — I’m just saying, depending on who you want to put your faith in, it might be the right call. My opinion, it probably is. I know you like your clear-cut answers, but in this case, we just can’t say that there is one. Text me back and tell me what you think, just don’t reject it out of hand.”
For the purposes of communication, speaking was inefficient, and only used when absolutely necessary. Instead, Clark’s thick-phone had some of the fastest input sensors known to mankind, and a screen with as high a refresh rate as they could practically achieve. It was still painfully slow, since 240Hz meant that Clark could watch in boredom while the screen refreshed, and the input lag meant that if he was typing at full speed (as gentle as possible so as not to crush the ruggedized keys), the characters would get stuck in the buffer, sometimes in the wrong position.
“No,” he replied back, then went on to the next thing.
A million dollars could save a thousand lives, so long as you were picking the low-hanging fruit, which was mostly in delivering supplies and building up infrastructure. The hundred billion dollars that MoSI had made in Year 0 was going to large-scale projects, mostly in the developing world, that would cut malnutrition and disease down to a fraction of their previous amounts. MoSI had internal projections for a wide variety of these projects, most of which had long time horizons, and they weren’t just going to be saving people, they were going to lift entire countries out of poverty, first by giving them the tools they needed, and then by transitioning them toward being integral parts of the global economy.
The rest of the world was already responding and making investments of their own, not because they thought to follow MoSI’s example, but because they saw where the money would be flowing and which real estate holdings would allow for the best RoI. Worse, people had seen the kind of money that MoSI had to throw around, and these vultures were doing their best to gouge as hard as they could. MoSI’s response had been a push toward vertical integration, running their own mines, which sent metals to their own factories, which fed other factories, which eventually made the things that were most needed. The end goal was that MoSI would pay for taxes and labor, but practically nothing else, because they would own the inputs of resource extraction and attend to the outputs on their own.
Some of Clark’s time was spent on these internal matters. The subsidiaries of MoSI were many and vast, and they had their own problems, with Superman sometimes being the correct solution. It felt better to drill and secure a mine when he knew that in some sense he owned it. The concept of ownership was mercurial with all the layers of companies and charities involved, but a mine that Clark drilled for MoSI was a mine that was working toward good, rather than increasing shareholder value. MoSI projects didn’t pay, properly speaking, because the different parts of MoSI didn’t need to pay each other, but the calculations took into account the value of Superman’s time and applied a discount given that they could be much more sure of the knock-on effects.
An on-site appearance by Superman at an MoSI-owned company was also fantastic for morale.
Clark had just finished one of those jobs, a gold mine that would largely be used to supply a foundry that would supply an electronics factory that would build cheap computers that would be used by schools in rural areas of the third world, when he got his second call of the day. He slowed down for it, listened to the beeps, then waited.
“It’s time for us to talk again,” said Lex Luthor, and there was no more after that.
Superman suppressed an internal groan. He didn’t particularly enjoy his therapist.
Superman was MoSI’s greatest asset, obviously. While much of the company was devoting itself to managing contracts, money, logistics, and other matters that were reducile to science, engineering, and finance, there was a largely separate division which devoted itself to making sure that Superman was safe, secure, and able to continue working: Continuity Division. Some of this was xenobiology, which was useless for most practical purposes given that Superman had no known weaknesses and was always in perfect health, with reverse engineering, altering, or exploiting that xenobiology at least a generation away. Other parts of the division were more focused on adversarial threats, primarily those that might be developed by the nations of the world, though again, so far as anyone could tell, Superman was immortal. He hadn’t yet survived a nuclear blast, but based on their testing, he almost certainly could.
The final part of Continuity was devoted to Superman’s mental and emotional well-being, and while he could understand why, in terms of pure numbers, it was important for MoSI to pay attention to every part of him, he still didn’t particularly like it. That was especially the case because they often suggested that he spend enormous amounts of his time not making money. Five minutes of his time were worth a million dollars, give or take, and they had the audacity to suggest that he take a day off, which would cost MoSI hundreds of millions of dollars. Put in terms of MoSI’s interventions, that day off would result in hundreds of thousands of lives not being saved. He didn’t even really understand why they thought such an exercise would be relaxing to him, given its expense.
If not for Lex Luthor, Continuity PsyOps might not have existed. Very early on in the history of MoSI, Lex Luthor had spent an exorbitant amount of money for a two hour conversation with Superman. Clark had been at a loss trying to guess what Luthor wanted from their talk, and not for lack of effort. If Clark could have figured out what Luthor wanted, then Luthor could be convinced to pay that amount again, and it would mean more lives saved. The conversation had been wide-ranging, mostly with Luthor posing a question and then allowing Clark to fill the air. The whole thing was recorded, of course, at Luthor’s insistence. Luthor seemed interested in ethics and philosophy as Clark saw them, but also in other abstract concepts like happiness, the pursuit of meaning, and the nature of fear.
What Clark hadn’t known at the time was that Lex Luthor was, among other things, a psychologist. If he had known, well, he wouldn’t have turned down the money, because that wouldn’t be doing the most good, but he might have been a bit more guarded in what he said.
A week after that conversation, Clark had gotten a phone call from Lois Lane. She had expressed a number of concerns that had been brought to her attention, those she thought had a great deal of merit. It was only after he’d asked where this was all coming from that she admitted that she'd had her own long discussion with Luthor. The problem, from Clark’s position, was that Luthor was right, or at least, there was no way to refute what he was saying. A problem with Superman’s mental well-being was currently the largest risk that MoSI faced, which meant that if they were to continue doing the most good, they needed to make sure that Superman wouldn’t decide to quit one day, or snap and do something rash.
He had assured Lois that there was no risk of that, and that he did his best to be introspective and work through his feelings. She had immediately shot back that people were notoriously bad at knowing their own limits and dealing with their issues absent outside help, and sometimes even with outside help. People were, more often than not, beset by denial, repression, and bias. And those were normal people, people who didn’t spend their days doing things that no other person had done before, people who didn’t directly engage in combat or combat-like scenarios, people who couldn’t hear the screams of the dying at virtually any moment they chose to listen. He had to acknowledge that was true, and that acknowledgement led directly to the creation of Continuity PsyOps.
Clark wasn’t entirely sure why Lex Luthor had been hired on. He was a licensed psychologist, because the man collected licensing and credentials like other people collected comic books, but he was hardly a leading psychologist. No one would deny that the man was brilliant, but there were other brilliant psychologists. Maybe it was the way Luthor effortlessly spoke the language of effective altruism that made him well-liked, or maybe it was his obvious competence at so many disparate fields, or maybe it was his vast wealth that made it less likely for him to be tempted by some outside force. He had extremely high executive functioning, rarely wasting his time on the frivolous or mundane. And since Continuity PsyOps didn’t take up his full time, he leveraged his skills and connections for other parts of the organization, often sitting in on meetings and making his brilliant suggestions on subjects he’d only had a moment’s contact with. Clark could see how he was a boon to MoSI.
Nevertheless, Clark didn’t particularly like the man. There were a few reasons for that. While Luthor spoke the language of effective altruism quite fluently, he hadn’t practiced it himself until shortly after MoSI had been founded. From the articles that Clark had read, Luthor’s charitable contributions were practically the definition of ineffective altruism, always with an ulterior motive, whether that was a seat at a table for high donors or signaling virtue to the public. It might have been different if the billionaire had pet projects, charities that he consistently gave to which reflected the quirks of his values, but that wasn’t the case: it was utterly scattershot. And there was other evidence of moral failing on Luthor’s part, though much further in the past, minor scandals that had ended in hefty settlements, or malice on the part of LexCorp subsidiaries that had been pinned on bad actors.
The “brilliant observations” were another sore spot for Clark, as Luthor’s effortlessness was often a show. In truth, Luthor spent long, hard hours studying, sometimes consulting with outside parties, then played off his carefully considered suggestions as though they were mere flashes of brilliance. Clark only knew this because he occasionally looked around MoSI during trips overhead or when he was taking part in administrative duties in Metropolis, and he hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, because he didn’t want to seem petty. Luthor was brilliant, but he put on a show that suggested this was an aloof, careless genius rather than the result of genius married to a strong work ethic. It bothered Clark.
You didn’t have to like your psychologist though, just like you didn’t have to like the people that you worked with, so long as it didn’t interfere with what you were trying to do together.
“Talk to me about the asteroid,” said Luthor, as soon as Clark was laying down on the padded chair. They always did it this way, without preamble, in part because time was so precious, and in part because Clark was never able to properly relax anyway.
“Lois is pushing for it,” said Clark. “The quants are pushing for it.” It always felt weird to hear himself speak, given how little he did it nowadays. Practically speaking, Luthor was the only one that he ever had a non-digital conversation with. It had been that way for months. “We have different tolerance for risk.”
“What amount of risk would be acceptable?” asked Luthor.
“I don’t know,” said Clark. “Let me think.”
Time slowed to a crawl, and Clark thought.
He wasn’t dumb, but he wasn’t all that smart. It was the only area where he thought he came up short of being an idealized human (though he tried his best to be humble). If Clark was average, an IQ of 100, then he was the dumbest man employed by MoSI. Heck, even if he was a standard deviation above average, he probably would still have been the dumbest employee. He could slow his perception of time though, slow it right down to a crawl, which gave him an edge. Intelligence tests, which he’d taken a few of, were usually marked based on how fast you could tear through them. Clark could finish any intelligence test in the world in a handful of seconds. He also had advantages that other people didn’t have, like being able to consume books at incredible speeds, which made him more knowledgeable than a lot of people. And if there was a concept that he didn’t get, he could re-read an argument four or five times to parse it, or read different explanations to see if they helped, all virtually in the middle of a conversation.
The asteroid was worth $20 trillion. If Superman could bring the asteroid down to Earth in a non-calamitous way, MoSI would have a GDP approximately equal to that of the United States of America. The income would instantly overload all of their charitable endeavors and allow enormous amounts of money to be funneled into either research and development or capital-intensive interventions. The asteroid wasn’t actually worth $20 trillion, because if it was brought to Earth, or if it was even so much as hinted that it could be brought to Earth, the metals markets would all collapse, but it was still probably worth enough that it would dwarf all existing interventions that MoSI was pursuing with its existing funds.
In terms of interventions, there were simple, low-hanging fruit, like getting everyone fed, eliminating diseases through better hygiene or medicine, and increasing security. All of those interventions had limits though: once everyone who would use a bed net had one, any additional dollars spent on bed nets went to increasing education and compliance, which had less of a return per dollar spent. At a certain point, you were simply throwing money away by chasing the long tail.
Eventually, if you were an effective altruist with $20 trillion, you would find yourself going after the higher fruits. As you stumbled your way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, those needs became more and more expensive to fulfill, because once everyone was healthy and everyone was fed, you started to get into different metrics and the expected dollar-per-quality-adjusted-life-year went up. So how many quality-adjusted-life-years would $20 trillion buy?
That was a question for the quants, unfortunately. Clark was sure that they had run the numbers, or if they hadn’t, they could, based on existing information about global demographics and conditions. Take that whole mess of math and place it in the “pros” column. It was some number, measured in quality-adjusted-life-years, and it was undoubtedly very big.
On the other end was the risk of something bad happening. Lois favored a more extreme approach, as did most of the quants, which might have been because she was the one who hired them. In theory, an asteroid could be landed on a vast tract of land owned by MoSI, if not all at once, then in chunks, each of them with less than the energy of a small nuclear explosion, even if Superman wasn’t able to drop them gently. A more conservative approach would involve moving the asteroid into one of the Lagrange points and then ferrying up equipment and possibly personnel to do the mining in space, but that would be a far, far more capital-intensive proposition, not just in terms of the equipment and astronauts needed, but in terms of the total number of trips into space Superman would have to take. That approach would be laced through with uncertainty, but it was more attractive, and still not without risks, especially if moving the asteroid proved more difficult than theorized. Superman was, after all, still the size and shape of a normal man. Handling a plane was hard enough: Superman’s force applied to the plane, even spread out in an X-shape to maximize contact, even with planes starting to be engineered with Superman in mind, would risk buckling structural supports.
It was, again, a question for the quants, as well as MoSI’s engineering and physics teams. They had calculated all of the risks and appropriately multiplied them, giving a figure for the average reduction in quality-adjusted-life-years that would result from different scenarios. That was some other big number, put into the cons column.
The quants were saying to go for it, as much as they ever spoke in definites. There would need to be some trips up into space in preparation for any kind of endeavor, with photographs and measurements taken of the asteroid, but that would only clarify things a little bit, adding more quantification, or punting on the issue until the next valuable asteroid was spotted.
“My fear isn’t rational,” said Clark, moments after he’d asked for time to think. “It’s still fear though. It’s a gut-deep sick feeling that we could end up in the middle of an operation, bringing down a piece of rock, and something would snap or break. I would be left watching this horrible thing happening, rocks splintering and spiraling down to the Earth below. I would try to stop them, but I wouldn’t be fast enough, not strong enough, and people would die.”
“You don’t think it’s about the money?” asked Luthor.
“It’s that too,” replied Clark. He paused again, only fractionally, just enough that he could compose his thoughts. It was something he did often, as it helped him appear to be a wise and thoughtful man. If he really wanted to, every word out of his mouth could be a composed and rehearsed speech. “When I was eleven years old, I knew that I was special. I was thinking about the ways that I could use my powers, and I decided that I would be a vigilante. I didn’t think of it as vigilantism then, I thought of it as being a police officer without being a part of the police, or a firefighter without being a part of the fire department. There were so many things that I could do, I didn’t want to be pinned down to just one thing. I wanted to go where I was needed, and I wanted people to see that and be inspired by it.”
“It was childish,” Clark continued. “I was a child, so that’s no surprise. I thought about the good parts of being a police officer, stopping criminals from robbing banks and rescuing hostages. I didn’t think about the other things that a police officer has to do, like dealing with drunkards, mental illness, or domestic disputes. I thought about being a symbol, but what would I really have been a symbol of? Of doing things that are easy, glamorous, and uncomplicated?”
“You’re talking about our current work,” said Luthor. “That’s how you feel about MoSI.” He was a step ahead, like he always was, able to trace a line of thought without thinking much about it. Or maybe, in his special lead-lined room, he had spent dozens of hours thinking about this conversation and how it might go.
“The money that we’ve made would be obscene if not for the lives it’s helping to save,” said Clark. “The problem is that we’re going to run out of the easy, obvious, unambiguous interventions relatively soon. Everything that we’ve done so far has been done without force, only economic coercion, but with so many interventions already in place, the new lowest hanging interventions require interaction with nation-states in ways that go beyond money, or beyond just money. That’s going to be even more true if we manage to bring this asteroid down. And it isn’t just one asteroid, it’s hundreds of them. After that first one, I’m going to be sending up probes and flinging them off at precise trajectories so that we can get readings of other likely candidates. We’ll control the world’s cobalt, the world’s nickel, iron, platinum, so many things, and we can just hammer everything into shape by paying people, except that there are limits to payment.”
“Which scenarios are you thinking of, specifically?” asked Luthor.
“The ones that people have already been suggesting,” said Clark. “The ones that Lois tries to shield me from. There are wars taking place around the world that I could stop in short order. There are things that the governments of this world are doing, either to the environment or to their own people, that I’m skeptical vast amounts of money alone would stop. The world doesn’t actually run on a completely economic framework.”
“You laid down principles when MoSI was founded,” said Luthor. “You said that you wouldn’t kill. You said that you wouldn’t destroy. You said that you wouldn’t lie.”
“I know,” said Clark. “And I still think that those are good general principles. There are also ways to do unsavory things without violating those terms. We set up the Exotics Department to come at altruism through unconventional means, and some of their most promising work has been in government manipulation. We already spend more than I would like on lobbying, but there are people within this organization who have put forward some difficult numbers relating to the costs of a wide-scale campaign to put the right people into office and influence the law, beyond what we currently do.” The numbers weren’t difficult to understand, but the conclusions were repugnant. Money flowing into politics, manipulation of voters through advertising, shouting out opponents by virtue of capital … it made Clark’s blood run cold.
“It would violate our status as an incorporated charity, for one thing, de facto if not de jure,” said Luthor, nodding. “It would cost us public opinion, by making us appear partisan. But those are two things that we could put numbers on, and I imagine that’s already been done. It’s shockingly cheap to buy a member of congress, compared to the returns it can yield. The answer isn’t about risks, costs, or rewards. It’s a conflict between doing the most good and feeling as though you are a moral person.”
“You’re here to help me with my emotions,” said Clark. “Help me work through the conflict.”
“As people, we have moral intuitions,” said Luthor. “Sometimes those moral intuitions are wrong. Do you accept that, to start with?”
“Yes,” replied Clark, frowning somewhat. “Of course.”
“You have a moral intuition that it’s wrong to upend nation-states, even when they engage in evil,” said Luthor. “This clashes with another moral intuition, which is that evil must be stopped, so long as that doesn’t come at the cost of more evil, or at the cost of stopping a greater evil. Your moral intuitions inform your emotions, and because moral intuitions are simply the product of imperfect coding within the brain, your moral intuitions conflict.”
“I don’t want to upend nation-states,” said Clark.
“You said that you wouldn’t lie,” replied Luthor, smiling slightly.
“I want the nation-states of the world to be better,” replied Clark. “I want them to enact sensible legislation, curb corruption, eliminate the incentives for crime, give their people shelter, food, and healthcare, at least where the free market won’t provide. I want them to educate their children and provide a structure for progress.”
“The question is the mechanism we use for influence,” said Luthor. “Currently, it’s a combination of economic efforts, what limited sanctions we can impose, and how we expect interventions to effect change.”
“How do I resolve the question?” asked Clark. “How do I decide whether or not to do more?”
“It’s a hard question that you should have figured out before you began this entire enterprise,” said Luthor, with only a mild rebuke in his voice. “It’s a philosophical question, one whose answer has many practical impacts. No one can tell you what particular moral philosophy you should follow, though they can argue backward and forward about the outcomes of each philosophy, their unexpected consequences and hidden assumptions. If you believe that you should never depose a dictator, or never intervene in a war even when it would mean preventing the deaths of thousands if not millions, then we might be able to work backward to help understand the moral philosophy that you’re living, or we might cast those actions into different frames. You should be skeptical of anyone who says that you ought to do one thing or another.”
“And what would you do?” asked Clark.
“If I had your powers?” asked Luthor, raising an eyebrow. Clark nodded. “Well,” said Luthor. He sat up a little straighter. “I won’t pretend that I’ve never thought about it. Personally, I would throw every rule you have right out the window. I would kill, lie, and destroy, if it would make the world a better place. If we’re going to use quality-adjusted-life-years as our metric, which I believe we should, then we should be using it as our metric, casting aside everything else. Of course, you wouldn’t need to kill, lie, or destroy in order to carry out most of the most promising interventions, you would only need to take the most problematic individuals and put them in an inescapable prison of your own design. Once it was clear that you were capable and willing to do that, it would be easier to get everyone in line.”
Clark stopped for a moment to think about that, perhaps five or ten subjective minutes. “You started talking about me instead of yourself.”
“I did,” nodded Luthor. “The answer is the same, whether you’re asking me what I would do with your powers, or what I would have you do with your powers. My job at MoSI is to help you understand yourself as best you can and fulfill the mission statement of this organization as best I can. I do my best not to deviate from my purpose here, but if asked, point-blank, what I would do differently, then I think it behooves me not to lie.”
Clark stopped and thought about that for a moment more, turning it over. Lex Luthor would, apparently in all sincerity, lock people up for good. The first image that appeared in Clark’s mind was of Lex Luthor, clad in spandex, descending down into the Capitol Building, lasering in an arc, killing congressmen by the dozen. That wasn’t how Lex Luthor would do it, but it was the first thing that Clark imagined, an abject evil done in service of the greater good.
The worrying thing, the thing that stabbed at Clark’s heart, was that it might not actually be wrong. Patriot missiles were being fired at $3,000,000 each, and Clark could stop all that overnight. A million dollars could save a thousand lives, and if it cost a life —
But it was horrible to think about. It went against Clark’s commitment to truth, justice, and the American way. At the same time, the same line he’d been pursuing since the time he was twelve years old, doing the most good, seemed to demand it. There would be costs to de-stabilizing the world like that, to murdering people, but the quants could run the numbers. They could give their own conclusions about what those costs would look like, and what the benefits would be. Without even having them do the math, Clark knew in his heart what the answer would be. There had been whispers going around for some time now, and a whisper could be as loud in his ear as a lion’s roar. The conclusion had always been there, lurking.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Clark.
“I know,” said Lex. He paused for a moment, idly clicking his pen, brow furrowed. “I’m making an executive decision. You’re taking the next two hours off. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”