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What are your favorite examples of moral heroism/altruism in movies and books?

by CarolineJ1 min read26th Apr 202111 comments

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Effective altruism art and fictionMotivation
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I wonder if people here have examples of great movies or books that feature protagonists making big moral decisions to save many people? 

I find such examples inspiring. Those can be historic or fictional. 

This was inspired by this comment by Benjamin Todd, who was interested in:

"In-depth stories of people who had a lot of impact, and the rules of thumb they used / how they navigated key decision points, with the intention of drawing lessons from them.

E.g. Interview Holden or Bostrom about each key moment in their career, challenges & decisions they faced, and how they navigated them.

In this case, it would not be "in-depth" but rather a good movie related to what they did. There are probably a lot of superhero stories (after all, it's their job saving the world!), which is fine if the movie is really good and inspiring, and if the hero is particularly smart and altruistic. 


Examples include for non-fictional stories the Schindler's List. Fictional ones may actually involve Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or similar.

They don't have to be as dark and sad, though! I'm looking for good movies to watch with friends to get an extra boost of motivation. 

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The documentaries on Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov. Aptly, and despite being unrelated productions, both documentaries have the exact same title: The Man Who Saved the World.

Haven't watched it yet, but there's also a new documentary called "Hilleman" who was a leading American microbiologist who and developed over 40 vaccines, estimated to save 8 million lives each year. There's a biography as well.  He grew up in poverty on a farm in Montana, one of 8 children  and apparently had an "interesting" personality:  "Hilleman was a forceful man who was at the same time modest in his claims. None of his vaccines or discoveries are named after him. He ran his laboratory like a military unit, and he was the one in comma... (read more)

5Linch5dI watched the documentary today with roommates on your recommendation and enjoyed it!

Spoilers for Unsong:

Jalaketu identifies the worst thing in the world - hell - and sacrifices everything, including his own virtue and impartiality, to destroy it. It is the strongest depiction of the second-order consistency, second-order glory of consequentialism I know. (But also a terrible tradeoff.)

I think quite a few titles from this ranked list of all EA-relevant documentaries, movies, and TV series I've watched might be interesting to you! :)

I am imagining movies with heroes where it wasn't their job (so not the soldier in 1917 / most war movies) or they weren't in some sense "chosen" (most superhero / fantasy movies). 

Seven samurai: where some samurai reluctantly attempt to protect a village. 

Princess mononoke: I just think this is a good hero story. 

Hacksaw Ridge (I didn't really want to include any war movies, but I think this merits inclusion because it's  about a conscientious objector. Very violent.)

Haven't seen Hotel Rwanda but it may merit inclusion. 

Spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender:

  • Zuko's decision to join Team Avatar and warn them about Fire Lord Ozai's plan to destroy the Earth Kingdom may have saved millions of Earth Kingdom citizens.
  • Aang figuring out how to defeat the Fire Lord:
    • When Aang ran off during Parts 1-2 of "Sozin's Comet," he consulted the previous 4 Avatars about the moral dilemma he was facing: how to defeat Ozai without killing him. As a fellow Air Nomad, Avatar Yangchen shared Aang's belief in the sanctity of life, but persuaded him that as the Avatar, he needed to put the world first. So initially, Aang concluded that he had no choice but to kill the Fire Lord.
    • Later, Aang was about to kill Ozai but decided against it because he had a better alternative. A lion turtle had given him the power of energybending, which he used to defeat Ozai by taking away his firebending ability instead of his life.
    • At both points, Aang made the correct utilitarian decision given his abilities and knowledge at the time.

Two examples come to mind:

  • La vita è bella, a movie wherein the occupants of a concentration camp collaborate to help a child. It's not a movie about saving many people... but I'd say it involves altruism and self-sacrifice.
  • Speaker for the dead (Ender's game series part 2), wherein the protagonists encounter two alien species and figure out a way to live together. This one does qualify as saving many  "people", but it's less purely altruistic. Bonus: There is a cool AI in a key role ;-)

I think Asimov’s Foundation is a great example of this! It features the establishment of a space colony with the goal of drastically reducing the length of an age of galactic barbarism, and ways that select inhabitants very cleverly manage to help this colony survive against various threats.

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