Lost S5E11, “Whatever Happened, Happened,” begins with the aftermath of the previous episode (“He’s Our You”), which saw Sayid shooting a young Benjamin Linus. The logic for doing so is fairly clear. Sayid has found himself back in 1977, but knows of the terrible things that Ben will do later. He himself has gone around murdering people at the man’s behest, but as viewers of Lost, we know even more bad things that Ben has done as an adult than Sayid does. (The moment that sticks out for me is when he tells Juliet that she is his after basically bringing about Goodwin’s death.)
So, if you could prevent these bad things from happening by killing Ben before he did them, would this be the right thing to do?
It would seem to be from the perspective of utilitarianism, which was popularized by Jeremy Bentham and then John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. In short, the theory states that we ought to do what will produce the greatest overall happiness. Focus on consequences—consequences for everyone, considered from an impartial point of view—and the right thing to do is what makes the world as good of a place as possible.
So, although the young Ben hasn’t done all of the bad things we have seen the adult Ben do yet, if we know that he is going to do them, and killing him before he has the chance to will prevent these events, then what Sayid did might seem like the right thing to do.
In a similar fashion, people have argued about whether it would be ethical—were one to have a time machine—to kill baby Hitler. But “Whatever Happened, Happened” actually provides a better frame for the ethical stakes of the question than that hypothetical. As many have pointed out, for example, there would seem to be other practical alternatives to killing the infant Adolf. Perhaps one could make sure he got into art school? But these are not present in the same way when it comes to Ben in Lost. Leaving The Island is not a real possibility, and so long as he is there, he seems to be on the trajectory to become the Ben we know and love/hate 30 years down the line.
Equally, those who have considered this question about killing baby Hitler have wondered about our ability to know that doing so would actually alter the course of history to the good. This is a pressing worry. It’s possible, for example, that someone else might have risen to power instead, and maybe they would have been even more effective. It’s not as though Hitler was the sole source of National Socialism, and he certainly wasn’t when it comes to anti-semitism and the like. Maybe even some not-Hitler might have been smarter and won WWII?
But again Lost helps clarify things with its smaller scale. Would someone have done a version of what Ben did but worse if Ben had died as child? I don’t think so. Maybe what the Others would have done without him would have been worse, I suppose. Anything’s possible. But within the narrative of Lost, Ben Linus does seem to be a pivotal figure, and it’s hard to see how the consequences of his death as a child wouldn’t be good besides a vague worry about messing with history.
So, “Whatever Happened, Happened” suggests that one cannot do that. This is the source of its title, which is mostly explored through a series of conversations between Hurley and Miles. Hugo is worried about disappearing from existence Back to the Future style, but Miles’s insistence is that they can’t change things. If Ben didn’t die, then Ben didn’t die. They can die, because this is their present, but Ben can’t, because this is his past.
This makes sense, and is in line with what may be the most coherent theory of time travel. On this model, trying to change the past will only result in making the thing happen that you were trying to prevent. So let’s say you tried to kill baby Hitler. You’d be bound to fail and this attempt would somehow be what led to the Holocaust. Or you’d seem to succeed but then it would turn out that the historical Hitler was someone else who took the name or something like that. Whatever happened, happened, and you can’t do anything about it.
There are other models, of course, like Back to the Future, which Hurley mentions. There, Marty’s actions threaten to erase his own existence, as he keeps his parents from meeting properly. But as we carry forward in that franchise, it becomes clear that the only way to make things work with any consistency is to posit multiple realities.
So which is it in Lost?
“Whatever Happened, Happened” clearly takes the deterministic model of time travel, as is implied in its title. At the end of the day, Kate and Sawyer have taken young Ben to Richard, who says he can save him but also throws in that Ben won’t remember anything (answering Hugo’s question from earlier about why the adult Ben didn’t remember that the guy torturing him shot him when he was a kid). So it would seem that this is what always happened. Sayid trying to kill Ben led to Ben being in with the Others the way that he has as time progressed, and so on.
But this raises a question about Lost’s narrative more broadly. At the end of Season 5, our friends try to blow up a hydrogen bomb to destroy the electromagnetism that brought their plane down in the Pilot. On the one hand, it seems like this plan did not work, as they end up back in the time they came from and are still on The Island. On the other hand, though, we have Miles telling Sawyer that Juliet wanted to tell him “it worked” before she died, and the whole existence of the flash-sideways world in Season 6.
One way to interpret what we see there is to think that the bomb did work. After all, Oceanic 815 lands in LAX as planned, and we see the statue at the bottom of the ocean. On the other hand, there is the fact that the lives of our friends are meaningfully different in this reality. Jack has a son. Sawyer is a cop. And so on. This undermines anything so simple as the bomb straightforwardly working, as does, of course, the fact that we return to our friends on The Island in present day reality.
So did they change anything, or not? Did those events with the bomb always happen, however they happened? Because you could interpret Juliet in other ways here. If she wanted to tell Sawyer that it worked, well, there is still the question of what “working” means and a lot of interpretive grey area we could muddle through. But if whatever happened, happened, does any of this really matter?
It’s a question that goes for the future as well. The idea that the past is unalterable doesn’t necessarily imply that the future is set as well, but it comes close. Let’s take the scenario where Miles asks Hugo to shoot him. He insists that he could do so, and that he could die, because this is their present, even though it is Ben’s past. But, the actions of Hurley in 1977 will clearly have an impact on those around him. So if he did kill Miles, there would be effects of this action to the others in the Dharma Initiative. It doesn’t really matter what they would be, precisely. All that is important is the thought of this action feeding into the lives of others, however indirectly. Which does imply that if Hugo shot Miles, he would have always shot Miles, and vice versa.
One could insist on freedom nonetheless, but things get strained pretty quickly. If Kate always took Ben to the Others, for example, does it still make sense to say she did so of her own free will?
Gottfried Leibniz tried to square this circle several hundred years ago. He imagined God considering all of the logically possible worlds and then deciding which one to create. Of course God would choose the best one—which implies that this one is the best one. Is there a possible world where Adam didn’t sin? Sure, but it’s not this one, so it’s not the best one. What makes this one the best? Freedom! (And some other stuff.)
But is Adam still free if God created the world where he would sin because it was the best of all possible worlds? Leibniz tries to argue that Adam still did it freely even though God knew that he would do it, but I’m sure you see the tension here. And the same holds with Lost. If whatever happened, happened, doesn’t this imply that whatever will happen will happen no matter what our protagonists do?
Ultimately, Lost wants to avoid that conclusion and say that everything they decide to do matters. Maybe that works. After all, there is no reason to think that what Miles says in “Whatever Happened, Happened” is the gospel truth, even if things seem to go that way in this episode.
So let’s presume that they’re free. Back to the question: should you kill baby Hitler? So much of the debate, whether in real life or in Lost, has a way of getting caught in whether one could do such a thing. Maybe the time travel logic would make it impossible. Or maybe whatever happened, happened, and there is no way to change it.
But let’s put that aside and suppose that it could be done. And let’s further stipulate that we could know that the consequences would be good. I think Lost comes closer to that knowledge when it comes to Ben than history does when it comes to Hitler.
So let’s stipulate all of that. The consequences of Ben’s death would be good. Would it be right to kill him, or let him die?
“Whatever Happened, Happened” largely plays on something visceral and emotional when it comes to this question. Juliet apparently told James that it would be wrong to let a kid die no matter what he would become, for example. And we see it with Kate, who doesn’t even really get reflective about the whole thing.
Are they right? And if so, on what grounds? Because a psychological hesitation is not really a moral reason.
The grounds for killing young Ben, or baby Hitler, are clear—it is to prevent bad things from happening. To counter on the other side by questioning whether this could work, or if maybe someone else would do the bad things, is to remain within a utilitarian kind of logic. It is to ask, in short, whether the consequences would really be good. Of course there is the question of whether we can really know that things will go the way that they have. Baby Hitler hasn’t done those things as yet, after all. Do we really know that he will if we don’t kill him? Here’s that whole thing about freedom again. Even if we stipulate that the consequences of killing the young Ben would be good, there’s the fact that he hasn’t done the bad things yet. How comfortable do we feel about punishing someone for something he has not yet done?
If you believe in a deterministic universe, where Ben could not help doing the things that he did, then I think you also have to believe that Sayid could not have done otherwise than to try to kill him, and fail.
On the other hand, if there is real freedom, metaphysically, then Sayid’s attempt had to have a chance. Otherwise whatever happened, happened, and whatever will, will. But if we suppose there was such a chance, did Sayid do the right thing?
This is a child who hasn’t done anything yet. He’s not Ben yet. The whole idea that he will be, with certainty, flies in the face of that thought about freedom. Maybe that’s right, and whatever happened, happened. Maybe there is no freedom. But we are supposing two things: that the consequences of Ben’s death would be good; that there is freedom (and that Ben really could die here). In other words, Ben is free to choose to be a better person, even though we know he won’t make that choice. Our visceral emotions might kick in and tell us that it would be wrong to let the young Ben die, but that’s not all we are left with.
Immanuel Kant posited that each of us has intrinsic worth; that is, that our value doesn’t depend upon anything external, including the consequences of our actions. It’s a powerful thought, that we—unlike inanimate objects—don’t depend on any external goal to give us value. Each of us is an end-in-itself. And if that’s right, well, nothing can take that away. The criminal, or the lowlife, might deserve to be punished, but it would be wrong to think his life is without value.
There is something about freedom here, again, though. Kant clearly thought we were always free to correct ourselves. Or that we have to believe that we are, at least.
This gets at a way in which it would have been wrong to kill Ben, or let him die. It would have been to improperly value his intrinsic worth, and his autonomy. To think that it would be justified would be to fall prey to the same kind of deterministic notion that suggests it would be impossible, albeit from the other way around, because you have to suppose that the young Ben has no choice about who he will grow up to be.
But this is the question that “Whatever Happened, Happened” poses: is the future set or no? Can Ben decide what to do with his life, or not? And, from the perspective of “The End,” if he did do all of those bad things, is he redeemed at the end of the day?