The Platform: Food as Weapon

The Platform/Netflix

The Spanish film, The Platform (2019, directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia) is a political allegory, which is to say, it is a philosophical thought experiment dramatized. Philosophy has long adopted the thought experiment as a means of getting to an essential idea by stripping away the superfluous. It is not meant to be taken literally. The famed trolley problem thought experiment in which the participant is asked if they would be willing to sacrifice one in order to save five is not designed in order to highlight the mechanics of trolleys and the likelihood of faulty brakes, rather it is designed to reveal the essentially moral nature of the choice in front of you. So, to say The Platform is a philosophical thought experiment is to claim that the film seeks to reveal the moral essence of a particular dilemma.

What is the moral dilemma at the heart of The Platform? It is an examination regarding allocation and consumption of life-sustaining resources. The setting of the film is a, “Vertical Self-Management Center.” This Center consists of a vast tower, narrow and stretching upward toward the sky. The characters inhabit a single room with a rectangular hole in the middle of the room. The hole opens up to the rooms above and below, creating a hollow space in the middle of the building that stretches simultaneously upward and downward through all the floors of the building. Imagine a cylinder. Now imagine this cylinder standing vertically upright on its end, like a roll of paper towels with its hollow cardboard tube running through the center. Our cylinder, however, is concrete and square and is sectioned off into at least 333 distinct vertical cross-sections creating different levels. Since the square paper towel roll is upright, some of the cross sections are at the top of the roll and some are at the bottom. It’s like a tower with an elevator running through the center, but in our case, instead of an elevator there is a rectangular stone block table moving up and down through the tower. On each floor, reside two human beings living in a space the size of a single medium room, with a bed on either side. The tower is a prison of sorts and many inhabitants are there as the result of some crime committed, though we also find that several of The Center residents have volunteered and expect to receive something in return. Our main character, Goreng, for instance, has volunteered to live in the facility for 6 months and will receive a college diploma for time served. The inhabitants must stay on their assigned floor, for 30 days, after which they are shuffled like a deck of cards and assigned a new level where they reside for the next 30 days, after which the process is repeated again and again.

At the very top of this concrete tower resides a grand and exquisite kitchen making the most delectable dishes imaginable. Each inhabitant of the tower chooses their own favorite dish, which the kitchen prepares on a daily basis. Here is the catch: all the dishes are placed simultaneously on a single platform, a large stone block of a dining table. The table/platform begins its journey at the top of the tower and is slowly lowered from top to bottom and the inhabitants of each level are allowed to eat and drink as much as they wish for several minutes before the platform is lowered to the level below. The result, of course, is that the lucky few toward the top are afforded a veritable feast, whereas those at the bottom go without, since at some point, well before reaching the bottom, all the food is consumed. Since this is an ethical thought experiment, the question is, if you are near the top of the tower, how much will you eat? Of course, the real question from a philosophical standpoint is, how much should you eat? Do you have obligations toward your fellow-tower dwellers who reside on lower levels or is your obligation simply toward your own self-sustenance?

We quickly learn that the universe of The Platform is a dark, Hobbesian, jungle. The inhabitants of the tower are in it for themselves and the higher level residents shamelessly shove as much food into their mouths as they can before the platform moves on. Those who are at the lower levels mainly starve and if they do manage to survive, it emboldens their resolve to make up for lost meals at the first possible opportunity. Further, many residents of The Center resort to cannibalism in order to survive. If a resident should survive the deprivations of the lower levels, their experience does not make them empathetic; rather it makes them greedier than ever. Our lead character, Goreng, is initially horrified by the unabashed determination of his cellmate to shove as much food into his mouth as he can. Imagine watching a Coney Island hot-dog eating contest every time food is present. Goreng, however, has an idea. Since he knows there is a plate of food representing every inhabitant of the tower, he reasons that if everyone would simply eat their own share, there would be enough food for all the levels. Goreng’s impulse to act in such a way so as to minimize the suffering and maximize the survival of as many people as possible is called “utilitarianism.” Utilitarianism suggests that the pleasure and pain of all individuals should count equally. I should not count my own suffering, or the suffering of those close to me, as of greater import than the person who lives ten floors down, or down the street, or in the next town over, or even the next state or country. Utilitarianism attempts to democratize emotional and physical well-being so that we see ourselves in equitable relation with others.

The most well-known modern exponent of utilitarianism is Peter Singer. Singer offers the following well known thought experiment: imagine that you have just purchased a lovely pair of new shoes. You’ve been saving for a bit to purchase them, and finally decide to go ahead and splurge for these long-coveted shoes. You are thrilled to wear them to work the next day and looking forward to showing off your new purchase. As you are walking to work in your new shoes, you see a small child has just fallen into a shallow pond of muddy water. Although the water is not very deep, the child appears unable to get out of the water and is in danger of drowning. Do you jump into the pond to save the child even though it will certainly wreck your prized new shoes? Will you sacrifice your own pleasure and incur the suffering of ruined shoes in order to save the child and spare the child’s family from what is certain to be great suffering? Yes, of course you would. This hardly even seems like much of a thought experiment. What kind of monster, after all, would watch a child die in order to save a pair of shoes, no matter how beloved these shoes might be? Well, asks Peter Singer, if you are so adamant that the money lost on a pair of shoes pales in comparison to the life of a human child, why is it that you let children die every day when that shoe money would save their lives and alleviate the greatest suffering imaginable. Your shoe money could buy vaccinations for entire villages in poorer countries many times over. If you respond that one of these events is immediate, while the other is remote and merely hypothetical, does this mean you don’t really believe that children in faraway countries are dying of starvation and disease? Most of us would not, in fact, deny such things. The reality of distant suffering is certain even if we are not directly watching it transpire. In the moral sphere, why is a close choice so clear, while the further choice remains obscure? The basic moral obligation to relieve suffering when one can do so a little cost to oneself remains largely the same in both the near and the far case.

Goreng wisely decides to start local. He is able to convince one of his cellmates to save food for others, and he has faith that he might even be able to convince those he can communicate with on the level directly above and the one directly below to do the same. But the further removed the inmates are from one another, the less likely they feel the need to cooperate. The only way Goreng is able to “convince” his fellow inmates to conserve food and water for others is to impose the threat of violence. He compels his fellow inmates to comply upon threat of death. Goreng’s plan is ultimately thwarted when he discovers that there are more levels than he originally anticipated, but this is a mistake of calculation, not principle. Next time he can simply reduce everyone’s portion to ensure everyone gets fed. Inconvenient, even dangerous, yes, but do-able, nevertheless. The essential fact remains, there is one dish per inhabitant, so it is possible for everyone to be fed. Goreng is maximizing disbursement of resources and minimizing starvation and death. He follows the famous motto formulated by one of the Utilitarian’s original founders, Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) who maintains that one ought to choose whatever action promotes, “…the greatest amount of good for the greatest number.”¹

What Goreng is doing is placing himself behind what philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) calls the Veil of Ignorance.² Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance is a social contract thought experiment (I told you philosophers love thought experiments!). Rawls asks us to intentionally place ourselves in a hypothetical state of ignorance. We are to imagine that we will be placed in a society but that we have no idea what our station in that society will be. We could be rich or poor, male or female, physically healthy or differently abled, our parents might be of any nationality. Rawls asks how we would structure our society if we had no idea where we would be randomly placed. This is the situation of The Center residents. Every 30 days they will be placed at a new level and they have no idea if it will be toward the very top or bottom. Although Rawls is a social contract theorist, it is easy to interpret this thought experiment through a utilitarian lens by asking, “What sorts of rules would we want everyone to follow if we knew we were to reside indefinitely in the Platform Tower?” Would we roll the dice and allow everyone to eat as much as they can whenever they can, or would we establish rules so that those at the very bottom would also find enough food to survive? Rawls’ theory has as its moral grounding the concept of “justice,” whereas Singer appeals to “well-being and suffering.” It is possible to take the moral principle behind the Veil of Ignorance and ground it in utility instead of justice. In the tower, we do not seek justice, we seek survival. How might we regulate ourselves so that as many people as possible can live for as long as possible? So, although Rawls is a contract theorist, not a utilitarian, there is nothing in his theory that prevents us from adapting the Veil of Ignorance thought experiment to the following utilitarian imperative: act in such a way so as to maximize flourishing and limit suffering for as many as possible to the greatest extent possible.

Alas, in The Platform Goreng is not given a second chance to organize the inhabitants of The Center. His utilitarian plans die with him as he finds himself at the bottom of the tower, fatally injured. For while it might be true that man cannot live on bread alone, it is most certain she will perish without it. As John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), perhaps the greatest exponent of utilitarianism observes: human community requires equity and without it, our customs are simply “relics of barbarous” times.³

[1] Though Bentham is typically credited with this formulation, he likely drew upon an earlier work by Francis Hutcheson who used the phrase, “The greatest happiness for the greatest number, “ in his Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil(1725), sect. 3. Bentham initially quoted the “happiness” formulation, but later objected to the use of the word “happiness,” preferring “good,” instead.

[2] John Rawls’ version of the Veil of Ignorance thought experiment is originally formulated in his book, A Theory of Justice (1971) and developed further in Justice as Fairness (1985). Rawls bristled at any implication that his work seemed well-suited for utilitarian thinking, as he considered himself a social contract theorist grounded in Kantian deontology. Nevertheless, there is a fairly large body of literature examining utilitarian currents of thought within Rawls’ work on justice. Peter Singer once observed that, “The problem Rawls faced [when Rawls critiqued the utilitarian tendency to subordinate individual rights in favor of the common good] was sourced in his intuitive conviction that justice requires us to improve the condition of the poorest members of our society, whose poverty is not really their fault” (Singer, The Right to be Rich or Poor, 1975).

[3] Mill, John Stuart. 1869. The Subjection of Women, chapter 1. In this work and others Mill is an outspoken advocate of female equality. Later in this same work, he also expresses his abhorrence of slavery and sets forth ideas for immediate reparations.

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Philosophy Lecturer at Regis University, Contemplator of Pop Culture, Player of the Bass.

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Marni Pickens

Marni Pickens

Philosophy Lecturer at Regis University, Contemplator of Pop Culture, Player of the Bass.

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