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The Imitation Game: Ethical Quadaries

Updated on November 20, 2016

Ethics is the philosophical study of what is right and wrong and most importantly why that is the case. In the movie, The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum (2014), the main characters are faced with an ethical dilemma: now that they have broken the Nazi’s coding machine Enigma, what information can they act on and what information must they pretend they don’t know. There is a particular scene the morning after they learn how to break the code, where they find out the Nazis are about to attack one of the Royal Navy’s ships. In the movie, this moment is dramatized by making it the ship one of Peter Hilton’s, one of the members of the team, brother. Though this didn’t happen in real life, it helps portray the significance of the decision the team had to make deciding who lives and who dies. They were faced with the dilemma of whether to act on this information even if the Nazis could potentially get suspicious, whom they could trust with the information that they had cracked Enigma, and whether their job was merely to crack the code or also to ensure they could continue cracking the code every day from then on.

In the movie, the team is first forced to choose whether or not to act on information regarding an incident of heavy emotional importance Peter. This magnified the decision they needed to make regarding which information to act on to remain inconspicuous. If they have information to save lives, should they not act on that information and hence save the aforementioned lives? Or should they only act on certain pieces of information that wouldn’t let the Nazi’s know they have broken the Enigma’s code? They wisely chose the latter so they could save as many lives as possible while maintaining the lowest probability of Nazi suspicion. This decision proved to be practical because this strategy won World War II for the Allies and according to the movie’s liner notes, they saved over 14 million lives.

They also had to decide whether their job was merely to break the Enigma or to also decide what to do with the information they received. If they told their commander, Denniston, he would have suffered from the same emotional attachments Peter did when his brother was about to die. Denniston would have had significantly more friend’s lives on the line than anyone in the code-breaking team, and would have possibly been tempted to foolishly act on more information to save the lives of his soon-to-be-fallen comrades. Alan Turing and his team decided that they couldn’t trust Denniston to keep the secret and they could only trust the chief of MI6, Stewart Menzies, with the information of their new breakthrough. Though Denniston was their commanding officer, with information this important to the outcome of the war, they had to trust that they were some of the world’s greatest minds and that they had the ability to decide what information they could pass on to the rest of the military.

If the team had acted on the intelligence that Peter’s brother’s ship what about to be attacked, they could have saved hundreds of lives. However, because they would be running the risk of letting the Nazis know they had cracked Enigma, they would save exponentially more lives by not acting on the immediately available intelligence. But this decision implicitly also says that lives are quantifiable and that five lives saved isn’t as valuable as ten lives saved. This may seem like a logical point until one’s own life or the life of a loved one is on the table. Peter wasn’t able to think logically when his brother’s life was on the line. If they had acted on every piece of information they received by means of Enigma, they would have lost the advantage they had worked for months to gain. They wouldn’t be able to find the Enigma settings every day from then until the end of the war.

In the end, Alan Turing and his team played a vital role in the Allies victory in WWII. The decision they made to keep their information a secret proved to be extremely logical. If they had chosen to save Peter’s brother’s ship, they would have saved people that were merely doing their best to defend their country, but they could have lost the war for the Allies.


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