Study Guide

Ship Breaker Morality and Ethics

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Morality and Ethics

"She could sell off a kidney. Maybe tap out a couple pints of blood for the Harvesters. They're always buying."

"Sure. She's got those pretty eyes," Pearly said. "Harvesters would take those in a second." (5.92-93)

One of the first times we see humanity monetized is when Sloth betrays Nailer and gets kicked off of light crew. Sloth has the option of selling parts of herself to survive; her whole person isn't valued, but pieces of her are. It's kind of a hint of what is to come.

"Maybe Sloth was an oath breaker, but she was smart enough to know you don't deserve things, you gotta take them."

"I don't buy that." Pearly shook his head. "What have you got without your promises? You're nothing. Less than nothing." (5.109-110)

It's inevitable that after Sloth's betrayal, the rest of the crew talks about why she did it, and if they would do the same. And even though they're ship rats, they understand the intricacies of morality—what's right and wrong and what makes a person moral.

He'd been so desperate to get Sloth to care.

But he hadn't been able to find the lever. Or maybe the lever hadn't been there after all. Some people couldn't see any farther than themselves. People like Sloth.
People like his dad. (9.40-42)

Nailer was searching for a lever that would cause Sloth to feel empathy for him, for her to care. Do you think that Nailer's dad and Sloth are capable of empathy? Why or why not? And what was Sloth's motivation for leaving Nailer behind?

A few days ago, he would have cut her […] but now, after his time in the oil room, all he could think of was how much he'd wanted Sloth to believe that his life was just as important as hers. (9.38, 43)

Nailer has the chance to either cut off Nita's finger or save her life. He's starting to think that perhaps each life should be weighed the same, whether it's his, Nita's, or Sloth's. It's very different from his father's view of humanity.

He'd killed things before. Chickens. That goat. But this was different. He threw up. Pima and Lucky Girl backed off, exchanging glances.

"What's his problem?" Pima asked.

Sadna shook her head. "Killing isn't free. It takes something out of you every time you do it. You get their life; they get a piece of your soul. It's always a trade." (14. 56-58)

After killing Blue Eyes to save Sadna, Nailer pukes, physically overwhelmed with what he's done. Even though Blue Eyes would have killed Nailer if he hadn't killed her, he seems to have a different reaction than she might have had. Perhaps, following Sadna's logic, this is because Blue Eyes has killed too many times and, in doing so, traded out too many pieces of her soul.

"It's human nature to tear one another apart. Be glad you come from such a successful line of killers." (14. 68)

Tool says this after Nailer kills Blue Eyes. Keep in mind that this phrase is coming from a genetically engineered creature who—arguably—isn't fully "human." Is what Tool says true? And what does this mean about the general morality of society?

"It's a lot of damn money," he said. "The only reason you think you've got morals is because you don't need money the way regular people do." (16.27)

When Nita tells him how much she is worth and the situation with her father, Nailer sort of reconsiders his choice to save her. There are ways in which morality is a luxury.

"That woman is worth ten times whatever your wealthy father is worth. […]

"The wealthy measure everything with the weight of their money." Tool leaned close. "Sadna once risked herself and the rest of her crew to help me escape from an oil fire. She did not have to return, and she did not have to help lift an iron girder that I could not lift alone. Others urged her not to. It was foolhardy. And I, after all, was only half of a man." Tool regarded Nita steadily. "Your father commands fleets. And thousands of half-men, I am sure. But would he risk himself to save a single one?" (16.47-49)

Tool provides an example of how actions, not wealth, demonstrate the worth of a human. How should a person's worth be decided? Is life inherently worthy?

"Scientists created me from the genes of dogs and tigers and men and hyenas, but people always believe I am only their dog." (19.79)

Tools words imply that those who have created him—along with others in society—think that they own him. Despite being half human, they focus on the dog part instead.

But still, it didn't feel right. His dad had been crazy and destructive and if he was honest, downright evil. But now that he was dead, Nailer couldn't help remembering other times as well. (25.4)

After Nailer kills his father to save himself and Nita, he's almost overcome with guilt. As Sadna says, killing costs; even though Richard Lopez might not have been worth much as a human, Nailer still wonders if he did the right thing in taking his life.

"Tool said I was just like my dad when I pigstuck Blue Eyes—"

"You're not—"

"Maybe I am, right? I don't feel a thing. Not a damn thing. I was glad when I did it. And now I don't feel anything at all. I'm empty. Just empty."

"And that scares you."

"You said my dad didn't feel anything when he hurt people." (25.15-19)

As Nailer grapples with the fallout after killing his father, he worries that he, like his dad, lacks empathy for others, which can affect what he views as moral. He questions whether his means (killing his father) justify the end (survival.)

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