Steve Bein continues his fascinating series on the intersection of philosophy and SFF. Last month’s first installment ponders when your car should kill you.
Do you really think genocide is always wrong?
For the second installment of this series we’re going to take on a biggie: genocide.
Let me put all of my cards on the table right from the get-go. I think it was morally despicable every single time in history that one group of people ever tried to eradicate another group of people for no reason other than the fact that the second group exists. I think it was wrong to attempt it, wrong to carry it out, wrong to cover it up, and wrong to deny it ever happened. I am so totally judgmental about this.
But one of the really cool things about science fiction and fantasy is that they can challenge our moral assumptions in some really interesting ways. Some of those assumptions might be hiding in your current beliefs about genocide, so let’s see what we dig up.
Unless you have some uncommon moral beliefs, you’re willing to take an antibiotic to get rid of your strep throat. It’s worth nothing, though, that antibiotics are essentially biological weapons. Their purpose is to eradicate some unwelcome species infecting your body. A microscopic case of genocide, then.
Or maybe not. After all, it’s not as if your taking antibiotics kills all the streptococcus in the world. It only gets rid of your strep throat. Not at all like genocide, then. Closer to kicking a bunch of ne’er-do-wells out of your apartment.
Fair enough, but most people would happily embrace the complete eradication of HIV in all its forms. Not just one species of the virus, and not just in one person: all of it, every strain, everywhere. That’s genocide for sure.
To this maybe you want to say okay, fine, so maybe what I’m opposed to isn’t genocide but ethnocide. That is, what you find morally objectionable isn’t the elimination of a genotype, but rather of a people—that is, a group of creatures with language, culture, history, the capacity to remember and celebrate their history, all that good stuff. HIV and streptococcus don’t count because they’re not people.
Incidentally, it’s not enough to say that those species don’t count as people because they don’t have human DNA. Science fiction and fantasy throw that assumption for a loop, because Chewbacca and Gimli look a lot like people. They have language, culture, history, personality, conscience, you name it. Confronted with the Chewbacca example, pretty much everyone in my ethics classes concedes that “nonhuman people” is a legitimate category, one that contains wookiees, dwarves, and maybe even some terrestrial species too. (Chimpanzees are people-like enough that US courts granted them limited human rights protections, and dolphins and whales are sufficiently people-ish that there’s a growing cetacean rights movement.)
Now suppose there’s a virus capable of language—or proto-language, anyway, maybe to a similar degree that whales have. We can observe the transfer of information in a way that’s not reducible to infection or reproduction. This isn’t just a communicable disease; it’s a disease that communicates.
Let’s also say that this virus can live in human beings, and when it does it makes them sick—let’s say like having a cold. You feel lousy, but usually not so terrible that you miss work. Symptoms are treatable with over-the-counter meds. This can get expensive, depending on your household finances, but it’s not a huge burden on the average middle-class family. For people who can’t afford the cough syrup or whatever, the symptoms are only annoying, not life-threatening.
This particular virus isn’t airborne like a cold, so you don’t have to worry too much about infecting the people around you. But it doesn’t go away of its own accord, so the only way to rid yourself of these yucky symptoms is to take an antibiotic.
So here’s the question: how many days in a row are you willing to be headachy to keep this tiny, annoying, somewhat intelligent species alive in your body?
Does it matter that the virus that’s in you is one of a kind? Viruses reproduce very quickly, and since this one is talkative, it only takes a few generations—a matter of days—before the viruses in my body and the ones in yours don’t really speak the same language anymore. They’re now genetically and linguistically unique.
Would it matter if researchers predicted an end to your symptoms? Does it matter if the end is a long way off? Let’s say a year from now, either A) virologists will have figured out how to talk this disease into not making people feel lousy, or B) they’ll have created some suitable habitat for it to live in so it doesn’t have to live in a human host, or C) if we still haven’t accomplished A or B, you can just give in and take an antibiotic.
Let’s posit a few more things, which we’ll take as given:
1. Having a cold really does suck.
2. It doesn’t suck nearly as much as genocide. Not a millionth of a millionth of a percent as much.
3. Some people would say taking the antibiotic—eradicating a genetically and linguistically unique population—counts as genocide at best, ethnocide at worst.
4. Some people would acknowledge 3 and still take the antibiotic without a second thought.
There’s a fifth claim we can’t take as given, because it’s subject to some debate:
5. It’s morally wrong to take the antibiotic.
So what do you think about 5? Do you buy it or not? Head over to Novelocity’s Facebook page and make your opinion known!