Skepticism

Battlestar Galactica: The Species or Human Rights

I’ve been watching Battlestar Galactica for the past few months (warning: some spoilers ahead), and generally deeply enjoying the show, particularly President Roslin. Until a few episodes ago when President Roslin decided to ban abortion on the fleet because they needed more babies for the continuation of the human species. People kept dying, and they needed a new generation to replace those who were dead. Thus, in order to save the human race, babies were necessary and abortions were bad.

You can probably guess that I was not impressed with this train of logic. At the crux of the issue is whether or not the continuation of the human species is a positive thing in and of itself. Is it a good thing for human beings to exist? If so, are there additional elements to those lives that make them valuable or is it valuable simply to be alive? Is it possible for negative elements of a life to outweigh the simple value of being alive?

Let’s start with why life itself might be a good thing. Some people would suggest that any life, not simply human life, is always good. We should never kill because life is the most basic thing any creature has. Life is the basis for all other goods. Unfortunately, that doesn’t imply that life by itself is good, but rather that it’s an instrumental good for other things. Another possibility is that humans in particular are uniquely capable of consciousness and awareness in a way that is positive in the universe. Humans are the only species we know of that recognizes and revels in the beauty of the universe, that builds off of the beauty we see in the universe. As Einstein said, “Humans are the universe becoming aware of itself.” There is certainly something poetic about that sentiment, but is it actually a value to be aware? Does consciousness add something to the universe?

It seems entirely possible that if consciousness were inherently a good thing, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be human. There are other creatures out there that are self aware, and it’s entirely possible that there are beings we don’t know of that appreciate the beauty of the world in a way even deeper than we do. Consciousness wouldn’t have to be human in order to be a good thing. But it also doesn’t necessarily make sense that witnessing the world is always good. We often witness horrible things. Wouldn’t we require a world of beauty in order for human appreciation and witness to be of value? Human appreciation of the universe certainly seems to be dependent on the quality of the human lives.

Another possibility is that humans are unique in their ability to be moral, and that the goodness of humanity is a positive in the universe. It’s probably true that human beings doing good things adds some value to the universe, but when we start taking away basic rights from each other it would appear that we’ve pretty well undermined that value. A final possibility is that humans are better than other races because we’re human. The only real arguments I’ve seen for this are religious in nature, and thus don’t hold much water.

But in addition to the lack of reasons that life itself has value, there are some good reasons that life requires some basic rights in order to have value. If we start removing rights and the ability for people to freely seek out the good life, simply being alive (surviving) without thriving is a painful experience. It’s easy to imagine situations in which death would be preferable, and in which some people do in fact attempt or succeed at suicide in order to escape the situation. Certain illnesses, torture, or oppression might fall into this category. Obviously there are some people who would prefer to be alive no matter what, but these situations suggest that for many people, life in and of itself isn’t the most important thing. It suggests that there are circumstances in which living is negative.

This seems to be where we get the idea of basic human rights: these are the things that make life worth living. There is some debate over what would constitute a basic human right, but when we start stripping people of what we believe are rights for the sake of keeping our species alive, we are not only ignoring the fact that the universe can and perhaps should continue on without us quite successfully, but we are also degrading what our species could be simply for the sake of remaining around. On a smaller level, this is on par with a race compromising their ideals and beliefs in order to continue as a race…and while I don’t think banning abortion makes you Hitler, doing it for the sake of continuing the species certainly puts you on a spectrum that’s on par with all the other people who make bad choices in order to maintain an in group.

So what are the things that we shouldn’t compromise simply to keep ourselves safer and our race stronger? These are obviously contentious, but I’d posit a few basics like bodily autonomy, freedom of speech, freedom to organize, freedom of religion…some people might add freedom to own arms, or freedom to own property. It’s a much larger conversation to decide what constitutes the basic qualities of a livable human life, one that is not filled with pain and misery, but regardless of what we see as the basic rights, we should be willing to protect those over our species life in order to keep our species the best possible version of humanity we can. The species is not a living thing that deserves our respect and care. It is simply an organization of other lives, and those individual lives should always be prioritized.

Of course there’s a balance: there are situations where we might have to make some sacrifices in order to save more people. The trolley problem isn’t an insane question. But in this case, Roslin took away a right without a clear positive consequence. The babies not aborted won’t necessarily save the human race, and saving the human race is not necessarily the best thing ever. When we compromise things, we should have a clear image of the good that’s coming out of that compromise rather than a general idea that more people is better.

Olivia

Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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6 Comments

  1. First! that’s a first for me.

    There is a difference in perspectives that may apply when you believe in the existence of gods or not.

    It’s easy enough for an unbeliever, schooled with some science, to see that there is no thing as “inherent good”. Value is something only a consciousness can apply, and only has value as “good” (or bad) to that consciousness.

    So yeah, compromising rights for things that have no inherent “good” makes little sense.

    But a religious person on the other hand, will see themselves as the most valuable and good thing in existence since they were personally created by a omnipotent benevolent God whose mind we cannot comprehend, yada yada, and thus “good” is absolute….and that where the trouble starts.

    Such a person who gets it into their head that they know all about what is absolute good, and who feel like they need control, when others disagree, they’ll oppress and kill for it….because “they know” the “truth”.

    I think Roslin, if she was wiser, might have made a announcement that even though abortion was still legal, anyone considering abortion might think of the future, and at the very least consider giving it up for adoption to the designated official civil care group. I’m sure 99% of the population would have thought that reasonable and not aborted, and there would be no need to oppressive laws that threaten imprisonment, etc.

    One aspect of our culture maybe that to be in control it is thought that MUST involve ordering and commanding people to submit, instead of setting a reasonable example that others willingly follow.

  2. Well, this is much more interesting than BSG ever became for me (I gave it about two seasons before giving up on it). Your argument about the moral weight of the existence or nonexistence of humans is really interesting. I don’t really agree with it, and I wish I had the time to explain why, since I think I’d learn a lot from the conversation (but unfortunately I am in the middle of both writing a dissertation AND moving, which are basically two of the stupidest things to try to combine). But the conclusion I get from your argument, that whatever moral weight we might assign to the perpetuation of the human species cannot outweigh the value of bodily autonomy for individual humans, I think is spot on. Indeed, I think autonomy is among the traits that makes human existence special and worthy of moral consideration.

    The species is not a living thing that deserves our respect and care. It is simply an organization of other lives, and those individual lives should always be prioritized.

    This is a really interesting idea. What do you think about the analogous idea where this is scaled down from the whole species to a culture? I think many people have a moral intuition that there is something intrinsically bad about the extinction of a culture, above and beyond the deaths of the individuals who belong to it — hence the notion of genocide as a distinct crime from mass murder. Do you think your same reasoning applies in this case, or is there something different between the two? If the same reasoning applies, what do you think the source of the erroneous moral intuition is? (Sorry if this reads like a “gotcha” question, I don’t intend it as one — I’m genuinely curious what you think.)

  3. My immediate emotional response is that perpetuating the existence of a culture by demanding hardships of the individuals in that culture isn’t the obvious no-no you make it out to be. And of course now I’m trying to rationalize this stance, which is uncomfortably hard.

    One thing I’m wondering though, unless we put an inherent value on adding lives and the perpetuation of the species, how do we justify creating new life? When you decide to have a child, you “doom” a child to existence, and existence you don’t know if will be appreciated by the child and which will certainly include at least some pain and suffering.

    Based on way too little contemplation I think continuing the species and my culture is the best of not very good arguments. I don’t necessarily think it’s good enough to counter the bodily autonomy argument in the case at hand, but I think by discounting it completely we also end up calling procreation immoral.

  4. I always figured that this attitude was Roslin’s flaw.
    I mean, *everybody* in that series was absolutely, seriously flawed in some capacity (except maybe Lee Adama, who was meant as a kind of benchmark of sanity to compare everyone else to).
    This was Roslin’s flaw: her obsession with the number on the white board leading her to ruling other women’s bodies in order to create more mouths to feed. The reasonable course of action was:
    a) establish a stable food source
    b) take the entire cost of child-rearing onto the gov’t (where necessary, at least make the offer to anyone on the edge of decision)
    c) encourage child birth
    Assuming, of course, you could show their population was below some “optimum level” and I don’t know how you’d do that.

  5. While this read to me more as Roslin’s own political calculus, both to avoid a direct political confrontation, and to address her personal obsession with the dwindling population, I think the moral question is more interesting in the context of the wider BSG universe — because there are gods, or at least the cylon “god” as present actors in this universe.

    Would relegating personal rights to the will of super-natural, or at least super-technological powers that were indistinguishable from gods be obviously wrong as it is in a universe such as ours where there are no such active gods?

    I’m inclined to argue that it is still wrong to subjugate people in this way, but it’s hard to make moral arguments that apply to a fictitious universe that is significantly different from our own, precisely because morality is an analysis of the emergent properties of whichever universe the events are in.

  6. As we all know our resources are very limited. We’re gonna need people, people that can’t work and prevent other people from working as well. Some of you have volunteered to bring these children into the world – No, thank you.

    Volunteers have sacrificed so much; it’s time to delegate a task to the unwilling. Rape victims, people that don’t understand how to use space contraception, and parents whose children will certainly die before reaching adulthood all need to pitch in and try to bring people into this world, even if their doctors insist that mother and baby will die in that attempt.

    (I was not impressed by that moment in the series.)

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