Viewing Literature as a Lab for Community Ethics
Maren Tova Linett on the Way We Value Human and Nonhuman Lives
We are all bioethicists now. The COVID-19 pandemic has led many of us to debate how much individuals are responsible for communal well-being; what behaviors the government ought to mandate to protect public health; how scarce resources such as ventilators should be distributed; and most of all, how to value different kinds of lives.
Bioethics is the study of these kinds of questions: questions about the value and conditions for flourishing of different kinds of human and nonhuman lives, and questions about what those in power ought to be permitted to do with those lives. When Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick suggested that older Americans would not want to sacrifice the economy in order to be protected from the coronavirus, he was making a bioethical claim, one that prompted a swift backlash from people with different views not only of medical science, but also of human value.
When researchers debate the causes and remedies of the disproportionate death rate from COVID among African Americans, they are asking urgent bioethical questions. When the Center for Public Integrity surveyed 30 state policies about health care rationing during the pandemic, they found that 25 state policies permitted discrimination against disabled people. Their reporting pushes back against the devaluation of disabled people that holds sway in much of mainstream bioethics and mainstream society.
As I demonstrate in Literary Bioethics, literature has a key role to play in such debates. Tony Hope writes that ethical inquiry requires “not only intellectual rigor but also imagination. Ethics uses many tools of reasoning, but it is not just a question of learning how to use the tools: there is always the possibility of a leap of the imagination.”
Novels encourage such imaginative leaps. Fiction has the virtue of presenting vividly imagined worlds in which certain values hold sway, casting new light onto those values. And the more plausible we find these imagined worlds, the more thoroughly we can evaluate the justice of those values.Our society has to demonstrate—in behavior, policy, and law—a commitment to sustaining all human lives, without demoting the value of some lives on the basis of disability, or race, or age.
Take, for example, Flannery O’Connor’s 1960 novel, The Violent Bear It Away. In this novel a young, intellectually disabled boy, Bishop, is murdered by his 14-year-old cousin who is trying in vain to resist a calling to be a prophet. As he drowns Bishop he also “accidentally” baptizes him. Throughout the novel, characters debate Bishop’s moral worth, with one character suggesting that it would be better if he were killed as an infant, and another suggesting that all human souls are of equal value in the eyes of God.
The characters’ statements reproduce debates among contemporary bioethicists and philosophers who question the value of disabled lives. Some advocate selective abortion or even selective infanticide in order to prevent lives like Bishop’s. Others show that disability does not determine the quality of a life. Indeed, as the late disabled lawyer and activist Harriet McBryde Johnson wrote, disabled people “enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs.”
In line with her fervent Catholicism, O’Connor claims to value every human being as “precious in the eyes of God.” But reading her novel closely exposes the ways it leads readers not to value Bishop—to accept instead his cousin’s belief that his death is “no great loss.” And it is crucial for everyone, especially now, to see the emptiness of some claims of universal human value so that we can work against the idea that a disability, for example, is a co-morbidity that makes someone’s life less worth saving, or that the color of someone’s skin means their death is less tragic than another’s.
I do not mean that all religious claims of equal human value are empty—far from it. But it is not enough to do lip-service to these claims. Our society has to demonstrate—in behavior, policy, and law—a commitment to sustaining all human lives, without demoting the value of some lives on the basis of disability, or race, or age.
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, in fact, offers a fictional thought-experiment about the value of old age. Influential bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel has proposed that it would be a good thing for everyone to die at around age 75, when it is no longer likely that they will contribute anything substantial to society, and before they become ill or disabled.
In Brave New World, we see roughly this situation: people are continually rejuvenated, and then die at around age 60, never becoming elderly, frail, ill, or disabled. Such a literary thought experiment allows us to tease out the implications of Emanuel’s view, a view that, through the search for “compressed morbidity,” has come to dominate the “healthy aging” movement. And the thought experiment sheds light, too, on the devaluation of old age operating now in claims that it’s “only” older people who are dying from COVID-19.
In Brave New World, the persistent youth embraced by the society robs life of its narrative arc and therefore of an important aspect of its meaning. Of course, the sacrifice of what philosophers call “life narratives” might be considered worthwhile to avoid the period of life when one feels oneself to be in decline. But the novel suggests that it is not worthwhile.
One way it does so is by depicting the characters’ mistreatment of Linda, the only person in the society who ages naturally. In showing how little the society cares about Linda’s life, the text demonstrates the loss of compassion that can result from knowing one will never experience physical vulnerability or decline.
When the doctor refuses to ration the drug Linda is abusing—even though it will lead to her death within a month or two—because she doesn’t have “any serious work to do” anyway, his attitude accords with Emanuel’s suggestion that death should quickly follow productivity.
While critics view the novel as dystopian because it portrays a totalitarian society where art, truth, and meaning are sacrificed to pleasure and distraction, the novel also makes clear that the excision of old age has significant political, moral, and emotional costs. A society without the ability to age, to experience the entire arc of one’s life, to have the chance to look back over one’s life and understand it as a story with its own denouement, is dystopian too.
Literary Bioethics views novels as literary-philosophical laboratories where experiments with bioethical questions simmer. In addition to O’Connor’s and Huxley’s novels, it analyzes H. G. Wells’s meditation on animal experimentation in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and the parallels with humane farming offered by the scenario in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005).
Reading novels like these with attention to the bioethical principles being advocated by the characters and/or endorsed by the texts themselves is important because it helps us grapple with and clarify our own bioethical views. It sharpens our awareness of ethical principles being used all around us.
It enables us to read between the lines of statements by doctors, politicians, and state and federal governments so that we can hold them accountable for valuing all people equally when it comes to health care and other resources needed for a flourishing life.
Maren Tova Linett’s Literary Bioethics is available from NYU Press.