Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Morality of Intelligent Predators

Recently I’ve been involved in an extended correspondence on moral issues in THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY, by Suzy McKee Charnas. Weyland, the vampire in this novel, is a naturally evolved, nonhuman creature rather than a supernatural revenant. He has never been human, although he looks like a man. Thousands of years old, he’s the only one of his kind. If other members of his species ever existed, he doesn’t remember them. In the central section of the five-part novel, he has to go through therapy as a condition of maintaining the career essential to his present identity, which he doesn’t want to abandon yet. His psychologist, Floria, learns his true nature. He admits he regularly preys on oblivious, unwilling victims and has killed people in the past (though he avoids killing whenever possible). She has firsthand knowledge that he has severely beaten another patient of hers (who was shadowing Weyland and could have eventually exposed his secret). Yet, as my correspondent emphasized in the context of this knowledge, Floria doesn’t turn him in to the authorities. Instead, she gives him all her records of their sessions and allows him to leave town unhindered. The question that arises: Does Weyland’s unique status as the only member of a nonhuman, sapient species justify exempting him from the penalties an ordinary man would deserve for such crimes?

Weyland regards himself as superior to us. We consider our species superior to the “lower” animals, but we also believe we have ethical obligations to them. Still, most people think it’s moral to put the needs of human beings above those of other animals in some circumstances. Most of us eat meat, for example. And while we protect endangered predators such as wolves, we consider it justifiable to kill them if they pose a direct danger to people. So consider a vampire species made up of creatures like Weyland. Suppose they can’t survive without human blood. (Charnas includes this condition in her vampire’s biology; animal blood doesn’t nourish him.) Would these vampires be justified in taking blood from us at will because they need it to survive and they’re our natural superiors (stronger, longer-lived, etc.)? Could they legitimately claim they hold the same position relative to us as we do relative to “lower” animals?

Or would our self-aware intelligence entitle us to be treated as moral equals even if we’re inferior to these vampires in some respects?

In Jacqueline’s Sime-Gen series, the physiology of Channels includes a biological need for sexual release at certain intervals. If they don’t get this need fulfilled, they can die. The “Channel’s exemption” (if I understand it correctly) excuses them from the ordinary rules of sexual behavior in this kind of crisis, because the functions only they can perform make their well-being vital to the welfare of the whole society. Do their special gifts legitimately entitle them to special treatment in this respect?

I’ve read fiction and commentaries thereon in which the writers seem to seriously maintain that a “higher” species would have the right to use us in any way their needs require. In other words, human morality doesn’t apply to nonhuman intelligent creatures. I have strong reservations about this position. Taken to the logical extreme, it would mean the aliens in “To Serve Man” would have a right to eat us.

At one point in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Gandalf says something like, “Good and evil are not one thing among elves and another thing among men and dwarves.” I think this principle also applies to aliens and nonhuman “monsters” (vampires, werewolves, etc.). Superior strength, intelligence, and other natural gifts don’t give one species the right to ignore the rights of another sapient species, just as we don’t believe people of greater intelligence or talent should have higher rights than their “inferiors” in our own society. My impression from Jacqueline’s fiction is that Channels seldom lack willing sexual partners, since their high status in Sime-Gen society makes them desirable mates. Our hypothetical vampire species, if stored blood from blood banks wouldn’t nourish them adequately, could pay for live donations or probably, given the allure of the vampire in contemporary fiction, find an abundant supply of volunteers who’d give blood for the thrill of it. To make those arrangements, of course, they would have to reveal themselves to the public or at least to a segment of the human population. Surely inter-species ethics would justify expecting them to take this degree of risk to avoid harming innocents.

Still, as a lifelong fan of vampires and other “monsters,” I can’t suppress the feeling that charismatic predators who are endangered—or, as in the case of Weyland in THE VAMPIRE TAPESTRY and Miriam in Strieber’s THE HUNGER, unique—“deserve” special treatment, irrational as that feeling may be.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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