Thursday, October 06, 2016

Good Out of Evil?

In Barbara Hambly's CRIMSON ANGEL (which I reread last week), the protagonist of the series, Benjamin January, a free colored resident of antebellum New Orleans trained as a surgeon in France but making his living as a musician, unearths the notebooks of a physician known as "Dr. Maudit" ("Accursed"). The doctor drugged and vivisected hundreds of slaves, many of them bought for the purpose. The quandary of whether to benefit from the information in those notebooks addresses an ethical problem still relevant. The situation brings to mind Dr. Mengele, the Auschwitz "Angel of Death," who performed cruel experiments on concentration camp inmates, especially twins. If Mengele's studies had yielded any useful knowledge, would it have been morally right to preserve that information? In the case of Mengele, the question is moot, because by all accounts his methods were flawed and his "experiments" useless. In Hambly's novel, however, given the state of medical science in the 1830s, the doctor's dissection of living bodies yields a wealth of knowledge unobtainable in any other way. January is strongly tempted to keep the notebooks, recognizing many instances where the discoveries recorded therein could have saved patients' lives if he'd had that knowledge in the past.

Is it simply wrong to profit from the evil actions of another, even if the result would contribute to the welfare of many people? Or would preserving the knowledge gained by vivisection of unwilling victims salvage some good out of the original evil? Couldn't it be argued that failure to use the information would mean their deaths have been completely wasted? One character in CRIMSON ANGEL says "it is wrong to keep the profits of a crime" because such behavior "is an incentive—a permission—for others to commit crimes for the sake of the rewards." In the end, January decides he must destroy the notebooks despite his bitter regret for the loss of the knowledge in them.

This scenario relates to perennial hot topics in medical research and bioethics, especially nowadays with issues surrounding experimentation on embryos and stem cells.

The episode mentioned above isn't a true spoiler for CRIMSON ANGEL. You can still enjoy plenty of suspense in reading the book, which takes place in New Orleans, Cuba, and Haiti, and discovering the deeper secrets behind the murders. I highly recommend this long-running series, which begins with A FREE MAN OF COLOR. Hambly has done in-depth research about New Orleans and the South in the 1830s, and through the experience of a mixed-race (but mostly black) protagonist, she explores the nuances of race relations in the former Spanish and French colony where Americans are seen as brash interlopers who don't understand the subtle distinctions of the racial caste system and the free "colored" demimonde.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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