Men Without Chests in ‘The Island’

The Island is one of those movies that invites a lot of analysis—a lot more than anyone could manage in just one blog post.  I’m focusing on just one topic in particular: the men without chests who are portrayed in this film.

Island

 

That phrase—”men without chests“—comes from C. S. Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, and refers to people who are incapable of having the appropriate emotional responses to good and evil.  Here is a summary:

  • The Island shows how the use of certain technologies can make us into “men without chests.”
  • This is important because it’s the sort of thing that happens to us now, and might get worse in the future.
  • I’ll talk about Lewis first, then the movie, and then the application to the world today.
  • I won’t summarize the movie or Lewis’ book any more than is necessary to make these points.

You might want to watch the movie yourself; for a summary of potentially problematic elements in any film, Plugged In Video Reviews are good.

You should read the book yourself; it doesn’t have any problematic elements.  (I made a short summary of it here.  It’s a bit of an atrocity, aesthetically.)

Lewis

In Part I of The Abolition of Man Lewis talks about the debunking of moral values which is so popular these days.  He points to an English-class textbook he had seen in which it was explicitly taught that evaluative statements are just expressions of our feelings.  He explains how this sort of thing kills the ability of the student to have the right emotional response to good and evil:

“The English teachers are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.”

The whole point of education, says Lewis, is to shape children into properly formed human beings.  A properly formed human being has the right emotional responses to good and evil; he is pleased by the one, repulsed by the other.  But our educational system shapes young people into people who can’t have these responses to good and evil.

Borrowing from a medieval take on Plato’s Republic, Lewis refers to the properly formed emotions as the chest (and to the properly formed mind as the head, and the properly managed bodily desires as the belly).  Thus, folks with malformed emotional responses to good and evil are “men without chests.”

The Island

In this movie people have become accustomed to using a combination of two technologies: human cloning and organ transplants.  Clones of the rich and powerful are grown so that they can get replacement organs from their own clones if they ever need them.

Already there is a problem: Human beings are being made and harvested.  Officially, the clones are thought to be unconscious for the duration of their lives.  That would make them human beings, made and harvested, although not suffering.

Unofficially, the problem is even worse: The clones are all conscious; they are awake, and they know they’re alive, and they value their lives.  A hideous, elaborate lie about the nature of their existence keeps them docile—until it’s time to be harvested.  They are human beings, made and harvested, victimized and suffering.

Now the really interesting thing about this movie, from Lewis’ perspective, is that the use of technology has affected the moral perception of the characters in the film.  The acceptance and use of this technology has affected their ability to perceive good and evil, and to respond to it properly.

This is evident in two ways.  First, pretty much the entire world in the film has accepted that it’s ok to make and harvest human beings.  They make a pitiful attempt to rationalize it by reasoning that, since the clones are unconscious, they are not really human.  This is both a philosophical and a scientific error: The clones are biological organisms with human DNA, and thus human beings.  The most you could say along these lines is that the clones are not persons because they are not conscious; even if this is correct (and I don’t think it is), the fact remains that this technology has accustomed everyone to rejecting human rights.

Second, the next level of this corruption is the approval of the making and harvesting of conscious human beings.  Their willful approval of killing and using unconscious human beings for their own benefit prepares people for the next level.  This is most vivid in Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), who runs the whole operation.  When Tom Lincoln (Ewan McGregor), whose clone is the film’s protagonist, finds out what’s going on, he embraces it.

Why is Tom Lincoln so ready to accept the making and harvesting of what are, unambiguously, persons?  Because he’s already accepted the making and harvesting of human beingsThe use of this technology has caused his sense of morality to atrophy.

Us

This is important because the use of some technologies affects our moral perceptions.  (This isn’t always a bad thing.  We understand that Rotary does good work fighting polio; would we have so easily known this if we hadn’t grown up being given vaccines from time to time?)

Human being

In our day, probably the most significant example of this sort of thing is the use of embryonic stem cell technology (and, please, don’t confuse this with adult stem cell technology).  We use human beings as things created and harvested; that’s how we treat them, that’s how we start to perceive them, and that’s how we come to think of them.

Dr. Merrick’s excuse is used commonly enough in our world: It’s not a human being because it’s just a non-conscious embryo.  The excuse is no more accurate than when Dr. Merrick uses it; a non-conscious being may not be a person, depending on what exactly is the correct definition of “person,” but from the moment of conception the being is a human being.

Human being

In our society we may babble a great deal about “human rights,” but we show by our approval of the making and harvesting of human beings that we don’t really mean it.  We, at most, support the rights of persons.

Human being

And this could get even worse with future technologies.  Perhaps even the making and harvesting of conscious persons (although since human beings really do have rights this might not be much worse).

It’s helpful to remember that that sort of thing has happened before, and more than once.  When it does happen, when we don’t care about it, and, especially, when we approve of it, we show that we are not properly formed humans ourselves.

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