Monday, June 28, 2010

Children of Earth: What Children are For, and How We May Use Them

(Apparently it is polite to note that this article contains "spoilers," or revelations about the plot of the works discussed, in this case Children of Earth, the third season of a BBC Doctor Who spin-off called Torchwood.)



An alien race known as the 456 comes to earth and demands 10% of earth's children - or they will destroy the human race.

What do they want with the children? A child previously abducted by the 456 is shown partially dismembered and physically attached to an alien's body, puppet-like. The child feels no pain and will never die; his eyes gaze out with a vacant, vaguely pleading expression. Why do the aliens do this? The human children produce chemicals that the aliens find pleasurable.

The situation is one of raw horror. A person of normal empathetic capabilities will find it absolutely horrifying for a child to be used in this way - cut up and attached to an alien to live forever as his drug factory. In the television show, a government worker who is informed his children will be among the 10% sacrificed to the alien overlords kills his children (and himself) rather than hand them over to this fate. Many of us might share this reaction.

What if, however, instead of kidnapping existing children, the alien could breed its own human children (in vats, say) for this purpose? Would that be wrong? The answer to this question gives us insight into the morality of creating children under normal circumstances.

One objection to the 456 creating children to use as drug factories is that although the children will not "feel pain," they will suffer a horrible, endless existence. But horrible by whose standards? If the 456 does not create the children, they won't exist at all. Isn't a painless, eternal existence as the appendage of an alien better than none at all? Can we even compare the two? What standard could we use to decide whether a proposed existence is "too horrible"?

A second objection is that it contemplates using children for very selfish reasons. "Child-as-drug-factory" is about as selfish as you can get in terms of motivation for creating a child. But are ordinary human motivations any less selfish? We do not ordinarily inquire into motives for creating children. Should we?

The proponent of procreation must explain, I think, why it is wrong for the 456 to create children to use as chemical factories, but not wrong for ordinary humans to have babies for such motives as personal enjoyment and a feeling of immortality.

See also The Austrian Basement and Beyond for a similar thought experiment.

13 comments:

  1. Oh yes! I agree wholeheartedly!

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  2. Phew, this one really hit me in the gut. Human centipedes, and now this! Ancillary question: Do you suppose there are some folks who would actually volunteer to have this procedure performed on them to attain eternal life? As bizarre as it seems, I suspect there are a few.

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  3. This also seems pertinent to the question of Christian parents taking the chance that their children might wind up in Hell, which seems a far more horrible proposition.

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  4. Do you suppose there are some folks who would actually volunteer to have this procedure performed on them to attain eternal life? As bizarre as it seems, I suspect there are a few.

    I know one dude.

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  5. An Atheist Forums discussion on this post is here.

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  6. It strikes me that these children's existence is actually much better than anything that is currently available. People who exist now do feel pain, after all. And yet people would agree that "raw horror" is a pretty good way of describing what these aliens do. Probably because they wouldn't like a bunch of meanie aliens taking away their dolls.

    Or maybe it's because "there's no hope" for the children as alien drug factories. Whatever hope may be. In cases of ordinary procreation, breeders can console themselves with thinking that their offspring will find similar hope and meaning by breeding, too. I think when Jim wrote "hope is my enemy", he was definitely on to something.

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  7. Well, but then it can perhaps safely be assumed that what was meant here is physical pain. And even though it is not free of physical pain, my existence now is certainly better than that of these children; imagine the endless, unescapable ennui!

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  8. Interesting post. I would liek to add one thing:

    "If the 456 does not create the children, they won't exist at all. Isn't a painless, eternal existence as the appendage of an alien better than none at all?"

    I would argue no, as an entity which never exists knows not what it's missing out on.

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  9. I agree - that's a large part of why having children under even the best of circumstances is wrong.

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  10. Many parents still have children to use them to "help out on the farm" or be free household slaves, and that is considered to be perfectly socially acceptable.

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  11. "If the 456 does not create the children, they won't exist at all. Isn't a painless, eternal existence as the appendage of an alien better than none at all?"

    This depends on how it feels. The show gives us monstrous aesthetics and the aliens' assurement that there is no physical pain. What about other forms of suffering, fear and helplessness? What if, on the other side, a medical scan had revealed that these children are feeling a continuous landscape of warmth, pleasure and a deep sense of satisfaction? As for the aesthetics, what if the aliens had been depicted as attractive humanoids with pleasant voices who keep the children in beautiful clean places of colorful light? I assume the emotional response would be very different indeed.

    "Can we even compare the two?"

    Sure.

    "What standard could we use to decide whether a proposed existence is "too horrible"?"
    If it feels worse than unconsciousness, on average.

    "The proponent of procreation must explain, I think, why it is wrong for the 456 to create children to use as chemical factories, but not wrong for ordinary humans to have babies for such motives as personal enjoyment and a feeling of immortality."

    There is nothing objectively right or wrong in the physical universe. But imho, the goodness or badness of creating a life depends on the goodness or badness of how that life will feel.

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  12. The level of exploitation I see between these fictitious aliens and human parents (and their need to have the child in the first place) is about equal if you factor out the initial shock of the freaky dismemberment. Both decide to have them for their own selfish reasons. Parents (particularly the females) get high off the oxytocin produced starting from pregnancy...it leads some to become junkies and say "honey, I want another baby!!" completely ignoring any hardship, lack of preparation/resources, or in some cases just "forgetting" birth control. The need for "one more fix" is even strong enough for her to forget the incredible pain (or sometimes even physical/mental trauma) of the previous pregnancy. Now THAT'S pretty strong stuff!! Such behavior is akin to druggies who will think of nothing of destroying their lives in pursuit of "one more fix". I still hold the theory that post-partum is really just withdrawal symptoms from all those oxytocin highs, BTW. This can also explain some people's chronic tendency of mysteriously being "the bermuda triangle" of relationships...having a relationship, enjoying the initial rush, then suddenly never hearing of that relationship again except to hear that they've already moved on to a new one. I feel this is similar, but to a lesser degree. I'm sure you know at least one person like that *lol*. I know of a few, but that's a topic for another time...

    The main difference I see between the aliens and human parents is that they have different ways of prolonging the agony. The aliens have artificial means to keep the life in a type of statis indefinitely. The parents continue their selfishness in staking much hope & expectation on the one day their offspring will produce offspring of their own, becoming the final justification of their decision to have kids and crowning their "career". And the cycle repeats again, and again, blah blah blah, ad infinitum...never considering what a bad idea that might be, or contemplate or even attempt to forsee the reasons why.

    Hedonic Treader, please explain: "But imho, the goodness or badness of creating a life depends on the goodness or badness of how that life will feel." There are plenty of bad people who are, by the most basic of human living standards, live lives that feel good. People who live in opulence but are rotten and have done rotten things...the Rockefellers...any given member of the White House, the Vatican *lol*. I could go on...

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  13. (Hedonic Treader here, I had problems posting with name/url) CactusHeart, what do you want me to explain? The contradiction of the goodness to create a bad person? If that person is a bad person because he makes others feel more bad than he feels good, then ok, creating them may be bad.

    All other things equal, creating a life that contains more good than bad experiences is a good thing imho. Of course, that may be hard to predict and I'm not claiming most lives contain more good than bad experiences. I doubt that they do.

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