Reflections on ‘Utopia’

The excellent series Utopia, currently on Channel 4, recently revealed (possibly, possibly not) that the purpose of the clandestine, anonymous and omnipotent ‘Network’ is to sterilize 90-95% of the population. The scheme, named Janus (Roman guardian of the gates in times of war), brings together two proteins, one through food and the other through a vaccine for Russian flu. The second acts as the trigger for the activation of the first, rendering 19 out of 20 humans infertile. The justification given for this is to curb, pretty significantly, the growth of the global population within a hundred years, down to 500 million, in order to prevent the exhaustion of resources and the resultant destruction of the earth, and with it, the human race.

The Network’s plan, even in Utopia, is presented with more than a little ambiguity. The faceless perpetrators are no longer so clearly in the wrong, and the righteousness of the ragtag group that are trying to expose this plan comes under scrutiny. One of the main protagonists, Wilson Wilson, appreciates the grim logic of Janus, and helps an affiliate of Janus to escape capture from the exposers. Now, the plot is fairly complex, at times convoluted, and the motivations of the various characters play an important role in their reaction to Janus, at least dramatically, but I’m going to ignore those complexities and focus on the ethical issues of such a scheme.

Utopia does raise some of the potential practical difficulties of such rapid population decrease: how would the dwindling young support the mass of childless pensioners? Would the world collapse into chaos in the face of such stark and random inequality? Further, there are other potential pitfalls of such a scheme: could scientists not remedy the synthetic infertility with new drugs, thereby thwarting Janus before its impact was felt? If we leave these problems aside, and assume that a) Janus would succeed b) the world would not collapse in the interim period and c) that the effects would be distributed evenly across all countries and within those countries, across the population (so to preclude the possibility of racial, financial, gender or religious genocide), would such a programme be morally justifiable, or even, morally required?

There is another assumption that we might want to make in order to clarify the thought experiment, namely, that the grounds for enacting the programme, that humanity will be destroyed if it is not, are correct. It might be worth excluding this from the outline of the problem however, as the difficulties of prediction are something that must come into consideration when examining any moral conundrum. Cults, for example, that encourage their members to kill themselves before a fabled rapture in order to achieve salvation, are widely considered to be morally abhorrent, because the grounds for the action are so weak – there is nothing to suggest that there will be a rapture, nor that pre-raptural suicide would ensure salvation in the afterlife. In other words, there’s a significant degree of fact, or predictive fact, bearing on the principles.

The UN estimates that the world will reach 10 billion around 2060, and then stabilize at that level once fertility rates drop in the currently developing world. That is only one half of the problem though. Were global consumption to continue to rise to current European or North American levels, then there wouldn’t be, at the moment, enough resources to feed, clothe and power the world. Again, however, the force of this prediction relies on an assumption of static technological development, which, of course, is highly unlikely. If technological advances in food production and sustainable energy were great enough, then those ten billion could be fed and powered by 2060, even if the global level of consumption reaches Western standards. So, it’s probably worth adding another assumption to the previous three: d) the prediction that the demand on resources of the global population will exceed the world’s ability to meet those demands by the end of the 21st century is accurate. In other words, the grounds for Janus are well-founded – without a significant decrease in the global population, humanity will be destroyed.

So, finally, with the conditions established, would Janus be morally defensible or desirable? One of the major objections, at least from a Kantian perspective, would be the involuntariness of the infertilisation. Ninety percent of humanity would have a significant, and hitherto inalienable right to bear biological children dismissed through a random programme of which they were unaware, and therefore unable to consent to. This would certainly seem to treat these people as means rather than ends in themselves, and would ostensibly violate liberal principles of personal autonomy. If, however, we took a Millian conception of liberty – freedom to do that which does not harm others – the case for their freedom to bear children looks less sturdy. What greater harm, in light of d), could there be than the destruction of the human race? Surely this would constitute the ultimate harm, if minimal assumptions of the value of human life were accepted.

What this reveals, and what I’ve been slowly been working towards, is that there is a distinction to be drawn between the value of human life and the value of humanity as an enterprise. This is a problem that both Kantians and utilitarians would struggle to explain. From a Kantian perspective denying 90% of the population the chance of happiness, if we assume child-rearing to be integral to the fulfilment of many individuals’ conception of the good, would be unacceptable, regardless of the consequences that failure to act would engender. Utilitarianism, in its simplest terms, would struggle to quantify or balance the competing harms of infertilisation and human destruction, and might be forced to side with the happiness of the greatest number if a simple felicific calculator is employed.

Letts & Wilson

Wilson Wilson going all Zero Dark Thirty on Letts

In Utopia a member of the Network, Letts, emphasises that the programme is not genocide – no one will die as a direct consequence of it. This seems more important from a historical than a moral point of view, as genocide’s emotional force as a deplorable act is drawn more from its historical infamy than from any particular moral denunciation, even though such denunciation is almost always justified. The avoidance of genocide, though, does suggest some moral appeal – that it is better to infertilise than it is to murder. The former is preferable to the latter, the Network believes, because it entails the prevention of future life, rather than the destruction of pre-existing life, and the weight of moral value must lie with those who exist, over those who do not yet exist.

This prima facie moral partiality toward the living, however, is made contentious by the very situation that Utopia proposes. The point of Janus is to secure the resourceful existence of a smaller number of future humans at the expense of the happiness of the majority of existing humans. In other words, the well-being of those not yet in existence must come before the well-being of those who do currently exist, given that the provision of well-being for the existing 7 billion would preclude the well-being of the 500 million. One way to justify this counter-intuitive preference is to say that the future life of those 500 million, which would otherwise be in fatal jeopardy if not already extinguished, has greater moral value than the ability of the current 7 billion to fulfil their conception of the good through child bearing. On a micro-scale, we could use the analogy of an individual sacrificing his fertility in order to save the lives of two pregnant mothers and their unborn children (I’m envisaging some sort of nuclear reactor in meltdown, staffed by the two women, the radioactivity of which is harmful only to sperm cells – I’ll admit that this isn’t the best or most plausible analogy). We might think that even were the mothers to die, if their children lived then the sacrifice of the man, the sacrifice of the fulfilment he might have achieved through child-rearing, is justified (though the action perhaps not required) if the life of the two unborn children is secured.

That justification, as is probably obvious from the tortuous analogy, is neither the most obvious nor the most appealing. Instead, it seems that the value of the life of the not-yet-existent outweighs the well-being of those currently in existence because of the dichotomous options – one that permits continued rates of fertility and spells the end of humanity, and the other, that curbs fertility but ensures humanity’s survival. What encourages the Network is the greater value of humanity’s continued existence. This speaks to the idea that humanity, as a holistic entity or enterprise, is greater than the sum of its parts. The totality of people alive today do, in some sense, constitute humanity, in that humanity is reliant on their continued existence, but humanity is also more than the sum of their existence.

In order to fully appreciate the nature of humanity as a concept both historical and future possibilities have to be taken into account, and it is the latter that seems to do some of the work in this scenario. Without a future (as is the case in Children of Men, which Samuel Scheffler discusses in a paper here) the notion of humanity would not be lost, but a vital aspect of the notion as we understand it would no longer hold – the aspect that humanity is an ongoing enterprise, albeit a sometimes unsuccessful one, and that a future is therefore integral to the continuation of that enterprise. Humanity is a difficult notion to pin down because of its state of constant flux. Where I use the term ‘humanity’ here, I am referring to a set of people that are not identical to the set when I say ‘humanity’ at this later point. This isn’t obviously problematic; after all, football teams, given a long enough time span, replace their entire team, manager, owners, and even fans. Ipswich Town in the year of its founding, 1878, shares no common members with the current club, and yet there is a conceptual continuity between the two. What is problematic for a concept is when the probability of future existence reaches zero (which assumption d) asks us to believe to be true).

It isn’t clear-cut that any amount of suffering would be worth the continuation of humanity. If the options, as presented by incredibly powerful (and sadistic) aliens, are the painful death of all but a thousand fertile couples or the painless death of all humans, there would be many who would argue, perfectly cogently, that the second option is demanded by morality. In the case of Janus, though, the harm inflicted on 95% of the population is not as severe as painful death, it’s only the prevention of procreation. If humanity, taken as something larger and more important than the totality of existent humans at any given point, requires the unhappiness of most of its members for its continued survival, then it seems that this would be morally justified.

In Utopia, Letts, the Network affiliate, claims that to not act would be genocide. This kind of justification speaks to Voltaire’s adage that ‘every man is guilty of the good he didn’t do’. Would it be better to sleep-walk into the apocalypse than to take harmful action now to prevent the final disaster? There is a larger problem in both legal and political theory about the passivity of moral failing. Whereas as active violations of moral obligation, murder for instance, are easy to condemn, and are condemned in law, failure to act is not viewed in the same way, nor does it receive equivalent legal penalty. Were I, as an onlooker, to allow the foreseeable death of another person through my inaction, the moral condemnation would be far less stern than if I were to partake in the active death of that person. In many ways this makes sense. Both instances are morally objectionable, but to different degrees. With Janus, however, action intuitively seems far worse than passivity, even though the dire consequences of passivity far outweigh those of action – this results in a slightly worrying asymmetry of means and ends. Without resort to utilitarian justifications of consequence, however, the protection of humanity’s future must outweigh the concerns of humanity qua humans, and this suggests that the usual tools of moral analysis and the architecture of our moral systems are inadequate when humanity is at stake.

A fuller analysis of the thought experiment provided by Utopia would require a more rigorous and academic approach to the problems it raises than I can be bothered to provide here. It does suggest, though, that the knottiness of this problem, which may become less far-fetched, even in this century, opens up interesting lines of discourse and further exposes the frailties of orthodox moralities. Not bad for Channel 4.


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