I am not really a believer in simplistic moral categories, and yet for some reason in my fiction I always (or nearly always) seem to draw things down to a binary choice. At the same time, the choice itself isn’t simple and the possibility of moral confusion is always there.
It’s happening again in Refuge, my current work in progress. Another take is shaping up on the conflict between love and power, and between two alternate futures for the world. In one of those futures, genetic engineering is a right for all people, and everyone is (by today’s standards) superior in intelligence, free of preventable disease, happly, curious, and excited about life’s adventure. In the other, everything is done for the benefit of a privileged elite, and all non-members of this elite are so reduced in status that they can be chosen at will by the elite and subjected to torture just for the fun of it. It’s the ultimate expression (or anyway, an ultimate expression) of the dichotomy between democracy and aristocracy, between socialism and capitalism, and (at most basic) between society as community and society as a relation between predators and prey.
All sorts of other things get tied into the story, which is not immediately about that struggle, but that is the backdrop, the setting. The series of which this book is to be the first is all about that conflict, with a more immediate and personal conflict defining each book within it. For example, Refuge has a central story line that’s about the main character’s struggle to be free of his hereditary position as leader of an order of fanatical assassins. But the order was founded originally to fight against the Droon, the human-incarnate aliens who are the ultimate antagonists in the series and the ones trying to bring about the torture-slave society, one similar to the world they knew in their original forms.
One of the main characters is Emily, a young girl with a hard past (her father’s been raping her for several years, and she’s only thirteen), whose internal conflicts allow the Droon to manipulate her into betraying the Andol (the other side of the game, with whom she’s connected). As part of that manipulation, the girl is led to explore the internet looking for activity by the Droon, and she comes across a blog where they have expressed themselves in writing and pictures. The main point here is that the site has an email link and Emily is led to contact them, setting things up for the big climax. But in the course of browsing the blog, Emily finds the following post (or perhaps part of a post) which expresses the Droon philosophy:
We think that we fear death. As human beings, perhaps we do, but if so it’s a learned fear, not an instinctive one. Nor am I fully convinced of it. Guide someone gently and painlessly into death and it often happens that no fear response is ever awakened. We go to sleep without a qualm, after all. What is death but a permanent sleep? What is there in that to fear?
Non-human animals don’t even have a concept of death. Their own extinction is too great a leap of philosophy for their simple minds (in truth, there are many human beings about whom I would be inclined to say the same). How, then, can they fear it, if they have no concept of it nor any recognition of its possibility?
Humans may of course fear death due to the idea of some ongoing experience lurking beyond its threshold, but in that case what they fear is not death but Hell (or some equivalent). And needless to say, animals have no concept of Hell, either, and so cannot fear that.
Yet it is undeniable that a prey animal flees the predator in terror. If that is not fear of death, what is it? But there is a simple answer, and one that seems to this writer to be obviously correct. The prey fears pain. It dreads the agony that the claws and fangs of the predator will inflict upon its poor vulnerable consciousness before the merciful fall of night. As far as the prey is aware, night will not fall, and that is more reason to fear, not less.
It is equally fallacious to suppose that the predator seeks to kill the prey. Why should it? What benefit does the predator gain from the prey’s death? No. The predator seeks to eat the prey, not to kill it. So long as the prey is unable to escape or to fight back, there is no point in killing it, and few predators do in that situation. They simply eat. Indeed, some predators especially in the insect world deliberately leave the prey alive during consumption, in that way making certain that decomposition does not even begin before the prey’s tissues are transferred into the flesh of the predator. The same is true, if with less elegance, among many vertebrates. If the prey suffers more, if it must endure the shock, dismay, pain, and horror of having its flesh torn away by a monster while it is still alive and conscious, what is that to the predator except a source of additional delight, feeding a more refined appetite at the same time as the flesh feeds its physical hunger?
The more intelligent predators seek actively to enjoy the suffering of the prey. One sees this in cats of all sizes, in certain birds, in predatory marine mammals, and above all in the most intelligent of predators, man.
This motivation — the desire for the suffering of others, for the self-aggrandizement that comes from knowing oneself so wholly in control, so completely superior to another that one can inflict pain at will — is not often articulated. Yet I am convinced that it exists, and is the core of evil. It is a deeper, more primal expression of other forms of selfishness, callousness, and cruelty: greed, sexual exploitation, violence. It all comes down to the desire of one person to assert power over another. It is opposed by another motivation, the desire for connection, for the well-being of others: love, in short.
And so perhaps I am, after all, a believer in simple moral categories, or at least in two of them.
Love is good.
Power is evil.
Maybe it really is that simple.