Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Eating Our Children: The Story of Saturn and Moloch

8 years ago I did a fair bit of work on the ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research, and even presented my work in a couple of public forums (like being a panelist on it at Association for Practical and Professional Ethics Conference, in 2002). One thing that interested me was the extent to which thinking about ESCR, was dominated by the metaphors of warfare, that medical science was fighting a war against disease and the embryos sacrificed to save the lives of others were like the soldiers on the frontlines, laying down their lives so that others back home could live better lives. This basic metaphor was as pervasive as it was fundamentally disingenuous. The “war” against disease can never be won, and isn’t very war-like, and the embryo soldiers are hardly willing warriors choosing to take brave and noble risks for the greater good.

But what would be a better metaphor? In the end, I explored 11-13 other metaphors (depending on the version) and none was really adequate, although looking at several helped to correct the mistakes of each. I compared Embryonic Stem Cell Research to medical treatment, scientific research, abortion, to Nazi hypothermia research on unwilling victims, to recycling the waste products of an industrial process, to anthropological research on human remains, to agricultural growing and harvesting of “germ-lines”, to the killing pigs in insulin production, to Aztec practices of human sacrifice, to killing an innocent in the criminal justice system, and to euthanasia. Some metaphors make Embryonic Stem Cell Research look just, even noble, others make it look troubling. But my goal to explore the many moral nuances of the idea of “sacrifice.”
But the metaphor that was most haunting for me was the myth of Saturn eating his own children.

I wrote
“The ancient world has a couple of myths about gods eating children. Moloch, a Canaanite deity of power, is famous for devouring children as a means of maintaining his power. Saturn or Chronos, a Greco-Roman patriarch of the gods devoured his own children lest someone succeed him as the ruler of the divinities, until his wife tired of the death of her children helps Zeus escape this fate and overthrow him. In each myth, the story is of an old and powerful god eliminating the potential to overthrow them by eliminating the threat of their own children, and indeed by drawing strength from the devouring of their own children. In both cases, the moral of the story is that time marches on, things change, and that one should promote your children in their efforts to truly succeed you, rather than holding them back out of jealousy and the struggle against mortality. Likewise, we disapprove of a teacher who holds their students back from becoming greater than themselves. What does this have to do with ESCR? Well one important moral dimension of ESCR is its aspect as an intergenerational struggle. In stem cell research the very young and poor and powerless are destroyed to increase the wealth, power and health of the very old and already wealthy and powerful. Some of the diseases which might be benefited by stem cell research effect young and old alike, but most of them are health problems of the old, often specifically of the very old. Who benefits economically from stem cell research? Bio-medical researchers primarily, although some bio-medical companies as well. Why are we spending money and lives to push the boundaries of mortality and old age back even farther, rather than on universal health care for the young, or say education? As in war, the young pay the brunt of the price and the old get the bulk of the reward. Also notice that although embryos are not that much like children, the relevant feature for this story is a child’s ability to be a potential adult.

Now we should not over work this intergenerational angle. Certainly, our society does spend a lot of attention and money on education and the care of the young. But the elderly have an extremely disproportionate amount of wealth and political power, and we need to be more careful than usual at looking for hidden agendas, perhaps even hidden agendas the researchers do not consciously realize they have. Likewise embryos are extremely powerless, and we need to be more careful than usual at safeguarding the interests of innocents who also lack power to safeguard their own interests. Whatever else is at stake we should be leery of the prospect of ending one life, and a young powerless, poor one at that, for the sake of merely extending the last few years of an older, richer, more powerful life. As a member of a young, poor, powerless generation, I often feel the frustrating wish that natural processes of death should hurry up in clearing the oldest generation aside, so that my generation will not spend its life choked by the past still lingering in a not quite dead yet state. Death has an important social function to play in aiding the young in displacing the entrenched power of the old. In many generations the old step aside voluntarily, or aid the young in taking the reins of power. But for a variety of comprehensible generational dynamics, this generation of elderly refuses to step aside and instead consumes everything in their path burdening the young in ways that previous generations of elderly people would have found unthinkable examples of impiety. Moloch or Saturn eating their children, gobbling up the potentials of the future in a desperate effort to stay in power a little long and to stave off the reaper a little more, is a parable for our time; from the third rail of Social Security to the elderly’s taste for gas-guzzling cars. The funding of the destruction of embryos for the sake of maybe staving off Alzheimer’s a little longer is just one more example of a deeper social problem.

There are problems with this metaphor, too. Like the image of the medical researchers’ hands being stained with the blood of aborted embryos, the image of Moloch devouring his children is a symbol of our moral intuitions more than a real argument. The motives of the researchers are not as consciously selfish. They hope to benefit many not just themselves, and to help young and old alike. Taken to extremes this argument could turn into a slippery slope opposing all medical research or indeed any attempt to prolong or save life. This argument has a hard time responding to utilitarian arguments about benefits outweighing nonetheless real harms. What it does capture however is the intuition that if human life is valuable, then human death is valuable too. It is the engine of change and renewal and one of the holiest of mysteries. We can fail to do our duty by holding on to life at too great a cost, or with too little attention to intergenerational justice, just as we can fail by spending too little effort in resisting death, especially the death of the innocent or powerless.”

It is hard for me to think of a more obscene and foul image, than that of Saturn devouring his own children. And while this metaphor doesn’t exactly fit Embryonic Stem Cell Research, it is a much closer match for a wide variety of more nakedly over-consumptive policies whereby those currently in power enjoy all they can and try to push the debt burden for this onto future generations. Bush and Paulson, approving the banking bail-outs are Saturn eating their own children, devouring the future to keep the banks alive, in power, and in style for just a little longer. Obama and Geithner are playing exactly the same game – let us have a little more time now, and let the future pay for it. It is not enough to see them as pursuing mistaken policies; they are worse than that. It is not enough to see them as swindlers, enabling con-men allies to rip off the American public; although they are that too. It is not enough to see them as traitors, deliberately undermining the common good of America, for the personal gain of their allies. They are EATING OUR CHILDREN to remain in power a little longer. They are Saturn and Moloch, the great foul child-eaters of antiquity, recast in modern mythologies. They are blasphemies.
And, of course, so are we all a little bit. We know that we are using up the potential of the future, the things that our children will need to survive, much less to live the kind of lives we have lived, or wish for them to live. We know that our society is unsustainable, and we have a variety of intellectual methods for processing this fact. But we need images, and myths, and narrative methods too. We need stories to make sense of what unsustainable really means to us, because we humans are storytelling, storyhearing, storythinking creatures. What are the great old stories about unsustainability? What are the classics of literature that help us to feel the meaning of unsustainability, rather than just intellectualizing it?
We have very few stories like that. Unsustainable societies collapse, and by and large their stories don’t get told or remembered. We have the story of the fall of Troy and the folk who warned against it, but their understanding of the collapse of Troy is much more one of political defeat than of unsustainable society. We have the story of the fall of Jerusalem, and the Babylonian captivity, and the terrible lamentations surrounding that, (including a passage about destroying one’s children at Psalms 137). But again this is cast more in terms of a failed relationship with God, than of the unsustainability of the society.

But in the myth of Saturn eating his own children we catch a glimpse of another narrative of unsustainability. We see the horror and disgust that other societies feel for unsustainable practices. The point of the story of Saturn eating his children is like the point of Orwell’s 1984, it is a dire warning DON’T DO THAT, understand intellectually and emotionally the terrible foulness of doing THAT. It is not a story of an actual unsustainable society, anymore than 1984 is a story of an actual tyrannical dictatorship. But it is a little primal myth, about how people living in fairly stable cultures felt about unsustainable practices, and they felt horror and disgust. Gusto – is of course, the emotion of wanting to joyously consume. Dis-gust is the emotion that makes us not want to consume something. And the thing that it is most important not to consume is our future. The idea of eating our kids should be literally more disgusting than the idea of eating shit, vomit, or old used tampons. It is the most disgusting image that we can conjure with. And disgust is precisely the emotion that advertising wishes most to suppress, the emotion that is most opposed to our current economic system of promoting as high levels of consumption as possible, and the emotion that we need to rediscover and re-awaken. Sometime we can reach dis-gust best by detachment, or self-restraint, or even ethical consideration. But the primal old emotional route of simple raw disgust, must be part of our arsenal too. We need a literature of disgust to help people who want to consume less, to actually succeed emotionally at consuming less. This literature of disgust would be a kind of companion to the literature of the practical guides of how to consume less, which include the dis-gusting strategies of detachment, restraint, ethics, and celebrating a less-is-more lifestyle, but stop short of serious use of raw disgust itself. We need a novel of vomit-stories that disgusts and transcends its disgust to point the way to emotional purging and cleansing, or a movie of transcendent disgust.

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