Monday, February 2, 2009

Do Vampires have Rights?

By Hanno

It is quite common now to understand vampires and zombies in terms of some disease which takes over the body and re-animates it after death. Movies like "night of the Living Dead" and all of its offspring, including "28 days later," as well as books like "World War Z" use this theme. This is not the way vampires were always understood, however. The folklore of vampires is much older than Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the where widely regarded as real creatures in many parts of the world. But instead of disease, the vampire was either a person possessed by a malevolent spirit, or a ghost-like specter. It is only in the late 1800's that the germ theory of disease gains prominence, so the ground for changing our understanding of vampires was not set until then. (By the way, I love the irony of speaking scientifically about fictional entities, and using science to discover which of the myths surrounding vampires are factual, and which are purely mythical, something every vampire book has done since "I am Legend" first did it in 1951.)

For Matheson, there are three kinds of vampires. There are the newly diseased who will eventually die and turn into the undead variety. On the way to this disturbing end, many go mad, as they realize what they have become: flesh eating creatures that would eat their own loved ones if they could. Matheson explains the anti-social, hardly human variety of vampire in that way: they have gone mad. But it is possible not to go mad, or to come out of madness, and still not be undead. These are people simply with a disease that, if untreated, will kill them and turn them into the undead, and the disease will make them yearn, desire, require the blood of a living thing, preferably human, preferably undiseased human, to keep living. The bacteria at the root of vampirism needs blood to survive and prosper. At the death of the human, the corpse reanimates into a being properly called the vampire. The corpse does not breathe, its heart does not beat. This being seems quite rational, remembers events and people from its living days, plans ahead, and interacts socially with other creatures like herself. For example, knowing that Neville is all alone, the women vampires dance seductively, stripping, etc., in an effort to lure Neville out of his home so that they can eat him.

Now as we saw in the last post, Neville has turned himself into a scientist. he discovers many of the things I just described through experiments. Early experimentation include dragging a female into the sunlight to see if light really does damage the vampire. Answer: yes, as he watches the still living female scream, whither and die in the sun. He collects some blood from another to see if he can find the root cause of vampirism. Answer: yes, a bacteria he can see and for which he can test. He also experiments on the blood to see if the ingredients in garlic are toxic to the vampire. Answer: no, it seems to be an allergic reaction. In short, without the approval of the subject, without any desire for the good of the subject, Neville performs scientific experiments upon his subjects in an effort to know and understand. The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

Later, he checks the blood of a woman who does not want him to to see if she is a vampire. He does not do this for her sake, but for his. Here we have experiments performed not for the sake of science, nor for the sake of the victim, but for the sake of the experimenter.

Now it turns out that a section of humanity has managed to survive, but with the disease. They develop a medicine to keep it in check, so they do not die of the disease, and as humans with a disease, they function socially just fine. They create a new society. Now suppose Neville found a cure. What if the new vampire-humans do not want to be cured? Is it right for him to force them to be cured against their own will?

I want to point to a few features of the current medical ethics in order to put these points into perspective. First, remember, "I am Legend" is written in the early '50's. Students of medical ethics are well acquainted with the Tuskegee Syphilis study of the 1930's. Here, the question was: what is the natural progression of syphilis in an African American? So they recruited poor black folks under the guise of treating syphilis, paid for by the Federal Government, when in fact, they were given no medication, and watched for years. A few years later, when a cure for syphilis was discovered, they were still kept in the dark, and watched for almost three decades. When the first people started to complain about the ethics of the study, the people in charge of the study reacted angrily, saying they would ruin its results. In other worlds, in a common attitude towards scientific study, the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake trumped any concern about the ethical treatment of the patients/subjects/victims. There are many, many examples like this, but perhaps not quite as egregeious.

Neville's attitude towards science and medical ethics fit the 1950's. But our intuitions differ. We hold you must keep the welfare of the subject in mind first and foremost, and we hold that you must have the approval of the subject, made aware of any problems that may occur. Neville does none of that.

Do vampires, as depicted in the book "I am Legend," have rights? Is it immoral to treat them as Neville does?

(Post is too long, I know.)

5 comments:

ce said...

It wasn't too long. You had to establish the question and give all relevant information in order to make it understood.

And of course it's immoral. They're not objects. They're people. Even if we assume you were to deal exclusively with the mad/insane variety, dealing with the mentally unfit still requires that you are acting in accordance with the interest of the patient, not just that of society or what science "wants to know".

The protagonist is a douche. 'Nuff said.

Josh said...

I think it would be immoral to experiment on these vampires - especially given their rational faculties. In terms of medical ethics they should be able to give informed consent. You would be violating patient autonomy - vampire or not.

The mad/insane vampire is incapable of consent and therefore outside the realm of experimentation.

What I find interesting is the community of vampires that are managing to survive with the disease in check. The idea of a "cure" actually takes place in the show "True Blood" on HBO. In this show a Japanese scientist has created synthetic blood that vampires can drink to satiate themselves without killing others. In the show, however, all types of deaths result from vampires who seek real blood.

The issue I see is that these vampires who are "dealing" with the disease are like ticking time bombs. At any moment they could not control the disease and end up killing someone to survive. Should they be held accountable for their actions or would they be allowed to claim temporary insanity. I think their is merit in assuming that the insanity plea is null if you choose not to cure your disease - especially given the consequences of losing control.

This is what differentiates this case from the analogy Todd posed concerning the deaf community and cochlear implants.

ce said...

Well, you couldn't experiment on the mad/insane, but you could lock them away. They're a clear and present danger to the community at large, and as a self-defense mechanism we are allowed to prevent that from being made manifest, especially at the cost of lives.

But that seems a wholly different case than what the protagonist is doing.

Anonymous said...

I think that vampires should have the same rights as humans, no more but certainly no less. If they do exist, they probably have feelings too.
Anyone who says that they are all evil demons should watch Tim Burton's film of "Dark Shadows". Although the vampire in that movie does kill some people, he only does this because he is extremely thirsty. He also protects his family and, maybe, others as well against an evil witch and he saves a girl from dying by falling from a cliff by biting her to give her some of his abilities.
In another movie, "The Little Vampire", one of the vampires saves a human character from being hit by a truck. Another of the vampires in this film saves him after he is shut up in a coffin by a vampire hunter, of all the people.
As for the religious arguments against them, I suspect that one of the main reasons why some vampires may be afraid of crosses is because they have had them stabbed through their hearts so much over the years. They may only get headaches from looking at them due to them being reminded of all their friends and family members who may have been killed with them.
I also think that something must be added to Holy water to make it burn vampires since just being blessed by anyone, even a priest or preacher, would not be enough to make it harm them. Surely something else must be put in it to make it a vampire hunter's weapon?
I have also heard that, if a Christian was to be turned into a vampire, they could still keep their religion. All they would have to do is wear a fake body tan, wear shades, not go to Church on sunny days and avoid the Holy objects that could hurt them.

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