Published July 24, 2021
It’s curious how the mind works; how memories and ideas intersect, leading one to the other. Here’s a case in point. I love science fiction. And so I found myself, on a recent afternoon, re-watching Soylent Green, the 1973 film with Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. The story is set in an overpopulated, ecologically wrecked future. With animal and plant life ravaged, people subsist on organically based wafers – Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow – manufactured by the transnational giant, Soylent Industries.
Life is hard and grim. People are encouraged to choose assisted suicide at their local euthanasia centers rather than die on the streets. And if they do, before being terminated, they’re rewarded with a brief, breathtaking panorama of the planet’s beauty before it was ruined. There’s some good news, though. Soylent Green, a new and improved product, far tastier and more nutritious than its predecessors, has just come on the market. The secret, as the hero – played by Heston – discovers, is the source of the new product: human corpses.
The hero, of course, is horrified. But really, does this make sense?
Let’s get real for a minute. We’re already composting bodies in Washington State. Other states are considering the same. Our revulsion for eating what used to be people is obviously an inherited cultural norm from a pre-rational past. What’s social science for if not to guide us out of the darkness of sentimental pathologies, into the light of a more rational future? Isn’t that the essence of our helping professions?
Jonathan Swift understood this. He was a man ahead of his time. In his essay A Modest Proposal (1729), which dullards insist on calling a “satire,” Swift very wisely suggested a solution to Ireland’s then-current poverty and overpopulation. Irish parents should sell their babies to the rich as food. It sounds cruel, but which is worse: guaranteeing infants – who, by some modern lights, arguably aren’t even “persons” yet – a hideous life of squalor, or improving everyone’s standard of living with a very satisfying and profitable path to economic interdependence? Note too that this sort of forward-oriented thinking makes good environmental sense and involves less damage to the planet’s precious animal species.
Some steps in the direction of a more logically guided society, unfettered by debilitating emotion, were taken in the last century. The Third Reich is rightly loathed for its regrettable record of aggression and brutality. But if we put aside the invasion of Poland and Denmark, and also Holland, France, Norway, and Russia – and of course the Holocaust – for just a few moments, we can see a genuine, if disappointingly narrow, interest in science, especially applied science, on the part of the regime.
As Michael Burleigh shows in The Racial State and Death and Deliverance, it was the German medical-scientific community, not ignorant political zealots, that pressed the case for compulsory euthanasia of the disabled, the terminally ill, and the socially unfit as early as 1900. Quite a few scientists, doctors, and intellectuals from other disciplines found fruitful employment, and plenty of practical work, under National Socialism.
Niall Ferguson notes in The War of the World that 15 of the top 25 leaders in the German teams dispatched to Poland after the 1939 invasion to clean out negative elements like Jews, priests, and unfriendly cultural leaders (“murder” is such a loaded word) were men with doctorates from elite German universities. And sensibly so. Great experiments demand unpleasant but determined actions from persons with the intelligence, vision, and courage to see things through to their logical conclusion. As Lenin said in different but similar circumstances (though his comment is probably apocryphal): Making an omelet involves breaking some eggs.
And let’s be honest: The Reich was quite good at learning from certain experiments. Removing from German society more than 300,000 persons in the 1930s judged as mentally disabled, hopelessly infirm, or socially useless began with clumsy and time-wasting individual injections. But it rapidly progressed to articulate marketing campaigns and cost-effective mobile vans to help entire groups along to their eternal reward with carbon monoxide. Valuable lessons in organization, method, and technology were obviously learned and then applied elsewhere, more efficiently, and on a much larger scale.
But I wander. Here in America, except for those 60 million abortions and a few other oddities, we have more decent instincts. And we need to talk about that. Decency is, itself, a matter of cultural consensus, a flexible ethical artifact, and – let’s face it – an update in content is probably overdue. The truth is, “decency” is too often allowed to be just another flabby, humanitarian excuse for cowardice; for an inherited, pre-rational unwillingness to do the bold, the urgent, the necessary.
Why would we selfishly compost bodies when millions of people globally are racked with hunger? For that matter, our abortion industry alone could feed most of Africa with its organic remains. Suitably repackaged, of course. And while we’re at it: Why are we wasting enormous time and resources on the mentally ill, the physically and mentally disabled, and the chronically sick? What do they bring to the party? We’re looking at a major food source and a huge step toward economic recovery right there.
We should view Soylent Green through new and unclouded eyes. We should follow the science; sing it with me, brethren: follow the science.
I need to end with a caveat, though. My wife and I have a son with Down syndrome and three grandchildren with disabilities ranging from moderate to severe. I’m afraid we’re gripped with religious obscurantism (Joshua 24:15). So as for me and my house, we will serve our loved ones – but not as pâté. I do admit, however, that some of our medical gurus and scientific experts would make a tempting treat.
*Image: The Raft of the Medusa (Le radeau de la Méduse) by Théodore Géricault, 1818-19 [Louvre, Paris]. When the ship Medusa ran aground of the coast of Senegal in 1816, some surviors, adrift on a makeshift raft, resorted to anthropophagy to stay alive.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a senior research associate in Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He served as senior aide to Archbishop Charles Chaput for twenty-three years.