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Never Let Me Go

(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)


Being some thoughts on Never Let Me Go (Web Link), by Kazuo Ishiguro ("Ishiguro (Kazuo) - Never Let Me Go").

I’m not here addressing the book’s literary merits. The only issue I have on this score is that the book takes a long time to get going, and you have to have faith that it’s going to be worth it. I found the characterisation – certainly of Ruth and Tommy - mostly convincing. I have reservations about an author writing in the first person of the opposite sex.

I have a number of issues with the plot, though I’m not sure whether any of them affect the ultimate “message” of the book, whatever that may be:-

  1. Revulsion: as felt by Madame and the staff. This was an important point – even those who preach equality themselves don’t really feel it. Even Darwin, who was an anti-racist (and anti-slavery), found it difficult to imagine Patagonian Indians as equals because of their very strange (to him) behaviour and clothing. This is why those we would treat as inferiors have to have external signs of inferiority. Hence, systematic degradation is necessary to preserve the illusion (as the Nazis with the Jews). Otherwise the pretense is difficult to maintain. (Cf. in Schindler’s List - “I know you’re not really a person” doesn’t really work, in the situation where the human being is attractive). So, in the novel, just why would the guardians feel revulsion – as of a spider – because of the origins of the donors, or because of their ultimate fate?
  2. Maintenance / enforcement: why do the donors accept their lot? They seem to have been educated to accept donation as their purpose in life (even something to be got on with promptly), but does this ring true? Normally, a subject people has to be suppressed, isolated, degraded and subject to exemplary punishment. Maybe there’s a parallel with the untouchables in India until recently. In that case there’s a religious motivation but, even so, exemplary punishment for transgression was required even until recently (see Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance – an excellent book).
  3. Choice of originals: Why clone people society would not wish to repair? And why the insistence that the “originals” have no psychological problems, given that the transplants are of non-psychological organs? Is the idea that the clones would be more manageable, given innateness theses about capabilities, if their originals hadn’t achieved much (provided they weren’t dangerous loonies)? Or has this to do with their perceived worth – that you couldn’t treat clones of “worthwhile” people as body-part farms?
  4. Donation: This was left obscure. They were taught that they would donate “vital organs”, but how many of these can you do without and still remain viable? There’s no mention of life support (until “post-completion”, when there are many more donations in a semi-conscious state). You can do without a kidney, but what else?

Some interesting points …
  1. Souls: this was the point of the “gallery”, to demonstrate that the donors did have souls, because they were creative and showed feeling. On a dualist conception of the person, there’s (presumably) no reason why a soul would be cloned when the body was (though it would depend on the cloning process). Presumably the moral justifiability of the whole set-up depended on this. The whole idea of souls is, of course, hopelessly obscure. So why did those who doubted the basic premise still support the procedure? This is interesting because of the Cartesian approach to vivisection. The thought was that animals didn’t have souls (because they weren’t rational, and if they had had souls, they would have been). Since they didn’t have souls, they were just unconscious machines. Consequently, they only appeared to feel pain (they showed pain-behaviour, but were in fact unconscious). Maybe it’s common knowledge, but I’m indebted to James Rachels’ Created from Animals: the Moral Implications of Darwinism for the information that Cartesian vivisectionists would nail a dog’s paws to a board and then proceed to operate on it alive to demonstrate how the machine worked. Occasionally they cut the vocal chords to make it easier on those less convinced by Cartesianism. One man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens.
  2. Paternalism: we are told that most of the homes other than Hailsham were wretched affairs, but that an attempt had been made at Hailsham to improve matters and give the students a better life. This sounds reminiscent of imperialist improvement of the conditions of “the natives”. Unfortunately, the system is unstable both internally and externally. If the natives are treated too well – and in particular if educated – they will see themselves as equals and revolt. Also, their masters will no longer be able to see them as natural inferiors (though this is less certain). This is presumably the tension that was building up in some of the guardians, though the final two (Marie-Claude and Miss Emily) show no sign of having caught on.
  3. Author’s aims: the trouble with literature is that (except in its inferior forms) the moral behind the story is not usually spelt out, and the reader can take away a number of different messages. This would worry me, in case the reader took the wrong one. Maybe the moral is just about cloning. It’s topical enough. “Spare” body-parts are already donated in third-world countries (both legally and illegally). The thought has been mooted that someone of means could create a (presumably decephalated) clone of themselves for subsequent use for spare parts. A couple of alternative applications – racism and slavery are no longer live issues. This leaves a couple of possibilities – the coherence of consequentialism as a moral system, and the issue of animal rights. Of course, it might just be an exploratory novel.
  4. Consequentialism: just what is morally wrong with the set-up described in the book? The whole issue is of people being used as means, and not as ends in themselves. This has applications for animal rights (which I’ll discuss later), but just what’s wrong with using people in this way? And just what sort of individuals could we morally use in this way? The primary contention of consequentialism is that an act is right if its consequences are (in some way, taking into account the widest perspective) good, or better than reasonable alternatives. There are no absolute prohibitions. For example, boiling babies is in general wrong. It is bad for babies, their parents and for the boilers, just for starters. However, if the only way to save the planet were to be by boiling a baby, and you were the only person with the opportunity, then it would be your duty to boil that baby. Or so consequentialism has it. In less extreme situations, consequentialism is open to the sort of counter-example raised in the book, where the good of some (usually the many) is obtained at the expense of others (usually the few). Of course, in real life the good of the few is obtained at the expense of the many, but this isn’t usually claimed to be the ideal society or a good state of affairs. What is there to prevent the few being cannibalised for the good of the many. In the novel, each donor presumably saves the lives of many recipients, so superficially more good than harm would ensue. The consequentialist response might be that the general demoralizing effect on society would mean that more harm than good was done. As I mentioned above, the repressive measures needed to maintain such a system would have severe negative consequences, but if a subset of society could be persuaded to “go quietly”, would this make the situation acceptable? This is the worry about the “noble lie” in Plato’s Republic, which is needed to make the lower orders accept the lot assigned to them by their Guardians for the good of the city-state as a whole.
  5. Animal Rights: Animals have always been treated as means rather than ends by human beings. Until the industrial revolution it is unlikely that civilization could have developed without mankind’s utilization of animals for food and work. From an amoral, evolutionary perspective, why shouldn’t human animals take advantage of non-human animals, just as non-human carnivores take advantage of other animals including humans. However, now that human beings have to a degree outgrown their evolutionary ancestry, why not change the rules? This might involve expanding the moral community, but it need require no more than not causing needless suffering to other conscious beings, a possibility now opened up by technology. In the context of the book, we’d have to imagine some analogy between the fates of the donors and those of non-human animals. It’s easy to forget that the life of animals in the wild can be nasty, brutish and short, so we mustn’t imagine some Arcadian ideal as the alternative to exploitation. What’s wrong with the exploitation of the donors that might parallel the exploitation of animals? The donations appear to be painful but not dreaded, indeed accepted by the donors as their lot. The key loss to the donors is the distortion and truncation of their whole lives, even when ameliorated as at Hailsham; and their acceptance of their lots somehow makes matters worse. But animals don’t have the same sense of self or anticipation of the future, though many have social and “family” attachments that are violated in the course of exploitation.



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Previous Version of this Note:

Date Length Title
12/08/2007 10:17:46 9628 Never Let Me Go



Note last updated Reference for this Topic Parent Topic
18/12/2010 19:58:05 269 (Never Let Me Go) None



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