This morning, Steve Hays of Triablogue sent me a recent piece by Greta Christina: On the Ethics of Vampire Slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It’s an interesting read, arguing that if we can re-ensoul vampires instead of dusting them, we have an obligation to—but like most atheists, Christina has trouble drawing some basic distinctions:
- Vampires are demons inhabiting the bodies of dead human beings. To speak of having a moral obligation to re-ensoul them rather than kill them is therefore to commit a basic category error on at least two levels:
- You can’t have an obligation to the demon to re-ensoul them, since the demon doesn’t want that; and you can’t have an obligation to a dead body to re-ensoul it since a dead body is…a dead body; and you can’t have an obligation to the human being to re-ensoul them, because the human being is not present, being dead. Christina speaks as if re-ensouling the vampire is equivalent to “saving” the human being, but this is just fundamentally mistaken. The human being is already dead.
- This being so, the only clear obligation is to eliminate the evil. Whether you dust them or re-ensoul them, either way the demon is gone. So the outcome is the same in terms of the actual obligation. But souls have an annoying habit of disappearing, meaning that any ensouled vampire is potentially a lethal killer waiting to be set free.
- This raises a commensurate issue which is completely glossed over in Buffy: re-ensouling a vampire is (or should be) equivalent to resurrecting a deceased human being. The only relevant difference is that their body has continued to be used by a demon while they were dead. Of course, this is glossed over presumably because in the buffyverse there is no clear understanding of what a soul is, or of the relationship between the demon that inhabits the body, and the human that died. But assuming that re-ensouling a vampire and resurrecting a human being are at least analagous, that’s a strong prima facie argument against doing it at all, given the issues raised in episodes like Forever, Bargaining, and even Shadow (wrt healing spells).
- In any event, the fact that vampires can be re-ensouled does not put them in a similar moral category to werewolves. A werewolf is a normal human being who gets taken over by a demon for short periods. A vampire is a dead human body whose original owner has departed, and which is now inhabited all the time by a demon.
Incidentally, just to quickly deal with the “why don’t they do this” question, if the Orbs of Thesulah required for re-ensoulment could be sourced at all, wouldn’t Spike have chosen that option in Grave, instead of a potentially deadly—and undoubtedly excruciating—procedure that required him to travel to Africa?
Buffy is not about ethics—get over yourselves, fanboys
I also disagree with Christina’s assessment that Buffy is fundamentally about ethics. It is fundamentally about relationships. That’s what Whedon is good at. He lacks the sophistication to make a show that is really about ethics because he is too philosophically and morally obtuse to pull it off.
I suspect he would like to; but to do that he would need to write more intelligent characters.
For instance, when Angel is re-ensouled, Xander draws no distinction between him and Angelus (the soulless vampire). That’s fine because Xander is a buffoon, but then why not use him as a foil for a more intelligent character like Giles? Someone should at least have had the mental acumen to recognize that a soul is prima facie critical to one’s identity, and as such, Angel cannot be responsible for the acts of Angelus (even if he remembers them) since they are two different, independent people. When issues like that don’t get discussed, one tends to assume it is because the writers lack the sophistication to discuss them (or even recognize them in the first place).
By the same token, I’ve already mentioned how the writers clearly have no understanding of what a soul is. They basically just parrot the popular cliche of a soul as something important to morality and humanness (as in the expression, “Redheads have no souls”)—but they never develop that into a clearly-defined concept that can hold water. Spike gets a chip in his head to prevent him from hurting people, and falls in love with Buffy, and this has a kind of conditioning effect that is virtually indistinguishable from him having a soul, even though he is still a soulless vampire who should have an incorrigible lust for feeding on human blood and committing unspeakable acts of evil.
I think Whedon would like to think of his shows as interesting explorations of complex moral issues. But what he seems to do is simply take popular issues (addiction, homosexuality, duty etc) and show how different kinds of people react to them. He’s good at characters (barring the abysmal flop that is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) But he’s not exactly breaking new ground exploring ethics.