If Reanimating the Dead is Wrong, I Don't Wanna Be Right

If Reanimating the Dead is Wrong, I Don't Wanna Be Right March 11, 2008

The theme of bringing people back from the dead has been a theme of science fiction and horror at least since the time of Mary Shelley, generally with the underlying moral lesson being that it’s bad bad bad. But as Eve Tushnet notes, the moral argument underlying such a message is often lacking:

most “came back wrong” stories rely on an over-easy assertion that it’s wrong to cheat death without any sense of why that might be true. My most blatant example of this is the Buffy episode right after “The Body”–I can’t remember the title, but if you’ve seen it you know the one I mean–where there’s an explicit conversation about why bringing back the dead might be wrong, but you never get anything beyond, “Uh, it might not work.”  

Pet Sematary, I think, actually shows the protagonist’s confusion of love with self-comfort and self-projection from fairly early on in the story–what he wants back is only partly the dead beloved. Mostly he wants to stop hurting–which is incredibly sympathetic… but not quite the same thing. And so it makes sense to me that he gets back nothing but a familiar skin filled with projected horror.

Part of me wants to say that the reason it’s hard to give a justification for the claim that it’s wrong to bring back the dead is because the claim is false. It isn’t wrong to bring back the dead, at least in all circumstances. Christ raised Lazarus, after all. And since it doesn’t seem plausible to say that Mary and Martha had a different psychological reaction to losing a loved one than pretty much everyone else in the history of human kind, the idea that wanting to bring back the dead involves a confusion of love with self-comfort, while it might work well as a literary device, won’t do as a moral argument, I don’t think.

To the extent that there is a principled argument against bringing back the dead, I think it would have to be that doing so was wrong because it would involve “playing God.” God is Lord of life and death, as St. Thomas says, and so any attempt to bring someone back from the dead would seem to involve human beings trespassing on divine prerogatives. This would also explain why bringing back the dead almost always seems to go wrong somehow. Unlike God, human beings are limited, fallible creatures, and when they try and take on functions that are reserved for God they tend to screw things up pretty badly.

But while the idea that one shouldn’t try to “play God” sounds good in theory, it is not at all clear what practical application the principle has. After all, we do all sorts of things to save or prolong people’s lives without thinking that in so doing we are “playing God.” If a person flat lines at a hospital, medical personnel will typically do everything in their power to bring the person back, and they will only stop if 1) they think any further action would be futile, or 2) the person has specifically asked not to be brought back. At no point would they fail to take some action that could have brought the person back on the grounds that this would be “playing God.” If we don’t consider some of these actions “bringing people back from the dead,” it is only because we don’t believe that brining people back from the dead is possible, at least through natural means. 

Nor does it seem that even fantastic methods of bringing a person back (e.g. time travel, or prayer) would involve “playing God”, so long as the methods used didn’t involve witchcraft, or other similarly occult practices, and one needn’t invoke any notion of playing God to see why bringing back the dead using such methods would be wrong. So it’s not clear that talk of “playing God” actually adds all that much to the analysis.


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  • BA

    There are so many issues and ways I can deal with them here. For the sake of brevity. I will only give quick responses, without all the significant details to back up what I say — so consider it only an outline of a response instead of a full response.

    The first thing I would point out is that Frankenstein was not about bringing life from the dead, but about bringing life out of nothing — and thus it really was about playing God. Of course, there is, after that, the idea that bringing the dead back to life could be playing God. It is not, of course, always conclusive.

    But here are things to consider: resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. The first brings us into the fullness of the divine life and open up to that life while the second continues to bring us to live and breathe within our fallen modality; it is a prolonging of life along the terms of the Nazgul in the Lord of the Rings instead of bringing life its internal vitality through transformation.

    In saying this, however, there is no real reason why resuscitation cannot be used by God as a path for ressurection; after all, Scripture points out in the eschaton those living will be transformed in a similar way as the dead. But here is a question: whence the purgatorial transformation in such a person? It still is possible, but would not a prolonged life in a fallen state cause one to possibly feel less and less need for God and to become more and more secular with their back turned more and more against God that purgatory is no longer an option. Is not death, in some way, a grace and gift and that grace is experienced as grace as we, in our death, share in the death of all humanity in and through Christ? But as I said, in theory, resuscitation could be a method by which God brings about the resurrection — and a very interesting, odd Russian philosopher said it was not only possible but the task of humanity to do this (Nikolai Fedorov). The problems I raised about the kind of life and what it would do with our relation to God, I think, were not sufficiently answered by him (and why it became also the project of the atheists even if Fedorov was Christian).

  • I think you’re precisely correct. Whether the debate is the ressurection of the deed, stem cell treatments, or transhumanism, the concept of “playing God” is spurious at best. It’s an empty concept that people can use as a container (and mask) for their unprocessed moral intuitions, whatever those may be, and by so doing, lend partisan (i.e., divisive) conceptions of the good an air of universal morality.

    To tie in with your recent discussions on economic inequality, “playing god” is very much like the concept of “equality” in this way. Although you were always careful to use the term equality in a precise way, I’m sure you know that most “man on the street” debates over economic inequality are really about dueling conceptions of equality (equality of outcome v. equality of opportunity, etc.) in which the term “equality” does no work at all. It’s just a container for other moral intuitions. See, e.g., Peter Westen, The Empty Idea of Equality, 95 Harv. L. Rev. 537 (1982); see also almost everything that Stanley Fish has ever written.

  • I must admit, I rarely think about whether it’s right or wrong to bring people back from the dead. Maybe I should stop doing it until we come to a decision.

  • Blackadder

    When I was in law school I got involved in several long discussions about whether Zombies would count as persons under the 14th Amendment. And to think people called me weird.

  • I’ve found the Tim Powers novels pretty helpful on this (along with the bit in the garden about putting a destroying angel before the tree of life). Its hard to explain the themes of novels in in a sentence, but if I did it would be something like the human need to face judgment and to not prolong the mortal experience till its weariness and ashes.

  • Zombies–persons–14th Amendment

    I forget–did I trounce you utterly or were you on my side?

    If I recall we also demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction that under most mainstream political theories the Mutant Registration Act was a great idea.

  • Blackadder

    I think we were on the same side, but since I don’t remember what position I took, I can’t say for sure. 🙂

  • Hey, at least 12 people were encouraged to do it: Matthew 10:8.

    Pax Christi,

  • (This is as much a reply to Eve’s original post, but no comments there so I’ll put it all here)

    I agree that the Buffy episode referred to didn’t really explain the problem with raising the dead (and Buffy did seem to make up its morality as it went along) but I thought some of the problems were explained in Season Six with regards to the successful resurrection performed – that a person’s soul has already moved on, and depriving them of heaven (or purgatory, even) once they’ve experienced it is unimaginably cruel.

    Nor does it seem that even fantastic methods of bringing a person back (e.g. time travel, or prayer) would involve “playing God”, so long as the methods used didn’t involve witchcraft, or other similarly occult practices, and one needn’t invoke any notion of playing God to see why bringing back the dead using such methods would be wrong. So it’s not clear that talk of “playing God” actually adds all that much to the analysis.

    I’d agree with you there. But going back to the original post, most horror stories/movies/tv shows that deal with the topic DO use witchcraft or occult practices to raise the dead. (I can’t think of many horror stories where someone has been resurrected through prayer and then ‘came back wrong’). Whence arises the moral confusion of Buffy – the creators can’t say that controlling people and nature through witchcraft is wrong, because they’ve already established, earlier in the show, that witchcraft is morally neutral. So they’re reduced to saying ‘Raising the dead is wrong because it’s wrong’.

    If you can stand the slightly cheezy horror of Buffy, the second and third seasons of Supernatural deal with several characters being raised from the dead, and all the issues it raises, in an interesting (and morally consistent) way.