The baby in the Thanatorium bathwater

Throughout the reviews of Soylent Green, I have been cautious to stick to the movie, to the interface and service design. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to tease apart one of the complex, real-world ethical questions head-on.

The Thanatorium is the singular speculative technology in Soylent Green. The film contrasts the services’ caring facade with its deceptive, exploitative, cannibalist true nature. This Big Twist was played for shock: the film ends right after Thorn, shot and bleeding out, shouts his famous line “Soylent Green is people! We’ve got to stop them somehow!”, so if there is any effect from his murderous investigative journalism, i.e. any change, it is unaddressed. The film only cares about *gasp* its tabloid zinger. (Yes I’m aware of a cut scene in which Soylent and the government issue retractions. That scene was, as mentioned, cut.)

Note that the Thanatorium visuals are also used extradiegetically to get the audience to re-appreciate their own lives and ecology. (I am still searching for a name for this literary device.) We are given 73 minutes of bleak, dirty, sweaty oppression, and breathe a sigh of relief when we are shown images of sunlit tulips and pristine nature, inspiring us after the movie is over to to go outside, hug a fruit tree and a bee, and think, “My gods. We just can’t let Soylent Green happen.” So it wasn’t just shock, but I digress.

As we rightly reject the Thanatorium’s deception, oligarchical exploitation of the working classes, and of course, cannibalism; let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is something in there that is worth considering.

Since I’m not a bioethicist, I’m going to lean on Matthew Burnstein’s essay “The Thanatoria of Soylent Green: On Reconciling the Good Life with the Good Death” in Bioethics at the Movies, ed. Sandra Shapshay (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009): 275-94. In it Burnstein points out that “the good life”—on which much of Western philosophy focuses—depends on what he calls the mastery model. That is, a moral actor must have agency, and use that agency well, before we can call theirs a good life. Burnstein points out that this model operates from our adolescence throughout our lives (up to a point, read on) and even after our life, in that our possessions and remains are handled in the manner we specify. We can specify a good after-death.

But there is a curious carve-out for death itself. It is good to build mastery over your life, we say, so you can lead a good one. It is good to exhibit mastery over one’s things after your life, we say. But the manner of your death? No no no. You must not choose that. Psychologists and physicians are the only ones who can make that call for you, and only in certain circumstances. Burnstein calls this carve-out “moral gerrymandering,” and it’s a pretty illuminating phrase: Why would we not apply the mastery model here?

There are good reasons to take caution with permitting “easy” suicide, putting aside supernatural objections as well as the obvious need to prevent murders that are disguised as suicide.

Suicide is an irreversible decision, and sometimes our perceptions of things in the moment are exaggerated and even wrong. What feels like hopelessness may improve if we just gave it time. It would be tragic if a person gave into the grip of temporary despair with an irreversible decision, and never got a chance to change their story. So, yes, we should put some guidelines around such an act. We should provide universal mental health care and try to ensure that people are in crises have places to turn. But the moral gerrymandering around death means that we most often forbid suicide outright, and when it is permitted, it’s prohibitively constrained.

CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In my home country of the USA, there are currently 11 states that permit physician-assisted suicide (PAS). (Around the world PAS is legal in a number of countries, but I am less familiar with those laws even in passing.) The rules around PAS are deliberately restrictive. You have to prove you are of sound mind and that your incurable disease will kill you within 6 months. A person with a slow-burn incurable disease—especially one where the mind will go before the body—is mostly doomed to just…suffer through it, at emotional and financial toll to themselves and their loved ones. There are Patient Instructions/Advance Directives that people can use to clearly state directives for medical instructions for different situations, but one cannot issue a directive that breaks the law, like asking for euthanasia, and drawing up legal documents can be financially prohibitive. So for many there are still massive impediments to having death with dignity, or what Burnstein calls “the good death.”

A dear friend of mine is going through this very thing right now with a loved one, and while it’s not my place to tell their story, it is heart-wrenching and inhumane to hear play out.

There are some good real-world models. Dignitas is an association in Switzerland that offers life counseling and death with dignity services according to Swiss law. Travel can be prohibitively costly for anyone who does not already live there, and any person who is present with them at the time of their death may face harsh legal consequences upon returning home. It would be more humane if other jurisdictions would take steps towards enabling their own death with dignity policies, and undoing the moral gerrymandering that says we must only die according to the dictates of chance.

Oh bad news, it looks like Nerve Attenuation Syndrome.
Welp, that will cause suffering and bankrupt your family slowly over a decade, but the dice are what they are.

Even in the misguided Malthusian fiction that is Soylent Green, what is presented as a horror is quite rational. Without the thanatorium, Sol has a Sophie’s Choice between starvation and cannibalism. A gentle, pleasant suicide is a welcome third option. What is wicked in this speculative service is that they use his cadaver without his consent and hide the truth of their product from the population at large, so that oligarchs on “the board” can continue to live out the last days of the earth enjoying showers, exploited sex workers, air conditioning, and food that is not made of humans. In short; It’s the oligarchy, not the suicide services, that is the villain, though the film spends its calories on the shockeroo moment.

Oh nooooo.

When considering this model for the real world, we should take great exception to the no-questions-asked expediency seen in Soylent Green. We would want such a service to be slow, deliberative, and life-affirming, with counseling and assistance programs to help people overcome crises of all sorts and palliative care. (As Dignitas does.) And then, yes, additionally, self-determination suicide services. But not walk-in “suicide booth” stuff.

So as we put the reviews of Soylent Green to rest, let’s not take that shock at face value. The Thanatorium—without the casual expediency, deception, cannibalism, and oligarchy—is a model worth considering.

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