What Do You Care?

August 30, 2013

So, why do you care about the behavior of others?  Where you are not concerned, why care about others having abortions, gay marriage, prayers in public school (or at high school football games in Texas), therapy for minors with unwanted same sex attraction, racial discrimination that does not harm you, laws in other states or countries, or anything else that would not affect your life specifically and personally?

Should any of us care about the plight of another so much that we would interfere with that person’s life (or the lives of those around them) through legal compulsion?  The answer seems to be “yes,” if we love justice, but who is this “we”?  Should “we” interfere with the behavior of others through our town’s local law, our state law, or our federal law, or leave law out of it and resort to other methods?  (One could “interfere” with the behavior of others without using law, via boycott or shunning.)  It seems more intuitively acceptable for us to interfere with or regulate the behavior in our own community based on our moral inclinations about the good of our community.  One’s interest in the behavior of the people in far away places seems more attenuated.

To push this point even further, should “we” as a society (small or large scale) interfere with other societies?  Can the people of Los Angeles decide they’ve had enough of the ridiculous laws in San Francisco and try to do something about it?  Yes, the people of Los Angeles lack jurisdiction to do anything about what happens in San Francisco, but the United States has no more jurisdiction over anything in the Middle East, yet there “we” are, interfering…

It strikes me that this is absolutely not a conservative or liberal question.  Conservatives will interfere with your ability to smoke pot.  Liberals will interfere with your ability to smoke a cigarette in a public restaurant.  Each will claim the high ground of “freedom” on one issue while claiming the high ground of “morality” on the other.  “Freedom” is just another buzz word like “equality” and “democracy” that people only invoke for convenience and sound bites, not because they are actually committed to those ideals.  It is the same with foreign policy.  Conservatives and liberals will walk the line between “respecting the sovereignty of other nations” and “taking a stand for the cause of justice” depending on the values or interests at stake in a policy decision.

So, do you care about the behavior of other people so much that you want to interfere societally?  Do you want to interfere with other societies (and do you want your own government to interfere in other societies for you)?  No doubt, there are numerous moral tragedies happening around the world right now and we are doing nothing about them.  Yet when discussing instances of interference in the past (like fighting the Nazis in WWII), people point to how evil the situation/government was to justify the U.S.’s behavior.  Wouldn’t that be like the people of Los Angeles pointing to how bad the laws of San Francisco are as justification for interference?  That doesn’t hold water unless we are going to distinguish between types of “bad” laws (whether a difference in kind or degree).  Certainly some silly laws that drive away small businesses in San Francisco would not justify usurping the authority of the San Francisco local government through force.

What kind of laws (if any) should invite the scrutiny and interference from other governments that have no jurisdiction?  What kind of behavior from other people in your community or neighboring communities invites your own scrutiny and legal interference?  Is there a difference between attempting to interfere (through force of law in matters in which you have no direct interest) with the behavior of your neighbor, or someone in a neighboring town, or someone in another state, or someone in another country?

If government A can usurp government B’s authority through force based on the bad laws of government B, can government B do the same to government A?  If government A is too strong for that, doesn’t that make government A a self-appointed “benevolent tyrant”?  What happens when government A turns bad and ignores its own unjust laws?  Would the citizens of the country of government A look kindly on the interference from the weaker government B?

America (and particularly the federal government in America) is government A.

Elysium is a thinly-veiled promotion of a rather liberal political agenda, especially with respect to immigration and healthcare reform.  One can gather that quickly by watching the movie or reading the reviews of moviegoers on yahoo.  But I would have enjoyed the movie anyway if it had been more complete.

Sorry to spoil the rather unoriginal and predictable plot, but here it is in all its simplicity: 150 years into the future, our planet Earth is ruined by overpopulation and poverty such that the entire earth looks like a third world country.  Everyone in LA speaks Spanish and/or is Hispanic.  The elite of the world (wealthy, intelligent, educated, etc.), build a huge space station called “Elysium” to, and I quote, “preserve their way of life” (though the film does little if anything to show what that “way of life” looks like; we are supposed to assume it’s ideal with whatever that might mean to us–kind of like Heaven, I suppose).  Elysium has free (and perfect) healthcare in the form of body-scanning machines that can heal a person from essentially every malady short of complete death (it can even do reconstructive facial surgery and restore someone who had his face blown off by an explosive, looking good as new after the healthcare scan).  To get the bodyscan, a person needs both to be on Elysium and be a citizen of Elysium.  They refer to all non-citizens as “illegals,” and Jodie Foster’s character heads up a group called “Homeland Security” (yes, the metaphor is that obvious) to protect Elysium from intruders, but the dark-skinned “president” essentially undermines the Homeland Security efforts, leading Foster’s evil character to stage a coup to protect Elysium.  Meanwhile, Matt Damon’s character lives on earth, gets sick, has 5 days to live, and needs to get to Elysium to get that body scan to heal himself as well as his friend’s daughter, who has leukemia.

There was potential for this movie but they didn’t explore the pertinent questions arising out of such a plotline nearly enough.

For instance, were the people on Elysium happy in their isolated (and supposedly trouble-free) world?  What was life like for them?  Did they at least have “first world problems“, or was this a symbolic utopia of sorts?

Was it immoral for the citizens of Elysium to build Elysium at the outset and/or to take the best and brightest from the world and stick them up in Elysium? (If so, it’s likewise immoral for America to allow the best and brightest of other nations to emmigrate to the U.S., contributing to brain-drain in third world countries, which could actually mean permitting unlimited immigration would sometimes be immoral, not benevolent).

Is the existence of Elysium itself (or the imbalance of wealth in any closed system) an instance of injustice?  If it didn’t exist at all, apparently no one would have healthcare, unless the best and brightest of Elysium were somehow forced into providing healthcare to everyone everywhere (and how would we force them to do so without paying them–making them elite, the kind of elitists that we from the outset held were an example of injustice–or forcing slavery, which we also find disgusting?).

To put that last question another way, more broadly: is it unjust that Oprah owns eight homes while I only rent one (and some people are entirely homless, or living with multiple families in the same dwelling)?  Is an imbalance of wealth itself an inherent injustice?  Is it immoral anytime any of us earns more than the median world salary (a small number that will shock your conscience) and fails to donate the entire surplus to those below that line to even things up?  Isn’t this movie saying that the general imbalance of resources and happiness between Earth and Elysium is in itself immoral (notwithstanding that everybody who helped make that movie likely lives an extravagant lifestyle, at least from a world-wide perspective)?  If the movie is saying that, does it not also suggest by implication that we are a nation of hypocrites and psychopaths, but not much else?

Were there scarce health-care resources on Elysium, such that the masses on Earth would consume up the health-care “machines”, creating an underclass of the unhealthy anyway? If there was no such scarcity, why did the people on Elysium keep those machines from being delivered to earth rather than sending reproductions (or even just one or two) of these impersonal machines (which apparently did not even need maintenance or a personal expert to operate, or at least the movie did not indicate such a need)?  Were the citizens of Elysium presumed to be psychopaths with nothing but contempt for all outsiders (and in fact a positive desire to harm or starve outsiders), rather than protectors of their limited goods?  (Even in wealthy America, we participate in and fund global relief efforts, however effective or ineffective that may be.)  If the citizens of Elysium were that evil, shouldn’t we just blow the whole edifice up rather than allow these Stalin-like creatures to continue profiting from building such machines?  Or would we disapprove of forcing them to labor on our behalf here on “Earth” (the third world country)?

Additionally, as a somewhat irrelevant side note, imagine how long the wait lines would be on an overpopulated earth seeking to exploit the machines that were built only to serve an elite few rather than billions.  Can the machines break from overuse?  Will people harm each other to cut in line?  Will the gate-keepers of the line allow their friends and family a place of privilege so that they get the best machines and spend the smallest amount of time in line?  These machines are unlikely to turn the third world Earth cesspool into a utopia just through healthcare.  At least, the problems of poverty and crime would still persist.

There are just way too many unanswered questions. This movie might have been an ambitious mini-series on TV, and I would love to have seen these issues explored (even if with a liberal or other agenda), but the movie fails to deliver in an intellectually-satisfying way.  That’s unfortunate.

Update:  It just occurred to me, this movie could be seen (ironically) as a pro-life metaphorical argument.  The citizens of “earth” could be unborn humans, whereas the elites on Elysium could be people who have been born.  The people on Elysium (metaphors for mothers) are entirely in control of whether the earthlings (metaphors for unborn babies) can have healthcare and live.  However, the earthlings pose a threat to the comfortable way of living for those on Elysium, and the citizens of Elysium want to “preserve their way of life.”  When someone from earth finally “gets through” against the will of those on Elysium (say, for example, a child of a failed abortion), that person fights with all his/her might to end the denial of life for the earthlings.  In this interpretation, the movie metaphor wouldn’t even go far enough, because mothers and their unborn babies have a far more intimate (and morally obligatory) relationship than that between the citizens of Elysium and Earth.