We readily acknowledge that the well-being and survival of non-human animals is often at the expense of other living things, that increasing the lifespan of one creature, a predator, means shortening the lifespan of another, its prey. In the ordinary course of things, in our own species, most of our predator behavior appears to be directed towards other species, though on reflection, much of it, in contrast to that of many others, occurs within our species, and encompasses not just our well-being and survival, but also our perceived self-interest. We intentionally short the lifespan of others in war and self-defense, but also as the result of choices we make to pollute and warm the environment, to selectively treat some illnesses and conditions, but not others, and by other choices we make as scientists, inventors, manufacturers, and technologists. Like most predator behavior, we don’t usually target individuals for elimination. The individuals who die at our hands happen to belong to a class of individuals we’ve called “the enemy,” for example. When our interactions with the environment have consequence that a certain number of people will die from the pollutants we’ve introduced, our assault is completely impersonal and, unintended. We don’t drive cars in order to bring about death by cardiopulmonary diseases, though that is a consequence of our transportation decisions.
In light of this, the actions of Pamela Morris, a film star, may appear less startling, unusual, and perhaps even less objectionable, than they initially do, in “Queen of the Nile.”
In the possible world in which we encounter Pamela Morris, she has the ability to extend the length of her life by extracting years of life from her victims, in contrast to Salvadore Ross, in “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross,” who negotiated a mutually beneficial transaction with others to trade years of life. With the help of the scarab beetle, Morris transfers life from others, who wind up with an untimely death, while Morris’s life and youthful appearance are preserved.
It is difficult not to condemn Morris’s actions. Although she claims that she feels like she is fifteen years old, and she still desires to “savor all that there is in this world,” Jordon Herrick, the journalist on assignment to interview her, presumably also desires to live, and there appear to be no grounds on which her life should be valued above his. Morris appears firmly in control, and even manipulative. She seduces Herrick, and clearly not because she’s attracted to him, but in order to kill him and obtain his future years of existence.
Viewed from another perspective, Morris is in a struggle for survival. Without her deployment of the scarab beetle on her unsuspecting victim, Morris will perish. Her actions are like those of someone on a shipwreck, pushing their way past others to the lifeboat. Such behavior is not admirable, but, one might argue, nor is it morally wrong. A philosophical position that supports this conclusion is called “ethical egoism.”
In addition to thinking about actions individuals take out of self-interest that may impact the longevity of other individuals, we can consider the effects of our collective actions on the well-being and even on the survival of others. It is estimated that air pollution is responsible for approximately 4.6 million premature deaths per year, worldwide. As Morris’s decision to place the scarab beetle on Herrick’s body shortens his life, and lengthens hers, so our decisions to power machines that pollute the air shorten lives, particularly the lives of poor residents who live near sources of pollution such as freeways and factories.
Intentionally shortening the life of another human being for one’s own benefit seems worse than engaging in acts that do not target particular individuals but lead to consequences which shorten the lives of individuals. Murder is an example of the former. Killing in combat while at war is an example of the latter. We can at least say this: Any action that results in the shortening of the life of others should come under close moral scrutiny.
Utilitarianism, the view that we ought to engage in those acts which maximize overall utility, or happiness, would condemn the behavior of Pamela Morris, on the grounds that her potential happiness is not greater than that of her victim, Jordan Herrick, and the other victims that came before and will come after him. The utilitarian judgment of our collective air polluting behavior depend on an assessment of the contribution of our transportation, manufacturing, and other activities to our overall happiness, compared to the cost, in premature deaths. A strength of the utilitarian approach is that de-emphasizes the personal dimension. In both cases what matters is the contribution of actions to overall happiness. The happiness of particular individuals doesn’t play a role.
“Queen of the Nile” is also a commentary on the moral status of the way famous people in the entertainment industry often treat others. Pamela Morris is a star, adored by fans, and surrounded by images of herself and mementos of her appearances in film. Jordan Herrick exists merely to help promote her image, increase her fame, and feed her ego. She feigns a love interest in him, but it is just part of her act, calculated to extract anything of value from him. Switching to Immanuel Kant’s perspective, in contrast to that of utilitarianism, Morris treats Herrick as a means to an end, rather than as an end in himself.
Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 1948, Paton, H.J., trans., Harper Torchbooks.
Mill, John Stuart 2015, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and Other Essays, Oxford University Press.