"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Boys from Brazil

Josef Mengele, an SS physician infamous for his inhumane medical experimentation on prisoners at Auschwitz, is in this film a character intent on furnishing the 95 Hitlers he has cloned with Hitler’s own background. Crucially, Hitler’s father died at 65. So too, Mengele, reasons, must the adoptive fathers of the boy Hitlers. Otherwise, they might not turn out like Hitler. The ethics of Mengele’s task—killing 95 innocent 65 year-olds—is clear. When Ezra Lieberman stops Mengele in his tracks, the question turns to the ethics of killing the 95 boys so none of them will grow up to be another Hitler. This is a much more interesting ethical question, and the narrative—and film as a medium, moreover—would be fuller had the script been deepened to make the question, and thus the ethical and ontological dimensions, transparent for the viewers.


Even if the boys have the same upbringing environment as Hitler, and obviously the same genetics, the world was not the same after World War II. Antisemitism cannot be assumed—even less the Aryan-race ideology. The news of the Holocaust alone changed the public discourse. Hitler’s demise meant that any aspiring Hitler would face considerable headwind in securing a dictatorship in Western Europe. In short, the leap from same-environment, same-genetics to another Hitler is unsupportable. Hence, killing the boys to save future lives and even safeguard democracy could not be justified ethically under consequentialism.

Deeper than the ethical dimension is the question of whether a clone of a person is identical to the original person from which the DNA sample is used to make the clones. In philosophical terms, the question is that of ontological identity. I contend that such identity does not hold in the case of cloning.

That no two environments (e.g., upbringings) can be exactly the same means that a cloned person cannot be formed just like the original. It follows that the clone makes different choices, and even has different thoughts. In other words, the stream of thoughts is not identical. Indeed, the consciousnesses are different. It is not as if Hitler could see or hear the world through the boys after his death. The minds are thus not identical, even though the brains are constructed by the same genetics—but environment can impact brain chemistry! Severe abuse, for instance, can alter the chemistry. Hitler’s father was stern—perhaps abusive. If so, a cloned boy whose father is distant but not abusive would not have the same brain chemistry as Hitler.

The ontological non-identity provides a strong basis for the ethical claim that killing the 95 cloned-Hitler boys to prevent another Hitler from becoming a vicious dictator would be unethical. The assumption that another Hitler must necessarily result from a shared genetics and a similar upbringing is faulty because too many other variables would be in play for such a deterministic relationship to hold.

Should it be argued that the boys should be killed to punish Hitler, who in the film’s story-time is already dead, the ontological non-identity means that the 95 boys are innocent of Hitler’s atrocious deeds. Punishing the innocent is itself unethical. That Hitler is dead when the boys are cloned means that he would not be punished. Admittedly, killing the clones would not be in Hitler’s interest, and doing something that would impact Hitler negatively has ethical merit on account of Hitler’s deeds. However, the immoral act of killing the innocent outweighs such merit, I submit, both because of the boys’ pain of death and the fact that Hitler would not be aware of the punishment because he is dead.

Ethical analysis can be complex, but it can indeed lead to definitive answers. One philosopher who criticized moral theory, Friedrich Nietzsche maintained something very close to an ontological identity—the same consciousness being absent—in positing that given infinite time and the infinite possible number of galaxies, a person just like you—in effect, you—must certainly be the case at some point—and indeed innumerable times—on a planet somewhere that is just like Earth. In fact, Nietzsche holds that the person would be you! How excruciating it must be to know that all your heartaches are to be felt an infinite number of times. So Nietzsche has a demon announce:

"This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence -- even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"[1]

I submit that Nietzsche’s assumption of ontological identity (i.e., his use of the pronoun you) goes too far. As I argue above, even an identical genetics and the very same environment do not give the same consciousness. Physically, two (or more) brains exist. The recurrences are thus not really so. Nietzsche admits, for instance, that we have no awareness of our respective “recurrences; we don’t suffer again what we have suffered. Nor, for that matter, can we experience our past joys again. So you will not have to live once more, and innumerable times more, the life you have lived, even if that life is repeated; the reason is that the person is not ontologically identical to you.

Even in terms of physics, Nietzsche’s theory of the Eternal Return is problematic. Simply put, his idea is that infinite space means that infinite universes (each of which contains galaxies) exist so mathematically an infinite number of Earths with an infinite number of variations, including that which we experience in our lives, must be the case. In short, an infinite number is very, very large. Nietzsche applies the mathematics to physics:

“If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force -- and every other representation remains indefinite and therefore useless -- it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it must pass through a calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game ad infinitum.”[2]

In short, Nietzsche is saying that a finite system within an infinite system must occur an infinite number of times. Even though Nietzsche calls this the Eternal Return, he is not suggesting that infinity itself is divine. If space is infinite—a claim that Einstein rejects in his theory of curved space—that space is in Creation and thus not divine. Even so, Nietzsche’s assumption not only that space is infinite, but also that galaxies exist throughout that space is problematic. If space goes on and on without limit, it is possible that matter and energy cease at a certain location.

Furthermore, even a “definite quantity of force” and “a certain definite number of centers of force” can involve an infinite number of variables. One reason why the social sciences fall short of the empirical lab experiments in the natural sciences (i.e., biology, chemistry, physics) is that all the variables that go into human behavior and social scenarios have not been identified and thus subject to being held constant or adjusted. I contend that the infinite number here cancels out the infinite number of recurrences (e.g., of you). Think of “infinite” in a numerator and “infinite” in a denominator of fractions. The two infinities cancel out. In short, there has not been, is not, and will not be another you.

In conclusion, even an “absolutely identical series” applied to identical genetics is not sufficient for us to posit the sort of ontological identity that would permit us to say that Hitler recurs in the 95 clones in the film. Killing the boys would thus be unethical. In keeping the audience from knowing that the boys are cloned from Hitler’s DNA, the story does not permit much time for discussion of the philosophical issues here. Even so, the Lieberman character is of the sort who would be inclined to have such thoughts and thus ask other characters, such as his wife, questions that could get the audience thinking. Such a narrative dimension would make film that much more powerful, and thus rich, as a story medium.





[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 341.
[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 1066.