The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.2 (Spring 2013)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Monsters of Duty: Cordwainer Smith’s Attack on Kantian Morality and the Suppression of Feeling in “Scanners Live in Vain”
The scanners in Cordwainer Smith’s story “Scanners Live in
Vain” are heroes who have sacrificed their humanity for the good of humanity.
The contradiction that one might love humanity enough, not to just give up
one’s life for humanity, but to give up one’s humanity while alive,
undergirds the story. In Smith’s imagined universe, only someone without
feeling can cope with the extreme pain and loneliness of “the up and out,”
Smith’s name for outer space. In the up and out, pilots are needed to monitor
spaceships. The other passengers are unconscious. If scanners weren’t cut off
from their feelings, they would die from the pain. Unable to feel sensation or
emotion, cut off from their own bodies, scanners rely on instruments embedded in
their chests to determine if anything is wrong. Those who are “habermans”
have also undergone an operation that separates them from normal human feeling.
In their case it is punishment for crimes they have committed, and they are used
as tools in interplanetary travel until they are terminated. What makes scanners
different is that they have undergone the haberman process voluntarily, and they
get to choose when a haberman gets terminated.
Martel is the central protagonist of the story. A scanner, he is
called to an urgent meeting while “cranching.” “Cranching” turns out to
be a temporary respite from inhuman emotionlessness and divorce from one’s
body. Cranching is dangerous for the scanner and must be done fleetingly and
sparingly. This turns out to be highly significant metaphorically.
The meeting involves a decision as to what do to do about Adam
Stone, who has made a stunning discovery. If the outer shell of spaceships is
filled with living organisms—oysters, for instance—the organisms experience
the pain of the up and out and the human occupants of the ship are preserved
from this. But this innovation will make scanners redundant. It will mean they
have sacrificed their humanity for nothing. They see themselves as uniquely good
because they have put duty above their personal good. Because of their unique
abilities, scanners have controlled interplanetary travel, and therefore
interplanetary warfare would be impossible without their participation. The
scanners’ devotion to duty means that this participation would not occur. In
order to preserve their order, and to prevent a possible return to warfare, the
scanners decide to murder Stone. One also suspects that a large part of the
scanners’ motivation to commit the murder is that scanners’ existence would
now be redundant: hence the title of the story, “Scanners Live in Vain.”
Only Martel violently objects to the murder. We are told that if Martel were not
cranched, he would have thought the decision reasonable. Only because he is
temporarily fully human does he reach the correct moral conclusion.
The rest of the story involves Martel’s attempt to stop the
murder of Adam Stone. Stopping the murder means he will have to betray the order
of the scanners, and he will have to face the prospect that the sacrifice of his
humanity will now be pointless. He will be an inhuman relic of an older age.
From the beginning of the story, Cordwainer Smith makes it clear
that scanners are monstrous. They are disconnected from their emotions and from
their sensations. This makes normal human interaction impossible. The most
hopeless situation involves attempting to maintain a romantic relationship while
only briefly getting respite from disconnection; the cranching holidays from
inhumanity. The sole exception among the scanners, Martel has wooed and married
Luci, despite having spent a total of only eighteen days cranched in the past
year. Martel’s argument with Luci, with which the story begins, is repulsive.
Unable to hear, and without direct control over his voice, every word he utters
is painful for Luci to hear. He staggers oblivious about the room, unable to
feel anything, and he smashes into a table, shattering it. He can only tell if
he has broken his leg by scanning his chest instruments.
Luci doesn’t want Martel to cranch because he has cranched only
recently and the strain might kill him. In other words, Luci doesn’t want
Martel to feel anything, because feelings
are dangerous. The fantasy that life would be improved if we were purely
rational and disconnected from emotion has been recurrent. At least some
scientists admit that, unable to deal with the dangers and difficulties of their
emotional lives, they seek refuge in a life devoted to objective concerns. This
had long been my suspicion regarding some people attracted to science. In Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks admits that this kind of fear was
responsible for his early attraction to chemistry.
“Scanners Live in Vain” is partly an examination of this notion
that a world without emotions would be a safer place. Martel tells Stone the
opinion of the scanners, “You will make scanners unnecessary, they say. You
will bring the ancient wars back to the world, if scanning is lost and the
scanners live in vain!”
The fantasy that moral progress will be made and such things as wars abolished
if reason supplants feelings probably has its origins in the Enlightenment.
Bertrand Russell became its more modern proponent. Russell’s first attempt to
realize this fantasy involved the notion that natural languages (English,
Spanish, etc.) could be replaced by logical notation. In this way, ambiguity
would be eliminated and clarity would prevail. This clarity would pave the way
for a much more rational form of behavior. Religion, in particular, could be
disposed of. The verificationist theory of meaning, which he and other logical
positivists promoted, suggested that a noun was meaningful only if its reference
could be scientifically verified. “The moon,” for instance, means that
object you will see if you look at a place in the sky at a certain time when the
sky is cloudless.
Logical positivism came to an end as a formal philosophical project
because it failed to live up to its own test of meaningfulness. One of the
tenets of positivism was that only truths which could be scientifically verified
were to count as true. However, the notion that only science provides truths
cannot itself be scientifically verified. The thesis of logical positivism
turned out to be scientifically unwarranted.
Logical positivism is illogical! But, the theory also failed
because it leads to a reductio ad absurdum.
In ridding the world of subjectivity and our language of all words without a
clear scientific reference, retaining only logical operators in addition to
these words, Russell also rid the world of anything worth caring about. In fact,
his system would also rid the world of caring. No subjective items have a
scientific, empirical reference. So emotion, feeling, morality, aesthetics and
consciousness are removed from the world along with religion. Colorless,
tasteless, soundless atoms in the void are worthless.
Nonetheless, the majority of analytic philosophers remain committed
to positivism as a matter of sentiment, if not logic. Many of them continue to
write about morality, mind and aesthetics, while failing to see that they can
never say anything meaningful about them again.
Smith wrote “Scanners” in 1945. The second world war in one century understandably led many people to try to envisage some way of stopping these conflagrations. The fantasy of doing this by eliminating feelings is expressed in “Scanners”:
The space discipline of our confraternity has kept high space clean of war and dispute. Sixty-eight disciplined men control all high space. We are removed by our oath and our haberman status from all Earthly passions. Therefore, if Adam Stone has conquered the pain of space, so that Others can wreck our confraternity and bring to space the trouble and ruin which afflicts Earth’s, I say that Adam Stone is wrong. If Adam Stone succeeds, scanners live in vain! (23)
Many of Smith’s contemporaries started to imagine removing
emotion from the world. In the 1950s, positivism became de rigueur in America academia. As Chomsky has pointed out, many
academics seemed to be unaware of the European origins of this “new”
perspective. This new emphasis on science had come to seem the way of the future
and a particularly American way, filled with practicality and business-friendly
good sense. Of course, America’s success in the war reinforced the
effectiveness of this new way. America had made such a large contribution to
WWII partly because the US had been able to out-produce its enemies. Japanese
combatants spoke of the demoralizing effect of shooting down one bunch of
American planes only to see the sky made dark with more American planes the next
day, and the day after that.
The Cold War, involving the massive production of nuclear weapons,
also contributed to this new emphasis on science, as did the space race, which
became a propaganda fight with the prestige of the US and the USSR and their
respective philosophies at risk.
Positivism, it seems, was “overdetermined,” which is modern
philosophical speak for “fated to be.” If one cause had ceased, there were
several more that even singly would have been enough to produce the same
outcome. Our own death is overdetermined in this way. If heart disease, cancer,
cirrhosis of the liver, kidney failure, and stroke don’t get you, pneumonia,
the old man’s friend, will.
But one of the things contributing to positivism seems to have been
the notion that positivism could be a solution to the danger of war.
“Scanners” partly addresses this supposed prophylactic property of
positivism. The idea seems to be that wars are irrational and driven by emotion.
Feelings are dangerous. Luci doesn’t want Martel to cranch because allowing
oneself to feel too much can lead to death. “When Luci answered, he saw only a
part of her words as he read her lips: “Darling... you’re my husband...
right to love you... dangerous... do it... dangerous... wait...’”
It is imagined that wars start out of hot tempers and feelings of
hatred, and it is true that war generally requires emotion for its continuance.
Overcoming the prohibition on killing often seems to require us to demonize our
enemies in order to feel all right about killing them. Of course, soldiers often
recognize that on the other side are conscripts like themselves, and they are
all in the same boat. Thus, ironically, soldiers often have a fellow feeling
with their opposing counterparts. But fear and hatred continue to be necessary
to retain popular support.
In Smith’s imagined scenario in “Scanners Live in Vain,” an emotionless race cut off from its feelings and sensations might be even more prone to making bad decisions, not less. Martel has arrived at the meeting while cranched, and sees things more truly, as Smith describes it, than when he cannot feel anything.
This time, it was different. Coming cranched, and in full possession of smell-sound-taste-feeling, he reacted more or less as a normal man would. He saw his friends and colleagues as a lot of cruelly driven ghosts, posturing out the meaningless ritual of their indefeasible damnation.
When the decision to murder Adam Stone is made, Martel realizes
“... that only a cranched scanner could feel with his very blood the outrage
and anger which deliberate murder would provoke among the Others.”
Smith seems to be suggesting that reason has its place, but that a proper moral reaction is likely to be impeded without feelings. Outrage and anger at injustice motivates us to act. Studies of people who have had injuries to the brain which prevent them from feeling emotions reveal that such people make terrible decisions.
The studies of decision-making in neurological patients who can no longer process emotional information normally suggest that people make judgments not only by evaluating the consequences and their probability of occurring, but also and even sometimes primarily at a gut or emotional level. Lesions of the ventromedial (which includes the orbitofrontal) sector of the prefrontal cortex interfere with the normal processing of ‘‘somatic’’ or emotional signals, while sparing most basic cognitive functions. Such damage leads to impairments in the decision-making process, which seriously compromise the quality of decisions in daily life.
Smith was right! I have also read descriptions of those who suffer
from this kind of brain damage being relatively unable to make any decisions,
standing at Starbucks in a frenzy of indecision.
Emotions are not all of a piece. While a caveman is capable of getting angry if he is struck, only a morally developed person can get outraged about harm that is intentionally inflicted on a stranger. Getting emotional about works of art may require a high level of understanding and appreciation that does not exist in the uncultivated. While the feeling of anger may be similar between individuals, the reasons for that anger can be related to one’s level of development. Feelings are as much associated with majesty and greatness as they are with cowardly meanness, suspicion and hatred. While ridding the world of hatred might seem desirable, losing all emotions, including those associated with kindness, love and friendship, would be disastrous. The world is not made a more humane place by turning human beings into machines. Over and over again, Smith describes the horror and inhumanity of the haberman and the scanner. Martel says:
“But our lives, Luci. What can you get out of being the wife of a scanner? Why did you marry me? I’m human only when I cranch. The rest of the time—you know what I am. A machine. A man turned into a machine. A man who has been killed and kept alive for duty. Don’t you realize what I miss?” . . . How will I know if I’m dead?
A man without feelings is an abomination: a machine,
indistinguishable from a dead man.
Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Long Years” in The
Martian Chronicles seems to suggest a similar conclusion. Hathaway, earlier
encountered in the short story “And The Moon Be Still As Bright” in the same
volume, has built himself a replacement robot family after his real family has
died in a plague. The robots look just like his original wife and adult
children, but, being mechanical, they never age in the normal human manner.
Hathaway knows that they will remain functioning once he has died of old age. In
constructing his robot family, in order to spare them grief when he dies,
Hathaway did not include the possibility of feeling negative emotions. At the
end of the story, Hathaway’s old crewmates have returned after twenty years in
other parts of the solar system. This is what Hathaway has been waiting for. He
seems to have been wanting one last contact with genuine human beings before he
dies. The desire satisfied, his heart gives out. At this point, Hathaway’s old
crewmates expect to be comforting the distraught robot family. However, the
family is unconcerned. They have no ability to grieve and feel no sadness.
It might seem nice to be able to go through life, if we can for the
moment talk in this manner about robots, without feeling negative emotions like
pain, loneliness and grief. “The Long Years” seems to contradict this
notion. Hathaway’s old crewmates witness the robot family’s lack of reaction
to his death. This lack of reaction reveals the robot family to be monstrous and
less than human. Grief at the death of a loved one is right and proper. A
failure to grieve is evidence of a lack of feeling. An inability to feel sadness
is an inability to experience all that it means to be human: to be alive and
sensitive to the importance of other people in our lives. If we can’t
understand loss, perhaps we can’t appreciate the presence of loved ones,
either. The robot family is spared negative feelings, but in the process its
members are cut off from the deeper dimensions of human existence and become
less than human. In a similar fashion, the scanners are less than human.
Cordwainer Smith seems to be suggesting that feelings, even negative feelings, are an essential aspect of our humanity, and are important in moral decision-making and especially in taking action. After the scanners vote to kill Adam Stone, Martel tries to overturn the decision. He rushes the rostrum but is physically repulsed by the chief scanner, Vomacht. The other scanners restrain Martel.
Some scanner he scarcely knew took
his instruments and toned him down.
Immediately Martel felt more calm, more detached, and hated himself for feeling so (24).
Feeling calm and detached is the morally inappropriate thing to
feel. It is also makes it harder to act. This is similar to an event in Philip
K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric
Sheep. Rick Deckard’s wife, Iran, rejects the use of the Penfield Mood
Organ to overcome depression upon finding herself surrounded by empty apartments
due to the death of most the human population. To Deckard’s horror, Iran
schedules a few hours of depression a month to face the reality of her isolated
Smith seems to suggest that not only action is impeded by the lack of feeling, but proper moral reasoning, as well.
As he ran, he wondered what appeal to make. It was no use talking common sense. Not now. It had to be law. (24)
These sentences are reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s advocacy of
moral law. At times, it can seem like Kant perversely enjoys the occasional
conflict between moral law and common sense. For instance, Kant argued against
the benevolent use of lying, saying that the consequences of actions could never
be foreseen and that if you lied to a would-be murderer to save his would-be
victim, you might unintentionally get the victim killed anyway. Kant’s
encounter with Humean skepticism might have encouraged such fatalism. Those of
us who are fans of common sense might suggest that sometimes likely consequences
should be considered in moral decision-making, even if we might turn out to be
Martel tries to persuade his friend Chang that his moral reasoning is deficient without access to feelings.
“I am a scanner. The vote has
been taken. You would do the same if you were not in this unusual condition.”
not in an unusual condition. I’m cranched. That merely means that I see things
the way that the Others would. I see the stupidity. The recklessness. The
selfishness. It is murder.”
is murder? Have you not killed? You are not one of the Others. You are a
scanner. You will be sorry for what you are about to do, if you do not watch
One feature of psychopaths is their lack of empathy. Most of us
feel intensely sorry and embarrassed for merely accidentally standing on someone
else’s foot. Psychopaths can gouge your eyeballs out and not feel a thing.
Without empathy we cannot know how other people feel, because we cannot feel how
other people feel. Perhaps there is an analogy with eyesight. It is one thing to
see, and another to have a verbal description of a visual experience. By
analogy, it is one thing to know rationally and intellectually that gouging
people’s eyes out is immoral and another to feel viscerally the horror of
doing this. Again, it’s a bit like the difference between rationally
understanding a joke and actually laughing.
Feelings are part of our being and they help us to understand the
world. They also connect us to the world. We can’t be emotionally close to
people if we can’t feel as they feel. A psychopath can’t have friends
because part of friendship involves feeling understood by your friend. We do not
want mere rational understanding; we want our friends to feel as we do. An
autistic person does not intuitively understand how you are feeling, so to this
degree, they do not understand you. They must intellectually learn that being
red in the face and yelling in an agitated fashion means you are angry. Your
dog, on the other hand, often does know how you are feeling and you know how he
is feeling. That, I suspect, is a large part of being man’s best friend.
Martel knows that he can’t get close to Luci without feelings. Physical proximity is not enough.
Forgive me, Luci. I suppose I
shouldn’t have cranched. Not so soon again. But darling, I have to get out
from being a haberman. How can I ever be near you? How can I be a man—not
hearing my own voice, not even feeling my own life as it goes through my veins?
I love you, darling. Can’t I ever be near you?’ (7)
One sometimes hears about doctors and nurses withholding empathy
for their patients. They are afraid of feelings. They are afraid they will
become overwhelmed by the suffering and pain of other people. From an
outsider’s perspective, once you stop caring about your patients it would seem
wise to find another profession. The babies in orphanages who have a hand placed
on them and a flat-sounding voice intoning, “Good baby,” have a much higher
chance of survival than completely emotionally neglected babies. Neglecting such
needs in adults does not seem very therapeutic, either. Apparently the outcome
of medical remedies is affected by the concern and interest expressed by the
physician, just as optimism about a full recovery affects how well one recovers
from surgery. The six-minute average doctor’s consultation leaves little room
for this kind of thing and probably explains part of the attraction of
‘alternative’ health practitioners. The latter often seem to be quacks, but
their degree of “caring” could have actual medical benefits.
The philosopher Ken Wilber has described Kant’s view of the ideal
rational human as a kind of floating ego. Kant denies the possibility of
transcendent experience. We can’t converse with God, or come to know him, we
can only believe in him. So, for Kant, we have no access to post-rational levels
of consciousness. But Kant also undermines our connection with the pre-rational.
If we think about human beings developmentally—that is to say,
hierarchically—then the levels of our being extend from atoms, molecules and
individual cells, up through the limbic system and the neocortex, externally.
Internally, our subjectivity includes prehension, sensation,
perception, emotions, images, symbols, concepts, concrete operational thought,
formal operational thought, and beyond. Rationality is an ability that exists at
the formal operational level, where abstract thought takes place and we can
think about thinking. But a large part of our internal being extends down into
nature, connecting us with all living things. Another part reaches into the
heavens, connecting us with the Godhead.
Aristotle understood this partially when he identified the nutritive soul, capable of taking in nourishment and reproducing; the sensitive soul, responsible for pain, pleasure, will and desire; and the rational soul. Each “soul” transcends but includes the lower levels. Kant’s floating ego is not a vision of transcending, but including. It is a vision of transcending and suppressing. Our lower levels are discarded and an attempt is made to be wholly and only rational. The hellishness of this is clearly indicated by Cordwainer Smith.
faced her, but put sound in his voice, letting the blare hurt her again: “I
tell you, I’m going to cranch.”
Catching her expression, he became rueful and a little tender: “Can’t you understand what it means to me? To get out of this horrible prison in my own head? To be a man again—hearing your voice, smelling smoke? To feel again—to feel my feet on the ground, to feel the air move against my face? Don’t you know what it means?” (2)
Habermans are the
sentenced-to-more-than-death. Habermans live in the mind alone. (15)
Smith understands that the Kantian man is a kind of monster. Chang, like all the scanners, is divorced from much of his own humanity, but he makes an effort to fake it.
“No. I don’t feel, or taste, or hear, or smell things, any more than you do. Talking doesn’t do me much good. But I notice that it cheers up the people around me.” (12)
Smith seems to envision the Kantian scanners as souls perishing in hell.
Coming cranched, and in full possession of smell-sound-taste-feeling, he reacted more or less as a normal man would. He saw his friends and colleagues as a lot of cruelly driven ghosts, posturing out the meaningless ritual of their indefeasible damnation. (19)
The following rhetorical questions
seem to make a more direct connection to Kant. “What could any
Other know of the up-and-out? What Other could look at the biting acid beauty of
the stars in open space?” (20). Probably the most famous quotation from Kant
things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe: the starry
heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
Kant does have a correct insight, and that is that there is no morality in nature. (We might qualify this by saying it is almost the case.) His mistake is to imagine that morality requires a divorce with the prerational aspects of our being. The fear is that if we let nature in, we will be overwhelmed by nonrational impulses. The scanners ask and answer:
what, O Scanners, if no ships go?”
“The Earths fall apart. The Wild comes back in. The Old Machines and the Beasts return.” (16)
negative emotions can
lead to violence. Kant notes that even positive emotions are not under our
complete voluntary control. He claims that I cannot have a moral duty to love my
neighbor, because I can’t control who I do and do not love. I can, however,
control my ability to reason. A will is good if it is wholly determined by
reason. Good heartedness, Kant claims, can even be a moral obstacle. If, for
instance, one acts well towards someone out of human warmth and love, then
one’s actions are based on something transitory and fleeting. One will not act
so well in the future when, inevitably, those feelings wane. Only reason is
Kant thinks that moral reasoning is the actual purpose of reason.
If happiness were the goal of reason, instinct would have served us better, he
says. The will is good if it is wholly determined by reason, and reason says
things like “so act that the maxim of your action could become universal
law.” Another version of the categorical imperative is “treat yourself and
others always as ends and never merely as a means.” What is good for you and
what reason demands must be kept distinct. I might be an honest shopkeeper
because honesty is good for business. Or I might be honest because it is my
moral duty to be honest as determined by the categorical imperative. Prudence
and self-interest are ‘natural.’ Every animal is motivated by these
non-moral motives. If my actions are merely consistent with morality, but not
motivated by my respect for the moral law, then they have no moral significance.
If in fact I am cold and distant, and have no human warmth, then I can be sure
that my actions have merit. It is only if I refrain from killing myself out of
moral duty, not because I love life, that my moral motivations are clear.
For reasons like these, Kant wanted to suppress all the elements of
consciousness which are lower than formal operational. Prudence, self-interest
and feelings are messy things clouding the moral situation.
It is true that prerational aspects of our being may trump rational
considerations. But it is also arguably true that merely rational considerations
are not enough to generate morality. We cannot prove that human life is valuable
rationally. Nor can we reason correctly without empathy. We must try to
harmonize our prerational selves with our rational selves and perhaps with our
post-rational intuitions. Feelings give us access to aspects of reality that are
otherwise closed to us. The reality of the subjective lives of other people is
felt as much as deduced. We require a felt understanding to feel emotionally
close to other people. Deadening emotion is not the answer. That seems more
likely to make us inhuman and isolated.
Feelings are scary and can be painful, but those feelings are one
access we have to the meaning of the events we experience. Feelings can be
critiqued by reason. We can be appropriately ashamed of feelings. Feelings can
sometimes overwhelm our rational assessments of situations and drive us to do
the wrong thing. Loving our neighbor is often not possible, and sometimes just
doing our duty is the best we can do. “Scanners Live in Vain” is an extended
critique of the nightmare that our lives would become if we truly became the
floating ego that Kant’s notions would imply. It might seem that rationality
offers the prospect of control in a way that prerational aspects of ourselves
often do not make possible. Duty is more reliable than feeling. But why you
should want to do your duty is not satisfactorily explained by Kant. Part of our
duty is arguably to do unto others as we would have them do unto us and part of
that is knowing how other people would like to be treated. This kind of
knowledge requires that we bring our whole being to our interactions with
others, not just our intellect, just as a proper appreciation of works of art
requires not just emotional or intellectual or physiological satisfaction, but a
combination of all three.
Smith, The Best of Cordwainer Smith,
“Scanners Live in Vain,” (New York: Ballentine Books, 1975), 36.
 Smith, 2.
 Smith, 19.
 Smith, 27.
 Antoine Bechara, “The role of
emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with
orbitofrontal damage,” Brain and
Cognition 55 (2004) 30–40.
 Smith, 7-8.
Richard Cocks teaches philosophy on three New York state campuses: he acknowledges a strong “sentimental attachment” to SUNY Oswego, where he began working in 2001. His key interests include ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with a special interest in the canonical works of Western civilization. He has previously been published in The Brussels Journal and People of Shambhala.