Mutant Rights, Torture, and X-Perimentation

So the next essay in “X-Men and Philosophy” is “Mutant Rights, Torture and X-Perimentation” by Cynthia McWilliams.  The essay is for the most part an examination of whether such things as torture and forced experimentation and other violations of what we’d consider “human rights” would be permissible to subject mutants to.  Unfortunately, the analysis is a bit shallow because the starting point is one that we can quickly dispose of, and once that is disposed of there isn’t really much difference left between mutants and everyone else and so it devolves to the standard questions.  But there is one question that isn’t examined in detail where the specific case of mutants is still an interesting way to explore that question.

So, the easy question is this:  mutants are not considered human beings, and even some mutants consider themselves to not be humans (Magneto specifically), so do they deserve what we call “human” rights?  After all, they aren’t human, and so might not be covered under rights that are specifically named for humans.  Why this isn’t a very interesting question is that pretty much everyone understands that the name is just that:  a name.  What we call human rights are either legal rights — and so are conferred upon citizens — or in the more philosophical sense are more akin to “sentient rights”, which means that they are conferred on pretty much anyone who is capable of appreciating and utilizing them.  So even if they count as a distinct species and so not as humans, they are clearly derived sufficiently from them so as to retain sentience, and so would deserve those rights as much as any being.  The claim that they are not human is therefore just a fig leaf in order to be able to claim that they don’t deserve rights, and not a real philosophical argument at all.

The rest of McWilliams’ essay, once she establishes that, ends up concluding that given human rights the only way that torture or forced experimentation could be justified is, well, by the ways we try to justify it for those we definitely consider human:  by appealing to utilitarian interest, which is often difficult to manage.  As I noted in the first paragraph, the introduction of mutants here isn’t all that interesting since there isn’t much difference between mutants and everyone else wrt that.  The only decent question here involves the fact that many of them are threats to others by their very natures, which then might justify extra restrictions on them.  McWilliams heavily uses Senator Kelly’s discussion of their potential threat with Jean Grey in the first Fox X-Men movie, but leaves out the line where Kelly says that people are licensed to drive so why shouldn’t mutants be registered, with Jean Grey replying that we don’t license people to live.  And yet, if people did have some sort of inseparable and dangerous advantage, we might well insist that they be properly trained in the use of that advantage and might place special restrictions on them to ensure that they use them properly.  So while it’s a bit of a joke to say that a marital artist has hands that have to be registered as deadly weapons, we might well regulate martial arts trainers and hold people with that training to special standards when they use it, just because of how great an advantage it is.  We might well treat martial artists who strike out of anger more harshly because of how dangerous their use of them are, and in particular in how dangerous the unrestrained use of them would be, and so we might want to compel them to use restraint.  This, then, could justify the registration and compulsory training of mutants in the use of their abilities.  But it wouldn’t justify forced experimentation or torture, except in circumstances where that would be justified for anyone else.

The interesting question that is not really addressed is the idea that if mutants are considered as deserving of moral consideration by humans, then would they be required to consider humans as deserving of moral consideration?  McWilliams answers this by pointing out that the general argument about human rights says that mutants do deserve moral consideration and so she then moves on to asking if mutants have any additional moral obligations towards humans because of their powers.  But in the X-Men world while one can argue that they ought to have the same rights and moral considerations as humans, many humans and much of the time they actually aren’t considered by humans to have the same rights or moral considerations.  While Magneto and his followers don’t consider them to be a part of humanity, in return an awful lot of humans don’t think that they’re human and use that as an excuse to deny them rights or argue that they do not have to give them any moral consideration at all.  So would mutants like Magneto be justified in refusing to give moral consideration at least to those humans who refuse to give mutants more consideration?  I think that to be a properly moral person, you’d have to hold yourself above such concerns and so give everyone the moral consideration they ought to receive, and so not base it on what moral consideration they extend to you.  But it is an interesting question about what one owes someone who denies you the status of a moral agent.

At any rate, human rights are not just human rights, but are sentient rights, so mutants deserve them.  However, as we’ve seen in most X-Men media, many people do not share this rather obvious conclusion.


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