Bioethics: July 2008 Archives

When I was looking for information on the X-Gene for the mutants and race piece I'm working on, one website I was looking at wrongly cited X-Men (the 1991 series) issues 2-3 as one place the X-Gene comes up. I was immediately suspicious, because I'd just read those issues when I was thinking about submitting a proposal for Magneto's moral philosophy for the Supervillains volume (which in the end I decided not to do, even though it would have used material I've put some work into both from the political section of my ancient philosophy teaching and the just war and terrorism section of my applied ethics teaching). I hadn't seen anything about an X-Gene in my recent reading of those issues, but I decided to read them again anyway, and it led to an interesting thought process about the story, something I hadn't spent as much time thinking about the first time through.

The main plot involves Magneto discovering he was genetically re-engineered by Moira McTaggart when he was reduced to a baby. She decided to figure out how the close friend of Charles Xavier could do the things Magneto did, and she discovered an instability in his brain due to the power he was channeling. This did explain how Charles Xavier's friend could become a terrorist. She apparently saw this as hindering who he really was, so she sought to give him a second chance by removing the instability. Many people might think she was preventing a power outside his free choice from influencing him.

What generates the conflict in these issues, though, is that he has a different view. He sees it as her playing God and making every choice he made since then suspect. It's as if he thinks his choices are only free if they go naturally the way they would have without interference from someone changing his internal structure as he existed naturally. I have to say that whether she's right or not, he certainly isn't. How does removing an instability resulting from too much power being channeled through him count as behavior modification of the sort that undermines free will?

But then he forces her to apply the same process (removing an instability particular to him?) to some of the X-Men so that they will follow him and not Xavier. She does it, and they do. Huh? How can removing the instability particular to him from the X-Men who don't have it make them loyal to him and not Xavier? If they do have it, won't it stop their powers from doing the same thing to them and clouding their moral judgments? So removing it wouldn't make them like Magneto. I'm not sure what Chris Claremont was thinking with this one.

Then they snap out of it eventually, because the process only works if the subject never uses their powers. The use of powers undoes it, because somehow the powers are tied into the way the brain has naturally developed, and the genetic re-engineering gets forced back into its natural state somehow by the powers in order to ensure proper functioning. This is also a little strange, because it sounds as if the re-engineering is messing with nature and proper functioning, except the original explanation with Magneto sounded like it was restoring a natural balance that the powers were interfering with.

This was Chris Claremont's last story on X-Men, and in some ways it was a nice send-off to its longest-running writer to end on a battle with Magneto that hits some of the main themes Magneto has always differed with the X-Men on, but it's too bad that a very important premise of the story is so confused, both on the theoretical level about what's going on in this hypothetical scenario and in terms of ethical reflection on that situation. I remember not really liking this story all that much when it came out (seventeen years ago now!), as hyped as it had been with Claremont returning to start off the new X-Men teams and the new book and my favorite new artist Jim Lee rendering the visuals. The first issue is still the highest-selling comic book ever. I don't remember my reasons, but it didn't strike me as worth the attention. I wonder if this was part of the reason.

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