Triffids and the Challenge to God’s Law
John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (Penguin, 1954) is a classic tale of environmental disaster which provides fruitful source material for ethical discussions. Life on Earth has come to a sudden stop with a almost total blinding of the whole population, probably through a malfunctioning orbiting defence system. The Triffids, man eating walking plants, also thought to have been created by deliberate mutation by the Russians, are taking advantage of the situation killing large numbers of the blinded population. A few sighted people escaped the blinding and are leading larger groups of the blind. One such group, held up in a country house, faces the challenge of making a radical change to the way they live and the intellectual leader of the community, a Doctor Vorless, a Professor of Sociology, makes a speech. These selections are taken from pages 118-121 in the Penguin edition.
Doctor Vorless begins by reflecting on the variety of human institutions in different cultures.
“‘We must all see, if we pause to think, that one kind of community’s virtue may well be another kind of community’s crime: that what is frowned upon here may be considered laudable elsewhere; that customs condemned in one century are condoned in another. And we must also see that in each community and each period there is a widespread belief in the community and in each period there is a widespread belief in the moral rightness of its own customs.
‘Now, clearly, since many of these beliefs conflict they cannot all be “right” in an absolute sense. The most judgement one can pass on them – if one has to pass judgements at all – is to say that they have at some period been “right” for those communities that hold them. It may be that they still are, but it frequently is found that they are not, and that the communities who continue to follow them blindly without heed to changed circumstances do so to their own disadvantage – perhaps to their ultimate destruction.’ …
‘Thus,’ he continued, ‘you would not expect to find – the same manners, customs, and forms in a penurious Indian village living on the edge of starvation as you would in, say, Mayfair. Similarly the people in a warm country where life is easy are going to differ quite a deal from the people of an overcrowded, hardworking country as to the nature of the principal virtues. In other words, different environments set different standards.
‘ I point this out to you because the world we knew is gone – finished. The conditions which framed and taught us our standards have gone with it. Our needs are now different, and our aims must be different. If you want an example, I would suggest to you that we have all spent the day indulging with perfectly easy consciences in what two days ago would have been housebreaking and theft. With the old pattern broken, we have now to find out what mode of life is best suited to the new. We have not simply to start building again: we have to start thinking again – which is much more difficult and far more distasteful…
‘In the time now ahead of us a great many of these prejudices we have been taught will have to go, or be radically altered. We can accept and retain only one primary prejudice, and that is that the race is worth preserving. To that consideration all else will for a time at least be subordinate. We must look at all we do, with the question in mind: “Is this going to help our race survive – or will it hinder us?” If it will help, we must do it, whether or not it conflicts with the ideas in which we were brought up. If not, we must avoid it even though the omission may clash with our previous notions of duty, and even of justice.
‘We must have the moral courage to think and to plan for ourselves … We can afford to support a limited number of women who cannot see, because they will have babies who can see. We cannot afford to support men who cannot see. In our new world, then, babies become very much more important than husbands.’ …
A tall, dark, purposeful-looking, youngish woman had risen. While she waited, she appeared to have a mouth not made to open, but later it did. ‘Are we to understand,’ she inquired, using a kind of carbon-steel voice, ‘are we to understand that the last speaker is advocating free love?’ And she sat down, with spine-jarring decision.
Doctor Vorless smoothed back his hair as he regarded her. ‘ I think the questioner must be aware that I never mentioned love, free, bought, or bartered. Will she please make the question clearer?’ The woman stood up again. ‘ I think the speaker understood me. I am asking if he is suggesting the abolition of the marriage law?’
‘The laws we knew have been abolished by circumstances. It now falls to us to make laws suitable to the conditions, and enforce them if necessary.’
‘There is still God’s law, and the law of decency.’
‘Madam. Solomon had three hundred – or was it five hundred? – wives, and God did not apparently hold that against him. A Mohammedan (NB note below) preserves rigid respectability with three wives. These are matters of local custom. Just what our laws in these matters, and in others, will be is for us all to decide later for the greatest benefit of the community.”
(Note: This term for a Muslim is now considered disrespectful and can cause offence but at the time of writing it was quite frequently used by well-meaning academics without intending offence.)
Ultimately the community decides that every sighted man will care for a sighted wife and two blind wives, and have children, who would be sighted, with all three. The community could not support many blind men and they relocate on the Isle of Wight where they can better defend their borders and eradicate Triffids. In the story some resist the idea and try other routes, with two sighted people caring for twenty blind, but these fail. The only community to flourish is that which has chosen a route which breaks away from traditional Christian morality, and makes a utilitarian decision about who can be saved (women and sighted men) and leave most blind men to a grim death at the hands of the Triffids, plague, or the groups of bandits.
The ideas in the extracts raise all sorts of fundamental questions. Is the survival of the human race desirable? Some radical environmentalists, including James Lovelock, argue for a reduced human presence in the world to allow the biosphere to flourish and there is a strong sense in The Day of the Triffids that the catastrophe is a kind of judgement on humanity’s failings. There is something of the tower of Babel in the story as it is suggested that humanity’s hubris is creating monsters and monstrous weapons breaks the natural laws and therefore the bounteous world in which they live turns against them and becomes a hard place to live. Men and women have, once more, been thrown out of Eden to live hard lives beyond the paradise of God’s garden.
Should brutal utilitarian judgements be made to abandon the most vulnerable for the sake of survival? It is quite clear in the story that survival means abandoning many to death. To try to help the helpless is to endanger the future of the species. In desperate situations, compassion for the weak is a luxury which is abandoned for the greater good.
Are the rules of living as relative and situational as the Professor suggests or is the woman correct to defend God’s laws, bringing to mind a classic natural law defense? Is a sexual morality which includes polygamy morally justifiable in this case or any other case? The survival of the community requires a high rate of childbirth. In John Wyndham’s world the only way to grow enough food for the ageing population is to ensure a good supply of new workers and blind women have a role to play. They need a guide in the world so a sighted couple look after two women. In the story, the main character and narrator, Bill Mason, is in love with a sighted woman he has met called Josella. When faced with the new moral rules, she quickly decides they are acceptable and will fit their life together. She tells Bill that she will choose two blind women to join their marriage. Can any kind of sense of rightness be given to this sort of marriage from a Christian theological perspective?