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Jul 08 2014

On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Buffy with bloody knifeSpoiler alert, for people who haven’t watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” but plan to.

I was recently re-watching ““Becoming, Parts 1 and 2,” those Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes where geeky witch Willow does a spell to give the vampire Angel his soul back. And suddenly I had a burning ethical question.

Why don’t they just keep doing the re-ensoulment spell — on all vampires? Or at least, on all the vampires that they can?

Yes, it’s a somewhat difficult spell — although given that Willow could do it when she was a fairly inexperienced witch, it clearly can’t be that difficult. And yes, it’s very likely (although I’m not sure they specify this) that the spell can only be done one vampire at a time, and that you need to know which particular vampire you’re re-ensouling. But given what a scourge vampires are on humanity, wouldn’t it be worth doing, as much as possible? At least from a harm-reduction perspective, even if they could only re-ensoul a couple/few vampires a week, wouldn’t that be worth it?

*****

Thus begins my new piece for io9, On The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To read more about this burning issue of the day (well, this burning issue of 2003), read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

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  1. 1
    Callinectes

    Now I need to check something here first to make sure my head is on straight. If I were to seek justifications within the fiction, I’m not making the same mistake as those who, for example, justify the repeated use of Zelda as a damsel in distress instead of a potential player hero character in the Legend of Zelda series? Because we all know those are ad hoc justifications for a problem within a work of fiction that reflects real problems in the world that could be solved within the fiction simply by writing it that way. Vampires are not real, but they do represent self-aware sapient entities, which one might consider to have or represent a mental and behavioural disorder (even though it is perfectly natural behaviour for a vampire).

    So if I did find or devise a reason that would protect the basic premise of the show without compromising the ethical integrity of the characters, have I just gone out of my way to justify the murdering of sapient beings in fiction, and have I in some way made the same mistake as the Legend of Zelda apologists? I’m not comparing women with vampires, I’m wondering whether this activity would be flawed in the same or similar way.

    Regarding one of the arguments you present in your post, that ensouled vampires would be at a low enough population to be sustained by various animal blood farms and human donations. If these vampires are immortal, ageless (except for the aging experienced prior to their initial death) and free from ordinary illness, might the next logical step be to offer vampirism to everyone? That might well eliminate the defense of a sustainable population, but I don’t know that that alone could justify denying that option. And an eternity for the greatest minds in the world to work on technological, magical, and daemonological solutions to the limitations of vampires means that finding a solution to most such problems is likely a foregone conclusion. This leads us to all the usual ethical problems of immortality, namely, denying the existence of future generations. Vampires can’t breed by themselves, living humans have to breed new bodies and then be sired. A system could probably be devised, but that leads to the problem of a population explosion. We could seek new worlds, I suppose, and space flight for beings that cannot tolerate sunlight is an interesting prospect when you think about it. And we know from Angel that there are other dimensions not dissimilar from ours in which sunlight is harmless to vampires. Souls don’t make you good, they only make it possible to be good, we see what human beings do all the time. Might the innocent inhabitants of other dimensions suddenly find themselves invaded by the vampire race of Earth, seeking new land and chasing the memory of sunlight? In such a war the weaknesses of vampires would be quickly identified, and any counterstrike could pursue us back to Earth with the intent to exterminate us all and eliminate the threat posed by billions of ensouled vampires from the Verse once and for all.

  2. 2
    Trey Martin

    Well, for one, the Orbs were relatively rare magical objects (see the episode “Passions”), and even if they were willing to do it more often, there would be limits on how often they could. The effect was also not guaranteed. The ritual was also attempted by the Gypsies on the vampire named Perfect Jheung, and it failed to restore his soul. The ritual was also dangerous for the caster, and Giles warned Willow about the danger. It is often speculated that this spell was a contributing factor to Willow’s later turn to the dark side. And let’s not forget that the spell is intended to be a curse. The spell doesn’t make the ensouled vampire a good person, nor does it prevent them from feeding and killing. Angel was a special circumstance, and he managed to eventually become good, but he spent many, many years suffering before that happened. All in all, the whole business is ethically questionable, in my opinion.

  3. 3
    Callinectes

    Perhaps that just means that they should have spent more time developing the technique. Which, granted, they might have been able to, had they not been so frequently faced with the end of the world, and few of us would begrudge treating that as a priority.

    There were also other beings to parlay with. Spike’s soul was not returned by that ritual.

  4. 4
    Anne, Old Gumbie Cat

    Greta, I’m going to link to your essay on my Jossverse forum. I think others will find it as interesting as I did. So if you start getting visitors from the Soulful Spike Society, it’s my fault.

    Anyway, yeah, I think the re-ensoulment spell is too difficult and requires too unique an artifact to be used on vampires en masse. Not to mention that the result is variable, and the vampires it’s used on would have to be kept under observation until they adjusted. Angel was living on the streets for years before he adjusted to having his soul, and in my opinion, the only thing that eventually gave him focus was his crush on Buffy. Spike was a bit different because he wanted his soul back, but it still nearly drove him insane. So there’s no telling how some random vampire would react to having his or her soul thrust back in there.

    But it’s still a good question why the Scoobs didn’t keep researching, given the possibilities if they succeeded.

  5. 5
    Anne, Old Gumbie Cat

    Just to clarify, S3 is a forum of which I am a member, not one I started. A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend, and all that.

  6. 6
    eric1rom

    Hmmm, the ethics of killing POTENTIAL humans.

    Now, what does THAT remind me of?

  7. 7
    cartesiandaemon

    Thank you for talking about this!

    I am fascinated by these questions about the morality and spiritual state of vampires, even though I don’t think the show was completely consistent about them.

    I think this particular spell is a red herring. As you say, there are _lots_ of examples of one particular plot point that it would make sense for them to come back to, but never do. I assume that there’s _some_ in-universe reason why it wouldn’t be as easy as that, and it doesn’t matter too much what it is. As long as they’re fairly consistent with “we don’t use this again”, I’m reluctantly willing to accept it. I only really can’t accept it if they use it some of the time and not others.

    I think the underlying problem is that in general they’re inconsistent about whether vampires are people. As best as I can tell, the show’s morality (usually) treats Angel as a completely different person to Angel, and possibly as different to the original human Liam. Hence the ability to say “never kill a human ever but kill vampires with impunity” in a PG-13 show, because Angelus can’t really be rescued, just replaced with Angel. But in most ways, vampires *are* like people without a conscience, and I can’t easily reconcile that with “it’s ok to kill them”.

    The same applies to demons. All vampires (without a soul) are treated as evil, even if they have redeeming features too (eg. Spike). But some demons are evil, some are nice — are all evil demons evil irreversibly, or can they be saved? Even the giant tentacle ones? But the show (wisely but unfortunately) never dwells on this question, and assumes that you can always tell the difference by looking.

  8. 8
    Johnny Vector

    Aside from what cartesiandemon says at #7 (that one week’s all-powerful world-saving phlebotinum is next week’s “never heard of it”), there are other issues with re-ensoulment via their spell. For one thing, it clearly turns you into a moody, brooding person who isn’t really very much fun to be around. Also, it plays merry hob with your Irish accent.

    I have to give them all a break; after six or seven seasons the chance of remaining completely consistent to the original world is almost impossible. I’m pretty sure that “Going Through the Motions”, while sung by Buffy, was in fact Joss singing his feelings to the audience.

  9. 9
    Raging Bee

    What happens to the soul of a vampire who is NOT re-ensouled? If no especially bad fate awaits them, then there’s no moral imperative to re-ensoul vampires.

    I’m not sure how Wheedon handled this, but I thought that, in the original vampire folklore, a vampire still had his soul, unlike a zombie, which was just dead meat re-animated by something other than a human spirit or soul, which had gone to its reward when the meat became dead in the first place.

  10. 10
    amandamarcotte

    Since vampires are reanimated corpses, I don’t think re-ensoulment is superior to just leaving them to dust. Think of it as hyper-fast cremation.

    In the universe of “Buffy”, souls of the dead—including vampires—go to heaven. We know that when Buffy herself was pulled from heaven, it was terrible and she suffered greatly. Re-ensouling her dead body was no different, ethically speaking, than re-ensouling vampires. And that was presented as a terrible thing to do to Buffy, basically not allowing her the right to lay down her troubles and enjoy paradise. Angel, too, is not allowed to feel true happiness.

    IIRC, they don’t re-ensoul Angel as an act of mercy so much as a way to stop him from Evil Plan #10,000, working on the idea that they might inject a soul into him faster than they could kill him. Sure, sentimental attachment to him played a role, but that is not the ethical quandary here.

  11. 11
    John Horstman

    Also keep in mind that the spell *is* very much a curse – if one is ever truly happy, one loses one’s soul because it is a curse and thus has a built-in mechanism preventing total adaptation to the new state. As Raging Bee points out, the best an ensouled vampire can hope for is basically an eternity of low-grade depression that allows for contentment but not joy. On a personal level, the other option, whatever it is, may well be far better.

    Spike is an especially interesting case once The Initiative plants a behavior-modification chip in him. Ensoulment is not necessary to socialize new pro-social (or at least less-anti-social) behavior patterns. It’s also suggested that the individual personalities of the people who become vampires matter more than is generally acknowledged – Spike, for example, has conflicts with various other vampires becasue he actually loves Drusilla (assuming one can have love without empathy – the concepts aren’t actually all that clearly defined; what is love?) and will put her well-being above the success of their schemes (again, pushing a socialization model over one of some kind of intrinsic vampire nature). Similarly, Angelus was a monster in part becasue of who he was before becoming a vampire. The series strongly suggests that vampires, even without souls, are not in fact intrinsically evil (though almost everyone considers them to be such, including vampires themselves), but that the combination of their (meta)physiology and social position on Earth relative to humans (both marginal and predatory) leads all of them to behave badly towards humans. Behaviorally speaking, the soul seems to pretty much be empathy, and while empathy is what motivates many people to be kind to others, it neither guarantees that one will be kind nor does a lack of empathy preclude kindness. Possibly the same could hold true for vampires.

    So, new/additional question: even without the possibility of ensoulment (say, becasue one can’t get the necessary components for the spell easily or at all), are there serious ethical issues with killing vampires? If the alternatives involve things like kidnapping, imprisonment, and non-consensual surgery to implant pain-inducing electronics that condition the vampires to not harm people, are they actually any better than simply killing the vampires? Are those the only alternatives? Has anyone ever tried to reform a vampire through non-coercive means (given their physical prowess, that might not be possible)? Has anyone who is truly a magnanimous communitarian socialist with love for everyone and everything been vampirized? There is a lot of possibility for exploration here; I don’t read the comic book continuation of the series so I’m not sure if they’ve actually tackled any of these.

  12. 12
    BobApril

    We see from Season 6, when Willow brings Buffy back from the dead, that such a return is not necessarily a good or desirable thing for the person brought back. I’m not sure that it would be ethical to return all those souls from wherever they might have gone – presumably their just reward – merely in the hopes that they could be good upon their return.

    Darla’s return to humanity in Angel also seems relevant. She wanted only to return to her soulless vampire state.

    I think staking them is still the right thing to do.

  13. 13
    freemage

    One thing I noticed when I did some wiki-diving was that the ritual is not always successful, and indeed, may be a bit of a long-shot; at least one other vampire was targeted by the curse–he was technically the one it was designed for, in fact, with Angelus just being a test-run–and it flopped.

    So that alters the equation again, especially since the failed case turned even more bitter and evil, resenting his status in comparison to Angel.

    (I was not a watcher of the show, even though I enjoy Whedon’s works, for a curious reason–I’m one of the five people in North America who liked the movie, and thus found the shift in Buffy’s characterization to be a bit too jarring to keep them in the same continuity.)

  14. 14
    Artisan Florissant

    As a biographical note, the Brian Thomas who wrote about vampire ecology is Dr. Brian Dahlen Thomas, who acquired his PhD in 2002. I have no idea what that individual is doing nowadays, but a few years ago he identified as a scientist in San Francisco, which is a big step up from a PhD candidate.

  15. 15
    kieran

    I’m going to give this a shot

    1: Willow isn’t an average witch, other witches in the series are limited. Willow at this stage could float a pencil and few other things but manages a seriously difficult spell to re-ensoul Angel. She later nearly destroys the world and goes on to completely reshape how slayers are formed. Simple terms not every witch could do what she does. the spell in only known to have been successful 3 times and two of times were with Willow.

    2. Orb of Thesulah are rare, fragile and single use

    3. As pointed out it is not always successful

    There is no guarantee that the newly re ensouled vampire will turn out good, many chose to become vampires in the first place. Probably wouldn’t stop them killing people just because they have a soul again. Plenty of evil characters in Buffyverse were 100% human.

  16. 16
    latsot

    @amandamarcotte

    In the universe of “Buffy”, souls of the dead—including vampires—go to heaven.

    I’m not sure this is true. I’m pretty sure that Angel’s soul goes to hell when he’s VAMPIRE’D. This raises another ethical question: if a person’s soul automatically goes to hell when they are turned and killing the vampire body doesn’t release the soul from torment, how is it ethical to kill any vampires AT ALL? By re-ensouling them, you’d be literally saving them from hell, regardless of any other consequences. All those religious types who’ve tried to save me from hell over the years should be champing at the bit to ensoul them some vampires.

  1. 17
    Recommended reading: bumper edition » Godlessness in Theory

    […] The Ethics of Vampire Slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, by Greta Christina (io9) I was recently re-watching ‘Becoming, Parts 1 and 2’, those Buffy the Vampire Slayer […]

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