Revisiting Robert Heinlein: Methuselah's Children

One of Heinlein’s early novels, Methuselah’s Children, is the first to introduce his “Future History,” a series of interrelated books and stories beginning a few hundred years in the future. It’s in this novel that his recurring character, Lazarus Long, is first introduced. Yet another one of Heinlein’s old man literary egos with a proclivity towards lecturing young folk, Lazarus Long drives many of the key events of Methuselah’s Children; namely, by convincing his secret society, the Howard Family, into fleeing their persecution on Earth and reaching for the stars.
Through a few centuries of selective breeding, the Howard Family has developed themselves into a sub-species of humanity with an expanded lifespan and a slow aging process. Many members of the Family are over a century old, and yet they blend into ordinary human society by faking their own deaths once their lack of aging might cause suspicion, and then move elsewhere in the world where they adopt a new persona and repeat the process. Some members of the society, though, decide they trust the rest of humanity enough to expose themselves—all in hope that the Family no longer need live in secrecy—and from there the persecution begins.
From the very beginning, Methuselah’s Children challenges the limits of our system of ethics. The rationale that Bork Vanning—the novel’s antagonist—provides to justify the persecution of the Howard Family is one that might give pause to those who subscribe to a utilitarian morality. Vanning’s argument is that if the Family holds the secret to longer life—a false assumption, yet one they are not given the chance to disprove—then they have a moral duty to share such longevity with the rest of humanity, as withholding such information is akin to letting the rest of humankind die a premature death. And, since the Family refuses to share this information, Vanning argues that the ethical thing to do is to force this information out of them—after all, wouldn’t it be ethical to force a cure out of a doctor who was withholding it from a few hundred people in danger of dying from some deadly disease? Well, in this case, extorting the information from the Family would prevent the premature deaths of a few billion people: the entire population of Earth.
This is an ethical scenario that seems to blur the lines between act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarians believe that which benefits the greater number of people is always the moral choice, e.g., in the case of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, kill a rich old lady and take her money to give back to the world. Rule utilitarians believe likewise but with the added caveat that what benefits society in the long run must also be taken into account when considering such scenarios, i.e., allowing innocents to come to harm in all instances where a greater number of people could derive benefit from such an act isn’t conducive to developing a stable society. It isn’t hard to see that rule utilitarianism is an answer to the hypothetical moral dilemmas contrived by opponents of utilitarianism, and yet Heinlein’s scenario presents a challenge to rule utilitarianism itself: from the perspective of Bork Vanning, persecuting and torturing members of Howard Family until their secret to long life is revealed would have long term consequences that would benefit society. By doing so, the lifespans of all humankind would be at least tripled, and the premature deaths of all members of humanity, until the end of time, prevented.
But of course, as is revealed to the reader, the Family is innocent of withholding such information. Their longevity is simply in their genes and their persecution is as unjust as any other in history. As a rule utilitarian myself, I find Heinlein’s ethical dilemma quite bothersome, and Bork Vanning’s reasoning annoyingly hard to refute while maintaining consistency.
In order to escape this violent persecution, Lazarus and the Family escape Earth on a stolen rocket and head for the nearest habitable exoplanet. Through the use of some hand-waiving physics, the Family is able to beat the cosmic speed limit and achieve faster-than-light travel, undergoing significant time dilation on the way. They arrive on a planet inhabited by a tall race of humanoid aliens, the Jockaira. Friendly and eager to help their human visitors, this species is happy to integrate the Family into their society, but it is then discovered that the Jockaira are not the true rulers of the planet. Instead, they are the equivalent of a domesticated species of animal, ruled by a master-race hidden inside the Jockaira’s mysterious temples. Heinlein’s depiction of this race reveals some excellent world-building: the Jockaira, though obviously intelligent, have limited technology and are unable to explain how much of it works, while also being baffled by some of the more individualistic concepts of humanity, such as privacy. Yet, unable to tame the Family as they have tamed the Jockaira, the master-race of the planet lifts the Family back into their rocket—while never revealing themselves—and the Family then departs yet again to look elsewhere for a world on which they can build their new society.
The second world they arrive at is inhabited by another race of humanoid aliens, though this species is hive-minded. Nicknamed the Little People, their world is incredibly minimalist, and many members of the Family begin to grow uncomfortable by a race who so desperately wants to consume them into their single-minded organism. The Little People prove themselves masters of genetic manipulation, and after they alter a human infant to better fit the Little People’s world and absorb some Family members into their hive mind, the majority of the Family choose to leave and return to Earth.
Upon their arrival back home, the remaining members of the Family discover that humanity has found the secret to long life on their own—more than two centuries have passed due to the time dilation the Family underwent on their interstellar voyage—and that the persecution the Family left behind is no longer waiting for them. It’s a great twist, one that fits the context of the story and also makes for a happy ending—a somewhat rare combo in science fiction—but it also gives Lazarus Long his chance to pontificate on the meaning of life:

“Yes, maybe it’s just one colossal big joke, with no point to it . . . But I can tell you this . . . whatever the answers are, here’s one monkey that’s going to keep on climbing, and looking around him to see what he can see, as long as the tree holds out.”

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