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Monsters of Duty: Cordwainer Smith’s Attack on Kantian Morality and the Suppression of Feeling in Scanners Live in Vain

Monsters Of Duty: Cordwainer Smith’s Attack On Kantian Morality And The Suppression Of Feeling In Scanners Live In Vain

The Best of Cordwainer Smith. Cordawiner Smith. New York: Ballentine Books, 1975)


The scanners in Cordwainer Smith’s story “Scanners Live in Vain” are heroes who have sacrificed their humanity for the good of humanity. The contradiction that one might love humanity enough, not to just give up one’s life for humanity, but to give up one’s humanity while alive, undergirds the story. In Smith’s imagined universe, only someone without feeling can cope with the extreme pain and loneliness of “the up and out,” Smith’s name for outer space. In the up and out, pilots are needed to monitor spaceships. The other passengers are unconscious. If scanners were not cut off from their feelings, they would die from the pain. Unable to feel sensation or emotion, cut off from their own bodies, scanners rely on instruments embedded in their chests to determine if anything is wrong. Someone who is a “haberman” has also undergone an operation, separating them from normal human feeling. In their case it is punishment for crimes they have committed, and they are used as tools in interplanetary travel until they are terminated. What makes scanners different is that they have undergone the haberman process voluntarily, and they get to choose when a haberman gets terminated.

Martel is the central protagonist of the story. A scanner, he is called to an urgent meeting while “cranching.” “Cranching” turns out to be a temporary respite from inhuman emotionlessness and divorce from one’s body. Cranching is dangerous for the scanner and must be done fleetingly and sparingly. This turns out to be highly metaphorically significant.

The meeting involves a decision as to what do to do about Adam Stone. By filling the outer shell of spaceships with living organisms (oysters), the oysters experience the pain of the up and out and the human occupants of the ship are preserved from this. But this innovation will make scanners redundant. It will mean they have sacrificed their humanity for nothing. They see themselves as uniquely good because they have put duty above their personal good. Because of their singular abilities, scanners have controlled interplanetary travel, and therefore interplanetary warfare would be impossible without their participation. The scanners’ devotion to duty means that this participation would not occur. In order to preserve their order, and to prevent a possible return to warfare, the scanners decide to murder Stone. It is implied that a large part of the scanners’ motivation to commit the murder is that scanners’ existence would now be redundant, hence the title of the story, “Scanners Live in Vain.” Only Martel violently objects to the murder. We are told that if Martel were not cranched, he would have thought the decision reasonable. Only because he is temporarily fully human does he reach the correct moral conclusion.

The rest of the story involves Martel’s attempt to stop the murder of Adam Stone. Stopping the murder means he will have to betray the order of the scanners, and he will have to face the prospect that the sacrifice of his humanity will now be pointless. He will be an inhuman relic of an older age.

From the beginning of the story, Cordwainer Smith makes it clear that scanners are monstrous. They are disconnected from their emotions and from their sensations. This makes normal human interaction impossible. The most hopeless situation involves attempting to maintain a romantic relationship while only briefly getting respite from disconnection; the cranching holidays from inhumanity. The sole exception among the scanners, Martel has wooed and married Luci, despite having spent a total of only eighteen days cranched in the past year. Martel’s argument with Luci with which the story begins is repulsive. Unable to hear, and without direct control over his voice, every word he utters is painful for Luci to hear. He staggers oblivious about the room, unable to feel anything, he smashes into a table shattering it. He can only tell if he has broken his leg by scanning his chest instruments.

Luci does not want Martel to cranch because he has cranched only recently and the strain might kill him. In other words, Luci would rather Martel not feel anything, because feelings are dangerous. The fantasy that life would be improved if we were purely rational and disconnected from emotion has been recurrent. At least some scientists admit that, unable to deal with the dangers and difficulties of their emotional lives, they seek refuge in a life devoted to objective concerns. This had long been my suspicion regarding some people attracted to science. In Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks admits that this kind of fear was responsible for his early attraction to chemistry.

Scanners Live in Vain is partly an examination of this notion that a world without emotions would be a safer place. Martel tells Stone the opinion of the scanners, “You will make scanners unnecessary, they say. You will bring the ancient wars back to the world, if scanning is lost and the scanners live in vain!”[1] This fantasy that moral progress will be made and such things as wars abolished if reason supplants feelings, probably has its origins in the Enlightenment. Bertrand Russell became its more modern proponent. Russell’s first attempt to realize this fantasy involved the notion that natural languages (English, Spanish, etc.) could be replaced by logical notation. In this way, ambiguity would be eliminated and clarity would prevail. This clarity would pave the way for a much more rational form of behavior. Religion, in particular, could be disposed of. The verificationist theory of meaning which he and other logical positivists promoted, suggested that a noun was meaningful only if its reference could be scientifically verified. “The moon,” for instance, means that item you will see if you look at a place in the sky at a certain time when the sky is cloudless.

Logical positivism came to an end as a formal philosophical project because it failed to live up to its own test of meaningfulness. One of the tenets of positivism was that only truths which could be scientifically verified were to count as true. However, the notion that only science provides truths, cannot itself be scientifically verified. The thesis of logical positivism turned out to be scientifically unwarranted.

Logical positivism is illogical! But, the theory also failed because it leads to a reductio ad absurdum. In ridding the world of subjectivity and our language of all words without a clear scientific reference, retaining only logical operators in addition to these words, Russell also rid the world of anything worth caring about. In fact, it would also rid the world of caring. No subjective items have a scientific, empirical reference. So, emotion, feeling, morality, aesthetics and consciousness are removed from the world along with religion. Colorless, tasteless, soundless atoms in the void are worthless.

Nonetheless, the majority of analytic philosophers remain committed to positivism as a matter of sentiment, if not logic. Many of them continue to write about morality, mind and aesthetics, while failing to see that they can never say anything meaningful about them ever again.

Smith wrote Scanners in nineteen forty-five. The second world war in one century understandably led many people to try to envisage some way of stopping these conflagrations. The fantasy of doing this by eliminating feelings is expressed in Scanners:

“The space discipline of our confraternity has kept high space clean of war and dispute. Sixty-eight discip­lined men control all high space. We are removed by our oath and our haberman status from all Earthly pas­sions. Therefore, if Adam Stone has conquered the pain of space, so that Others can wreck our confraternity and bring to space the trouble and ruin which afflicts Earths, I say that Adam Stone is wrong. If Adam Stone suc­ceeds, scanners live in vain!” (23)

Many of Smith’s contemporaries started to imagine removing emotion from the world. In the nineteen-fifties, positivism became de rigeur in America academia. As Chomsky has pointed out, many academics seemed to be unaware of the European origins of this “new” perspective. This new emphasis on science had come to seem the way of the future and a particularly American way, filled with practicality and business-friendly good sense. Of course, America’s success in the war reinforced the effectiveness of this new way. America had made such a large contribution to WWII partly because the U.S. had been able to out produce its enemies. Japanese combatants spoke of the demoralizing effect of shooting down one bunch of American planes only to see the sky made dark with more American planes the next day, and the day after that.

The Cold War, involving the massive production of nuclear weapons, also contributed to this new emphasis on science, as did the space race, which became a propaganda fight with the prestige of the US and the USSR and their respective philosophies at risk.

Positivism, it seems, was “overdetermined,” which is modern philosophical speak for “fated to be.” If one cause had ceased, there were several more that even singly would have been enough to produce the same outcome. Our own death is overdetermined in this way. If heart disease, cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, kidney failure, a stroke, do not get you, pneumonia, the old man’s friend, will.

But one of the things contributing to positivism seems to have been the notion that positivism could be a solution to the danger of war. Scanners partly addresses this supposed prophylactic property of positivism. The idea seems to be that wars are irrational and driven by emotion. Feelings are dangerous. Luci does not want Martel to cranch because allowing oneself to feel too much can lead to death.

“When Luci answered, he saw only a part of her words as he read her lips: “Darling. . . you’re my hus­band. . . right to love you. . . dangerous. . . do it . . . dangerous. . . wait. . .””[2]

It is imagined that wars start out of hot tempers and feelings of hatred, and it is true that war generally requires emotion for their continuance. Overcoming the prohibition on killing often seems to require us to demonize our enemies in order to feel all right about killing them. Of course, soldiers often recognize that on the other side are conscripts like themselves, and they are all in the same boat. Thus, ironically, soldiers often have a fellow feeling with their opposing counterparts. But fear and hatred continue to be necessary to retain popular support.

In Smith’s imagined scenario in Scanners Live in Vain, an emotionless race cut off from their feelings and sensations might be even more prone to making bad decisions, not less. Martel has arrived at the meeting while cranched, and sees things more truly, as Smith describes it, than when he cannot feel anything.

This time, it was different. Coming cranched, and in full possession of smell-sound-taste-feeling, he reacted more or less as a normal man would. He saw his friends and colleagues as a lot of cruelly driven ghosts, postur­ing out the meaningless ritual of their indefeasible dam­nation.[3]

When the decision to murder Adam Stone is made, Martel realizes “. . . that only a cranched scanner could feel with his very blood the outrage and anger which deliberate mur­der would provoke among the Others.”[4]

Smith seems to be suggesting that reason has its place, but that a proper moral reaction is likely to be impeded without feelings. Outrage and anger at injustice motivates us to act. Studies of people who have had injuries to the brain which prevent them from feeling emotions reveal that such people make terrible decisions.

The studies of decision-making in neurological patients who can no longer process emotional information normally suggest that people make judgments not only by evaluating the consequences and their probability of occurring, but also and even sometimes primarily at a gut or emotional level. Lesions of the ventromedial (which includes the orbitofrontal) sector of the prefrontal cortex interfere with the normal processing of “somatic” or emotional signals, while sparing most basic cognitive functions. Such damage leads to impairments in the decision-making process, which seriously compromise the quality of decisions in daily life.[5]

Smith was right! I have also read descriptions of those who suffer from this kind of brain damage being relatively unable to make any decisions, standing at Starbucks in a frenzy of indecision.

Emotions are not all of a piece. While a caveman is capable of getting angry if he is struck, only a morally developed person can get outraged about harm that is intentionally inflicted on a stranger. Getting emotional about works of art may require a high level of understanding and appreciation that do not exist in the uncultivated. While the feeling of anger may be similar between individuals, the reasons for that anger can be related to one’s level of development. Feelings are as much associated with majesty and greatness as they are with cowardly meanness, suspicion and hatred. While ridding the world of hatred might seem desirable, losing all emotions, including those associated with kindness, love and friendship would be disastrous. The world is not made a more humane place by turning human beings into machines.  Over and over again, Smith describes the horror and inhumanity of the haberman and the scanner. Martel says:

“But our lives, Luci. What can you get out of being the wife of a scanner? Why did you marry me? I’m hu­man only when I cranch. The rest of the time—you know what I am. A machine. A man turned into a ma­chine. A man who has been killed and kept alive for duty. Don’t you realize what I miss?” . . . How will I know if I’m dead?[6]

A man without feelings is an abomination: a machine; indistinguishable from a dead man.

Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Long Years” in The Martian Chronicles seems to suggest a similar conclusion. Hathaway, earlier encountered in the short story “And The Moon Be Still As Bright” in the same volume, has built himself a replacement robot family, after his real family have died in a plague. They look just like his original wife and adult children, but, being mechanical, they never age in the normal human manner. Hathaway knows that they will remain functioning once he has died of old age. In constructing his robot family, in order to spare them grief when he dies, Hathaway did not include the possibility of feeling negative emotions. At the end of the story, Hathaway’s old crewmates have returned after twenty years in other parts of the solar system. This is what Hathaway has been waiting for. He seems to have been wanting one last contact with genuine human beings before he dies. The desire satisfied, his heart gives out. At this point, Hathaway’s old crewmates expect to be comforting the distraught robot family. However, the family is unconcerned. They have no ability to grieve and feel no sadness.

It might seem nice to be able to go through life, if we can for the moment talk in this manner about robots, without feeling negative emotions like pain, loneliness and grief. “The Long Years” seems to contradict this notion. Hathaway’s old crewmates witness the robot family’s lack of reaction to his death. This lack of reaction reveals the robot family to be monstrous and less than human. Grief at the death of a loved one is right and proper. A failure to grieve is evidence of a lack of feeling. An inability to feel sadness is an inability to experience all that it means to be human; to be alive and sensitive to the importance of other people in our lives. If we cannot understand loss, perhaps we can’t appreciate the presence of loved ones either. The robot family is spared negative feelings, but in the process its members are cut off from the deeper dimensions of human existence, and become less than human. In a similar fashion, the scanners are less than human.

Cordwainer Smith seems to be suggesting that feelings, even negative feelings, are an essential aspect of our humanity, and are important in moral decision making and especially in taking action. After the scanners vote to kill Adam Stone, Martel tries to overturn the decision. He rushes the rostrum but is physically repulsed by the chief scanner, Vomacht. The other scanners restrain Martel.

“Some scanner he scarcely knew took his instruments and toned him down. Immediately Martel felt more calm, more detached, and hated himself for feeling so.” (24)

Feeling calm and detached is the morally inappropriate thing to feel. It is also makes it harder to act. This is similar to Rick Deckard’s wife, Iran, rejecting the use of the Penfield Mood Organ to overcome depression about being surrounded by empty apartments due to the death of most the human population in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. To Deckard’s horror, Iran schedules a few hours of depression a month to face the reality of her isolated condition.

“Smith seems to suggest that not only action is impeded by the lack of feeling, but proper moral reasoning. As he ran, he wondered what appeal to make. It was no use talking common sense. Not now. It had to be law.” (24)

These sentences are reminiscent of Immanuel Kant’s advocacy of moral law. At times, it can seem like Kant perversely enjoys the occasional conflict between moral law and common sense. For instance, Kant argued against the benevolent use of lying, saying that the consequences of actions could never be foreseen and that if you lied to a would-be murderer to save his would-be victim, you might unintentionally get the victim killed anyway. Kant’s encounter with Humean skepticism might have encouraged such fatalism. Those of us who are fans of common sense, might suggest that sometimes likely consequences should be considered in moral decision-making, even if we might turn out to be wrong.

Martel tries to persuade his friend Chang that his moral reasoning is deficient without access to feelings.

“I am a scanner. The vote has been taken. You would do the same if you were not in this unusual condition.”

 “I’m not in an unusual condition. I’m cranched. That merely means that I see things the way that the Others would. I see the stupidity. The recklessness. The selfish­ness. It is murder.”

 “What is murder? Have you not killed? You are not one of the Others. You are a scanner. You will be sorry for what you are about to do, if you do not watch out.” (28-29)

One feature of psychopaths is their lack of empathy. Most of us feel intensely sorry and embarrassed for merely accidentally standing on someone else’s foot. Psychopaths can gouge your eyeballs out and not feel a thing. Without empathy we cannot know how other people feel, because we cannot feel how other people feel. Perhaps there is an analogy with eyesight. It is one thing to see, and another to have a verbal description of a visual experience. By analogy, it is one thing to know rationally and intellectually that gouging people’s eyes out is immoral and another to feel, viscerally the horror of doing this. Again, it is a bit like the difference between rationally understanding a joke and actually laughing.

Feelings are part of our being and they help us to understand the world. They also connect us to the world. We cannot be emotionally close to people if we are unable to feel as they feel. A psychopath cannot have friends because part of friendship involves feeling understood by your friend. We do not want mere rational understanding; we want our friends to feel as we do. An autistic person does not intuitively understand how you are feeling, so to this degree, they do not understand you. They must intellectually learn that being red in the face and yelling in an agitated fashion means you are angry. Your dog, on the other hand, often does know how you are feeling and you know how he is feeling. That, I suspect, is a large part of being man’s best friend.

Martel knows that he is prevented from getting close to Luci without feelings. Physical proximity is not enough.

“Forgive me, Luci. I suppose I shouldn’t have cranched. Not so soon again. But darling, I have to get out from being a haberman. How can I ever be near you? How can I be a man—not hearing my own voice, not even feeling my own life as it goes through my veins? I love you, darling. Can’t I ever be near you?’”7)

One sometimes hears about doctors and nurses withholding empathy for their patients. They are afraid of feelings. They are afraid they will become overwhelmed by the suffering and pain of other people. From an outsider’s perspective, once you stop caring about your patients it would seem wise to find another profession. The babies in orphanages who have a hand placed on them and a flat sounding voice intoning “good baby,” have a much higher chance of survival than completely emotionally neglected babies. Neglecting such needs in adults apparently is not very therapeutic either. Apparently the outcome of medical remedies is affected by the concern and interest expressed by the physician, just as optimism about a full recovery affects how well one recovers from surgery. The six minute average doctor’s consultation leaves little room for this kind of thing and probably explains part of the attraction of “alternative” health practitioners. The latter often seem to be quacks, but their degree of “caring” could have actual medical benefits.

The philosopher Ken Wilber has described Kant’s view of the ideal rational human as a kind of floating ego. Kant denies the possibility of transcendent experience. We are unable to converse with God, or come to know him, we can only believe in him. So, for Kant, we have no access to post-rational levels of consciousness. But Kant also undermines our connection with the pre-rational. If we think about human beings developmentally, that is to say, hierarchically, then the levels of our being extend from atoms, molecules and individual cells, up through the limbic system and the neocortex, externally. Internally, our subjectivity includes prehension, sensation, perception, emotions, images, symbols, concepts, concrete operational thought, formal operational thought, and beyond. Rationality is an ability that exists at the formal operational level, where abstract thought takes place and we can think about thinking. But a large part of our internal being extends down into nature, connecting us with all living things. Another part reaches into the heavens, connecting us with the Godhead.

Aristotle understood this partially, when he identified the nutritive soul, capable of taking in nourishment and reproducing, the sensitive soul, responsible for pain, pleasure, will and desire, and the rational soul. Each “soul” transcends but includes the lower levels. Kant’s floating ego is not a vision of transcending, but including. It is a vision of transcending and suppressing. Our lower levels are discarded and an attempt is made to be wholly and only rational. The hellishness of this is clearly indicated by Cordwainer Smith.

[Martel] faced her, but put sound in his voice, letting the blare hurt her again: “I tell you, I’m going to cranch.”

Catching her expression, he became rueful and a little tender: “Can’t you understand what it means to me? To get out of this horrible prison in my own head? To be a man again—hearing your voice, smelling smoke? To feel again—to feel my feet on the ground, to feel the air move against my face? Don’t you know what it means?” (2)

Habermans are the sentenced-to-more-than-death. Habermans live in the mind alone. (15)

Smith understands that the Kantian man is a kind of monster. Chang, like all the scanners, is divorced from much of his own humanity, but he makes an effort to fake it.

“No. I don’t feel, or taste, or hear, or smell things, any more than you do. Talking doesn’t do me much good. But I notice that it cheers up the people around me.” (12)

Smith seems to envision the Kantian scanners as souls perishing in hell.

“Coming cranched, and in full possession of smell-sound-taste-feeling, he reacted more or less as a normal man would. He saw his friends and colleagues as a lot of cruelly driven ghosts, postur­ing out the meaningless ritual of their indefeasible dam­nation.” (19)

The following rhetorical questions seem to make a more direct connection to Kant. What could any Other know of the up-and-out? What Other could look at the biting acid beauty of the stars in open space?” (20) Probably the most famous quotation from Kant is: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Kant does have a correct insight, and that is that there is no morality in nature. (We might qualify this by saying it is almost the case.) His mistake is to imagine that morality requires a divorce with the prerational aspects of our being. The fear is that if we let nature in, we will be overwhelmed by nonrational impulses. The scanners ask and answer:

 “And what, O Scanners, if no ships go?”

“The Earths fall apart. The Wild comes back in. The Old Machines and the Beasts return.” (16)

Negative emotions can lead to violence. Kant notes that even positive emotions are not under our complete voluntary control. He claims that I cannot have a moral duty to love my neighbor, because I can’t control who I do and do not love. I can, however, control my ability to reason. A will is good if it is wholly determined by reason. Good heartedness, Kant claims, can even be a moral obstacle. If, for instance, one acts well towards someone out of human warmth and love, then one’s actions are based on something transitory and fleeting. One will not act so well in the future when, inevitably, those feelings wane. Only reason is reliable.

Kant thinks that moral reasoning is the actual purpose of reason. If happiness were the goal of reason, instinct would have served us better, he says. The will is good if it is wholly determined by reason, and reason says things like “so act that the maxim of your action could become universal law.” Another version of the categorical imperative is “treat yourself and others always as ends and never merely as a means.” What is good for you and what reason demands must be kept distinct. I might be an honest shopkeeper because honesty is good for business. Or I might be honest because it is my moral duty to be honest as determined by the categorical imperative. Prudence and self-interest are “natural.” Every animal is motivated by these non-moral motives. If my actions are merely consistent with morality, but not motivated by my respect for the moral law, then they have no moral significance. If in fact I am cold and distant, and have no human warmth, then I can be sure that my actions have merit. It is only if I refrain from killing myself out of moral duty, not because I love life, that my moral motivations are clear.

For reasons like these, Kant wanted to suppress all the elements of consciousness which are lower than formal operational. Prudence, self-interest and feelings are messy things clouding the moral situation.

It is true that prerational aspects of our being may trump rational considerations. But it is also arguably true, that merely rational considerations are not enough to generate morality. We cannot prove that human life is valuable rationally. Nor can we reason correctly without empathy. We must try to harmonize our prerational selves with our rational selves and perhaps with our post-rational intuitions. Feelings give us access to aspects of reality that are otherwise closed to us. The reality of the subjective lives of other people is felt as much as deduced. We require a felt understanding to feel emotionally close to other people. Deadening emotion is not the answer. That seems more likely to make us inhuman and isolated.

Feelings are scary and can be painful, but those feelings are one access we have to the meaning of the events we experience. Feelings can be critiqued by reason. We can be appropriately ashamed of feelings. Feelings can sometimes overwhelm our rational assessments of situations and drive us to do the wrong thing. Loving our neighbor is often not possible, and sometimes just doing our duty is the best we can do. Scanners Live in Vain is an extended critique of the nightmare that our lives would become if we truly became the floating ego that Kant’s notions would imply. It might seem that rationality offers the prospect of control in a way that prerational aspects of ourselves often do not make possible. Duty is more reliable than feeling. But why you should want to do your duty is not satisfactorily explained by Kant. Part of our duty is arguably to do unto others as we would have them do unto us and part of that is knowing how other people would like to be treated. This kind of knowledge requires that we bring our whole being to our interactions with others, not just our intellect, just as a proper appreciation of works of art require not just emotional, or intellectual, or physiological satisfaction, but a combination of all three.



[1] Cordwainer Smith, The Best of Cordwainer Smith, “Scanners Live in Vain,” (New York: Ballentine Books, 1975), 36.

[2] Smith, 2.

[3] Smith, 19.

[4] Smith, 27.

[5] Antoine Bechara, “The role of emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage,” Brain and Cognition 55 (2004) 30–40

[6] Smith, 7-8.

Richard CocksRichard Cocks

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

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