“Society Chooses Its Dead” Pt. 3: The Replaceability of Human Life

Human Replaceability?

But now we are living in a world which tries its best, at least in some countries, to never take someone’s lives away. A lot of countries today are trying to abolish death penalty because of its perceived needless cruelty in exchange for life imprisonment. Other than that, a lot of countries today are trying to be less dependent on societal norms and instead rely more and more on laws based on reason and equality. Less and less countries are willing to use physical punishments that could be considered to be somewhat messy, like flagellation. More and more countries are standardizing and outlining what rights do everyone has. Be that as it may, is it true that no one is still condemned to die in this day and age? Is it true that we no longer need human sacrifices for whatever it is that we want to achieve? Or do they just take a different form other than overt elimination in the form of killing?

Take for example the case of Blanche Monnier. Monnier was a woman who was locked up by her mother for 26 years in a small room because Monnier wanted to marry a lawyer whose social status was “below that of her family”. The Monnier family was a conservative bourgeoise of old noble origins, and Monnier’s mother apparently took their family status very seriously. Obliviously, the family was rather prestigious. Blanche Monnier, perhaps owing to her upbringing, was renowned at the time for her beauty, and apparently, numerous men were attracted to her. Needless to say, in her mother’s eyes, Blanche’s future was quite limitless, she could choose the right suitor and she could then live an easy life. Or even more, if she could choose someone belonging to a higher social status, she could even increase her social prestige. And yet Blanche desired to marry a lawyer. For Blanche to marry a “penniless lawyer” was a disaster. Therefore, in the end, mother chose to lock her up in a small room in the attic rather than to hand her to the lawyer.

Now clearly this case is deplorable to say the least. The mother clearly disregarded the life of Blanche just for the sake of what she thought to be the greater good. But we could clearly see that this was not the case. To have her marry the “penniless lawyer” would certainly be a lot better than to have her locked in a small room in the attic with her own filth. In that 26 years, she could have done so much, experienced so many things, lead a happy life, or even if her marriage ended in divorce and disagreements, at least it was based on her choice and not based on her mother’s. When she was finally released, she was anorexic, schizophrenic, and only weighed 25 kg. But in retrospect, we could be sure that her mother didn’t think that it was such a bad thing. She clearly thought that locking her up for so long was better for their family status than to have her marry that lawyer. The same apparently still held true even after the lawyer died unexpectedly a few years after her 1885. Perhaps by then releasing her would damage their reputation since they were so deep in their false stories. When Blanche first “disappeared”, her mother and her brother, Marcel, pretended to mourn her disappearance. Imagine what harm would be done to their family reputation if Blanche were suddenly found to be alive, and that instead of “disappearing”, she had actually been locked up in their attic for all these years. But here’s the catch, if this was only the case, why didn’t Blanche’s mother just kill her instead? What difference it would make anyway, if what she was going to do was to lock Blanche up in a miserable state for 26 years?

From this peculiarity, we could perhaps speculate that the reason why Blanche’s mother didn’t kill Blanche immediately was that she at least still thought of her life of having some value, whatever this was. Perhaps she still valued Blanche’s life as a daughter, or perhaps it was against her value to kill anyone, or even perhaps she was trying to obey God’s commandment to not kill anyone. With the benefit of historical insight, we could safely say that had Blanche’s mother killed her instead, no one could have found out anyway. They managed to hide her for 26 years and convinced everyone that Blanche had disappeared, surely had she “disappeared” for real, no one would really know why. And yet she didn’t. She just thought that for Blanche to “live” that way was better than for Blanche to die. She completely thought that Blanche’s life would be better if she was to live according to her mother’s way, that is, living in the attic for years. She thought that she could replace the life that Blanche wanted for something that she desired. This is what could be called “human replaceability”, the replacement of a person’s life with some other’s life designed to overwrite the original.

Sanctity of Life and Replaceability

But still, we haven’t proved that replaceability equals elimination. Besides, the person is still left alive. Sure, some cases are horrifying, such as the Blanche Monnier case, but could we be sure that we’re not assuming what we’re meant to answer? It is true that replaceability itself is a conundrum. Unlike overt killing, which is an absolute irreversible event, replaceability often hides between the veil of necessity and good morals, and also behind the fact that the person is still left alive, technically speaking. It is one that is the most likely to be treated as mere “reeducation”, that is for the good of the people themselves. We could for example look at the treatment of homosexuals in the early to mid 20th century. They were seen as biologically, or at least psychologically ill, and for them to be “treated” was a good thing, so that they could be “cured” and rejoin the society they lived in as a good and functioning member of said society. But now psychologists and doctors alike have removed homosexuality from their list of illnesses (much to the chagrin of millions of people), and a lot of people have realized that it is not really a good thing, ethically speaking to do.

Or do we? Are we really sure that we’re above such things? Surely we no longer do such a thing in this day and age, especially with all the reliance on the scientific method to determine which human variance is an illness and which one is not, right? And surely we could now differentiate superstitions from science, couldn’t we? But then we could never be sure. The reason why we could say that the case is objectionable is because we’re viewing it from an outsider’s point of view. We are not immersed in their customs, conditions, and “necessities”. After all, those who agreed to do lobotomy to a mentally ill patient during that time thought that this was for the best for the person treated, and that it would be better than for them to kill the patient outright. The patient is a human being too, in himself he has the same worth as his neighbor. And yet, because of his affliction, his life is “wasted”. He couldn’t live as fully as any other people. He couldn’t experience all those experiences which make a person’s life whole. His relationships with others are strained, his capacity to think and to feel are also compromised. That’s why his life has to be “fixed”, for his own good. In the case of mental illness in the mid 20th century, this “fix” includes incarcerations and prefrontal lobotomy. In the case of homosexuality, they might be forced to undergo counseling, medical treatments, or social persecutions so that they would return to the “right, normal way” of living. It is so that they could understand love as everyone understands it, and could start a family and have children so that he could feel the joy of contributing something for the next generation. In short, replacement is not always done not out of spite (although granted, at times replacement is done out of spite, or even out of pure, unadulterated sadism), but out of love, a love for the precious human that is the afflicted and to help him realize the potential within him and help him be a better person, a person that is capable of experiencing things to the fullest and lead a full wonderful life, just like you and me.

But the afflicted at times refuses treatment, such as when a homosexual rejects the notion that he is ill, or when, in the case of Blanche before, to reject her mother’s wish for her to lead a better life with anyone but the lawyer. If the afflicted rejects the love that is given him, and has chosen to harm others instead of through multiple means, such as perhaps by ruining the family reputation and therefore tarnishing the family name and its means of advancement or even survival, then it would be better to just replace his life with something entirely different, not out of “love” for the person, but out of love for the self, or out of love for the others, such as his siblings if the afflicted is tarnishing the family name. This we have seen multiple times in history. In this case, this does not mean that the afflicted is automatically rejected and banished to the grave. At times, no one is cruel enough to eliminate him entirely. If we look at the case of Blanche Monnier, no one would have found out what happened to Blanche had her mother just killed her. Sometimes, the others pity the afflicted. Since he is mentally incapable in some ways, his reasons could at times be considered as “flawed”, or “invalid”. He is incapable of “having a proper understanding of his situation”. How could he if he is mentally compromised? Since he is mentally compromised, and incapable of making sound decisions, it is up to the “adults” around him, those who are still “mentally sound” to “correct” him, to “treat” him forcefully, so that at least he would not be a threat to others. Sure, he is still “loved”, but now his future is neutralized. In the second scenario, the “treatment” is usually more “forceful”, but in essence, the outcome is the same, to neutralize the afflicted and replace the life that is originally from him with something else that has been fabricated “for his own good and for the greater good of everyone else”.


And thus, in what way is replaceability equals elimination? If we looked before to the sanctity of life, what makes human life so special is the fact that it can lead a life based on his own choices, a choice that originates from him, based on the options that are available to him. This originality could be considered as the defining characteristic of recognizing someone to be a human being. A victim of disaster should be saved partly so that he could then live a better life that comes from within himself. A baby should be saved because of the possibility of a full life that he might have in the future. It is the ability to choose that terrifies people greatly, and it is the ability to choose which makes people fight for a better life. Of course, this freedom to choose doesn’t have to be something so radical, like “having the ability to suddenly choose a different occupation in a minute”, because such freedom then would be meaningless, since, for freedom to be intelligible as such, it has to be freedom-from. Something that is constantly changing couldn’t be called freedom, but instead is just a dream without any meaning. It is undeniable life revolves around the freedom to choose in a situation. Ethics itself presumes the ability to choose, because without freedom, any notion of “personal responsibility” would be absurd, for then there would be nothing which makes a human anything different than an inert thing.

It is this freedom to choose that is stifled in the act of killings, otherwise, there would be no reason to kill another human being. It is based on the recognition that the enemy is capable of choosing something that might harm me, that might damage the people around me in some sense. It is based on this urgency that he must be neutralized, or at least be silenced. This source of the threat must be removed so that I could be free to use my freedom to determine my future. In the case of elimination, this is done by replacing the source with the impossibility of freedom, by replacing the person with anything else that is not “living” as such. In death, this impossibility is realized directly by the elimination of the source. In replacement, however, this impossibility is realized not by the elimination of the source, but by hijacking it for the other person’s benefit. This could be done by attempting to replace the originality of the person’s life with, as I have said before, a mere fabrication of it. It is a fabrication because, unlike an actual original choice, it only resembles a choice, but in actuality is nothing more than a faceless imperative that is not “owned” by any person. This could be done in many ways, either by directly interfering with the source itself (through harming the body, for example), or by limiting the available option to a bare minimum. But the end result is the same. If a person is defined by his relation with the world, by how he makes himself in the world, then by controlling how he relates to the world, the person is thus controlled. And if a person is made by his habits, roughly speaking, then his past actions and his inexperience in choosing anything else will make certain that he will choose nothing else but what he has chosen all his life. In essence, it is the same as neutralizing the source of freedom, by stifling it and putting it under another person’s control. When the source is neutralized, there is no longer any reason to eliminate the person. There is no longer any source of originality which would interfere with our interests. But then, is the person still a person in the full sense of the word, if not but a damaged one?


Ivry, B., & Gide, A. (2003). The Confined Woman of Poitiers. New England Review (1990-), 24(3), 99–132. doi:10.2307/40244293

Dupré, B. (2013). 50 ethics ideas. China: Quercus Edition

Sartre, J. (1992). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). Washington: Washington

Sartre, J. (2004). Critique of Dialectical Reason (Vol. 1) (A. Sheridan-Smith, Trans.). London: Verso

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