The Ethics of Jupiter Ascending; or Why I Am Not a Vegetarian
Warning: Serious Jupiter Ascending spoilers abound below.
Beneath the gloriously melodramatic aesthetic, the central ethical dilemma in Jupiter Ascending is surprisingly familiar. The powerful Abrasax family, and others in their society, farm humans on Earth, so as to use their bodies to make an expensive elixir that allows them to stay youthful. The Abrasaxes and their community are presented as leagues more advanced than Earth is, both in terms of the harnessing of technology, and intelligence and understanding of the universe.
Our human hero, Jupiter Jones, is naturally horrified by this elixir. Killing humans to make fuel for the prolonging of life is presented as shocking; we’re meant to be shocked. We’re glad that the human race survives, that we’re not butchered for profit, and that there’s someone to fight for us. This central conflict in Jupiter Ascending is what the rest of the plot hangs from: who gets to control the human farm that is Earth, who (if anyone) gets to profit from it, why it’s not ethical to use human lives—a sentient species with agency, the understanding of pain, and the possibility of personal fulfilment—as a resource. Does that sound familiar to you at all? To me, it sounds remarkably analogous to some of the best arguments against eating meat.
The ethics of eating meat—especially pigs, which let’s face it, are pretty intelligent—are not an uncommon theme in modern storytelling, from Babe the Sheep Pig to Adam Roberts’s fantastic recent book Bête. But what all of these things have in common is that they ask what if some non-human creature were clever enough that we should care about them? What they don’t ask, and what Jupiter Ascending does, is what if the less clever, less advanced species were being consumed in huge numbers—but what if they were us? It’s an unusual perspective: we’re so unused to thinking of the ethics of vegetarianism from that angle that we miss it.
Now, I am not a vegetarian. My partner is, for reasons very similar to those that Jupiter Ascending presents: if you are killing an animal, of any species, for your own gain, they should be below a certain level of sentience. My partner eats fish and shellfish. He tried snails once and liked them. He won’t eat mammals, or birds, because they’re big enough and clever enough to feel pain and know what is happening, just like humans. He doesn’t think that our status as humans entitles us to farm other animals for food. In a way, it’s even more clear-cut in the real world than in Jupiter Ascending: we have a lot of choice about what we eat. Eating bacon, for my partner, makes us no better than Kalique, valuing our own wellbeing above the lives of other creatures. Battery farming animals makes us no better than Balem. There’s logic to that, and it’s compelling. Here’s a question: does Jupiter Jones, in universe, eat hot dogs? Would Jupiter Jones eating hot dogs make her a massive hypocrite?
But, as I’ve said, I’m not a vegetarian: mainly because I’m a massive species-ist. This animal isn’t human? I certainly owe it a duty of care – like my partner, I am sickened by animal abuse, and buy free range eggs. But the duty of care I owe to the animals I eat doesn’t extend to not eating them. For Kalique, the duty of care she has towards humans—letting them live on a nice green planet where they have room for wandering about and entertainment and personal growth—doesn’t extend as far as not using them as immortality-fuel. Does that mean I think she’s justified? Yeah, kinda. Maybe. In the universe of Jupiter Ascending, I, the meat-eater, am a bad guy.
This is the thing I loved the most about Jupiter Ascending: weird and wonderful though it is, it also forces me to question whether I can live with myself. It flips my assumptions, weaponises my emotional instincts against me, and makes me ask how far the logic underpinning my life choices can be pushed. This, by the way, is probably the most important feature of good speculative fiction: it changes a parameter, and then forces you to examine your beliefs. Okay, but what if it were like this? But what if faster than light travel? What if Turing-test-passing AI? What if there were intellects in the universe that we could hardly comprehend? What then? Philosophers do this all the time: to find it, meaningfully, in blockbuster sci-fi makes me unspeakably happy. After watching Jupiter Ascending, my partner and I cheerfully argued all the way home.
And then, of course, there’s the spanner in the works that is Jupiter Jones’s own genetic make-up: she may be of a different society, of completely different stock to the Abrasax family, but she’s genetically identical to their matriarch. When I say I’m a massive species-ist, why is that? If I were one of the Abrasaxes, would it be Jupiter’s genetic make-up or her parentage that would most affect how I see her? The three Abrasax siblings do come up with different answers: Kalique treats Jupiter as the closest to an intellectual equal, a protégé or friend, albeit a politically useful one; Balem clearly treats her as an inferior, regardless of her genetic make-up. He only sees her background. Titus recognises the legitimacy of Jupiter’s agency—he aims to persuade her, after all, rather than straight-up force her to marry him—and yet, can we perhaps see his attempt to marry the genetic reincarnation of his mother as actually viewing Jupiter as a product of her background, rather than her genetic makeup? Or is it just him being completely mercenary and immoral? Either that’s a huge taboo that just got broken in Titus’s mind, or else he doesn’t view Jupiter as being actually identical to his mother.
As for me: I discriminate on the basis of species, which is to say, I wouldn’t eat a human. Would I eat an ape? How different, biologically, does my steak have to be? I’m not a biologist, either: I can tell you there’s a line, and that pigs are on one side of it, and people the other. Jupiter Ascending is not an easy film, ethically speaking, but it’s a really good argument in one direction. Its often overblown presentation, its heart, its empathy—all of these things are great strengths in presenting its argument. I loved how it made me think. Add in space werewolves on rollerskates? I am SOLD, my friend.
Dear the Wachowskis: thank you for making me think, making me excited, making me go away and have interesting ideas and discussions. Please, next time, will you do a film about Judith Jarvis Thomson’s ill violinist, through the medium of Byron-quoting mermaids? Here, let me throw my money at you. Shut up and take it.
Fiona is a freelance writer and proofreader, with a background in human rights, and a taste for unashamedly speculative fiction. @stitchthisfiona on Twitter.
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