The Ethics of Frankenstein

Real life isn’t a series of interconnected events occurring one after another like beads strung on a necklace. Life is actually a series of encounters in which one event may change those that follow in a wholly unpredictable, even devastating way.

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

I’m assuming we’re all at least aware of the story: ambitious scientist Victor Frankenstein takes it upon himself to inject a collage of human parts with the spark of life. He creates what he immediately labels as a monster, and rejects his creature. Left alone, the ‘monster’ must discover for himself humanity, and their immediate rejection.

What I’m interested in looking at is where the characters went wrong, and what they should have done.

The Creation of Life

Frankenstein took it upon himself to ‘play God’, and try to benefit the human race through his creation of a larger more powerful version of a man. Is it okay to attempt to create life? Is that our responsibility? And more importantly, should Frankenstein not have found a team of fellow enthusiasts to keep him in check, and to help with assessing the risks of his endeavours? To my mind, one of Mr Frankenstein’s greatest flaws was his tendency towards solitude, despite the negative effects on his health. I think he needed a confidant to help him work through the massive ethical issues he was dealing with.

Because the history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.

– Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

The Label

As soon as Frankenstein set eyes on his creation, he stopped calling it a man and switched to using terms like monster, creature and – interestingly – demon. The connotations of demon are that the creature – that we know came to life by the hands of a man – belongs in hell. Was it really the ugliness that made him so repulsive to every human he encountered? Was Frankenstein in the right to immdeiately damn what he had made? Is death so untouchable that attempting to reverse its effects is essentially horrific and unnatural?

The Definition of Human

What is the definition of human? Frankenstein’s monster was made from human  body parts; he felt and thought and bled. Was it solely the fact that he had not always been alive that made him ‘demonic’ rather than a man? There are lots of religious allusions in this book: was the unnatural creation of the creature what damned it, and if so, how is that just?

The Promise

This particular paragraph may contain spoilers. There comes a point where the monster approaches his maker and asks for a mate, promising to take the new creature and hide in the South American wilderness, never again to be seen by man. Frankenstein agrees, and then goes back on his promise. I’m definitely of the opinion that to go back on his promise was cruel, but that to have made such a promise with such uncertainty was also very wrong. Should a second monster have been made? Was it fair of the monster to ask for another conscious creature to be made for a purpose contracted on her behalf?

Science has attained so much power that its practical limits begin to be apparent. Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating. But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it. Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it. And our world starts to seem polluted in fundamental ways—air, and water, and land—because of ungovernable science.

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

I think questions like these are really interesting – and important – to think about, especially in the ‘safe’ context of a fictional situation. I’d love to hear where you stand on some of these issues, and what you would have done should you have been in the same dilemma. Was Frankenstein really blameless?

Thanks for reading, and have a lovely day!



3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Frankenstein

  1. Frankenstein is such a fantastic book… so many tough issues to debate! You make some excellent points, and I love your comparisons to Jurassic Park! Looking at it from a secular point of view, I think Frankenstein is still as much to blame for his tampering with life and death as he would be for ‘playing god’. He still creates something uncanny, unnatural. I think it could potentially say a lot about the way that modern science works, too obsessed with the results to worry about the potential repercussions.

    On the other hand, without that kind of experimentation, we wouldn’t have heart transplants or blood transfusions. The problem with Frankenstein’s project is that he embarks on it more out of curiosity and obsession than an awareness of how it might benefit humanity. Doing experiments to see if we can save/prolong the life of a human is, of course, essential. But bringing them back from the dead is something else entirely.

    The question of making a second creature is interesting as well. Like you pointed out, this female creature would have no say in her fate; she would have been created as a mate for Frankenstein’s creature without any conscious choice of her own. It’s a very worrying scenario, free-will wise, and maybe it’s for the best that he never did make her. It would probably be a very different story if he had kept his promise.

    • Yeah! There was one really good quote in Jurassic Park that I couldn’t find, but it basically said that just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should!
      Death is such a tricky thing, because we know so little about it!
      I agree that the second creature shouldn’t have been made. I wonder what would have happened had he made that decision before making a promise to his monster?

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