“Killing Justice” in The Expanse
Jeffery L. Nicholas
Leviathan Wakes, the first title in the award winning series The Expanse by James S. A. Corey, is a title that intrigues as it calls to mind Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Jim Holden and Joe Miller, the primary protagonists, force us to ask, when is it okay to kill the bad guy?
Two scenes press this question on us:
Scene one: Holden and Miller are stuck on Eros, the first populated asteroid. They have discovered that SOMEONE has trapped thousands of civilians on Eros to experiment on them, and whoever this someone is, has hired goons to police the situation. Holden and Miller are looking for a way back to their ship to escape Eros, but they have to pass through the casino level where all the people are being held. The situation on the casino level is tense, the prisoners are antsy, and the guards are trigger happy. In walk Holden and Miller:
“The mafia thug fired once, and one small body staggered forward, then fell to the ground at the thug’s feet. Holden couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, but they couldn’t be more than thirteen or fourteen years old. The thug moved forward, looking down at the small thin figure at his feet, and pointed his gun at them again. It was too much. Holden found himself running down the corridor toward the thug, gun drawn and screaming for people to get out of the way. When he was about seven meters away, the crowd split apart enough for him to begin firing. Half his shots went wild, hitting the coffee shop counter and walls, one round blowing a stack of ceramic plates into the air. But a few of them hit the thug, staggering him back” (p. 290).
Seeing the young boy or girl shot, the body down, is too much for Holden. He runs forward firing wildly, hitting the thug. Holden acts and judges the thug for killing the boy. He never questions this action. Perhaps the idealist in him won’t let him reflect on the act.
Or perhaps, he has someone else to focus on.
Holden and Miller are haunted by the images that have come through different feeds from the asteroid. Limbs and decapitated heads covered in alien brown goo, moving about in zombie-like fashion, pursuing some goal only the creators of the proto-molecule could decipher. Eros is an experiment designed by SOMEONE who found the proto-molecule on a moon. This SOMEONE sacrificed thousands of people for science, power, and profit. That SOMEONE is Anthony Dresden. As soon as Miller sees video of Dresden, he labels him “sociopath.”
Scene Two: Miller, Holden, and others are listening to Dresden defend himself. He makes a convincing case. They found this technology, and what it will reveal could be tremendous for advancing humankind. What matters the death of a few thousands given the advances they could make based on what they discover from those deaths. (See my previous blog post, “We can be our own gods.”) “With a growing dread, Holden listened to Dresden speak. This speech had the air of something spoken before. Perhaps many times. And it had worked. It had convinced powerful people” (p. 417). But it didn’t prepare him for what Miller would do.
“Dresden didn’t see it coming. Even as Miller raised the pistol, the man’s eyes didn’t register a threat. All he saw was Miller with an object in his hand that happened to be a gun. A dog would have known to be scared, but not Dresden. “Miller!” Holden shouted from a great distance. “Don’t!” Pulling the trigger was simple. A soft click, the bounce of metal against his glove-cushioned palm, and then again two more times. Dresden’s head snapped back, blooming red. Blood spattered a wide screen, obscuring the data stream. Miller stepped close, fired two more rounds into Dresden’s chest, considered for a moment, then holstered the pistol” (p. 421).
Holden never questions his own murder of the thug; yet, he ostracizes Miller from the Rocinante for killing Dresden. Miller knew he would lose the only place he’d ever felt like he belonged when he pulled the trigger and accepts his fate.
Must we? Who has the right to kill?
In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes defends a social contract between free individuals to form a state to provide a better life for themselves than they would have without it. Writing during the English civil war, Hobbes argued that
“Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of the body, and mind; as though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another; yet, when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himselfe any benefit to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest” (p. 86).
In a world without a state, human beings would have the liberty to do whatever they desire and what is in their power to do. The only justice is the justice of what they can make for themselves. This natural state comprises a war of all against all. The one thing, then, that individuals will not abdicate in their social contract is their right to life. Thus, if the sovereign intends to kill an individual, he (or she) returns them to the state of nature of all against all. No matter what, an individual would be irrational to surrender his or her right to life.
The situation in Leviathan Wakes is similar to a war of all against all. Mars and the Outer Planets are in open warfare, and Earth is soon to enter the fray. On top of this military situation, Dresden and his aligned scientists are at war against at least some segment of the human population. One question throughout the book is whether Earthers like Dresden even see outer planet people, like Miller, as human beings, as people. Notably, as well, Dresden and his allies have caused the war between Mars and the Outer Planets, both as a means of distracting the political powers from observing what they are doing on Eros and as a means to find customers for whatever products they make from the proto-molecule after the experiments. Thus, Dresden has violated the social contract to produce a war of all against all.
From Miller’s perspective, then, he has two reasons to summarily execute Dresden. First, Miller believes, perhaps rightly, that Dresden doesn’t even see him as human. Dresden has declared war on Miller’s people, if not on Miller himself. Second, Dresden has destroyed the social contract. Without a social contract, everyone is at liberty to do as he or she would.
Miller is at liberty to do whatever he wants as long as he has the power to do so. That means he cannot tell anyone else that he or she is wrong for what he or she does insofar as he or she has power to do so. In this case, Miller cannot tell Dresden that he is wrong for what he did—that would entail standards of right and wrong. Without a social contract, however, no such standards exist. If Dresden has the power to do what he wants to do, then Miller cannot say he is wrong to do so. But if Miller doesn’t like what Dresden is doing and Miller has the power to stop him, then Miller is at liberty to do so.
We can ask, as Miller does through the rest of the novel, whether that means we are no longer human, or, in this case, Miller keeps wondering if he is still human? Is his willingness to kill others a sign that he has lost his humanity?
Which returns us to Holden. The situation on Eros is clearly an omnia bellum omnia. Mafia thugs rule the station and execute whoever they desire. Law and a social contract no longer apply. The mafia thug who shot the young person had every liberty to do so, and Holden, because he has the power, has every liberty to execute the Mafia thug in turn. At least, if we follow Hobbes’ reasoning, this conclusion follows. If we do not, or if Holden doesn’t follow Hobbes, then what justification does he have? And who’s moral-political theory does he follow?
More importantly, why does Holden ostracize Miller for doing the same thing he did, especially when Dresden was responsible for the deaths of thousands, and the mafia thug killed only one child? Does Holden see Miller as less human? If he does, then why does he see himself as human?
Faced with the great leviathan—whether the beast of the apocalypse, the absolute monarch, or the proto-molecule—we face difficult choices. Perhaps the ultimate question as we lift our guns is, what keeps us human?
Jeffery L. Nicholas is an associate professor at Providence College and a research associate at the Center for Aristotelian Studies and Critical Theory at Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania). He is co-founder of and serves as executive secretary for the International Society for MacIntyre Enquiry. His publications, including Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre’s Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory (UNDP 2012), build a critical theory from the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and early Frankfurt School Critical Theorists like Marcuse. His current research project involves developing a politics of liberation on love as the final rejection of alienation.