The 2017 film adaptation of Marjorie Prime is a near present-day science fiction tale of one family’s struggles to deal with their own memories. Specifically, the film follows the last days of an older woman with early Alzheimer’s disease. Marjorie lives alone in a beautiful home by the sea where she is kept company by a holographic impersonation of her husband, Walter.
Walter is preserved as his younger self because, in part, he lost his good looks in his later years – or, at least this is what Marjorie tells us. Unlike many science fiction narratives, these holograms (called primes) don’t come equipped with the memories or sentience of the person they imitate but must be fed memories from which to construct a consciousness. In this way, Walter’s simulacrum is the inversion of Marjorie, he starts with nothing and gains perfect knowledge of ‘himself’ as he goes.
Marjorie is never tricked by Walter Prime, in fact, there is no evidence whatsoever in the film that her faculties are actually fading. Instead, we learn about her life with her husband through her own recollections and the stories that she asks him to tell back to her in the form of reminiscences.
As the film progresses, we meet Marjorie’s daughter, Tess, who is herself struggling with her relationship with Marjorie and the less pleasant secrets she keeps her mother from remembering.
Eventually, Marjorie dies, but rather than letting her rest, Tess maintains the relationship through a second prime simulating her mother. And on the movie goes, replacing characters as they die and creating less and less well-developed primes which eventually must turn to each other to fill in the gaps they are left with.
There are several questions the film leaves without consideration including that of whether there is any value to the survivors in maintaining these illusions. Another is whether it should even be permissible to create these primes that imitate people we miss.
Who owns their own likeness and being? We never learn whether the dead ever give permission to use their likenesses after their death, or if this decision is made entirely at the discretion of the survivors. Do we carry any of these rights with us beyond the grave?
My wife and I sometimes have discussions about what we wish to have done with our remains after death. We both have a preference for ‘green burials,’ although my wife also sometimes says that she just always assumed that she would be cremated. I have a wholly irrational fear of cremation, but I also completely acknowledge that after I die, nothing matters to me anymore. Would it be permissible for my wife to always tell me that I am to be buried and then switch to the convenience of cremation once I’m gone? What point is there to maintain the rights of a dead person? Are there arguments to be made for her to forget about her promise?
Certainly, I agree that we should treat one another with respect and honor the wishes of our loved ones, but … assume that she completely intended to fulfill my wishes for my remains while I was alive, but what if she decided that it was just too much of a pain in the ass to carry out once I was gone and elected to cremate me and store my ashes in the closet? What’ are the best arguments for or against her fulfilling the promise?
She should ignore my wishes
The utilitarian believes that the goal of life is to make the most people as happy as possible and the fewest people as unhappy as possible. It’s a simple moral calculation:
(#people made happy)(amount of happiness) – (#people made unhappy)(amount of unhappiness) = net good of doing a thing
In terms of the utilitarian, I believe that there is a real benefit to her to disregard the promise. She would reduce the burden I put on her (an increase in her happiness) and in no way violate my trust while I was around to enjoy it. In this way, my happiness is unaffected. If she was made happy to carry out my wishes, this would be different, but as it is, ignoring my wishes would be a utilitarian push at the worst.
She should heed my wishes
If there is to be justice, my wishes should matter to my wife even after I’m gone because one of the most important aspects of justice is how it reflects on society. Where rights apply to an individual, justice applies to the society as a whole. If she were to violate my wishes after I died, society would still hold her accountable to do what is just.
Arguments that don’t help
An argument from the basis of my rights (as described above) doesn’t lead us to an absolute answer because it’s debatable whether I retain any rights after I’m dead.
The absolutist’s argument might lead us anywhere. From where does absolute moral authority spring? I’m not aware of a time when the Christian God declares a ruling on this matter and because we’re ill-equipped to understand the mind of God, we’re unable to make a call without a specific rule to follow. Regardless, this argument always hangs on the words of a deity and deities may differ in their rules. Without absolute proof that one deity is true and all others are false, we’re in limbo.
Arguments that neither help nor hurt
The relativist might give us whatever answer we want depending on the situation. It’s how we actually live our lives choosing whatever argument supports the decision we feel is right (or right for us) at the time. As such, the relativist doesn’t put forward any new ideas, but merely chooses from other arguments that work for them. The relativist rationalizes.
In the end, once I’m gone, I’m gone and my wife is free to choose from the arguments above or concoct one of her own. So long as she convinces me that she will honor my wishes while I’m around to know about it, I’m happy. Once I’m dead, she can make whatever choice she wishes and rationalize secure in the knowledge that I truly don’t care anymore.