Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ raises ethical questions

Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ raises ethical questions, reminds us to appreciate the humanities

June 14, 2013

Would you be willing to destroy half of humanity in order to save the human species from going extinct? Would it be acceptable to involuntarily sterilize people in an effort to prevent overpopulation? Those are the central questions of Dan Brown’s new novel, “Inferno.”

Brown’s novel is fun summer reading that poses troubling ethical questions. It is also a reminder of the value of the humanities. The villains in Brown’s novels are zealots. In “The Da Vinci Code” the bad guys were religious fanatics. In this novel, the villains are mad scientists. The hero is a tweedy humanities professor who loves art and poetry.

While “Inferno” isn’t great literature, it inspires appreciation for art, poetry, philosophy and history. It celebrates the skills learned in the humanities: to learn to read carefully, to think broadly and deeply and to understand the symbols and cultural artifacts that surround us.

Brown’s villains are coldly inhumane: They think population control can be justified by simple mathematics. There are too many people, so something must be done. This idea is rooted in Machiavelli, the Renaissance theorist who warned that teeming population would inevitably be purged. Terrorists are often Machiavellian in thinking that the end justifies the means. Machiavellian idealists treat human beings as things to be manipulated and quantities to be calculated rather than as persons to be valued and loved.

Study in the humanities teaches us to be wary of Machiavellian schemes. Philosophers have long warned that nothing straight can be constructed from the crooked timber of humanity. We are not wise enough or virtuous enough to engineer reality or impose final solutions.

The humanities remind us that uncritical certainty is linked to hubris. Human beings achieve moments of profound insight and sparkling beauty. But these moments do not last forever. Indeed, they are often undone by the zealots and idealists who insist that they know how to save humankind from itself.

Brown’s novel is set in Italy. It celebrates the art of the Renaissance. Great art reminds us of the power of human genius. But history warns us against taking ourselves too seriously. Before the Renaissance, the Greeks and Romans also created luminous works of genius. The cycles repeat. Saviors come and go. Civilizations rise and fall. Each generation is plagued by its own narcissism, thinking that its creative genius is unique and unprecedented.

But historical awareness should make us wary of that sort of narcissism. A sense of history should make us modest in assessing the value of our own ideals. It should also inspire skepticism toward those who propound simple technological solutions to complex human problems.

So what can we do about the population problem? A solution requires something more than science and technology. Purely technical solutions — such as forced sterilization — would work on a population of rodents or insects. But human beings are not pests to be controlled. We inhabit a world of spirit and ideas. We hope, we dream; and we create art, literature and philosophy. We also love.

Brown’s “Inferno” borrows its title from Dante Alighieri’s famous poem about hell. Dante was a romantic whose poetry was inspired by Beatrice, a beautiful woman he loved from afar. Dante recounts that his love for Beatrice kindled a flame of charity that moved him to forgive everyone, including his enemies. Love transforms us, making us ethical and inspiring work of creative genius.

The population problem is driven by sex. Machiavellian technologists may argue that sex should be subjected to mathematical control. But the humane solution is to find a way to transform sex into love — to broaden and sublimate the sex drive in ways made possible by art, literature, religion and philosophy.

People need to be educated and empowered to control their own bodies and reproductive lives. But we also need to be reminded that there is more to life than mating and reproducing.

Technology without humanity can easily become heartless. The study of the humanities cures that sort of spiritual sterility. And it reminds us to beware of zealots offering quick fixes for deeply human problems. The humanities won’t save the world. But they remind us about those works of love, genius and beauty that make humankind worth saving.