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So, we are on a fictional planet where the most powerful human faction (the Union) relies heavily on necrotechny (high-tech necromancy) for historical reasons. Necrotechny brings prosperity and military power to the Union as detailed in the examples below.

As the Union progressively became a democratic federation with a focus on human rights, so the practice of necrotechny became open to debate. Foreign countries are mostly hostile toward the black arts and their ideas permeates the society.

What could be the arguments in favor of maintaining the practice of necrotechny?

I guess one of the first thing they could try would be to attach it to some tradition, but I am seeking some way to justify necrotechny on an ethical ground.

Examples of potentially problematic necrotechny uses by the Union

The Deathguard - an ever-growing regiment supplied by the unclaimed bodies recovered throughout the Union. These soulless undead soldiers keep a limited intelligence (enough to use weapons efficiently but not to drive vehicles) and are remotely controlled by military necrotechnicians. They are used as cannon fodder or in risky environments. About 5 millions deathguards (20 times more than the human military personnel) are stored in necropoles.

Forensic necromancy - after a violent death, occurring while the body was not weakened by ageing or disease, souls roam on the place for a few days. Police investigators can use it to solve murders, but the capture and interrogation process damages the soul (i.e., loss of identity and memory).

The Ascended - an assembly of prominent characters that were granted extended life for their deeds in living. They are partly sentient undeads who keep their human likeness thanks to embalming techniques and regular maintenance. Creating an Ascended is a costly process performed only twice or thrice a year. They are more kept as living memories than actually implied in society. Their will gradually fades away and they 'die' a few centuries after their creation. About a thousand exist at the time of the story.

Reanimates - assemblages of non-human bones and artificial parts, imbued with the soul of an animal used as automates in factories. They can feel some degree of pain. Their use is almost universal across the Union.

Additional details regarding the world

The technological level is mostly similar to the Cold War era, with the notable omnipresence of magitechs. Globalisation occurred a century ago, some sort of magical AIs/internet exists, primitive spaceships carry satellites to low orbit, mass destruction weapons deter aggression against the major factions, and human activities threaten the ecosystem.

In this world, the existence of souls for living beings is scientifically proven. Souls do not create new memories but can still answer questions regarding their past and feel basic emotions. If not captured, the souls are slowly drawn toward the center of the planet where their fate is unknown.

Powering of the undead require a small quantity of ichor, a liquid extracted from underground deposits (~ magic petroleum). Ichor is the prime resource for powering anything in this world and the undead is especially cheap.

The undead are restricted to do what the necrotechnician set them to do in the resurrection process, so an undead uprising is very unlikely. If released from this control, the undead construct simply dies.

The other human factions rarely use necrotechny. Outside of the Union, necrotechny is seen at best as unsettling. Extremist religious groups consider it as a monstrosity. The Union itself is mostly atheistic.

EDIT - Necrotechny cannot cure diseases as it operates exclusively on dead bodies. Using it as a way to prolong one's life is described as the Ascended case above.

EDIT - Some concerns voiced by the citizen opposed to the practice of necrotechny

  • These techniques promote the exploitation and commoditization of the human body.

  • Necromancy harms the Soul.

  • Necrotechny disrupts the normal cycle of life and death.

Note - I am not a native English speaker so it may happen that I use some words outside of their standard definition.

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    $\begingroup$ It is completely unclear, first, why does the practice of putting unclaimed dead bodies to some valuable use would even need to be justified; and second, what are those unspecified citizens concerned about. The unclaimed dead bodies are dead, so they themselves don't care. And they are unclaimed, so nobody else seems to care. Who demands a justification, and on what basis? (For a real historical example of putting dead bodies to valuable use, see mummy brown.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 8, 2023 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ What I think this question hinges on is a clear understanding of what happens to "souls" after their host bodies die. Because if your necromancy is just about animating corpses, it's indeed no different to organ donation. But if the undead retain their souls in any shape or form, the question of personhood instantly arises, possibly even to the point where the undead start to demand voting rights. ("Undead yes, unperson no" :)) $\endgroup$
    – biziclop
    May 8, 2023 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ How could a modern democratic state justify the practice of medical training using cadavers or that of harvesting organs from the dead for transplant into the living? .. because they do, so clearly it's not that hard to justify the use of corpses for commercial purposes (and medical ones are commercial ones, life saving or not someone gets paid), if that's OK why wouldn't you use corpses for labour or anything else useful if you could, it's just a matter of what's cultural acceptable and rationalisating it, and that's all character actions and motives so can be anything you want. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    May 9, 2023 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't it already? Looking at some of the people that get or almost get elected, I find it hard to believe necromancy isn't being practiced as it is... $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    May 9, 2023 at 2:07
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    $\begingroup$ Clearly this world has other death-related rituals and a different worldview than ours, so I think the more interesting question is what is happening in society that they object now, but not earlier? New religion that changes the world view? Government harvesting people now (but not earlier) prematurely to turn them into undead? Capitalism appeared somewhat newly on the scene and now the wealth imbalance keeps growing in favor of necromants? Some accident with the undead changes how they are viewed? $\endgroup$
    – kutschkem
    May 9, 2023 at 15:40

12 Answers 12

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The same way IRL liberals defend abortion and stem-cell research

Understanding your Audience

Before you make a single assertion, it's important to note that your audience members themselves may range across the political spectrum. To some readers, the practice of necromancy will not need any defending at all. They will simply accept it as a reasonable way of life. To others, the idea of desecration of the dead is a big deal, and they will automatically see it as evil, and will be virtually impossible to convince otherwise. So, it is important not to make assumptions that your audience needs convincing in one direction or the other, but instead to ask how to make BOTH sides of the controversy in your setting believable.

Presenting the Controversy

Any question about a controversy is inherently a 2 part problem. The OP asks how the conservatives will defend necromancy, but to understand how they will defend it, also need to understand the arguments against it. Any meaningful answer to this sort of question must address how both sides of the argument defend thier stance, or the controversy feels forced.

The argument over the rights of a person after they have died is going to be very similar to the argument over the humanity of a person before they are born. In a nutshell, your Union Conservatives would argue that a dead person is not a person and therefore has no more rights than an animal at most or a bundle of cells in the least. Even if they except that the undead retain some dimension of humanity, they may still argue that the rights of a living person to benefit from an "aborted" death outweighs the rights of a dead person to die.

But for your Union Progressives, they will more likely make the argument that all human beings deserve human rights, regardless of what stage of life they are in, including death. They may claim that interfering with a person's ability to pass into the afterlife is no different than refusing to let someone be born. They may say things like: "if it has human DNA, it is Human" or "If it was human, then it's still human", things like that.

Also, since the rest of the world is not atheist and has strong anti-necromancy feelings, you could also blame your younger generation on growing globalization and a religious rival movement inspired by a blending with other worldly cultures. The doctrine that Necromancy = Evil just because it is, becomes a reasonable argument if it is based on some well accepted religious belief system that also includes a lot of much more defensible teachings that are maybe lacking in the secular Union. This will for many followers of the faith make the rule "true and good" purely by association.

In short, just picture your Conservatives like IRL Liberals, and your Liberals like IRL Conservatives, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what kind of rationality it will take to create the kind of political controversy you are looking for.

Sensitivity Disclaimer

After several downvotes, I think it's important to disclose that this solution could be seen as offensive to some people if not addressed with a healthy dose of caution. Depending on how you dress it, people on either side of the political spectrum could take offense if you make the parallels too heavy handed or show too strong of a bias for one side or the other in the story. Unless it is your intention is to make a modern political commentary out of your story, I would suggest:

  • Avoid exact political slogans like "my body, my rights" etc.
  • Don't put too much of your story's focus on this topic.
  • Avoid the use of potentially triggering terms like Liberals and Conservatives.
  • Let the story show the aspects of human nature that have created the modern controversy without recreating it in an obviously recognizable form.

That said, if you WANT to make it a modern political commentary, you have a perfect setup to satirize either/both sides of the spectrum.

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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely true. A cluster of cells is not a person. Thanks for agreeing with us...... $\endgroup$
    – Thorne
    May 9, 2023 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ Necromancy as a parabola for the real-world debate on bioethics! Awesome $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    May 9, 2023 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ @MindwinRememberMonica he's not advocating for any political point, he's just pointing out that in our current democratic society, we have a balance of people who on one side think that abortion is literal murder and on the other side strongly defend it on moral grounds. Having pro-unlife vs pro-(can't think of a good analogy to choice in this case) parties constantly fighting over the issue is trivial to imagine. Upvoted. $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    May 9, 2023 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @MindwinRememberMonica I upvoted. The use of Real Life politics - whether you perceive it as grandstanding or not - is a completely valid response on this Stack so long as the lesson being taught is applicable to the OP's problem and forwards the goals of worldbuilding. Zealots exist in real life (at all points of the political spectrum) and their behavior is perfectly suited to worldbuilding. (And before you get wound up by this - remember that what you see as grandstanding another may see as common sense. They're no more right than you are.) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    May 9, 2023 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ @MindwinRememberMonica if the question is "what would the political grandstanding on [fictional issue] look like?" a good answer is very likely to include examples of real-world grandstanding. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    May 10, 2023 at 2:18
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I'm going to answer your troublesome scenarios directly:

The Deathguard - "What would you have us do? Send our still living and breathing sons and daughters into a meat grinder? Or would we use those who have passed on, in a limited capacity, ensure the preservation of the next Generation. The Noblest sacrifice of the Parent is that their child grows old"

Essentially, make the appeal that the task needs to be done regardless and using people that have already died makes more sense than using people who have yet to die.

Bonus points here for having a system similar to organ donation, where if you die, you volunteer your corpse to be used for re-animation - Individual Choice, Individual Freedom, Voluntary suffering = Right Wingers happy.

Forensics: "If you had the tools to apprehend a Killer, without violating the natural rights of the innocent - and you chose not to - how does that make you Moral? Those who have been most terribly murdered, despite the damages to their soul, take comfort that they have helped to prevent a similar fate befall others. We should all be so virtuous."

The Ascended: "Those who fail to learn their history are doomed to repeat it. We keep our Histories alive so that we can learn of the Wisdom from many lifetimes - from those who witnessed events first hand - so that we do not commit the same folly twice"

Re-Animates - this would essentially be argued along the same lines as the Deathguard - the work needs to be done and it is better to use bits of the dead an an animal soul with limited suffering, than it would to put a still-breathing human through.

Frame Challenge though

The problem for your story, however, is the Soul aspect. All of our current natural rights are predicated on the individual. A semi-mindless corpse, powered by Magic is not an individual and so the philosophical protections for the individual don't apply.

However, if the Corpse is able to gain autonomy and retain full use of its faculties, then the question would have to be asked. The TNG episode 'The Measure of a Man' deals with this very concept. Is Data (an Android) a Machine or a sentient life form. In the end, it's reasoned that essentially Data has free will and has self-awareness and so is a sentient life form despite being an android.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer! Regarding the Deathguard I was envising a system of post-mortem conscription where every citizen of the Union would serve something like 10 years before proper funeral (in their culture, incineration) for the body. Agree that the Soul in this setting would be the spearhead of contestation. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2023 at 18:28
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Use the ideology of your government to justify that:

Capitalism:

Sell the future use of your body while you are still alive, it's not like you are going to need it.

You can even forge the society so that the default way to fund ones college is to sell the rights to your deceased body in the future. Another option is to make funeral cost so absurdly inflated, that most families will have to sell of the body to not bankrupt themselves. Especially young strong bodys can make quite a coin

Nationalism:

Giving your body is a patriotic act. The "last service" for the fatherland.

Socialism:

Dead bodies are means of production, so the state owns it and uses it for the greater good.

Liberalism:

Everybody gets to decide whether they want to donate their body or not. It is just another checkmark on your organ donor card.

Forensic necromancy as outlier

The one application of necromancy that actually damages the soul would definetly be opposed against in a society focused on human rights. The government should probably limit its use to "cases of national security" like questioning terrorists that weren't caught alive.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer! I like the idea of looking on necrotechny along different economic doctrines. Also agree that the forensic necromancy is the outlier here as it causes direct damage to the Soul, the most 'human' part in this setting. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2023 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ Zombies are cheap labour! Apart from the running-costs of the occasional emblement-oil change, these things practically work for free! The dead work the fields for the living, when they wear out they're composted. There's no down-sides, except those odd incidents on the full moons ... but maybe that's just an urban myth. Oh, and they do scare the sheep. $\endgroup$
    – Kingsley
    May 10, 2023 at 0:21
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Dead Bodies Are Objects, Not People

Worrying about your body after you die is no different about worrying who will drive your car after you die.

The Deathguard is no different to drone or robotic warfare. They are just meat robots so living people don't need to die. People could also sell their corpse upon their death to help their family or even donate it to protect their family as a soldier. Very patriotic.

Forensic necromancy isn't an issue either. Now firstly, is the damage to the soul from the necromancy or is it from being violently murdered in the first place? As an investigator, I'd argue the damage was from the murder even if I knew it wasn't because some bleeding heart would want to stop me and the murderer would also use it as a great excuse. Other people may die if I can't catch the culprit.

The Ascended are basically inspirational automations. You keep them out and going for a bit and "retire" them to the farm after awhile replacing them with the newest inspiration. Animatronic wax works.

Reanimates are just using more bits from the meat works. We already make leather from the skins, rend down fat to make lard for soap, intestines for sausage skins. Taking some bones and unused soul from the animal is the next logical step for the process. Nobody, except vegans, would care.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nobody, except vegans, would care. Once the animal has died of natural causes, I don't think there's anything to complain about. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2023 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ @infinitezero If there is an economic incentive to let someone die, then naturally more people will die. When something important requires a resource to make, people tend to find ways to farm that something. Pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, condum manufactures, etc, will inevitably get bought out out and gutted. Lobbyists will fight tooth and nail against consumer safety regulations, and promote reckless activities. Vegans typically don't drink milk or eat eggs because it supports industries that mistreat animals. Likewise, they'd probably hate necro corps for farming death. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 9, 2023 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer! The greater good would be indeed a strong line of defence for the partisans of necrotechny. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2023 at 18:43
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How could a modern democratic state justify the practice of necromancy?

Depends if by modern you mean Christian or a chronological metric.

The people's perspective and history is the answer. It comes down perceived trustworthiness. Politicians and appointed officials are not always the more trustworthy avenue for ethics and recompense? The modern republic of Benin in west Africa who's national religion is Voodoo has pretty much universal acceptance of necromancy. It would serve as a real world example to base an answer.

Examples I witnessed:

When living in Benin one was required out of respect and politeness to introduce themselves and any visitors to explain their presence to the local witch doctor. Gifts were expected. At this meeting a chat with deceased ancestors was not uncommon, a reference letter if you would, as well as a source for any personal advice which might be offered. The witch doctor was an acknowledged guardian of the village.

Locals who had "issues" with a peer would go to the local witch doctor for justice / recompense. And recompense included severe / eternal consequences. It was expected the witch doctor would make his own judgment upon hearing the charges and observing the offender over a period of time. It was just one of the services provided.

Medical doctors in hospitals who were called away for remote emergencies would call on the local witch doctor to cover their hospital rounds, which they did. I think it was a sign of respect and an acknowledgement of their role in the village.

When I say witch doctor here I mean folks who communed with spirits to inform their advice and actions taken in the temporal world. People who sold their access to the super natural as a service for chickens, goats or whatever remuneration the patron would find appropriate. The witch doctors were respected by the community for providing a valuable service much as medical doctors are respected in the west.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for sharing your experience! The way necromancy is exploited in my story is (too) close to the occidental pop culture so your real-life testimony is much appreciated. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2023 at 18:51
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You're asking why a democratic country, focused on human rights, could allow necromancy.

Human rights require humans

The definition of "human" is surprisingly variable. Previous to 1865, black people weren't considered human. We're still arguing about whether or not a fetus is human, and we definitely don't consider corpses to be humans.

Even among humans, some of us are still pretty iffy about extending rights to others. We happily remove the rights of anyone we can shoe-horn into the category of "criminal," and this includes non-citizens in a lot of peoples' minds. So, overall, there's a great deal of plasticity in that whole human rights area.

Who owns a corpse?

Right now, a corpse has no rights. It's essentially a piece of bio-hazardous waste owned by the mortuary business. You might think that the descendants own it, or that it's owned by its previous resident, but after organ donation is taken into account, US law says that the mortuaries have control. The mortuary business is kind enough to consider the desires of the descendants, but only within limitations specified by law and willingness to spend money.

It's entirely possible for the law to insist that the US Army owned the corpses, or the Death Guard, in the same way that the State of Colorado insists that it owns every drop of water that rains upon it. Laws can be funny like that.

The soul, on the other hand, might have rights. Being locked into a corpse might be considered unlawful imprisonment. On the other hand, it might be considered conscription. It's not uncommon for democratic nations to decide that everyone needs to spend a couple of years in the military once they hit majority. Having them spend another 20 years in the military after death might be completely reasonable.

Do the undead get a say in this?

Our experiences with Vietnam, however, do bring up a quandary. Do the undead have an opinion about this? If they're still around, do they get to vote? They aren't exactly risking their lives.

Is bringing someone back like a torture, or is it extending their life, but without the blood flow? If so, maybe they bring people back and ask them, "would you rather be dead or in the military?" I think a lot of people would happily volunteer just for a chance to take some of the "bad guys" with them.

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I am seeking some way to justify necrotechny on an ethical ground

Why?

Necrotechny provides an almost unassailable edge over any society that lacks it. There's no society that is going to discard that sort of advantage for a reason as tenuous as ethics. Perhaps in the far future when the Union is the dominant society and no longer requires necrotechny to retain that dominance, but until or unless that happens the boogeyman of "we'll lose without our undead tech" will be enough to convince the populace to fall in line. Self-interest always comes before ethics.

Further, there are numerous societies today that, while ostensibly democratic and atheistic, are still heavily permeated by the religion that happened to colonise the majority of said society. In your case that "religion" happens to be necrotechny, and unlike our religions that require a lot of belief for very little reward, necromantic technology has very obvious benefits in the physical realm. If the majority of your society believes in it, because it quite literally makes their lives better, there is going to be very little opposition - of ethical or any other type - to necrotechny.

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While all of the cases you cite involve necromancy, they're only unified in that drunk driving laws, seatbelt laws and the Teamsters' Union all exist because of the internal combustion engine and the concept of cars. Let's take them case by case.

The Deathguard:

This one is actually pretty easy to solve, and the magic word here is consent. Much like organ donor cards in the real world, it's possible for people to voluntarily designate their mortal remains for use by the State after their death. The State has obvious reasons for encouraging this -- death benefits to the survivors, for instance -- but can stop well short of coercion. There may still be loud complaints from the excessively religious who believe no one's flesh should be desecrated in this manner, but then again there always are, and in a healthy democratic society they'll be politely informed that they can decide what to do with their own bodies in accordance with their faith but they don't get to dictate what others do with theirs.

Forensic necromancy:

As you already state yourself, the process of capturing a ghost for interrogation damages their memory and identity. This makes them unreliable witnesses, with their testimony easily dismissed as hearsay by any competent lawyer.

That said, while it won't stand up in court, I would imagine that testimony obtained from the soul of the departed by a licensed forensic necromancer who can demonstrate they followed proper procedures would suffice to obtain a search warrant, and any evidence obtained from said search would be admissible without problem.

Reanimates:

Here you have a problem, but not in the way you'd expect. While the reanimated limbs question can be addressed via the same principle of consent as the Deathguard situation, the animal's soul cannot be said to have consented and by your own admission the process causes it a great deal of suffering. In real life, we already have animal rights groups objecting to the inhumane treatment of animals grown for consumption; imagine how they'd feel about animals being tortured to death and beyond to power a machine in perpetuity.

The Ascended:

The problem here is in the opposite direction: The wealthy and powerful of the world tend to be very unwilling to shuffle the mortal coil. They're going to want this made available to "everyone" -- by which they mean everyone who can afford it, IE, themselves. This will not end well.

We Must Dissent:

The objections to necromancy you cite almost certainly already existed before the Union transitioned democracy; it's just become a lot safer to voice them. Presumably, the Union in its pre-democracy days simply ignored such inconvenient objections; now they're going to have to allow them to be debated, but ultimately by simply allowing people to either consent or opt out of the process they can defang most of the serious concerns.

If it can be proven that the soul usually does not linger after death (exceptions mentioned in the forensic part aside) and does not remain tethered to the body I don't really see how there's much of an ethical case to discuss in the first place.

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Make it about waste

Unionist: "You mean you just bury your dead? They don't do you any good? You waste them?!" If you have read speaker for the dead the piggies have a similar reaction to learning that the humans don't use dirt from human graves to make bricks

Imagine the viewpoint that a lot of people have when looking at trophy hunters. Specifically the type that kill a stag for it's head and let the rest rot away. I imagine your average unionist would have a similar revulsion to the idea of throwing away human remains and letting them go to waste. It might not be that visceral, instead, it could be they would view someone burying, or (worse) burning a body, the same way we view having a golf course in the desert- a flagrant display of wealth/massive waste of resources. Regardless of the level, the way I see it Unionists think people who don't use their dead as wasteful.

Example slogans in support of necromancy could be "Conserve the departed. They aren't discarded" "Necromancy: Resurrecting the Past, Sustaining our Future"

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  • $\begingroup$ Smart! That would fit nicely along with the growing concerns around ecology in my story. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2023 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ Besides Speaker for the Dead, see also Stranger in a Strange Land, where the Martian-raised human Valentine Michael Smith finds burial to be a ridiculous waste of food. $\endgroup$ May 9, 2023 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ "Specifically the type that kill a stag for it's head and let the rest rot away." I'm dubious that such people exist. Deer skin and meat are too useful. (Ok, there's always a handful of outliers, but your statement implies that it's common among trophy hunters.) $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 10, 2023 at 1:41
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Your society is unlikely to care about captured/revived dead enemies. So if you capture and revive them, our Union children are put at less risk.

Also prisoners, except you won't have Death Row per say as you can force them to live long enough for any prison sentence. Murder 12 innocent child, or go on a shooting spree well you will be revived hundred of times and given the worst jobs. Nuclear power plant cleaner, why not? Coal mine, sure.

I guess the big question is how many criminals will you have if they know what your going to do to them after death.

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So, there are good answers already, I'm not going to repeat them. One other point of possible controversy to consider, though: does the necrotechnician have control over the undead they've raised to the point where they can force them to lie? Say, about their consent to the procedure?

If so, there's an analogy here that can be made to slavery, and how that worked out in a somewhat-less-modern democratic state. Note that slavery in the US lasted for close to a century before the Civil War, though, and in the meantime it persisted just because it was so useful (for the owners).

If not, well, undead uprisings are back on the table.

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    $\begingroup$ "...force them to lie? Say, about their consent to the procedure?" I think an even more important side note to this is that slavery persisted for about 100 years AFTER the Civil War too thanks to the Black Codes and Convict Leasing. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 11, 2023 at 19:48
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I think it's pretty easy to justify a society that does this for any number of reasons; resource utilization, working for a greater good, etc.

The difficult conceptual part is

Forensic necromancy - after a violent death, occurring while the body was not weakened by ageing or disease, souls roam on the place for a few days. Police investigators can use it to solve murders, but the capture and interrogation process damages the soul (i.e., loss of identity and memory).

This is much more complex than a simple murder investigation because of damage to the soul of the deceased.

An society that is concerned about policing/preventing murder would do so out of a sense of societal benefit, preventing harm to others, and justice/revenge; it would be fairly unconscionable to then cause further harm to the soul of the murdered.

Even in a very caste based society it's hard to justify; the upper castes would never have it applied to them and few would care if the bottom caste were killed. I suppose one could imagine some royal guards might agree to this before their deaths as a sacrifice to benefit their family, but it certainly would limit the application.

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