Freedom, Purpose and Morality in The Sirens of Titan | Shapshay on The Sirens of Titan

Sandy Shapshay



The Sirens of Titan is a novel of ideas that takes the reader on an imaginative romp through the solar system. Three timeless philosophical questions are explored in the course of Malachi Constant’s space odyssey: the metaphysical question of whether free will is an illusion; the moral question of whether good ends can justify evil means; and, most prominently, the existential question of the meaning of life—that is, the question of whether an individual human life has a purpose, and, if so, what that purpose is.

I’d like to concentrate on what the novel suggests about the first and last of these questions, with a brief excursus into the moral question.

Free will? In the fictional world of The Sirens of Titan there are characters who seem to believe quite strongly in their own freedom to choose their destiny, even if they make their choices in a rather arbitrary manner, and even when their success or failure seems to be a matter of sheer luck. For instance, Noel Constant, Malachi’s father, at the age of thirty-nine, “single, physically and morally unattractive, and a business failure” (69), has an idea to become a stock speculator and decides to invest using the first verse of the Bible as a guide. The narrator writes that Noel “built his fortune” from materials “hardly more nourishing in themselves than calendar dates and bedsprings” (70), but nonetheless he built it, even if he did have great luck in doing so.

However, as the novel progresses, we have reason to doubt that Noel exercised his own agency here. After all, the fate of his son has been predicted almost to the letter by Winston Niles Rumfoord:

Then Mercury.
Then Earth again.
Then Titan.
Since the itinerary ended on Titan, presumably that was where Malachi Constant was going to die. He was going to die there!”(43)

We see this itinerary unfold as predicted. And it unfolds in large part through the ex machina interventions of Rumfoord—who spells out messages to Unk in harmoniums on Mercury, for instance, including the crucial one to turn the spaceship upside down!—and so we come to realize that Unk/Constant is just a machine-like tool in Rumfoord’s grand plan. This realization dawns on most Martian veterans who then typically resign themselves to their fate as cheap souvenir vendors. So it seems that most people are entirely controlled by puppet masters like Rumfoord.

But even if this were true, at least one person, namely Rumfoord, is truly free, right? Admittedly, this “person” exists as a kind of God-like wave phenomenon so is hardly typical. Of course, toward the end of the novel, we experience along with Rumfoord a shocking reversal. We thought at least he was free, but he too has been merely a puppet of the denizens of Tralfamadore, who, to add insult to injury, are themselves machines!

This quasi-tragic recognition is too much for Rumfoord to bear: “Nobody likes to think he’s being used,” he says to Salo. “It may surprise you to learn that I take a certain pride, no matter how foolishly mistaken that pride may be, in making my own decisions for my own reasons” (290). In response, Salo—a machine whose “mind buzzes and pops like the mind of an Earthling—fizzes and overheats with thoughts of love, honor, dignity, rights, accomplishment, integrity, independence” (306)—summons his own power of will to “make war against the core of his being, against the very nature of being a machine” (305) in order to reveal the message he was duty-bound to deliver unopened. Thus, despite Rumfoord’s recognition of his own determined fate, Salo provides a counterexample: he overcomes his own machine nature by power of free will. This testifies to the idea that the Universal Will to Become (UWTB)—something like Schopenhauer’s Wille zum Leben or Nietzsche’s Wille zur Macht, that is, the Ur-substance out of which all of us are made—has endowed conscious, thinking individuals with an ability to act spontaneously after all.

Another apparent counterexample to Rumfoord’s determinism is the fact that Malachi Constant does not die on Titan as suggested by the itinerary quoted above. Clearly there is more indeterminacy and quite possibly some measure of autonomy in this world.

Ultimately, the final, nuanced word on the subject is spoken by Beatrice Rumfoord, who recites: “I would be the last to deny . . . that the forces of Tralfamadore have had something to do with the affairs of Earth. However, those persons who have served the interests of Tralfamadore have served them in such highly personalized ways that Tralfamadore can be said to have had practically nothing to do with the case” (315; emphasis added). Beatrice aims to refute Winston Rumfoord’s view that the “purpose of human life in the Solar System was to get a grounded messenger from Tralfamadore on his way again” (314). And in arguing for an alternative purpose, she also hits on the novel’s key to refuting hard determinism: individuality.

The novel suggests that the world is populated by a continuum of “machines”: literal machines, built to carry out specific functions like Salo; quasi-machines, controlled, like Unk, through an antenna in the head by puppet masters to carry out others’ ends; metaphorical machines, controlled by priests with religious ideas of luck, shame, and the shape of a good society; and Darwinian machines, human beings inclined like other animals to act in certain species-typical ways by their genes. But Beatrice Rumfoord also recognizes that despite the fact that people are machines (whether designed as such or used for a particular end), they also act in highly individual, “personalized” ways, and therein lies the freedom.

Purpose? The personal ways in which people still shape their own lives despite being used by others leads to another weighty philosophical question taken up in the novel—that of the purpose of a human life. Again, Beatrice Rumfoord’s reflection supplies the novel’s modest answer, which is crystallized by Malachi Constant, “no matter who is controlling” that life, the purpose of a human life is “to love whoever is around to be loved” (320). Yet that seemingly simple Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young answer of “love the one you’re with” still allows for a great number of individual forms:

  • Boaz comes to love the harmoniums and ends up flourishing and feeling at home by bringing musical joy to them in the caves of Mercury. But Unk does not even like those little flaky creatures. What accounts for the difference?
  • Chrono comes to love and feel at home with the Titanic bluebirds; although his parents admire Chrono’s predilection, they do not feel the same emotion for the birds (instead, they come to love one another). What accounts for the difference?
  • Salo, a machine who was not presumably built to love anybody, comes to love “Skip” as a friend, and so much so that he commits machine suicide by disassembling himself once he realizes that his friendship had been false all along. We are told that Salo would have liked to have been accepted by the bluebirds, like Chrono, but they rebuffed him. Why did they accept Chrono and not Salo? What accounts for these differences?

The differences are idiosyncratic. They are perhaps matters of taste or matters of style. The novel suggests that purpose is largely a personal matter as well. This is something we are told at the very start of the novel but could hardly appreciate on page 1: as opposed to those dark ages of outward space exploration, “everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.”

The admonition to explore the terra incognita of yourself and to discover—and perhaps even to choose—what makes life personally meaningful for you, rather than searching for that meaning in an outward fashion, is now a familiar piece of advice from Existentialist philosophy. But it’s also a refreshing piece of advice to be reminded of, if we haven’t read our Jean-Paul Sartre in a while.

That said, the novel complicates the radical Sartrean idea that one’s “existence precedes essence.”1 For the atheist Sartre, since a human being is neither a manufactured article (like, say, a hammer, whose original purpose is to drive in nails) nor designed by God with any purpose (because, for Sartre, there is no God), a human being simply exists, with no predetermined purpose and is radically free to choose his or her own purpose. Vonnegut seems to suggest in Sirens that Sartre’s view is too radical: we are always already “controlled” or “used” to some extent by others for their purposes; additionally, we have certain animal purposes built into us; furthermore, for Vonnegut, the nexus of purposes we exist in is actually desirable.

Take the following line from Beatrice, after she reflects on the painting of herself as a girl immaculately dressed in white on a white pony: “The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody . . . would be to not be used for anything by anybody” (317). This line could be understood as a justification of the terrible treatment including the actual rape of Beatrice. But there is a less disturbing way to interpret this thought, one having to do with the desirability of being used for another’s purpose. The less disturbing interpretation rests on an important distinction between being used as a means by another and being used as a mere means by another. And this takes us to the third big philosophical question raised in the novel—the moral question of whether good ends can justify evil means.

Morality? We are told in the novel that Noel Constant could trace his lineage “back through an illegitimacy to Benjamin Constant . . . a tribune under Napoleon from 1799 to 1801, and a lover of Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de Stael-Holstein, wife of the then Swedish ambassador to France” (69). The fictional characters of the novel, then, can trace their lineage to actual historical people. In philosophical ethics (in the real world) Benjamin Constant was mostly known for a 1797 pamphlet in which he objected to Immanuel Kant’s rigorous position on the immorality of lying.2 The objection runs as follows: if you were hiding an innocent man in your house, and his would-be murderer came to your door asking for his whereabouts, surely the moral thing would be to lie to the inquiring murderer. Benjamin Constant held that in such a case the good end justifies the morally suspect means (lying). In a reply, Kant stuck to his theory: good ends do not justify immoral means; rather, the moral law, aka the Categorical Imperative, enjoins us never to treat the humanity in oneself or in another as a mere means, but only as an end in itself. By lying to the inquiring murderer, you would be treating his humanity as a mere means, without due respect; you may remain silent, you may break out in an interpretive dance, but from the point of view of morality, you may not lie to that man.3

How does this controversy relate to Beatrice’s thought that the “worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody . . . would be to not be used for anything by anybody”? Following Kant, it’s okay to be “used” by others; in fact, it’s essential for social life in general for people to be used by others for various purposes—for example, as construction workers, waiters, engineers, doctors, and so on. The novel further suggests that if one were not used, say, as someone’s beloved, or mother, or friend, one would not have a good life at all. But being used as a mere means—that is, as nothing but a tool for another’s purpose, without respect for the person’s humanity, his or her autonomy—is where use crosses the line into abuse. And the novel gives us a lengthy example of the use of others as a mere means: Rumfoord’s literal brainwashing of the Martian “Saints” uses them as mere means toward a supposedly good end (the Brotherhood of Man on Earth) without regard for their autonomy. In the end, the novel suggests that being used is not the problem—it’s actually a key part of a good life—it’s being used merely as means that is immoral and prevents flourishing.

In the end, the message of The Sirens of Titan is somewhat Kantian: good ends, like the Brotherhood of Mankind, do not justify immoral means, and we should mind the distinction between being used as a means for others’ purposes and being used as a mere means, since the former is constitutive of and the latter destructive of a good life.


1. See Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism” for a clear account of his atheist Existentialist view; available at

2. Kant’s reply to Constant, his essay “On the Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy,” can be found in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, ed. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood, translated and edited by Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), or online at

3. This same problematic is dramatized in Sartre’s short story “The Wall” (Le Mur), published in 1939.