Bad/Good Will Revisited

I’m a fan of classic horror flicks. In particular, I’m a fan of the gimmicky films of William Castle. For those who don’t know, William Castle brought to us some of the most fantastic schlock (said in a complelely good way) films of the late 50s and early 60s ever brought to the theater house or drive-in. Castle’s films include The Tingler, Macabre, 13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus, Zotz!, Rosemary’s Baby, and my personal favorite, The House on Haunted Hill relased in 1958. If one is inclined to simply watch movies and not have to think beyond the urge to take the occasional pee break, William Castle’s movies totally satisfy that need for a fix. The cool thing is, is that beyond providing mindless entertainment, William Castle’s movies often have an undercurrent of something philosophical. And since so much of the horror genre deals with evil-doing, much of the subtext in Castle’s films is ethical. The House on Haunted Hill is no exception. The plot of the movie is pretty simple, there’s this awfully rich fellow named Frederick Loren (played by Vincent Price — you can’t go wrong there!). Loren invites a group of not-so-rich guests to his house for a haunted house party. The five individuals that are told that, if they can spend a night in Loren’s haunted house, he will give them $10, 000. The trick, Loren knows, is that his guests’ chances for success are fairly slim, given that the house is abound with kiler ghosts. Each of Loren’s guests accept his invitation because each needs the $10,000. So, as the film opens, Loren’s guests make their way to the haunted mansion on the hill. The ethical question here is obvious. Loren’s intentions are clearly in the wrong. not only is he exploiting the needs of his guests, but inaddition, he plans to kill his wife. At first glance it seems that Loren is a moral criminal, not to mention a would-be murderer. But, is that so clear once we look a little closer at the situation? First. let’s throw out the Loren wanting to murder his wife bit. Murder, even if your wife is a total b, is always wrong. Even if we all think the dame deserves to die ( Loren’s wife is, afterall, carrying on an affair with some dude named Trent) we can’t justify killing her. But, that leaves Loren’s challenge to his guests. If they spend a night in the house, they get money. Sounds like a fairly even exchange. We enter into this same type of exchange all the time. Some people work for pay, kids do chores for money, we pay for overpriced tickets to see our favorite band in concert, etc. Most of the time, the exchange of money for services rendered is non-exploitive. Morally, this is absolutely OK. Kant’s Categorical Imperative (which I will refer to as C.I.) includes two principles by which we should (or is it must?) judge the rightness of our actions. Kant’s first principle states that we act only on a maxim that we at the same time can make universal. That is, before we act, we ask, should everyone do this? For instance, if I wanted to steal an unguarded iphone sitting on a desk, I should ask, would I want everyone to do this? Would I have for a moral rule “if an iphone is unguarded, it is morally right to steal it”? The answer in this case is obviously no. I wouldn’t want that for a maxim to be obeyed by everyone. Kant’s second principle holds that we must treat other people as ends in themselves, not as mere means to our own ends. According to Kant’s second principle, I cannot use others to further my own goals. So, if I decided to take philosophy classes because, no wait, bad example. If I make friends with Dante’s mom because she has lots of spare cash floating around, and I really don’t like her, but I enjoy the perks of her “friendship”, then , according to Kant, I am morally wrong because I am using someone to further my own ends — namely the fact that someone is spending their money to satisfy my wants. Kant’s categorical imperative deals with absolute moral obligations (as opposed to hypothetical imperatives, which are binding on a person so long as that person desires to fuflil some result or end. For instance, if I want to lose weight, I have to diet and exercise. I’m only bound to diet and exercise so long as my end). As I noted, in the case of Frederick Loren, the situation seems to smack of exploitation. The people Loren invites need the $10,000, and they will do anything, including risking their own lives, to get it. But that’s just it. Both sides are in it to get something. Loren’s guests want Loren’s money just as much as Loren may be inclined to exploit them. They are willing to do anything, even risk their own lives to get it. So here’s my question: what does Kant say about mutually exploitive acts? Every one of Loren’s guests wanted something (and that Trent guy wanted Loren’s wife as well). They went to Loren’s haunted house party knowing that there was a chance that they might not make the night. So let’s look at Loren’s “party” according to Kant’s first principle of the C.I. Let’s say that Loren constructs his maxim as such: “If you want to invite a group of people to your haunted house, be sure to offer them a large sum of money as to compensate them (or their heirs, if necessary) if anything bad should happen to them”. That sounds fair. If Loren constructs his maxim that way, it seems that it has a whiff of fairness to it. I don’t think anyone would be offended by this maxim. But, Loren thinks about his maxim. There’s something wrong with it. It’s not quite complete. So he reformulates it by adding a clause to protect him from those who accuse his maxim of exploitation. Loren adds: “If you want to invite a group of people to your haunted house, be sure that they are well-informed that the house is haunted and that the ghosts are dangerous, and be sure to offer them a large sum of money as to compensate them (or their heirs, if necessary) if anything bad should happen to them”. I think, that, if Loren use this as his maxim, he’s in the moral clear. Loren adds, they are getiting something from me as well, so it’s not just me who is benefitting in this situation. With Loren in the clear on principle one, let’s move on to the second principle. Kant’s second principle states that we cannot use others as a mere means to our own ends. This means we cannot use others by way of coersion, manipulation, exploitation, force, etc. Kant’s C.I. requires that we respect the dignity and autonomy of an individual to make rational moral choices for himself. If we are to make autonomous moral choices, we must enter into our decisions well-informed and free of coersion or manipulation. If we do not, then our choices were not rendered autonomously. It seems that Loren’s guests entered into the agreement (an overnight stay for money) freely and knowingly. Loren’s guests know that the house they will spend the night in is haunted. They know that they will get $10,000 if they spend an entire night there. They accepted Loren’s invite and intend to leave the mansion $10,000 richer. So, Loren may say, so what if they all need the money, they all agreed to be here. If I, Frederick Loren, was to say anything about the matter, I’d say that they agreed to be exploited! So, Loren has thrown his opinion into the ring, and said that his guests agreed to be exploited. So now we ask, can a person agree to be exploited? Kant would say no. In this situation (and others similar to it — like when a woman who works as a “dancer” says that she’s not doing degrading work, but at least “gets paid” — that’s what Dante’s mom says, anyway), the fact that both parties agree to the act doesn’t make the act morally right. As the old saying goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right”. And this is what Kant thinks as well. Even if Loren says that his guests agreed to spend the night in his house, the situation still stinks of exploitation. Loren argues that his guests were getting paid for their stay — but the fact is, is that Loren invited people who needed the money, not merely wanted it. They were willing to engage in a extreme act that they most likely would not have done if their situations were not so dire. In a sense, they were not free to do otherwise. The fact that their acceptances to Loren’s challenge was made out of desperation, meant that their decision was not a truly autonomous decision. The offering of money was a form of coersion. But, wait, Loren cries — they could have freely left the house at any time. They weren’t forced to spend the entire night! True, but, we can say that the lure of money was so great (not to mention not seeming like a wuss) that they could not leave. Loren knew that, once he suggested that his guests were total wusses if they left, no one would leave. So he’s still in the moral wrong. Loren can’t say that this situation was excusable because his guests decided to attend his party. Kant’s C.I. wants us to seek out moral rules that are universal. The categorical imperative requires that we consider all in our moral sphere, not merely the five people that we invite to our haunted house party. In this situation, Loren’s guests may benefit, but we (collectively) lose. So, it seems that Loren’s maxim wasn’t universalizable, no matter how many clauses we add, we can’t morally justify exploitation — even if the exploitation is mutual. Our moral universe requires that we create rules that aren’t just useful for throwing haunted slumber parties, but useful for everyone who is affected by our actions. For Kant, that “everyone” isn’t limited to the people that we know, but covers everyone at all times in all places (including planets where soul-sucking botanists dwell). If we deny someone the right to do otherwise, even if we inform themof all the risks, we aren’t respecting their ability to make rational moral choices — which is exactly what Frederick Loren did in The House on Haunted Hill. In picking people who needed the money, no matter how well informed his guests were, no matter if they didn’t leave after he informed them that they could, Loren used them as a means to his own ends, and deprived them of the respect that being a morally autonomous being requires. And because of that, Frederick Loren violates the principles of Kant’s categorical imperative. And, let’s not forget, the guy wanted to kill his wife!

Conversation Enders #9: The Not-So Magical Misery Tour

They say that you can tell a person’s personality by what kind of music they listen to. In reality, telling a person’s personality by way of their musical preferences is intended to be one of those “tests” that people think up to screen out people that they think are beneath them. To give an example, if you’re into Phillip Glass and the Kronos Quartet and someone you meet at a gathering of mutual friends gushes on and on about how cool Toby Keith is — well, you get the idea. I had heard of this so-called personality test during a conversation with a “baby boomer”, that is those individuals born roughly between 1945 and 1964. The people who turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, and are still convinced that everything they said and did was pop cultural gold. I think what he really was trying to do was convince me that any music that he liked was cool, therefore suggesting his superiority, and that my liking the FooFighters was somehow akin to primitiveness. I was a knuckledragger. Although I recall he liked the song with the video that’s like those Mentos commercials. It was “inventive” he said, kind of like A Hard Day’s Night. I remember, before I completely lost interest in his going on about how cool the 60s was, ( although I swear he was a teenager in the 70s), he was yammering about how bands today had lost their sense of humor, and how the art was missing from modern music, and that it’s all about making money nowadays… He was suggesting that the music of the 60s, with its emphasis on art and making the listener feel something, not only provided the soundtrack by which to pick up chicks to, but also influenced the way that people thought about life and themselves — how we interact with the world and how we feel connected to everyone around us. This was something, he said, that today’s music simply does not do. You could tell a man by his music, he claimed. If the baby boomers are right, and no good music was made after 1969 ( which may be true in the case of Wham!), and if there is a definitive link between personality and music preference,then there is no better personality test than the question which Beatles do you like? For those who would answer the question, ” I like all of the Beatles music”, shame on you. Liking the Beatles is not merely a matter of liking their music generally, it is a gauge on how you see the world. Which era you like tells the world what kind of person you are. There a two basic ways of gauging personality type according to the Beatles: 1) early vs. late Beatles 2) Lennon or Mc Cartney If you say that you prefer to listen to “early” Beatles, roughly covering the years from 1962 to 1966 (when they stopped performing in public, unless you discount their “rooftop” performance), then your personality is described as follows: you’re conventional. You like things to be clear, simple and easy to understand (like many early Beatles lyrics). You’re likely conservative, and most importantly, you don’t readily accept change. You like the Beatles who wore the matching suits and didn’t sing about revolutions and posed naked on album covers with their girlfriends — and you like the world to be that way, too. If, by chance, you dig the late Beatles, then you’re open and progressive. You may be slightly militant, or at least you talk as if you are (but more than likely you’re “out, in”). You’ve probably referred to authority on at least one occasion as “the Man”. You like confusion, chaos, and of course, smoking weed. Your mind is a changing place, and according to you, like your mind, that’s the way the world is. The test is similar with whether you prefer the lyrics of John Lennon or Paul Mc Cartney. If you like Paul, then you’re a romantic. You like silly little love songs, and there’s absolutely no problem with that according to your world view. Love for you is between you and the gender of your choice. And, you don’t have a problem with making money. If you prefer Lennon, you’re the edgy rebel. You speak your mind and you’re not afraid of pissing people off. Love isn’t just between you and your girfriend that nobody else seems to like, but is something that involves the whole world. And not just love, but peace, too. You have a seious problem with those people who sold out ( but we all know that you’ve got a little tucked away in your pocket as well). Funny, no one ever says what kind of personality you have if you like George. The idea is, is that this “test” isn’t supposed to be just an icebreaker or a topic of conversation that is meant to take up time but not teach us anything. It’s supposed to be a way to gain insight into who we are — as any music that we listen to is supposed to reflect who we are. Sometimes this assumption is right. For instance, I know that gloomy people tend to listen to gloomy music. Usually someone who describes themself as a philistine wouldn’t listen to Mozart or something supposedly “refined” or high class. Yeah, I get that but, if you ask me, this question — and I mean this question gauging a personality (and by extension a worldview) by what “era” of Beatles a person likes — is a prime example of philosophic overthinking. Now that I’m writing this, I don’t not suspect that some philosophy student thought up this question. It reeks of philosophy. And leave it to a philosopher to overthink a preference. If you don’t believe that this actually happens, overthinking preferences that is, there is a book currently on the shelves of any number of local bookstores called The Beatles and Philosophy. It sets itself apart from all of the other (hundreds) of books about the Beatles, in that its authors have somehow found a way to overthink meaning into the Beatles’ (generally thought of as ) pop songs. The book, in all of it’s philosophic significantness is not so much a homage to a seminal pop band as it is a monument to the power of overthinking. I would give an example or two, but since I endowed my own The Beatles and Philosophy book to the logic lab (big clue) and since I am way too lazy to google anything, I can’t give you an idea of how philosophic overthinking goes hideously wrong. But, let me preempt myself here — I’m not saying that the Beatles weren’t saying anything, sure they did! Afterall, that’s what the 60s was about (so they say anyway). And I am not, repeat, NOT trying to say that philosophers shouldn’t look for the deeper or hidden meanings behind otherwise seemingly unphilosophic things. But I really don’t think that they were going for something that deep. I think that what they were trying to do is make money and, eventually, get high. Paul Mc Cartney said that what drove he and John Lennon to songwriting is their mutual desire to write tunes for Frank Sinatra. Sometimes, even with things that have meaning, we read more into it than there is. I recall hearing that Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Well, sometimes a song is just a song. I think that when you’ve taken to finding the Leibnizian view of God and the universe as articulated by George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” or the Humean subtext of “Hello, Goodbye”, you’re going a little too far ( I don’t know if there are Humean subtexts to any of the songs on Magical Mystery Tour or if there is any Leibniz to be found on Sgt. Pepper. I made those examples up). What’s funny about finding the deeper philosophy in Beatles lyrics is that it ignores the fact that there are even funnier “meanings” to be found in the songs without consulting Spinoza or Nietzsche. Ask yourself these questions: Are they really singing “everybody smoke pot” during the coda of “I am the Walrus”? or, how was everybody snowed by John Lennon’s obvious lie about what “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was really about (which is kind of like how people back in the 70s had no clue that the Village People were gay. They sang songs about macho men and hanging at the Y! Hello?!?), or how is it that Charles Manson really did get what the song “Blackbird” was about? It’s these questions that remain unanswered and need to be. By the way, if no one has noticed that the tenor of this post has drifedway into the hypocritical, I’m more clever than I thought. So clever, in fact that … And for the record, I prefer late Beatles (White Album specifically) to early and I’m a fan of the songs of George Harrison, especially “Only a Northern Song” from Yellow Submarine. The movie sucked eggs, but the song is cool.