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!

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