All I Want For Christmas Is For Jimmy Stewart To Teach Me the Meaning of Life

It’s the end of the year. It’s the time we look forward to the year ahead and turn back to think of the year we’ve left behind. As we open up or Christmas presents, we celebrate the people who mean the most to us and pray (if you’re into that kind of thing) for peace and good will on Earth.

After over-stuffing ourselves on holiday ham and all the fixings, we might find ourselves, gazing at our distended bellies, falling victim to meat sweats and a bad case of the ‘itis, as we ask, “what have I done with my life?”




And as we settle down for a long winter’s nap, gazing into the glowing light of a yuletide fire, we realize the funny way the Christmas season gets us thinking about things philosophically.


The Austrian philosopher, Kurt Baier (1917-2010) says scientific theories cannot make the universe “intelligible, comprehensible, meaningful to us.” Baier claims that science isn’t structured to answer the “why” and causal explanations for the existence of life and the universe cannot produce “real illumination”, and  if we look to science to tell us why we are here, the only explanation that science can give to explain our existence is that we are here solely for reproductive purposes.





Baier says that in reality a scientific universe is harsh, cold, and indifferent to us.





So what does that have to do with Christmas?


Nothing, other than I have the feeling that this is exactly what George Bailey was feeling the night he decided to kill himself in the Frank Capra-directed holiday favorite It’s A Wonderful Life.


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These days, the only time most people watch It’s A Wonderful Life (originally released in December, 1946) is during the holiday season when the television networks temporarily preempt their regular programming to air Christmastime classics like, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and  A Charlie Brown Christmas (a very philosophical thought-provoking television program in its own right).

Although some may dismiss It’s A Wonderful Life as a film that embodies all that is cheesy and hopelessly cliché about Christmas, the Frank Capra perennial holiday programming favorite is, I think, the most philosophical movie ever made.


At least one of the most.



George Bailey (James Stewart) lives in small-town of Bedford Falls. As a young man, George dreams of leaving the small town for the big city. George wants to go to college. George tells his sweetheart, Mary Hatch (soon to become his wife, Mary Bailey, played by Donna Reed) his dreams for his future:

Mary: What’d you wish, George?
George: Well, not just one wish. A whole hatful, Mary. I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that. I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Coliseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here and go to college and see what they know… And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…


But, unfortunately for young George Bailey, life intervenes and George is called to manage the (failing) family business, Bailey Building and Loan. George gives up his dream of leaving Bedford Falls to tend to the family business.

Sure, George is married to a woman who loves him, has a couple of pretty good kids, a war hero brother, and the respect of the community, but when Bailey Building and Loan comes up $8000 short, George is suspected of stealing the money and faces arrest. To make matters worse for George Bailey, local corporate kingpin, Henry F. Potter wants to take over the Bailey family business and cut off bank loans to the town’s poor residents (George does not know that Potter not only found the missing $8000 but has pocketed the money).





With the possibility of a prison sentence looming over his head and an overwhelming feeling of failure and despair, George Bailey feels that the world would have been better if he was never born. George wants out of his unfulfilled, meaningless life.
George Bailey experiences what Thomas Nagel says is the realization of “the absurdity if our own situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves.” When faced with the seeming reality of his own meaningless life and unrealized dreams of a better life outside Bedford Falls, George feels that his life is no longer worth living and like Dostoevsky’s Kirilov, George believes that the only way out of his life’s never-ending meaninglessness is to kill himself.



We can imagine George Bailey, standing on the edge of a bridge, waiting for the right moment to throw himself over the side, hearing the words of Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”, in his head:


… …in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.



Camus writes, “There is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.” When life has ceased to have meaning the natural inclination is to end it.

This is exactly what we can assume George Bailey is feeling as he contemplates suicide.

After getting drunk at the local bar, George decides to throw himself off of a bridge.



However, a moment  before George flings himself over the rail, an angel named Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) intervenes in George’s suicide attempt.

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Clarence tells George that he is George’s guardian angel. Clarence wants to earn his wings and to do so, he has to prove to George Bailey that his life is not meaningless and that the world is better off with him in it.

For Camus, ending one’s life is not an option and it isn’t for Clarence Oddbody, either. So, to prove to George Bailey that his life is worth living, Clarence grants George’s wish, and shows him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.


In a world without George Bailey Mary is a lonely spinster. George learns that not only is his younger brother Harry dead, but that the men on the troop transport that Harry saved during the war also perished – all because George was not there to save Harry when Harry fell through an ice-covered lake as a child.

Clarence shows George Bailey that without his presence, Bedford Falls (or as it is called in the George Bailey-less alternate reality “Pottersville”) is a den of sin filled with casinos, criminals, crazy people, dance halls, and dance hall floozies. Clarence tells George, “You see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?” Clarence tells George sees that his life positively affects the lives of all he knows, including the town of Bedford Falls itself.

Clarence says,

Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.
When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?




Dismayed by the sight of a world worse off without him, George Bailey realizes that his life isn’t as meaningless and insignificant as he had believed and begs Clarence to return things back to the way it was.

*Interesting philosophical tidbit: It’s a Wonderful Life suggests that not only is determinism true, but that our lives are determined by a divine plan. Clarence Oddbody, who thwarts George Bailey’s suicide by showing George what life would be like if he was never born, introduces himself to George as George’s guardian angel. That means George Bailey doesn’t kill himself due to divine intervention  George Bailey wanted to kill himself, but God had other plans -plans that have nothing to do with what George Bailey does or does not want to do.


George Bailey’s purpose in life wasn’t to build airfields or skyscrapers, but was right there in Bedford Falls. George learns that what makes life meaningful isn’t getting what we want or satisfying our desires, but what makes life wonderful is doing good for others and fulfilling one’s purpose in life. George Bailey’s life had meaning, even if he didn’t know what it was.



Even though George Bailey wasn’t aware of it, he indeed had a wonderful life.


In the closing scene of It’s A Wonderful Life, the townspeople of Bedford Falls, recognizing the fact that George Bailey is the town’s only hope of warding off Potter’s plans to turn Bedford Falls into a small town Sodom and Gomorrah, rallies behind George, giving him more than enough money to cover the lost money.

Kimmel 1213


The townspeople know, even if George Bailey does not, that he has played a meaningful role in their lives. As the residents of Bedford Falls sing a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”, a bell on the Bailey’s Christmas tree rings. George’s daughter Zuzu  famously tells her father (now, everybody say it together) “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”.




We see that George Bailey means something to Clarence Oddbody as well – he’s helped Clarence to earn his wings. In an inscription in a book, Clarence leaves a final message for George Bailey; no man is a failure who has friends.





Whoa, hold the phone! What Clarence Oddbody tells George Bailey is worth repeating. Clarence tells George Bailey no man is a failure who has friends. This certainly sounds like a sentiment that we can all rally behind. If we’re to trust the words of Capra’s angel, it’s possible that Clarence Oddbody knows the true meaning of life. What this means folks – is perhaps we have we finally found what every great philosopher, thinker, theologian and layman has been looking for: Friendship is the meaning of life.


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Alright, I’ve never been shy about my dislike of Aristotle. And generally speaking, I still do. But listen; as much as I am reluctant to admit it, Aristotle gives us a reason to believe friendship is the meaning of life.


friendship is magic


Aristotle states that a Good (i.e. eudemonic) life is a meaningful life and that a requirement for living a meaningful life is friendship. Aristotle tells us that no one can be truly happy without friends. In Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes:

But it seems strange, when one assigns all good things to the happy man, not to assign friends, who are thought the greatest of external goods… Therefore even the happy man lives with others; for he has the things that are by nature good. And plainly it is better to spend his days with friends and good men than with strangers or any chance persons. Therefore the happy man needs friends.


If you think about it, perhaps the reason why we pursue philosophy – the reason why we want to know about truth and reality, why we need to know how to distinguish true beliefs from false beliefs or why we want to know the ethical way to act because, as Aristotle tells us, not only so we can determine what friendship is, but also good and virtuous people attract the right kind of people; people of good moral character.


man in toga



We may claim that we are the products of our own invention, but as much as we define our lives, our lives are also shaped by the people around us.

Our friends are not just our companions; our friends give us examples to live by, they teach and inspire us, support and encourage our better natures, and share with us our values and the most meaningful moments in our lives. Our friends are our mirrors. Our friends reflect what kind of person we are and what kind of person we want to be.

Having a head full of Descartes, Kant, and Hume may be philosophically satisfying, but what’s the point of studying philosophy if we have no one to share our ideas and knowledge with?  Just remember as you’re swigging back a third mug of eggnog, a philosopher may attain enlightenment, but the individual who has soul enhancing, long-lasting friendships truly has a life worth living.







It’s a Wonderful Life. 1946. Writ. Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Jo Swerling, & Frank Capra. Dir. Frank Capra.

Thomas Nagel. “Death”. Mortal Questions. 1979. NY: Cambridge University Press. p.17.

 Albert Camus. “The Myth of Sisyphus”. The Meaning of Life: A Reader. p.73.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. W.D. Ross. 1909. Clarendon Press. W.D. Ross’ translation is in the public domain and available online at:

There’s No Way I Wasn’t Going To Write A Post About Star Wars

UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN LIVING under a rock, it would be quite difficult to avoid at least hearing about the new Star Wars flick, Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens.* The film has already been declared the highest grossing film opening of all time and if those YouTube fan reaction videos are any indication of the film’s uberhype, Star Wars Episode VII may land on the list of top grossing films of all time.


Along with all the other Star Wars films.


star wars toaster


And really, what other franchise has spawned awesome cosplay like this?


excellent cosplay


Since I’ve made it a habit of paying to attention to pop cultural crap – I mean, stuff other than Star Wars, I’ve also noticed something else going on in the zeitgeist that people who aren’t philosophy geeks might not have noticed:

Although not quite at the level of Star Wars talk, there’s also been a lot of talk about philosophers lately.



But unlike most of the reviews of The Force Awakens, not all of it has been good.

Actually, quite a bit of it has been fairly harsh.



And yes, just in case you were wondering, there is philosophy cosplay.

It looks kind of like this


philosopher cosplay



Despite the fact that philosophers have been around more than a couple of millennia, we still haven’t convinced folks that we’re not just a bunch of irrelevant navel gazers. We’re not all high-falutin’ intellectual types who sit around reading Plato and over-discussing Wittgenstein.

second oldest profession




Not to say that there aren’t any philosophers like that.



We think of philosophers as over-intellectualizing killjoys but there are plenty of philosophers who actually do more than read philosophy all day.

In fact, quite a few of us were first turned on to philosophy while watching decidedly un-philosophical things.
Many of us are also really into pop culture.



To be fair, pop culture has always been a part of philosophical thought. After all, philosophers think about reality and the human condition – and our popular culture is a big part of that. Many philosophers are fans of well-known pop culture icons like Woody Allen , and the films of Wes Anderson, movies like Memento and The Matrix, and TV shows like True Detective, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Lost, and Star Trek.




Believe it or not, a lot of folks who are into philosophy also like seemingly un-philosophical pop culture stuff like Star Wars.


If you ask the average person to name something pop culture and philosophical, you probably won’t hear too many folks throw out the name Star Wars.



TV shows/film franchises like Star Trek or films adapted from the works of Phillip K. Dick may make the top of the list of philosophically-oriented science fiction, but for those who can bear sitting through the prequels, the Star Wars saga is abundant with philosophical themes.
Ok, I know that some sci-fi purists out there don’t classify Star Wars as science fiction.
Science fiction is defined as

Fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets
– Google

Even Star Wars creator George Lucas has described his films as “space opera”.


space opera


Science fiction enthusiasts can debate the merits of George Lucas’ space saga’s inclusion (or exclusion) from the hallowed halls of science fiction, but debate over whether Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy space opera doesn’t take away from the fact that the Star Wars saga is very philosophical.

Stop laughing, it is.

Just like Star Trek.


abrams on star trek



Here’s a handful of philosophical themes you may also have noticed:


  • Determinism in the life story of Luke Skywalker
    Yoda’s stoicism
    Buddhist philosophy of the Jedi Order
    Hegelian themes in The Empire Strikes Back
    The political philosophy of Senator/Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine
    Christ-like imagery in The Phantom Menace


jedi zizek


Like any battle between good and evil Star Wars is, at its core, a morality play.
anakin skywalker, human disaster
So, in preparation for watching The Force Awakens, I binge watched all 13 some-odd hours of the Star Wars saga (It‘s harder to do than it seems). I kept a keen eye out for the moral themes in the films.

Let’s be honest, if you want to analyze anything philosophically, the easiest method of philosophical analysis is to go the ethics route.



Here are a few moral lessons I learned while binge watching the entire Star Wars saga:

*Good not only is a point of view, but also any action may be justified from “a certain point of view”
*Deception is morally permissible
*Withholding important information from someone regarding one’s past (i.e. one’s father’s true identity) or other important info (e.g. the existence of one’s siblings) is in no way a morally incorrect thing to do

*It’s morally permissible to rig bets with one’s mental powers
*Using one’s mental powers to manipulate others is morally permissible so long as one uses one’s powers on the weak minded


obi wan kenobi


*Force choking people into submission is perfectly acceptable
*Cloning individuals and creating a clone army for the sole purpose of using them as cannon fodder is ok
*Mechanical beings (“droids”) that express sentient traits such as human emotions may be discriminated against or destroyed at will
*Making out with one’s siblings is permissible, so long as one doesn’t know he is swapping spit with his twin sister



*Destroying a space station and annihilating thousands of innocent lives (aka people just trying to do their job) is morally permissible
*Same goes for destroying the pleasure barge of a single bad guy who was dead before the barge was destroyed
*Shooting womp rats for target practice is not in any way a bad thing to do
*Killing an entire village of men, women, and children is morally justified if said “animals” made you angry

scumbag han


*Cutting off limbs is ok
*Cutting off a man’s limbs, taking his light saber and leaving him for dead while he immolates is morally permissible
*Violating one’s pledge to the Jedi order is morally permissible (because Obi Wan is jealous and he’s just holding you back, anyway)
phil pic 122


In fact, the only thing I learned was absolutely morally impermissible in the Star Wars universe is this:


  • Imitating a deity is absolutely NOT morally permissible


For some strange reason, it is wrong to pretend to be a deity to a bunch of diminutive furry forest creatures to prevent them from cooking (and probably eating) your friends.




I guess that’s what makes Star Wars a space opera and not science fiction, eh?




* This post is absolutely 100% spoiler free

God Rest Ye Merry Kierkegaard

I WOULD BE LYING IF I said that I am a Christmas person. I’m not.

At all.

I don’t like Christmas.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the fact that I do philosophy. I started not liking the Yuletide season long before I ever opened up a book of philosophical whatnot. Being a Christmas person is just not in my bones.

I speculate that at least some of my dislike has to do with Christmas carols.
That Christmas Shoes song…



worst christmas song ever 1


Although, I maintain that my love of philosophy has nothing to do with my non-fondness of Christmas, some folks would like you believe that it‘s all because of philosophy.

That being a philosopher is the quickest path to eternal damnation.





Head’s up: some of you may not know this, but there are many philosophers who not only celebrate Christmas but also accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.

That’s right, Kevin Sorbo.

Philosophers are Christians, too.

Like this guy




and this guy




and this guy

There’s actually more than a few Christian philosophers out there.

And not all of them are dead.


Kind of like God.



Although the common (mis)perception of philosophers is that philosophers are a bunch of God-hating academics that delight in nothing more than de-Christianizing freshman students.


Yes, Kevin Sorbo. I’m still talking about you.



Actually reading philosophy would inform even the most hardcore philosophers-hate-Jesus/morality folks that philosophy is also chocked full of some of the same Christian values that we teach/preach when we celebrate the birth of Christ.

Unless you’re reading Nietzsche.


nietzsche sweater 1


All the God talk at Christmastime isn’t just a great opportunity to contemplate the metaphysics of man’s existence and the universe, it’s also the perfect opportunity to contemplate one’s philosophical beliefs while also acknowledging the religious and philosophical influence of the central moral figure of the western world.

That figure would be Jesus.


jesus philosophy



If you think about it, Christian Christmas ethics, with its principle of peace and good will towards men, is (basically) the foundation of every ethical theory.


christmas ayn



Pick a moral philosopher – Mill, Bentham, Kant, Tillich… you name it. Every ethical theory is all about doing good for our fellow man.


The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.


Heck, Kant even wrote that our actions must first come from disposition of good will.


Nothing in the world – indeed nothing even beyond the world – can possibly be
conceived which could be called good without qualification except a GOOD WILL.

It’s not just getting presents that get philosophers all jazzed about Christmas.

It’s also about all the philosophy to be found this time of year!
Christmas stories of characters like Ebenezer Scrooge and The Grinch teach us about forgiveness and redemption.


Modern Christmas classics like A Christmas Story and A Charlie Brown Christmas teach us the moral lesson of discovering what’s important in life.


Rankin-Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer gives us a lesson in what to do when our beliefs are challenged by countervailing evidence and finding one’s place in the world.


That’s all stuff that philosophers talk about.


muscle philosopher shirt



So, if you hear anyone say that it’s improper for a philosopher to celebrate the holidays, tell them “Bah, humbug!” and hang another bauble on the Christmas tree. Offer the naysayer a mug of eggnog and explain, despite what Chick Tracts may have them believe, that there is nothing immoral about philosophy.
Still doesn’t mean a philosopher has to like Christmas, though.

You Can’t Handle The (Post) Truth

WHEN YOU’RE A POLITICAL GEEK like I kind-of am, watching Sunday morning newstalk shows becomes something of a routine. The shows usually feature a regular who’s who of political pundits, experts, and media personalities.

A couple of Sundays ago, after some copious amount of channel surfing (I’m always torn between watching MSNBC or Fox News) I settled on watching Meet the Press, hosted by Chuck Todd.


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The subject of most of the show was the Republican presidential nomination race, in particular, candidate and guest, Donald Trump. After the interview concluded, the morning’s panel discussed the controversial real estate magnate-turned presidential hopeful, – especially allegations that Donald Trump has a curious relationship with the truth.

That is to say, some accuse Donald Trump of making statements that are factually inaccurate.
Other people just flat-out say that Donald Trump is a liar.



Trump’s (alleged) lies include (but are not limited to): witnessing cheering Arabs/Muslims in New Jersey on 9/11, a retweet of bogus crime stats on black on white crime, and statements on Syrian refugees.


trump tweet



The Crime Statistics Bureau in San Francisco does not exist.


Chuck Todd and his panel observed that Donald trump seems to suffered no negative consequence for making things up. If anything, Trump’s popularity has held steady and even increased with every accusation that he’s stated a factual inaccuracy.




The peculiarity of the enduring popularity of the Trump campaign, despite being called a liar, lead Meet the Press host Chuck Todd to ask: Are we living in a post truth society?
Now, the term “post-truth” is a term has been floating around for at least a decade.


“Post-Truth” is often used in reference to politics.


what if i told you


Which is entirely appropriate if discussing the Trump presidential campaign.







In Ralph Keyes book The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception In Contemporary Life (2004), Keyes describes the post-truth era as:

In the post-truth era, borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit.


Keyes also says in a post-truth era:


… a liar is “ethically challenged” someone for whom “the truth is temporarily unavailable.”

A quick survey of the modern American political landscape, and Keyes would seem to be spot-on in his observation, even in the more than a decade since he wrote The Post-Truth Era.

But as much as it is important to as if we live in a post-truth era, it is equally important to ask if we do live in a post-truth era, how did we get to a point where the truth is politically irrelevant?


Well, we can go the psychological route.


We might simply declare that politicians and political candidates who have a curious relationship with the truth are pathologically predisposed to being factually inaccurate.




That would do us just fine. (For more info on the pathology of political candidates, see:  )

Ok. We all can agree that politicians lie. And that some politicians seem to have an easier time with non-truth telling than others. But why is it that lying -er, factual inaccuracy telling is so prevalent in society today?

We can blame cognitive dissonance.

Or say that we all have a bad case of confirmation bias.


What if the reason isn’t psychological or political –

But philosophical?




Since so much political post-truthing appeals to our emotions, we may ask, have the emotivists won?



When we say that your truth is as valid as any other version of truth, are we declaring Ethical Relativism the cultural winner?
Has postmodernism, that rejects the notion of the existence of objective truth, taken hold of our politics?


Postmodernism, closely associated with French philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, has notably permeated popular culture, but also, perhaps to the detriment of, politics. Postmodernism does not subscribe to the idea of universal truths. Truth, like reality, is subjective. You make your own truth.


That certainly sounds like someone we’ve all heard of, doesn’t it?


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You may noticed if we do a little philosophical zig instead of a psychological zag, we may find that the roots of the post-truth era may stretch as far back as the birth of philosophical thought.
Perhaps the reason why Donald Trump seems so loosely tied to the telling of truths rests in the possibility that a Trump presidency will be carried out in the mold of the Philosopher-King of Plato’s Republic.

Something that will certainly please Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.


It’s entirely possible that Trump is merely utilizing Platonic Noble Lies, which if you look at the recent history of the Republican Party, is a pretty Republican thing to do.

The only problem is that Trump may be noble lying a little early.
In Plato’s Republic Noble lies are myths told by the leaders to the citizens of the city to maintain social order.

According to Plato (or rather, Plato as Socrates) Noble Lies are necessary.

In Republic (414b-415d) says:


“Could we,” I said, “somehow contrive one of those lies that come into being in case of need of which we were just now speaking, some on noble lie to persuade, in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of society?”

Following the philosophy of Plato, the German-American philosopher and father of the Neoconservative movement, Leo Strauss (1899-1973), maintained that, in the interest of carrying out government affairs, politicians can’t be completely truthful. Government needs to lie.


Notes James Horrox in his essay “Leo Strauss and the Cult of the Noble Lie”:


Deception for Strauss is therefore not just an avoidable bi-product of politics, but a central and necessary part of it, a condition of “perpetual deception” between the rulers and the ruled being the sine qua non of a stable society. Strauss suggests that “noble lies” therefore have a key role to play in uniting and guiding the mass of the population … As another Strauss analyst summarizes, he advocates a society in which “the people are told what they need to know and no more.”

According to the Straussian view of politics, a government that is deceptive and manipulates the people isn’t just necessary; it’s good.

That’s because the average person is too stupid to be trusted to run his own government.

Now, does that sound like someone we know?


stupid iowa


So, is Chuck Todd right? Is Donald Trump a post-truth candidate?

It would certainly seem so.


It’s worth reminding that the idea of a politician, president, or philosopher-king being averse to the truth is neither new, nor is it always discouraged or taken as a sign of the collapse of society. As Plato has shown us, it was the opposite. A government that lies is a sign of a efficiently functioning government.



Then again, Donald Trump may be, as Jeet Heer suggests in The New Republic, dealing in bullshit.




But then, that’s another topic for another article.










So I Married A Kant Murderer

SINCE BEING A PHILOSOPHER means I have no social life, I spent a lazy afternoon a few days ago, watching the movie The Purge.
I’m usually not inclined to watch movies like The Purge (i.e. movies that are obviously made in the post-Saw era), but since there was nothing else on TV, I settled for watching a movie that I wouldn’t feel too badly about losing a couple of hours of my life if I watched it.


fat guy watching TV


if you haven’t seen The Purge (I’m still not so sure if that would be a good thing or a bad thing), the movie takes place in the not-too-distant future.


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The new government, in the wake of an economic collapse, sets up a system that, on one night of the year American citizens are permitted to commit acts of violence from 7 pm to 7 am – the Purge.

Apparently the Purge is just what the country needed, as crime is lower and the economy improves.

And as a special bonus, all those people that society doesn’t want are purged.


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The movie’s protagonists are James Sandlin, his wife and two children. They, unlike those people society wants purged, are rich. The family is armed, the house is well fortified, and so long as no one opens a door to let someone in the family is in no danger of anyone purging them.
All goes according to plan – well, almost according to plan.

James shoots and kills his daughter’s boyfriend.



purge 1



Anyway, all goes according to plan until James’ son sees a man being chased down by an armed mob. Even though he knows that he’s risking the lives of his family, the boy decides to disarm the home security system and saves the man by letting the man inside the Sandlin’s home.



The leader of the murderous group demands that the family hand over the purge-worthy man and warn the Sandlin family if they do not hand their over their prey, the would-be killers will have no other choice but to break into the house and kill the family.





So… at this point in the movie, there’s a group of murderers who want to kill a man who is hiding in a home and the occupants of the home have to decide what is the right thing to do.
Now, I’m usually not prone to thinking of movies like The Purge philosophically, but as I was stretched out on my sofa, watching an otherwise underwhelming social commentary/sci-fi/ horror flick, I realized that the situation I was watching on my TV screen got me feeling a little philosophicalish.*

I was suddenly struck by the thought of a single name:

Immanuel Kant.


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And the situation I thought of was the axe murderer scenario.

The scenario goes a little like this:

You’re at home. Your friend arrives at your front door and tells you that he is being chased by someone who wants to kill him. You tell your friend to hide in a closet. Soon after, a man carrying an axe knocks on your door and demands to know where your friend is, so that he may kill him. You lie to the killer, telling the axe-wielding killer that your friend is not in your home. The killer leaves, in search of your friend elsewhere.


Kind of like the axe murderer scenario, the Sandlin family in The Purge offers a man a hiding place when he is being pursued by a group of killers.

But unlike Kant’s killer, the killers in The Purge do not leave.




They break into the house, ultimately killing the father and allowing the Sandlin’s homicidal neighbors to enter the house.




Thus proving that bad things will happen to you and your family when you don’t hand over a man to someone who wants to kill him.

The axe murderer scenario, as described in Immanuel Kant’s “On A Supposed Right to Lie From Altruistic Motives”, instructs us on the dangers (moral and in the real world) of lying.
According to Kant, lying is morally impermissible.

And not just little white lies – all lies.
Kant’s ethics are deontological, that is, for Kant, moral principles are absolute and universal. We act, not because of we want our acts to yield a particular result, but because we are morally bound to act, regardless of what we want to happen.

And because Kant’s ethics are based on moral duty, there are no exceptions to moral rules and we don’t consider consequences.



Kant’s ethical theory is kinda pedantic so I’m gonna skip over a few details.


scumbag kant
The important thing to know is that Immanuel Kant’s ethics includes a set of moral principles called the Categorical Imperative. The Categorical Imperative consists of a handful of formulations.

We need only focus on the first formulation.

The Formulation from Universal Law.

The First Formulation states:


Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become universal law.



That means, before we do any act we should ask: Would I make it so that it is morally permissible for everyone else to do this?




When we apply Kant’s First Formulation to lying, it quickly becomes apparent that the act of lying isn’t morally permissible according to the Categorical Imperative.

The problem with lying or being deceptive is that lying ultimately undermines the purpose of our moral principle.

In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes


Immediately I see that I could will the lie but not a universal law to lie. For with such a law there would be no promises at all, inasmuch as it would be futile to make a pretense of my intention in regard to future actions to those who would not believe this pretense or -if they overhastily did so- would pay me back in my own coin. Thus my maxim would necessarily destroy itself as soon as it was made a universal law.

You see, although we may feel that it’s morally wrong to hand the man over, Kant says we can’t allow our sentiments to get in our way (Our well intentions may cause more trouble. There’s a reason why they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions). We must act only from duty.
Ok. I know what you’re saying. The characters in The Purge didn’t lie. Everybody knew that the man was hiding in the Sandlin family’s house so Kant’s Categorical Imperative isn’t applicable to the movie’s situation.

By the way, did that man even have a name?





Well, if that’s what you said, you would be kind of right. The moral dilemma in The Purge doesn’t have anything to do with someone telling a lie.

But here’s the thing that is applicable:

The part of Categorical Imperative that is applicable to The Purge is the part about why Kant tells us that we shouldn’t lie. We shouldn’t lie because evaluating the rightness or wrongness of an act requires us to assign moral culpability.

That is to say, a part of determining what is right or wrong or good or evil, is figuring out who bears the moral blame.




When we lie to save someone, Kant tells us, our good motives (however intentional) may facilitate another morally bad act.

And if we facilitate a moral wrong, Kant says we bear part of the moral blame for what happens.

And in The Purge, the act of saving one man (we presume a moral, if not legally wrong act) kind of, sort of leads to the death of another person.

Kant states

For instance, if by telling a lie you have prevented murder, you have made yourself legally responsible for all the consequences, but if you have held vigorously to the truth, public justice can lay no hand on you, whatever the unforeseen consequences may be. After you have honestly answered the murderer’s question as to whether the intended victim is at home, it may be that he has slipped out so that he does not come in the way of the murderer, and thus that the murder may not be committed. But if you had lied and said that he was not at home when he had really gone out without you knowing it, and if the murderer had then met him as he went away and murdered him, you might justly be accused as the cause of his death.



If we (mis) apply Kant’s Categorical Imperative to The Purge, the Sandlin family (or at least the son) is on the hook for the death of the father, which wouldn’t have happened if they had just opened the door (aka: fulfilled their duty as citizens) and let the man be purged.





After all, that would have been the socially correct thing to do.

Which brings me to another, final point.

Remember how Kant says that we shouldn’t lie because if everyone tells lies, our ethical principles undermine themselves?



In the axe murderer scenario, Kant tells us if lying is universal law, the axe murderer will know you’re lying when you tell him that your friend is not hiding in your house, and because he knows you’re lying, he’s not going to trust you. And because he doesn’t trust you, he may decide to wait out your friend and kill him when your friend feels it’s safe to leave.

Lying, for Kant, is corrosive to the foundations of society.

If everyone lies we have no reason to believe that anyone is telling the truth.

And when you believe someone isn’t telling the truth, you can’t trust them.

And trust in one’s fellow man is one of the foundations of civilized society.



Well (and this is a bit of a stretch here), we can argue that the Sandlin family’s failure to adhere to the rules of the Purge undermines the foundations of society in the same way as a lie.

If everyone decided that they wanted to save people from the Purge, no one would be purged.






And, according to the film’s New Founding Fathers, without the Purge, society would collapse into criminality and economic strife.

And, criminality and economic strife destroys civilized society.

Ultimately, what is the purpose of the Purge if everyone ignores the rules decides to do whatever they feel is the right thing to do?
Wait a minute. Isn’t that the plot of the sequel?
I guess I know what I’ll be watching on Netflix tonight.




* I’m going to warn you at this point that the philosophizing that is to come is not a precise interpretation of Kant’s moral philosophy. The movie merely got me thinking about Kant’s axe murderer scenario, not about an exact interpretation of the Categorical Imperative in film (of which I sure there are many).





Click to access Kant.pdf


Immanuel Kant. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. 1997 [orig. published 1785]. 2nd ed. Trans. Lewis White Beck. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. 19.