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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.