THERE’S A WELL-KNOWN saying that goes “you’re only as old as you feel”. Well, sometimes even when you feel quite youthful, something happens that makes you feel old.
Like when you remember one of your favorite movies when you were a kid was released 30 years ago.
Or when the person who wrote and directed a movie you loved as a kid dies.
On August 6, 2009, film writer-director and Generation X icon John Hughes died.
There’s something really unnerving when the idols of one’s youth start popping off from the same diseases, ailments, and blocked arteries that killed your grandparents. The death of John Hughes only reminded me of how old I’m getting; that my chances of dying young and leaving a good looking corpse is quickly slipping away.
I was thinking about how much (way back in the 1980s) John Hughes’ movies were, as they say in the modern vernacular, the shit. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Pretty in Pink were the cinematic soundtrack of my youth. Honestly, who can hear Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” without defiantly thrusting your fist in the air like Judd Nelson? (Alright, no one ever does).
New York School of the Performing Arts kids like Doris Finsecker and Ralph Garci might have experienced self discovery while smoking weed and doing the time warp to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but for the suburbia-adjacent kids like me, we saw our so-called lives played out in the teen angst drama of Some Kind of Wonderful.**
Not too long ago, partly because a) I had nothing better to do, b) I wanted to honor the memory of John Hughes, and c) I was desperately engaged in a vain attempt to capture my lost youth; I decided to watch a John Hughes movie. After some serious contemplation – and because it was the easiest John Hughes movie to grab off of my DVD shelf – I spent an afternoon watching John Hughes’ teen comedy magnum opus 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Nearly every one of John Hughes’ movies is quotable but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was the one where we learned the eternally quotable “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it”.
I’m not entirely sure if Ferris Bueller is actually the first person to say it, but I do remember that hearing that line was the first time I’d ever been floored by anyone, let alone a character in a movie, speaking philosophically.
Imagine this: you’re an eleven year old kid, home alone on a Wednesday afternoon, watching cable TV, probably HBO.
Ferris Bueller is dressed in a bathrobe and is actively breaking the fourth wall just to speak directly to you, the eleven year old kid sitting at home alone watching HBO.
Nowadays, looking back, Ferris Bueller’s wisdom seems a bit trite (were we really supposed to learn the value of carpe dieming from a character who is still in high school?), but back then, just like Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller was my hero.
My, how things have changed.
I thought when I sat down to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off so many years after I had initially seen it as a kid, that I would re-experience the same sense of philosophical enlightenment that I had felt all those years ago when I was a lonely latchkey kid looking for someone to look up to.
Because one‘s parents are never the first choice.
Maybe it’s because I’m looking at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off through cynical adult eyes, but while I sat, watching the shenanigans of Ferris Bueller and Co., it suddenly hit me; I realized what a horrible person Ferris Bueller is.
Wait – my revelation didn’t stop there. I realized that almost every John Hughes character was an unforgivable jerk in some major way.
Collectively speaking, most of John Hughes’ characters are self- indulgent assholes.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples for you:
- Farmer Ted (Sixteen Candles) is a date-rapist (he has sex with Jake Ryan’s drunken, passed out girfriend, with Jake’s encouragement no less. Watch the movie. It’s true).
- Andie (Pretty in Pink) was kind of a bitch who not only wanted way out of her league (for even considering that she should go to the prom with high school hottie Blane Mc Donnagh), but Andie in no way deserved Duckie.
- There is not one redeeming character in The Breakfast Club (we’re supposed to like Andy, this time played by Emilio Estevez, even though he committed a possible sexual assault/battery on a classmate by taping the guy‘s buttcheeks together).
- And the Griswold family (National Lampoon’s Vacation) are just plain racists.
Watch the hubcap stealing scene if you don’t believe me.
Now that I’m thinking about it, If characters like Ferris Bueller were supposed to be a portrait of the American teenager (if you live in a world where amazingly enough, everybody is white, upper middle class, and the only minorities you encounter come straight out of Black Acting School), I think in retrospect, that John Hughes’ American teenager was about as true to life as the fictional hamlet of Shermer, Illinois.
I know that I am treading on thin ice, here. For those of a certain age, the movies of John Hughes are like GOSPEL and Hughes’ characters are so freaking cool that they can do no wrong. But after several viewings of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I really began to think that of all John Hughes’ characters. Perhaps with the exception of Kevin McCallister, who possessed more knowledge about planting booby traps and countermeasures against home invaders than a seasoned Navy Seal, Ferris Bueller is Hughes’ most selfish character.
Really. The entire movie is about how Ferris Bueller spends an entire day scheming, exploiting, and outright lying to people to get what he wants. The fact that all the “sportos, motor heads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads,” all adore Ferris, and think he’s a “righteous dude”, doesn’t mitigate the fact that Ferris is an
The proof is in the viewing: As the movie opens, we see Ferris (Matthew Broderick) faking that he’s sick. Of course we know that Ferris isn’t sick, but Ferris’ very concerned and clueless parents have no idea their is lying to them. They believe that there actually is something physically wrong with their son. After all, why else would their son be bent over moaning and wailing with sweaty palms if he wasn’t dreadfully ill?
Tom and Katie Bueller believe Ferris is sick, and Ferris is glad that they do. Ferris is so glad that he’s duped his parents into believing that he is deathly ill that he doesn’t feel even the slightest tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. In fact, Ferris Bueller doesn’t spend one moment of the movie regretting the fact that he weaves a web of deception around not only his own parents but around practically everyone he knows.
Ferris doesn’t care when his (supposedly) BFF Cameron Frye tells Ferris that he’s (actually) sick and can’t accompany Ferris on his adventure. SFW, Ferris says. Instead of offering Cameron a decongestant or well wishes, Ferris tells his best friend that if he doesn’t get out of bed and hang out, that Cameron will have to find a new best friend.
Ferris not only decides that he’s going to coerce others to join his plan, he also decides to “borrow” Cameron’s father’s prized sports car for the day’s activities. Ferris could not care less when Cameron tells him that his (likely physically abusive) father will kill him if his prized 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California gets “so much as a scratch on it.” Ferris ignores his (supposedly best) friend and steals the car anyway – even if the consequence of discovery means almost certain death for his best friend.
Unlike a good person, Ferris has no problem lying to his parents or to his principal, Mr. Rooney, or falsifying his school records. Nor does Ferris have any compunction over pulling his girlfriend, Sloane Peterson, out of class.
By faking her grandmother’s death, no less.
Ferris gleefully mouths off to a snooty restaurant maitre d’ to prove his moral superiority to the guy and assumes the identity of someone he is not to humiliate the maitre d’ in front of the restaurant‘s patrons.
Ferris doesn’t hesitate to commandeer a Von Steuben Day Parade float not only to garner more attention for FERRIS but also to publicly humiliate Cameron in front of the gathered crowd by declaring that his best friend is a grump who didn‘t think he would “see anything good today”.
NOT ONLY DOES FERRIS DRESS DOWN HIS “BEST” FRIEND IN PUBLIC, HE SPECULATES ON CAMERON’S (LACK OF) SEXUAL EXPERIENCES , TALKS SHIT ABOUT THE STATE OF CAMERON’S HOME LIFE, AND COMPARES HIS FRIEND’S RECTUM TO THE GEOLOGIC DIAMOND-MAKING PROCESS. SOME BEST FRIEND, EH?
Ferris Bueller doesn’t care if everyone else has to go to school or to work “on a day like this”. Oh no! Ferris’ day off is all about the fact that Ferris can’t be bothered by responsibility. That’s what other people do. After all, with all that hard work being idolized by everyone at school, Ferris Bueller needs a day off!
By the way, if you really pay attention to the movie, you’ll notice that he only time Ferris shows any sort of remorse for what he’s done is when he feigns an apology so he can further exploit other people.
Now, either Ferris Bueller either is suffering from some sort of sociopathy, which is a matter best handled by mental health professionals, but since I am a philosopher, and consequently, am in no way interested or qualified to render a psychiatric diagnosis, my philosophical diagnosis is that Ferris Bueller is nothing more than a standard ethical egoist.
Ethical egoism is the ethical theory that holds an act is right if (and only if) an act produces happiness for a particular agent — you. Everyone ought to look after, as a follower of the goddess of egoism, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) would tell you, his own rational self interest. The philosopher Gregory Kavka (1947-1994) explained that an egoist (in particular a Rule Egoist) acts according to the following principle:
Each agent should attempt always to follow that set if general
rules of conduct whose acceptance (and sincere attempt to
follow) by him on all occasions would produce the best
(expected) outcomes by him.
In short, egoist ethics is the inverse of utilitarian-esque “Vulcan logic”. Instead of believing that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, the egoist believes the needs of the one, the agent, outweigh the needs of the many.
But enough Star Trek.
The ethical egoist’s reasoning is this: because we are unable to know anyone else’s needs or motivations and because we are restricted to seeing the world from only our own particular point of view, we only are morally obligated to act in a manner that benefits us. Egoism poster-girl, Ayn Rand, wrote, “This is why objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest – or of rational selfishness.” In a way, Ferris Bueller is not unlike Rand’s description of Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (1943). In her description of Roark, Ayn Rand writes:
He is not even militant or defiant about his utter selfishness… He
has a quiet, irrevocable calm of an iron conviction. No
dramatics, no hysteria, no sensitiveness about it —
because there are no doubts… A quick, sharp mind,
courageousness and not afraid to be hurt… He will be himself
at any cost — the only thing he really wants of life. And,
deep inside if him, he knows that he has the ability to
win the fight to be himself.
So apparently not only is Ferris Bueller an ethical egoist, more specifically, he’s a Randian objectivist.
**Objectivism is most closely associated with the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand describes the objectivist ethic, based on rational self interest, as “The proper standard of ethics is: man’s survival qua man – i.e., that which is required for his survival as a rational being … Man – every man – is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself, he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose in life”. In short, a Randian objectivist’s primary moral objective is to act only in a manner that is most beneficial to him, which is exactly what an ethical egoist does.**
According to Rand the egoist is concerned about others in so far as his concern for others contributes to his own happiness. Sure, an egoist might give to charity, but he is not motivated by any sense of altruism. The egoist is motivated by a personal want (a good reputation and public accolades, for example) than by a want to selflessly give to people less fortunate than he is. So when Ferris tells Cameron that his day off really was for Cameron’s benefit, we know that Ferris is full of shit.
We know that Cameron’s good day was a only fortunate consequence to Ferris’ egoism. Ferris is so focused on his own day off that if either his best friend Cameron or his girlfriend Sloane has a good day it is an unintentional consequence of Ferris‘ selfishness. In truth, the day is all about as the water tower says, saving Ferris.
As mere movie watchers unaware of the deeper philosophical significance of Ferris Bueller‘s Day Off, we only see Ferris as a go-getter, a mercurial rogue who lives life on his own terms. Ferris knows what he wants and doesn’t let obstacles get in his way. Ferris Bueller is the guy we, and Cameron Frye, always wanted to be.
I don’t know if John Hughes had Howard Roark, Ayn Rand, or ethical egoism in mind when he wrote and directed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m assuming that he did not. John Hughes may or may not have had Rand in mind, but philosophically speaking, Ferris is imbued with what Rand describes as the three fundamental values of man: reason, purpose, and self-esteem. Ferris Bueller is, as Ayn Rand’s ethics describes, a man who lives for his own sake.
As a man who lives for his own sake, a guy like a snooty maitre d’ or a power hungry Principal Rooney isn’t going to get into Ferris’ way. An egoist (like Ferris) does not allow anyone else’s needs trump his own needs and/or wants. That means if Ferris Bueller wants to have his way, Ferris gets his way; everyone else’s needs simply do not come first.
As we watch the film, we come to understand what Cameron Frye must have realized about Ferris – being with Ferris Bueller is easy if you understand this one thing: Ferris comes first.
This explains why Cameron’s father’s car goes from looking like this:
To looking like this by the end of the movie:
** It’s worth noting here that an individual who lives for one’s own sake might be interpreted be described by others as acting selfishly. To perceive an egoist’s actions as selfish is not a misinterpretation of an ethical egoist’s guiding moral philosophy. According to Ayn Rand, an ethics of selfishness isn’t a bad thing (in fact, Rand considers selfishness a virtue). An ethical egoist’s selfishness isn’t a moral or psychological defect. Unlike most people who are concerned with soul (and bank account) draining activities and ideals like altruism or a sense of selflessness in dealing with their fellow humans, an egoist knows what he wants and knows exactly what he needs to do to get it (serving others selflessly often interferes with our ability to serve our own interests). Ferris Bueller would inform you that his actions were not due to a lack of morals or because he is an asshole. Ferris would tell you that he is, in fact, quite a moral individual. The situation simply is this: he chooses to not be encumbered by fulfilling the interests of others. **
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off costar Ben Stein described Ferris as having an “inner mobility” and an “inner sense of freedom and self-confidence”, and John Hughes said that Ferris Bueller isn’t “labored with all the difficulties that everyone else is”. Given Ferris’ behavior during his day off, we’re safe to assume that the achievement of his own happiness is Ferris’ greatest purpose in life.
Straight outta Rand.
** This is why we not only like but want to be like Ferris Bueller and why all the sportos, motor heads, geeks, sluts, and dweebies adore him. The unfortunate reality for most of us is that although we want to be Ferris Bueller, we all know that deep down we all really are like Cameron Frye trapped in lives as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Of quiet desperation”. We need people like Ferris to show us that life is worth living. This is exactly what Ferris does for Cameron. This leads us to a question: since the day ended pretty well for everyone, what’s the harm in what Ferris did? What’s the harm of being selfish and using other people to get what you want if everyone has fun? **
Well, Ferris Bueller’s universally fun-filled day off aside, there’s a tremendous problem with ethical egoism. Namely, the problem with ethical egoism is the fact that egoism tends to be self defeating.
Listen: the only way a person can really ever be a successful egoist is if a person remains closeted about it. The late Australian philosopher, Brian Medlin (1927-2004), says ethical egoism doesn’t work because people don’t want to live in a world where people only live for themselves. Medlin says:
What is he when he urges upon his audience that they should
observe his own interests and those alone? Is he not acting
contrary to the egoist principle? It cannot be to his
advantage to convince them, for seizing always their own
advantage they will impair his. Surely is he does believes
what he says, he should try to persuade them otherwise.
If everybody is an ethical egoist, says Medlin, our selfish pursuit of our own pleasure will inevitably conflict with someone else’s selfish pursuits. Although an ethical egoist can be quite comfortable calling himself an egoist, he is likely to be uncomfortable with other people knowing that he is an egotist. For example, Ferris couldn’t very well ring up Cameron and say, “hey, Cam. I’ve decided, being the ethical egoist that I am, to take the day off. And as an egoist, I’m going to spend the entire day pleasing me, and I’m going to exploit you, Sloane, and anyone else who I need to use along the way. Wanna come along? By the way, bring your dad’s car”.
This would not work. Cameron has his own selfish interests he may want to pursue, including not being exploited by his best friend.
Obviously Ferris’ want to exploit Cameron and Cameron’s want to not be exploited by Ferris conflict. An egoist as smart as Ferris Bueller knows that he cannot and should not prance around waving his ethical egoism in everyone’s faces. And Ferris, like many egoists, is far too clever to let other people in on his game. Ferris says that he’s doing it all for Cameron, but really, Cameron’s happiness is a happy accident. An egoist knows that the key to getting what you want does not mean that someone always gets harmed, but it does mean that nobody else knows you’re an ethical egoist.
Alright. Rebuttal time, you say. Ethical egoism naysayers like Brian Medlin and Jesus Christ are only partially right.
The egoism-is-self-defeating-argument may be a problem if an egoist is indeed strictly in it for himself. Doing so would indeed be self-defeating. However, being an egoist does not mean that you always have to seek your own happiness to the exclusion of the happiness of others. Ethical egoists often discover that pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people actually increases the egoist’s happiness as well.
Ben Stein claims that Ferris helps Cameron to “liberate” himself. So when Ferris “borrows” Cameron’s father’s car, ignores Cameron’s illness, and talks to the camera about his friend’s non-existent sex life, it’s really to help Cameron to break free from his fear. When Ferris stands completely still and does nothing to stop Cameron while Cameron kicks the holy hell out his father’s car, it’s not because Ferris is looking after his own ass and wants to wipe his hands clean of the whole ordeal, it is because Ferris is being a great friend helping Cameron to gain independence from his father. When Ferris humiliates the maitre d’ at Chez Quis, it’s not because Ferris gets his rocks off humiliating people in public, it’s to put a snarky butthole in his place. When Ferris lip sync’s The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” on the Von Steuben Day Parade float, it’s not to be the center of attention, he’s doing it to show Cameron something good that day.
The fact that Ferris’ happiness was Ferris’ main motivation for taking the day off didn’t necessarily mean that other people had to get hurt. It’s possible that everyone can think you’re a righteous dude and they can get what they want, too.
And because no one admits that we’re all in it for ourselves, everyone is happy.
In the end, my two cents worth says that Ferris Bueller indeed is a Randian egoist.
I will, however, concede that Medlin and the other haters tend to act as if being an egoist means that you’re required to go all Marquis de Sade in how you treat others. We know that’s not so.
The trick is that you simply don’t go waiving your egoist banner everywhere. If you have to tell people that you’re a Kantian, so be it. Just as long as everyone (especially you) is happy. If you are successful, you can get exactly what you want while everyone else thinks you’re a righteous dude. All it takes is a little bit of obfuscation. And because no one ever admits that we’re all in it for ourselves, everyone is happy.
Maybe except for Cameron.
Anyone else get the feeling that Cameron didn’t show up the next day at school?
Or the next…
… or the next?
** I have once again made reference to an original version of a film (and not its sequel). For those who are unfamiliar with the original film, the characters “Doris Finsecker” and “Ralph Garci” are characters from the film Fame, originally released in 1980.
*** For those who don’t know, SFW means “so fucking what?”
*THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ANOTHER FORM IN THE BOOK MINDLESS PHILOSOPHER: HOW PHILOSOPHY TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT POPULAR CULTURE AND ON THE (now defunct) BLOGGER BLOG “THE KANTIAN EGOIST” (POSTED AUGUST 25, 2009).
Gregory Kavka. “A Reconciliation Project”. Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 2007. Ed. Louis J. Poijman. pp. 358-9.
Ayn Rand quote: from “Introduction” from The Virtue of Selfishness:
Ayn Rand quotes on the principles of objectivism are from Ayn Rand Institute website: http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_essentials.
Leonard Peikoff. “Afterword”. 1992. In The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand. [orig. published 1943]. NY: Signet. p. 698.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 1986. Writ. & Dir. John Hughes.
“Who Is Ferris Bueller?” copyright 2006. Paramount Home Video.
Brian Medlin. “Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism” [orig. published 1957]: http://www.2fiu.edu/~Medlin’sUltimatePrinciplesandEthicalEgoism.html.