All Around the Maypole (or, Not the Bees!!!)

IT’S GENERALLY ASSUMED that it’s a good thing to be tolerant of other people’s cultures. The person who prefers to “live and let live” or to “let bygones be bygones” is often assumed to be a good, if not reasonable, person.

Reserving judgments might be a good thing.

We shouldn’t judge, right?

Everything’s relative, right?

Need I inform anyone that a person whose moral position is based on the idea that ethics are relative practices ethical relativism.

Ethical relativism is:

Ethical relativism is the theory that holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture. That is, whether an action is right or wrong depends on the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another.

Wait! Don’t scoff just yet.

We can see that ethical relativists mean well and we shouldn’t fault them for their good intentions.

But we know all those good intentions are lining the pathway to Hell.

good intentions


We can’t help but feel that there are some acts that are inherently wrong and that adhering to ethical relativism doesn’t allow us to call out wrong acts.

If we say that a particular culture’s moral codes are different and therefore we cannot pass judgment, we might end up abetting injustice or worse. We can’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) shrug off something like genocide by saying “different strokes for different folks” nor should we think that a practice such as spousal abuse is morally acceptable based on its prevalence in a particular culture.

However, if there is no universal, objective moral standard and no moral system is better than another, then we have no moral high ground from which to criticize when we witness injustice or wrongdoings in other cultures. Ethical relativists can’t decide when one side is right and the other is wrong –

Something that might come in handy when attempting to dissuade a group of Scottish villagers from sacrificing you to their pagan gods so their crops will grow.

pop culture


Police sergeant Neil Howie sets down his plane on the remote Scottish isle of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. During his investigation, Howie finds that the natives of the seemingly quiet Scottish hamlet aren’t just a little odd – they’re pagans. What follows during the next ninety minutes is public group sex, bar patrons spontaneously breaking into song about the innkeeper’s less-than-chaste daughter, schoolchildren singing odes to phallic symbols, naked flashdancing, foreskins in jars, and dead rabbits; ultimately culminating in the immolation of Sgt. Howie inside a giant rattan action figure.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is The Wicker Man.



This cinematic gem from 1973, written by Sleuth playwright Anthony Shaffer, and starring Edward Woodward as the unfortunate Sgt. Howie, bears the rare distinction of being the only movie in film history that musician Rod Stewart allegedly tried to get banned – and not because he thought it was a bad movie.

It all has to do with Britt Ekland and some dancing…



The rumor, according to the National Enquirer, is that Rod Stewart supposedly attempted to buy the rights to The Wicker Man in an attempt to prevent anyone from seeing his then-girlfriend Britt Ekland, who appeared in the film as Willow Mac Gregor, the landlord’s daughter, nude. Stewart himself dismissed the allegation as mere rumor. In the end, if Rod Stewart had attempted to get the film banned, it would have been a useless gesture since the offending nude scenes were performed by a body double.


Anyway, Sgt. Howie is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison, who has managed to elude her family and small village community for, as the letter addressed to Sgt. Howie states, “many months”. Howie is frustrated by the Summerislanders lack of cooperation with his investigation into Rowan Morrison’s disappearance.




Unfortunately, Sgt. Howie is as rude and nosy as he is persistent, and Howie continues to search for the missing girl, despite the fact that the islanders, including the girl’s mother, refuse to give a straight answer about the whereabouts of the missing girl.




As Howie searches for Rowan, he discovers a horrible reality about the residents of Summerisle. The islanders aren’t God-fearing Christians, like the devout Sgt. Howie, but pagans who worship the old Celtic gods. The people of Summerisle reject Christianity (this offends Howie), and Howie suspects that the island’s May Day ritual may be more than a frivolous re-enactment of ancient rites, but a full-scale human sacrifice made to appease their pagan gods.

Howie concludes that Rowan is not merely missing, but that she the intended human sacrifice.




Sgt. Howie, horrified by the thought that an innocent child is the intended victim of a barbaric pagan ritual, races to find the missing girl before it is too late.
Although Sgt. Howie fails to find Rowan Morrison, what Howie does find is that it is he who is the intended offering, and Howie is sacrificed to the gods, burned alive inside the Wicker Man.



The film’s protagonist, Sgt. Howie, is a Christian thrown into the strange world of paganism. Howie is a modern man with a modern religion who views the old gods and blood sacrifices of the pagans of Summerisle as not only useless but morally reprehensible as well. Howie regards the pagan practices as heathen and blasphemous and demands to know why the children of Summerisle have “never heard of Jesus”. When Howie speaks to Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee (the first man I usually think of when I think of a Scotsman), Summerisle explains to the morally outraged Howie the religious practices on his island:


Lord Summerisle: Now, those children out there. They’re
jumping through the flames in hope that the god
of the fire will make them fruitful. Really, who can hardly
blame them. After all, what girl would not prefer
the child of a god to that of some acne-scared artisan?
Sgt. Howie: And you encourage them in this?
Lord Summerisle: Actively. It’s most important to teach new
generation born on Summerisle be made aware that here
the old gods aren’t dead.
Sgt. Howie: And what of the true God? To whose glory churches
and monasteries have been built on these islands for
generations past? Now sir, what of Him?
Lord Summerisle: He’s dead. Can’t complain. Had his chance.
And in the modern parlance, blew it.
Sgt. Howie: What?!?!?

Lord Summerisle tells Sgt. Howie that the Christian God is not worshipped on his island because the Christian God failed to deliver the residents of Summerisle from their miserable hand-to-mouth existence and spiritual apathy. Returning the people to their beloved old pagan gods, Lord Summerisle explains, renewed the spirits of the tiny island and provided the people with bountiful crops. As long as the people please the gods, Lord Summerisle says to Sgt. Howie, they will be rewarded.


But, Howie soon discovers the crops on Summerisle have not been bountiful.

And on Summerisle, failed crops can only mean one thing to the pagans of Summerisle: the gods are displeased and need to be appeased. If the people of Summerisle want the gods to bless them with an abundant harvest, the gods demand the “fruits of the earth”; a human sacrifice.

plot twist sign

Unfortunately for Sgt. Howie, he’s exactly the kind of human sacrifice the people of Summerisle need to please the gods.



Lord Summerisle tells Howie he was chosen to be sacrificed to the gods because he is the “right kind of sacrifice”. Sgt. Howie qualifies as the “right kind of sacrifice” on four counts:

* He has come to Summerisle of his own free will.
* He has come with the power of the king (as a man of the law).
* He is a virgin.
* He is a fool.


Of course the news of an impending “date with the wicker man” does not settle well with Sgt. Howie. As a Christian, Howie believes that sacrificing him for the sake of Summerisle’s crops is not only futile… it’s murder. The soon-to-be immolated Howie tells the village people that killing him will not only fail to bring back their failed crops, but that the island’s residents will bear the sin of having murdered an innocent Christian man.



Ultimately, Sgt. Howie’s entreaties to the people of Summerisle are of no use. He is placed (or forced) inside the Wicker Man and sacrificed to the island’s pagan gods. While Howie burns to death, the villagers sing a triumphant let’s-roast-a-cop-in-the-fire song, certain that Howie’s death will win favor of the gods and Summerisle once again will be blessed with a bountiful harvest.

At the close of The Wicker Man we know that Sgt. Howie is dead. He is burned alive; sacrificed to the pagan gods of Summerisle. We know that the people of Summerisle truly believe that their religion demands that they appease the gods if they want the gods to bless them and bring back their failed crops. We know they believe if they do not comply with what the gods’ demands, the people of Summerisle believe they will be punished. If the island’s crops die, the people of Summerisle know their lives are doomed as well. For the people of Summerisle, Howie’s death, albeit an unpleasant experience for the Sergeant, is necessary to save the lives of the residents of the island.





We understand that the people of Summerisle believe that they are acting according to the will of their gods, but we also know this: Sgt. Howie also believes that his Christian God demands that those who believe in HIM must reject the sinful pagan rituals practiced by the people of Summerisle. Sgt. Howie believes that his God forbids human sacrifice and believes that God will punish those who unlawfully shed the blood of the innocent.

Wait a minute; we should be thinking there’s something seriously wrong, here.


The people of Summerisle believe that they have done the right thing by doing what their gods demand, but we also feel that a serious moral transgression has occurred.


When Howie is burned alive inside the Wicker Man, we’re aware that Howie did not go to his death willingly; he didn‘t willingly sacrifice himself for Summerisle‘s crops. If we had been present on the cliffs of Summerisle during the island‘s May Day celebration, we would have witnessed this exchange between Sgt. Howie and the island’s schoolteacher, Miss Rose:


Miss Rose: You will undergo death and rebirth. Resurrection if you like. The
rebirth sadly will not be yours but that of our crops.
Sgt. Howie: I am a Christian. And even if you kill me now, it is I who will live
again. Not your damned apples.


Obviously Sgt. Howie and the people of Summerisle are stuck in the midst of an ethical dilemma. The people of Summerisle believe that their gods dictate the sacrifice of Sgt. Howie while Sgt. Howie believes his “sacrifice” is murder and morally unjustified.
Usually when we are faced with an ethical dilemma, we assume that a single moral theory will provide a workable solution for our ethical conflict. If everyone on Summerisle were Kantians, we could easily determine which side is morally correct. As Kantians, we can say that Sgt. Howie’s sacrifice was morally impermissible if we hold the maxim “murder is always wrong”.

It is also worth noting that the people of Summerisle can also use a loose interpretation of Kant’s categorical imperative to permit Howie’s human sacrifice. The Summerislanders would have no problem universalizing their maxim: if killing a person will save the community, and the gods require a human sacrifice, then it is morally permissible to sacrifice a human. Sacrificing humans may be permitted by Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative, however, the Summerislanders might run into a problem with the second formulation of the categorical imperative, using people as a mere means, on the grounds that Howie was not a willing sacrifice.
… AND that this interpretation is predicated on expected consequences, which makes it kind of utilitarian.


If the people of Summerisle were utilitarians, they would simply calculate the expected benefit (consequence) of sacrificing Sgt. Howie to the pagan gods against the cost of another failed harvest.
This unsolvable ethical conflict between the people of Summerisle and Sgt. Howie perfectly demonstrates the problem with ethical relativism.


An ethical relativist believes that there is no universal moral standard for right or wrong and we simply cannot determine which side is morally right. Our problem, and the problem with ethical relativism, is that both Sgt. Howie and the people of Summerisle believe that their religious beliefs are morally correct and that each operates from a divine mandate that cannot be defied.

If each side believes that their side is the only morally correct point of view, how do we assign moral rightness or wrongness when each side claims that their side is morally correct?




Unfortunately for us, on Summerisle the conflict isn’t so easily solved and we use ethical relativism to decide between two conflicting ethical theories.

According to the ethical relativist, the fact that different cultures have different standards of right and wrong (this is called the diversity thesis), means we cannot objectively determine the rightness or wrongness of a given act. As a result, all moral claims have equal moral value.




All an ethical relativist can say is that Sgt. Howie has one set of morals and the people of Summerisle have another, and since we cannot judge another culture’s morals or practices, we can only assume that both moral systems are equally right.

Naturally this position does no good for Sgt. Howie. We cannot hold that it is morally permissible to sacrifice Howie to Summerisle’s pagan gods while we simultaneously hold that Howie is correct in condemning Summerisle’s religious practices. Howie can’t be immolating inside the belly of the Wicker Man and in his airplane flying as fast as he can away from that damned pagan island at the same time. So what do we do? The natives are lighting their torches and we’ve got to make a decision, quick. Who is morally right?

Obviously, a moral relativist would have no idea how to answer this question.

Of course this way of thinking gets us absolutely nowhere.




So naturally, this is where our conversation on ethical relativism should end.

… and by saying “should end” I’m saying no one should follow ethical relativism.



Now, at this point, we may be tempted to throw up our hands and abandon, at least for now, hopes of ever finding an ethical theory that not only gives us a clear cut means of sorting out moral rights from moral wrongs, but also doesn’t stick us with categorical imperatives that stop us from doing what we want to do.

Perhaps we should try another ethical theory.

Maybe we should all become egoists.

*I am writing about the original 1973 version of The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy not the 2006 remake staring Nicolas Cage. Although I am a fan of the original film and personally not opposed to remakes, I do, however, regard the 2006 remake as the cinematic equivalent of a large dose of syrup of ipecac. It’s not as bad as Plan 9 From Outer Space or a Coleman Francis movie, but it’s close.





Moral questions, ambiguous answers

There’s something funny about morals. Even though we all agree that there is a right and a wrong (at least most of us agree that there is a right and a wrong), no one is really all that sure exactly what right and wrong is. Philosophers have made a good game out of  talking and thinking and thinking some more about matters of morality and ethics, but for all these centuries of talking and thinking even the most learned minds can’t definitively tell us what to do and what not to do.

The lack of a definitive answer has become a problem.

You don’t have to be a student of philosophy to know of or practice a philosophical school of ethics; utilitarianism, deontological ethics, divine command theory, ethical relativism, ethical egoism, and so on. If I had to make a wager, I’d bet that most people are utilitarians. That is, most people, even if they don’t know it, think that our moral choices should have something to do with the common good. I think this is the way that most people are designed; that humans have some sort of innate want to see to it that others are cared for, even if that means that we will do without. Our need to act in the interest of the common good is why we have public schools, welfare, social security, and fire departments. Most people would say these are good things…. most people.

That’s our problem. Even though we’d like to say that utilitarianism is the right moral theory, we can only say that it applies to most people. Followers of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism would certainly object to the utilitarian obligation to increase the happiness of others, and state that the utilitarian Greatest Happiness Principle  is not only morally objectionable but downright evil. Even utilitarians can’t agree on what the common good is. Is every person entitled to free medical care or a minimum wage? Should we tax the rich to pay for the poor? Is that fair? Is it really serving the common good? Is it right to make others suffer to provide for others? What about torture? War? The death penalty?

Ethical relativists, Kantians, and even followers of divine command theory would even agree that facilitating the common good is not always a good thing. Still, every moral theory commands that I do the right thing.

So, what do I do? Should I pursue the common good? Should I pursue my own rational interests as Ayn Rand commands? Should I do only what God tells me to do? I don’t know. But as I see a world full of suffering I realize that cannot spend time thinking about what to do.

And it seems my philosophy hasn’t gotten me any closer to finding an answer.



The Great Personality Test

I think I’m fairly smart. Someone once told me that I “look smart”. This is not a compliment. I also had a friend that told me that I have a way about me that puts other people at ease. In short, I have a “Great Personality”. … and we all know what that means. Earlier this year, First Lady, Michelle Obama, made Maxim magazine’s hot chicks list. Ok, she was in the 90s, but, hey she made the list. Former supermodel and wife of David Bowie, Iman said the she was going to be honest about the whole Michelle Obama thing. She said, and I’m taking some liberties in recalling this, that the First Lady is not all that, and that she is an “interesting” looking woman. Iman polished the insult by adding that, more importantly, Michelle Obama is very intelligent — and that, in the long run, that’s what’s important. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what Iman meant. If you have a list of hot chicks, Michelle Obama does not belong on that list — even if her guns are spectacular. Hot chick lists, let’s face it, are basically a list of chicks that a guy (and I guess some ladies, if they are so inclined) whack it to. A really tall black chick with big biceps and an underbite I would guess wouldn’t pop up in a list that includes the likes of Scarlet Johansson and Megan Fox. What we’re talking about, whether we say someone is hot, smokin’, fine, tight, the bees knees or the cat’s pajamas, or just plain “f”-able, is beautiful. And as usual, philosophers will stick their noses into any subject on which one can form an opinion. The science of beauty is no exception. The arena of philosophy that deals with beauty and what is beautiful is called aesthetics. When philosophers speak about beauty it’s usually in discussions about art, music, or nature, or (even) the sciences or the beauty in a theory. When Bertrand Russell wrote about mathematics, he wrote mathematics, “rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold an austere… without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music…” . The beauty of mathematics, for Russell, is found in the symmetry and consistency of things like a math equation. Now, I realize that I have stepped into the glass house and locking the door behind me, but if one looked at Mr. Russell, one would not wonder why he felt as such. I suppose that many a philosophy professor has, on the first day of class, surveyed his class, knowing which students are destined to become philosophy majors. I would guess that it’s safe to assume that the good looking students are there for the credits. And that we are truly flabbergasted when they are not. Which, may in my case, explain why not one, but three of my philosophy professors recommended that I become a philosophy major (winking emoticon). There is all sorts of philosophy talk about beauty when it comes to art, or music, or even the beauty of math or science. But what about people? …Which makes me think of our latest pop cultural encounter with Britain’s Got Talent second runner-up and recent freak-out participant, Susan Boyle. Unfortunate Sue has been described as “unique”, “talented”, “special”, “endearing”, and so on. The thing is, is that people are attempting to find something complimentary to say about a woman in a culture where most of any compliments payed to anyone is focused primarily on one’s looks. Since she’s not … we must find something nice to say. Hence, Susan Boyle is “great”, or the half-assed insult a “plain jane”. In a Star Magazine article from May 4, 2009, the article was entitled “What A Voice!”. The article even featured a digitized “make-over” of Susan Boyle if she decides (oh, please do!) to change her image. But, the emphasis on her voice made me think of what Iman said. We can say to Susan Boyle, “At least you have your voice, because in the long run, that’s what’s important”. (What’s funny is that in that same issue, there was an article about IndyCar racer, Danica Patrick, who was featured in a bikini. I don’t think that the article contained anything about her racig record or anything about IndyCar racing in general. The point of the feature is that Danica Patrick is hot.)If one is so inclined, pay attention to how the entertainment press speaks about Susan Boyle. Her looks become the 500 lb. gorilla in the room. At times, they speak of her appearance as one would speak of someone with a handicap or birth defect. (Susan “overcomes” the odds and “triumphs”. What odds, I wonder?) They show digitized “before and after” photos like the before and after photographs are displayed on informercials about little kids in Central America after they get surgery on their cleft palates. It’s kind of sickening. But strangely, alot of philosophy is mum on the matter. That doesn’t mean that it’s not discussed. There is plenty of talk about what or who we consider beautiful. But it seems that the old pros to whom we often refer are strangely silent about beauty and people. Maybe it’s because, unlike our thoughts on the nature of reality or whether utlitarianism or Kantianism are viable moral theories, judging how we look, whether we are considered “beautiful” or not, is kind of personal. That is, beauty, unlike the way we’d like to think of our philosophy, is a matter of taste. It’s what you think that matters — but not in the quatifiable, logically sound, way that philosophers like their theories — it’s gut reactions, it’s… what or who you like, and there’s absolutely no logic to be found in that. We can’t say with certainty that our belief that such and such or whoever is beautiful is true. Enevitably, someone will disagree with our choice. When we talk about beauty, it affects us in a way that our beliefs do not. You can be the smartest, most talented guy in the world (and you’ve figured out how to get around Hume’s problem of induction), voted five times– in a row– the funniest fellow on earth, but if you look like Joseph Merrick, chances are you won’t be dating much (especially if you happen to be of the female persuasion). When it comes to the perceptions and judgments of others, we can obscure our beliefs in ways that we cannot when it comes to our appearance. We can hide our atheism in a crowd of Christians, but hiding your face, unless one has religious reasons for doing so, is slightly more difficult. Beauty, being a matter of taste and as we all know, is a matter of contrasts. That is, things tend to be judged in accordance to something else. Something that is beautiful is more pleasing than some other thing. So, if Bertrand Russell were to look at any standard derivation next to my own theory of inconsistentism, it’s fairly obvious which one would be more pleasing to his eye. But, when we say something is more pleasing, what we may be suggesting that something is better than something else. When we say something is better, we imply that something is good (one thing is gooder than another thing). Good, according to the philosopher, is something that is not merely physical, but is something that is transcendent. The mere pleasures associated with the corporeal are often favored less than those goods that go beyond the transitory physical world. Aristotle famously wrote that a life devoted exclusively to physical pleasure is the life of beasts. (it’s worth noting that Aristotle wrote “exclusively” devoted to pleasure). We know that, by reading Plato, Kant, Mill, and the like, that what is good is not always what is pleasurable. This suggests that, if beauty is associated with some good (I really should be using a capital G when writing good), that what is beautiful may not always be what is pleasing to the eye. If anyone remembers high school algebra ( I do, I took it twice), quadratic equations are most displeasing to the eye. If we were to ask Russell, we could bet that he would see nothing but pure beauty. Good, as it is thought of philosophically, involves some sort of ultimate end, purpose or function. It’s easy to see this when we think of art. Although we may disagree what is art, or which art is beautiful, we can agree that when we look at a piece of art, we have in our minds some list of qualities that we use to judge the merits of a particular piece of work. We may look for symmetry or overall composition. We look at color, or how closely the piece reflects reality. If I say that I judge the artistic merit of a particular piece of art on how it represents reality, I am saying that I am judging how closely the piece comes to showing the world as it really is. What I am looking for is how accurately the piece tells the truth. And we know, of course, that Truth is Good. Truth is an element of the Good. And good art,if it is Good then, it must be truthful. Any truth contributes to the overall, collective good (oops, Good). Plato’s Republic, bk. III has Socrates explaining how the arts must be taught to bring about the ideal society. Socrates says that art, music, poetry, education, exercise (among other things) must be taught correctly if society is to foster the right characteristics in its citizens. (These characteristics include moderation, courage, and truthfulness). On the topic of music, Socrates states that is important to teach the right kind of music, “Because rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul… and they make a man graceful in he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite… the man properly raised on rhythm and harmony would have the sharpest sense for what’s been left out and what isn’t a fine product or craft or what isn’t a fine product of nature…” According Plato (or Socrates, whichever one you believed actually existed), a man who is raised on the right art is a better perciever of what is Good. This ability contributes to the soul. A good judge of what is Good has an enhanced soul, a Good soul. This, of course, allows us to infer that a person who lives life philosophically is, in the Platonic sense, a beautiful person, even if, according to our standards, they are not. Other philosophers, such as Nietzsche, made a similar connection between art and the soul. Art, says Fred, binds the emotion and rational spirits within man (oops, Man) together. From Plato to Marx, art serves a social/political function. “Beautiful” art enhances the individual. But what about people? Beauty in art, from the artist’s perspective, is meant to illicit an response. Most likely, the desires response is emotional. (I really can’t imagine any artist who wanted exclusively physical repsonses from his audience. Oh, wait. I may have thought of one. One may be the late Bob Flannigan. There’s no way you can look at what he did and not react physically). Anyway, where was I? Was I anywhere? If an artist wants to cull an emotional response from his audience, he knows that the reaction will enevitably be varied and relative. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure”, they say. But, that’s what we want to avoid in philosophy — Relativity. Relativity negates the notion of innate goodness (or truth), which is exactly what we are speaking of when we look for the Good. What the philosopher looks for is some quality that is universally applicable (transcendental ideals or forms, if you prefer), or at least something near consistent. But art or whatever we’re looking at that can, in one man stir his emotions while leaving another man stoically unaffected is not what we want. It doesn’t help us to answer the question. If we regard beauty in the way that the artist takes his art, then what we deal with is mere felt responses, we get good, but only in the material sense — not the higher, transcendent, capital G good that we’re looking for! Maybe that’s the problem. If we look at the biological function of beauty, we see that beauty or appealingness serves the purposes of reproduction. I heard on the news that there is a greenery that houses a flower called a “corpse flower”. It is set to bloom sometime this week. The smell of the flower, they say, is akin to the smell of rotting flesh. That smell, although cringe inducing to us, is the sweet smell of honey to the various incects that catch a whiff of the aroma and are drawn to it. The smell is how the flower attracts bugs that will aid in its reproduction. We don’t like the smell (and anyone who does seriously needs to get checked out). But the smell is not for us. It’s to get a response out of another animal. The smell’s please-a-bility is relative to what kind of species you are. The same may be for beauty. That is, it isn’t a matter of goodness (unless you consider reproduction a Good), but a matter of taste. Perhaps the intrinsic goodness of beauty is that it facilitates a greater goodness, namely that finding Angelina Jolie smokin’ hot contributes to the propagation of the human species. I know that this is something of a look to the biology (i.e. reductionist) answer. And I know that reductionist answers (or explanations, as I say), do little if anything to satisfy the philosophic heart of the questions we are attempting to answer. But, really, it’s the best I can do. If it’s any consolation, as someone who sports one of those terrific personalities, I’d personally like to think that there is something that is intrinsic to beauty that is beyond one’s mere physical appearance. That there is indeed, such a thing as a beautiful soul.

Scottish People Scare Me: On A Good Reason Why I Ain’t Ever Goin’ To Scotland Or, A Problem Of Conflicting Moralities In "The Wicker Man"

POLICE SERGEANT HOWIE  flies off to a remote Scottish isle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. During his investigation, he finds that the natives of the quiet Scottish hamlet are a bit more than odd — they’re pagans! What follows during the next 90 minutes is public group sex, people spontaneously breaking out into song, nude women crying in grave yards, schoolchildren singing odes to phallic symbols, naked flashdancing, foreskins in jars — ultimately culminating in Sgt. Howie being roasted alive in a giant rattan action figure (so the crops will grow).

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is The Wicker Man.

This gem from 1973, starring Edward Woodward, bears the rare distinction of being the only movie in film history that Rod Stewart tried to get banned — and not because it’s a bad movie. It all has to do with Britt Ekland and some dancing….



Anyway, Sgt. Howie, played by Woodward, is sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. When Sgt. Howie arrives, he is met by several locals who, besides being confoundedly stupid, insist that the girl is not a resident of the island. They’ve never heard of her, they say. But Howie is as nosy as he is persistent, and he continues to search for young Rowan, despite the fact that everyone on the island, including the woman who is Rowan’s alleged mother, claims that they do not know the girl.



As Howie searches for the missing girl, he finds that the residents of Summerisle are pagans who worship the old gods and reject Christianity (this fact offends Howie, who is a Christian). Howie begins to suspect that the island’s May Day ritual may be more than mere re-enactment, but a full-scale human sacrifice made to appease the gods. Howie suspects that Rowan is not missing, but intended to be the isle’s offering.

After a game of cat and mouse (I really hate that cliche), Howie finds that it is he who is the intended sacrifice, and he is given up to the gods — burned alive inside the Wicker Man.



The Film’s protagonist, Sgt. Howie, is a Christian. Howie, as a modern man thrown into the strange world of paganism, is intended to represent the audience. The audience, meaning us, and Howie are products of Christendom. We’ve been raised with, whether we’ve accepted Christianity or not, Christian morality. Our collective Christian sensibilities tell us that paganism, in particular, pagan practices that call for blood sacrifices, is not only a useless practice, but morally reprehensible as well.



The audience, as well as Sgt. Howie would regard the practices on Summerisle as heathen and blasphemous according to our Christian perspective. Our God, the Christian God, as Howie proclaims, is the “true God”. Howie calls the religion of Summerisle “fake”, and demands to know why the children have “never heard of Jesus”. As people raised with (or at least in the presence of ) the Christian faith, we can understand Howie’s outrage. And we also share Howie’s disgust when he discovers that the Summerislanders intend to perform ritual human sacrifice.



But, the residents of Summerisle have a different point of view. When Sgt. Howie meets Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee ( the first man I usually think of when I think of a Scotsman), Summerisle explains to Howie that his grandfather, in an attempt to rekindle the spirit of the people living on the island and cure them of their apathy, brought back the old gods.

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The people, along with the local flora, flourished. The ethic, Lord Summerisle tells Howie, is to love and fear nature, to rely on it, and to “please it when necessary”. Summerisle tells Howie that the Christian God is not worshipped on his island because the Christian God failed to help the people. “He’s dead,” Summerisle says. He had his chance and blew it. When Howie, furious at Summerisle’s unrepentant paganism proclaims that Summerisle is a pagan, Summerisle responds, ” A heathen conceivably, but not I hope an unenlightened one”.

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But Howie sees Summerisle and his people as just that — unenlightened.

Unenlightened people do stuff like this:

And things like this:

The people of Summerisle, Howie thinks, are backwards, savage, and barbaric.



I guess it’s a lot like spending a night in any city in Nevada outside of Las Vegas.



Howie knows that Summerisle knows that bringing back the old gods did not make his island prosperous, but correctly using the island’s volcanic soil to raise crops that would grow in that environment saved the island and its people. If Summerisle is not an unenlightened pagan, Howie knows, then certainly the people of Summerisle are, as they believe that sacrifice will please the gods and renew their harvests.



As he is being led off to his date with the Wicker Man, Howie tells the islanders that burning him will not bring back their failed crops. He says that, if the crops fail again, that no sacrifice other than the Lord Summerisle himself will appease their gods. As Howie burns in the Wicker Man, he sings the Psalm of David ( Psalm 23), while the people of Summerisle, led by Summerisle, sing a triumphant pagan ‘let’s roast a cop in the fire’ song.

This song in particular:

By the way, there really is a Summerisle located off the coast of Scotland. I’m not sure if the events depicted in the film are representative of events that actually go on there, but rest assured I’m not going there any time soon to find out.*

This brings us to a very important question: what are we to do when we are confronted with competing moral theories? In particular, how do we decide moral rightness when each side claims that their side is morally correct? What do we do if we have, as in this case, competing religious claims?

Ok, let’s take out the fact that Lord Summerisle knows that paganism is wacked. Let’s say that he, and the people of the island, truly believe that performing human sacrifices will bring back their failed crops. Their gods, they believe, demand that they do. If they do not obey, they believe, the gods will get angry with them and kill their crops, causing the deaths of hundreds of people. So, let’s stick Sgt. Howie in the mix. And, like the people of Summerisle, Howie believes that his religion prohibits human sacrifice. His religion, he believes, will punish those who unlawfully shed the blood of an innocent.



Each claims that their religion is morally correct. Each operates from a mandate from God or their gods — including potential punishment if each does not obey. How are we to solve the ethical dilemma? How are we to determine which side is morally correct? Is doing so possible? If there is, which ethical system can/should we appeal to to settle the difference?


Usually, when we are faced with ethical dilemmas, even when we pull out the old thought experiment, we consider ethical dilemmas one theory at a time. So, for instance, if everyone in this situation were Kantians, we could easily draw some conclusion as to which side is morally correct. we might say that ritual human sacrifice is murder and that the pagans have no right, morally speaking, to perform their evil deed. Moreover, Sgt. Howie is an unwilling participant, and to sacrifice him is using him as a mere means to their end.

Problem solved. We wipe off our hands, and pat ourselves on the back after winning the ethics bowl round.

But we can make such an easy decision here. Each side says that it is their moral imperative to act as they do. So now what do we do? Let’s look at another theory. Let’s say that this time, everyone is a utilitarian. The utilitarian says that we must only act in such a way that will bring the greatest good for the greatest number.

Ok. We’ve got Sgt. Howie on one side saying that the sacrifice won’t work. The crops are going to fail, no matter what, and if they fail next year, no sacrifice other than Lord Summerisle himself will do. So, according to Howie, performing the sacrifice will be pretty bad for everyone. So, let’s give benefits a plus five, and the negatives a minus twenty.



So, after hearing Howie trying to worm out of doing something beneficial for his island, Lord Summerisle says that, if they commit the sacrifice the crops will grow, and the people will prosper. And, Summerisle explains, Howie will benefit as well.



Summerisle tells Howie that he will join with the forces of the universe and sit at the right hand of the gods. And even from Howie’s Christian perspective, Summerisle says, Howie benefits from having a martyr’s death. So Summerisle says the benefits are all plusses — plus twenty, plus twenty, and plus fifty for Howie.

Fear not, Sgt. Howie. Pain is only temporary. Heaven is forever.

Well, this isn’t working. Somehow it seems that Summerisle beats Howie. In fact, Summerisle claims that, if Howie participates, he benefits more than everyone else. Now, the obvious problem here, is these claims, like any utilitarian claim, remain speculative (at best). We don’t know whose god (or God or gods) is/are right. There’s a chance that Summerisle’s gods are the “real” gods. In that case, if we follow Howie’s advice, we’ve done more harm than good. So, is there anything out there that can help us?



We might want to abandon, at least for now, any ethical system that takes a definitive stand on rightness or wrongness. So let’s try moral relativism.

According to the relativist, different cultures have different standards of right and wrong (cultural relativism). From that fact we conclude — since every culture has a different standard for right and wrong, there exists no universal standard of right and wrong. Therefore, we cannot objectively measure the rightness or wrongness of a given act. Or something like that.

Sorry. Nicholas Cage popped up again.

Man, he’s everywhere, isn’t he?

Well, this gets us absolutely nowhere. All a relativist can say is that Sgt. Howie has one set of morals and the people of Summerisle have another. They’re both right. But unfortunately for Howie, he can’t both be burned in the Wicker Man and as far away from that damned island as possible at the same time. So we’re back at square one. The natives are lighting their torches and we’ve got to make a decision, quick. How do we decide which is morally right?

Luckily for us in this case, there actually is a way to solve the dilemma. I mentioned before that we should forget that Summerisle knew that paganism is a load of poo. Well, that’s our cheat. And even though we are secretly rooting for the pagans, (let’s face it, Howie was rude and nosy and he deserved to die) but we know that Howie is dying for nothing. What makes matters worse is the fact that Howie himself knows this as well.

This happens.

And then this happens…..

We know what the people of Summerisle do not know. We know that Summerisle knows the real reason why his grandfather brought back the old gods. And because of this, we know that sacrificing Howie is wrong. It’s wrong because Summerisle is not only using Howie to further his own ends, but he is also using the people of Summerisle for his own benefit. He is relying on their ignorance ot maintain control over them. Although Summerisle claims that he loves his people, we can see that this may not be the case. He loves ruling over them. He enjoys manipulating Sgt. Howie into falling prey to his plan to use him as a sacrifice ( notice that he did not use one of the island’s natives but a mainlander). In this case, unlike so many we see in the real world, it is easy to tell. The sacrifice is wrong. Thankfully the pagan gods of Sumerisle and screenwriters make it all so easy to figure it out.

If only real philosophy were that easy……