THERE’S A PROBLEM with nostalgia.
It’s not a big problem. It’s not a problem like global warming or lost socks in the clothes dryer. But a problem.
The problem with nostalgia is this: Looking back, things often look better than it actually was.
It’s the nostalgia trap.
Sometimes, we reminisce about simpler times that never really happened.
Other times, we find out we’ve fallen into the nostalgia trap while re-watching a favorite movie.
Looking back, sometimes movies look better than they actually were.
…especially movies you first watched when you’re fifteen years old.
In particular, if that movie is called Dead Poet’s Society.
Now, I know I’m treading into potentially hostile waters. I’ve seen the DPS fandom — they’re CRAZY devoted.
You know what else is crazy? DPS slashfic. I mean, I get the Anderperry stuff, but I never once ever shipped Charlie Dalton and Knox Overstreet.
Did I mention that I’m totally on board with this ship?
When I was a fifteen year old kid (o, so many years ago), I didn’t really make it a habit of thinking too deeply about anything, much less thinking about things philosophically.
Back when I was fifteen, all I thought about was…
But, now that I’m a wee bit older (older than fifteen, anyway) and taken a few philosophy classes, I realize I HAVE ALL SORTS OF PROBLEMS WITH THIS MOVIE!!!
Dead Poet’s Society is a moral mess.
Particularly on the subject of assigning moral culpability. There’s a lot of finger pointing going on in this movie.
The things you realize when a movie is 30 years old… OH MY GOD, DEAD POET’S SOCIETY IS 30 YEARS OLD. It’s old enough to run for Congress!
But, before we point fingers at anybody, we gotta define our terminology.
Once again, we turn to Wikipedia to explain things:
Culpability, or being culpable, is a measure of the degree to which an agent, such as a person, can be held morally or legally responsible for action and inaction. It has been noted that the word, culpability, “ordinarily has normative force, for in nonlegal English, a person is culpable only if he is justly to blame for his conduct”.Culpability therefore marks the dividing line between moral evil, like murder, for which someone may be held legally responsible and a randomly occurring event, like earthquakes, for which no human can be held responsible.
Ok… For starters, I want to say I’m talking only about moral culpability, not legal culpability. I’m not talking about sending anyone to prison.
Well, except for maybe this creepy mouthbreather right here.
But I’ll get to that later.
Before we get a call from God demanding we let girls into Welton, let’s all stand on our desks and ready our barbaric yawps to dive into the moral mess that is Dead Poet’s Society.
CASE ONE: WHO (really) IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATH OF NEIL PERRY?
Every fan of Dead Poet’s Society knows that the death of Neil Perry is the most tragic near-the-end-of a-movie in film history (but only if you’re fifteen years old and haven’t watched Requiem For A Dream yet). Neil’s death by suicide is blamed on the unorthodox teachings of his English teacher, John Keating. Neil’s father claims that Keating’s carpe diem-based philosophy influenced his son to act recklessly. The recklessness? ACTING.
Neil Perry wants to be an actor.
Neil’s father wants him to be a doctor.
John Keating is dismissed from his post as English teacher at Welton Academy —
Wait — did I mention that this takes place at an all-boys prep school in 1959?
So… John Keating is fired from his position as an English teacher at Welton Academy after the school’s administration and Neil Perry’s parents hold Keating (and his teachings) responsible for the boy’s death.
According to Welton’s head administrator, Mr. Nolan, and Mr. and Mrs. Perry, John Keating’s encouraged Neil (and his other students) to be non-conformists and to defy authority by way of their membership in the Dead Poet’s Society. In Neil Perry’s case, Keating is accused of encouraging Neil to pursue a career in acting rather than attending medical school as his parents want him to.
The whole situation goes to seed when Neil’s father discovers his son has secretly taken the part of Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Neil’s father threatens to withdraw Neil from Welton and enroll him in military school (so Neil will go to Harvatd to be a doctor).
Papa Perry tells his son that he is through with that “acting business”.
Feeling trapped by his father and unable to pursue his life dream, Neil commits suicide.*
…leading to the most tragic moment in cinema history (at least to me when I was fifteen and hadn’t yet seen Requiem For A Dream), when Charlie tells Todd…
So… Keating loses his job (and presumably his career in academia) because Welton and Neil Perry’s parents and the folks at Welton hold him morally culpable for Neli’s death. If not for Keating’s teachings (and the Dead Poet’s Society), Neil would not have killed himself.
But let’s think about it… is Keating really morally responsible for Neil’s death?
Well, that depends on who you ask.
STEP ONE: ASK A KANTIAN
If we ask a Kantian (god knows we wouldn’t want to ask Kant himself), the Kantian would tell us that Keating is not responsible, morally or otherwise, for the death of Neil Perry. The reason why Keating is not has to do with rationality.
Immanuel Kant, like his contemporary Enlightenment philosophers, believed that human progress, intellectual and philosophical, is the result of man’s rationality.
According to Kant, rationality is a prerequisite for morality.
For Kant, we must be rational to be moral.
That’s what the Categorical Imperative is all about.
Kant tells us that we are bound by moral duties, not only to others, but to ourselves. We cannot violate the categorical imperative, even if the only person we violate the categorical imperative for is ourselves.
Yes, Kant not only says we are capable of using ourselves as mere means to our own ends, he also tells us that’s something we can’t do. Suicide, according to Kant, does exactly that. Kant says we can’t commit suicide because committing killing ourselves treats us as mere means to our ends.
…and it’s not a rational thing to do.
Kant on suicide:
Firstly, under the head of necessary duty to oneself: He who contemplates suicide should ask himself whether his action can be consistent with the idea of humanity as an end in itself. If he destroys himself in order to escape from painful circumstances, he uses a person merely as a mean to maintain a tolerable condition up to the end of life. But a man is not a thing, that is to say, something which can be used merely as means, but must in all his actions be always considered as an end in himself. I cannot, therefore, dispose in any way of a man in my own person so as to mutilate him, to damage or kill him. (It belongs to ethics proper to define this principle more precisely, so as to avoid all misunderstanding, e.g., as to the amputation of the limbs in order to preserve myself, as to exposing my life to danger with a view to preserve it, etc. This question is therefore omitted here.)
Neil bears the moral blame for Neil’s suicide because he violated the Categorical Imperative — on himself.
SO, if we’re assigning moral blame (from the Kantian view), we’d say that the moral responsibility for Neil Perry’s death is all on Neil, not John Keating. If we assume that Neil Perry is a rational (moral) actor (there’s no reason why we shouldn’t), we can also assume that Neil alone is responsible for what he does, including the act of suicide.
Of course, I’m assuming that Neil Perry never heard of Arthur Schopenhauer. For all I know, Neil was a fan.
If Neil was a Schopenhaurerian (is that even a word?) then it’s all on Neil. 100%
Schopenhauer on suicide:
They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice… that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.
Wow. That got dark for a moment.
But that’s Schopenhauer for you.
So, according to the Kantian, John Keating is in the clear.
Ok… if John Keating is cleared of moral culpability by the Kantian, what if we ask a utilitarian?
STEP TWO: ASK THE UTILITARIAN
If the Kantian tells us the John Keating isn’t morally culpable for the death of Neil Perry, we might assume that a utilitarian would also tell us that Keating is not responsible (morally) for Neil’s death.
However, if we assumed that we might be wrong.
So, who would the utilitarian tell us is morally responsible for Neil Perry’s death?
You guessed it.
The Kantian’s moral principle is grounded in the Categorical Imperative…
I just want to say, for the record, there’s no reason to capitalize the “C” and “I” in the words “Categorical Imperative”. It’s not like we’re talking about God or anything. It’s a stylistic choice. I capitalize it because it’s a nice thing to do for Kant.
As I stated, the Kantian’s moral principle is grounded in the Categorical Imperative. The utilitarian, on the other hand, is guided by the Greatest Happiness Principle.
So what’s that?
Greatest Happiness Principle, as articulated by John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism (1863), is:
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. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.
Or, as we often say, an act is morally permissible if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number.
Doing the right thing is all about what act produces the best consequences for the largest group of people
Sounds simple, right?
I mean, all we have to do is aim to make everybody happy.
John Keating teaches his students to think for themselves and make their lives extraordinary. He urges his students to carpe diem — seize the day — all with the aim to produce the best consequences for his boys.
But there’s a problem with utilitarianism.
You see, an act is good, according to utilitarianism, only if the act produces good consequences. Here’s the thing: sometimes, despite our best intentions, bad consequences happen. Even if we don’t intend bad results from our actions, the utilitarian says we’re still morally accountable for them.
If we look at what happens in Dead Poet’s Society, it’s pretty plain to see that Keating’s teachings don’t produce good consequences for everybody.
Let’s see all the bad things that happen when you teach kids to carpe some diems:
- Neil Perry, motivated by the spirit of carpe diem, auditions for and lands the part of Puck in a community production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Neil knows his father does not want him to be an actor. Neil’s father finds out and threatens to enroll Neil in military school, dashing his dreams of becoming an actor. As a consequence, Neil commits suicide.
- Also motivated by the carpe diem spirit, Charlie Dalton publishes an anonymous letter on behalf of the Dead Poet’s Society demanding that girls be admitted to Welton Academy. This act not only reveals the existence of the Dead Poet’s Society to the school’s administration, resulting in Dalton’s major ass whipping, courtesy of head administrator, Mr. Nolan.
- It’s almost guaranteed that the reputation of Welton Academy was damaged in the aftermath of Neil Perry’s suicide.
- Neil Perry’s parents are now childless.
- John Keating is now jobless.
- Welton has to purchase another set of English books to replace the texts that are now missing the J. Evans Pritchard introduction to understanding poetry (this seems trivial but textbooks costs money, people).
- Charlie (whoops, Nuwanda) Dalton is expelled from school for punching Richard Cameron IN THE FACE in defense of John Keating.
And then there’s this final act of group defiance:
Now, that wasn’t good for anybody, was it?
Alright. We’ve talked about John Keating and moral culpability. Depending on what moral view you have, Keating may or may not be morally responsible for Neil Perry’s suicide. When it comes to Kantian/utilitarian ethical debates, we can go all day.
Never mind that. We might have a bigger problem…
Remember that nouthbreather I mentioned earlier?
STEP THREE: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KNOX
If you’ve watched Dead Poet’s Society and you’re a fifteen year old girl (shit, even if you’re a guy and you’re not fifteen), you might have swooned over the story of love-struck Knox Overstreet and his quest to win the heart of the object of his affection, Chris Noel.
The question of moral culpability and John Keating dealt with the question of if or how a person is responsible for the actions of another person.
The question of moral culpability and Knox Overstreet is at what point are we morally culpable for our own actions?
I mean, after all, they’re just kids.
Problem is, even though they’re just kids, Knox Overstreet is RAPEY AS FUCK.
Remember this scene?
Yeah… only one person in this scene was conscious when this happened.
Now, I’m no lawyer, but I do know that consent is legally required before initiating sexual activity — AND YES, KISSING IS SEXUAL ACTIVITY.
Besides, you can’t consent to anything, even a “harmless” kiss, if you’re not conscious.
Alright, I know. Knox didn’t actually “do” anything. It was just a harmless kiss. The things is, even if Knox kissed Chris in an “innocent” non-sexual way, he did not have her consent to kiss her. Chris was well with her rights to report Knox to the authorities.
…and press charges.
Ok, I’m gonna call a time out here. It’s time to define some terms.
Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia) defines sexual assault as:
Alright. Let’s assume, for the sake of the example, that Knox Overstreet’s “innocent” kiss qualifies as non-consensual sexual contact.
When Knox kissed Chris she was unconscious and unable to give consent — AND she had previously expressed her disinterest in a romantic relationship with Knox.
So, as far as he knew at the time, Knox was kissing someone who, if she were awake, would have likely rejected him.
That sounds kinda wrong to me.
BUT — even though it’s wrong (possibly illegal) to kiss, however innocently, an unconscious person, as I asked before, is Knox morally culpable for what he did?
Is a child**, like Knox Overstreet, rational enough to be held morally accountable for his actions?
Immanuel Kant tells us that society’s laws are intrinsically tied to the moral law. Illegal acts are just illegal, they’re morally wrong. Kant also tells us that rationality is requited for moral agency. But how do we determine if a person is rational? More importantly, how much rationality is required for moral culpability? Is it required at all?
Well, if we look at the U.S. legal system (I’m looking at the U.S. legal system because, a) that’s where I live, and b) the U.S. is where Dead Poet’s Society takes place), children as young as 13 are subject to adult prison sentences. That’s because the U.S. legal system assumes a child as young as 13 is rational enough to know the difference between right and wrong.
If a child possesses a basic moral understanding (they can understand the difference between right and wrong), then they ought to be legally accountable for their actions, including possibly being charged as an adult.
Can kinda implies ought.
So… if a 13 year old is subject to legal culpability for committing a crime, then a child the same age as Knox Overstreet (Knox is 17… I think) definitely can be held legally accountable for what he does.
Ok. I know. sending a child to prison at 13 years old may seem a bit extreme to
pantywaist liberals some. But, remember we’re talking about legal culpability here.
What about moral culpability?
That’s what we were talking about, right?
Well… we might have go back to rationality…
You see, according to science, the teensters don’t think straight. They don’t because they can’t.
Teenage brains literally prevent teenagers from thinking rationally.
Although adolescents can be charged and incarcerated as adults, neuroscience holds that adolescent brains are different from adult brains. Because a teenager’s brain is not fully developed, they do not possess the capacity to reflect on their actions in the same way adults do; they do not think before they act. Because an adolescent lacks fully developed reasoning skills, an adolescent’s actions are spontaneous (impulsive). Teenagers, like Knox Overstreet, live in a perpetual state of carpe diem.
It’s not unreasonable to argue that a being that is less rational cannot be held morally culpable for what they do.
SOOOOOO… IF we use the rationality argument to assign moral culpability, we might conclude that Knox Overstreet is not entirely morally culpable for his actions.
BUT WAIT A MINUTE — if Knox can use the rationality (or lack thereof) argument to avoid moral culpability for his actions, doesn’t that mean that Neil Perry is equally not morally culpable for taking his own life?
Maybe. Maybe not. That’s the problem philosophers gotta deal with when we ask questions about moral culpability.
We ask questions about moral culpability even if the question ultimately is unanswerable.
But since we’re already playing the blame game, isn’t this all really Charlie Dalton’s fault?
STEP FOUR: BLAME NUWANDA
As a fifteen year old Dead Poet’s Society enthusiast, I was smitten by Charlie Dalton.
I think everyone was.
Charlie Dalton was a natural-born iconoclast. He was the defiant, saxophone-playing poet who took to Mr. Keating’s carpe diem philosophy with the same enthusiasm that legions of DPS fangirls and boys swooned over the golden haired Dead Poet.
Unfortunately, the reason why we love Nuwanda is the exact reason why everything bad that happens in Dead Poet’s Society is all his fault. But why is it all Charlie’s fault, you say?
Remember this scene?
You see, Charlie Dalton was the Dead Poet who placed the anonymous editorial in the school paper petitioning for girls to be admitted to Welton Academy.
That led to some bad consequences…
- If not for Charlie’s article, Mr. Nolan and the school’s administration would not have known of the Dead Poet’s Society.
- If the administration didn’t knew about the existence The Dead Poet’s Society, they might not have tied the club to John Keating
- And if they hadn’t tied the existence of the club to John Keating, Keating might not have lost his job at Welton and his students might not have risked expulsion by standing on their desks with that “O Captain, My Captain” thing.
Pretty sure Neil would still be dead, though.
Hey, wait a minute! Wasn’t it Neil who found Keating’s old yearbook and reconvened the Dead Poet’s Society?
So it’s actually all Neil’s fault.
But, Neil’s just a seventeen year-old kid. And teenagers aren’t always morally culpable for what they do.
Here we go again. That damn moral culpability.
I’ll just say Meeks is responsible for it all.
*For the record, Neil’s suicide was not the right thing to do.
** A child is legally defined as individuals under the age of eighteen.
Immanuel Kant. . Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
John Stuart Mill. . Utilitarianism