O Captain, My — OH MY GOD!!!

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.

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THE ONLY SIMPLER TIMES I KNOW

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.

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Carpe Diem. That’s 20th century speak for YOLO

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.

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EVERYBODY’S BI IF YOU WATCH A MOVIE ENOUGH TIMES

Did I mention that I’m totally on board with this ship?

Knarlie?…. Chox?

ANYWAY….

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…

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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.

So…what’s culpability?

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.

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But I’ll get to that later.

ANYWAY….

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.

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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.

OBVIOUS DISAGREEMENT.

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?

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GENTLEMEN, WHAT ARE THE FOUR PILLARS?

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.

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DING DING! BAD DECISION ALERT

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.*

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…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…

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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.

ANYWAY…

So, according to the Kantian, John Keating is in the clear.

Right?

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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.

DEAD POET'S SOCIETY Robin Williams in the 1989 Warner film

THE CAPTAIN HIMSELF

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.

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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.

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  • 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:

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ALL THESE DUDES GOT KICKED TF OUT OF SCHOOL

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.

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LOOKS HARMLESS… LOOKS HARMLESS

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?

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THIS KID HAS GOT #ME TOO WRITTEN ALL OVER HIM

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.

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IT REALLY ISN’T THO.

Ok, I’m gonna call a time out here. It’s time to define some terms.

Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia) defines sexual assault as:

…an act in which a person intentionally sexually touches another person without that person’s consent, or coerces or physically forces a person to engage in a sexual act against their will.

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.

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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.

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ANYBODY ELSE GET THE FEELING THIS KID WOULD SHOOT HIS LAWYER IN THE COURTROOM DURING HIS TRIAL?

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.

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SORRY, KNOX. YOU’RE GOING TO THE CLINK

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.

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OR COSBY DIEM IF YOU’RE KNOX OVERSTREET

 

It’s not unreasonable to argue that a being that is less rational cannot be held morally culpable for what they do.

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IF I WERE CHET DANBURY, YOU KNOW WHAT I’D DO IF KNOX OVERSTREET KISSED ALL OVER MY GIRLFRIEND? I’D GET MY BUDDIES AND TAKE HIM OUT BACK AND PUNCH HIM TILL HE POOPS HIMSELF. THEN I’D CALL IT EVEN…did i fail to mention i actually like the character Knox Overstreet?

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.

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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.

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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.

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YES YOU ARE, NUWANDA. YES YOU ARE.

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?

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Yeaaaahhhhh…..

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.

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YEP. IT’S 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.

ANYWAY….

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.

 

 

 

SOURCES:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culpability

Immanuel Kant. [1785]. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/arthur_schopenhauer_104802?fbclid=IwAR2cHlLHLxsGJJr-QEWxS7Krddafmek_BQXAPE363jHgLkIZDmm5IP5W1ag#targetText=Arthur%20Schopenhauer%20Quotes&targetText=They%20tell%20us%20that%20suicide,his%20own%20life%20and%20person

John Stuart Mill. [1863]. Utilitarianism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_assault#Groping

https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/child_law/resources/child_law_practiceonline/child_law_practice/vol-34/august-2015/understanding-the-adolescent-brain-and-legal-culpability/

SURE, YOU CAN…. BUT SHOULD YOU?

EVERY-SO-OFTEN the internet gets inexplicably fixated on a celebrity.

Betty White. George Takei. Chuck Norris. Rick Astley…

Lately, for reasons only the internet understands, the internet’s celebrity fixation is on Jeff Goldblum.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I think I understand why Jeff Goldblum is the current internet thing. He’s the same perfect mix of weird and oddly attractive that made cats the internet’s spirit animal.

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WEIRD AND ODDLY ATTRACTIVE

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WEIRD AND ODDLY ATTRACTIVE

Watch enough cable TV and you’re bound to spend a weekend binge watching your favorite (or in the case of Twilight, my least favorite) film franchise.

They’re all there in heavy rotation: Star Wars. The Harry Potter flicks. The Twilight saga. Fifty Shades of Whatever. The Jurassic Park films.

Cable TV operates on repeat, not shuffle.

I’m never not going to be a Star Wars fan, but if I had to watch a film series that is not Star Wars, I’d choose Jurassic Park.

Why? Because Freaking dinosaurs, that’s why.

Did I mention that Jeff Goldblum is in the Jurassic Park movies?

It’s all connected, folks.

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YOUR DAY IS NOW 1000% BETTER THAN IT WAS BEFORE YOU SAW THIS PICTURE. YOU’RE WELCOME

The Jurassic Park film series, based on the 1990 book Jurassic Park (written by Michael Crichton), is a modern version of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, the 1818 novel written by Mary Shelley (1797–1851). Shelley’s novel is a retelling of the story of Prometheus, the Greek hero whose relentless quest for pursuit for (scientific) knowledge ends in tragedy.

In a nutshell, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young doctor whose quest to harness the power of creation ultimately leads to his own destruction.

In a nutshell, Jurassic Park is pretty much the same cautionary tale.

Except with dinosaurs.

Freaking dinosaurs.

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FREAKING DINOSAURS, MAN

These days, all one needs to do is mention the name “Frankenstein” to conjure images of the mad scientist who defies the laws of God and nature and is ultimately destroyed by his own creation.

Or, if you’re in a Jurassic Park flick, the mad scientist’s creation ultimately destroys the city of San Diego… and an amusement park.

…but I digress.

The motion picture adaptation of Jurassic Park was released in 1993 and was followed by its sequels The Lost World: Jurassic Park II, Jurassic Park III, and Jurassic World.

…because destroying San Diego wasn’t enough; they HAD to build an amusement park.

In the original (and arguably most philosophical) film, Jurassic Park, billionaire entrepreneur John Hammond creates JURASSIC PARK, the ultimate amusement park experience, where guests literally can walk with the dinosaurs. In addition to providing totally immersive entertainment, courtesy of the resurrected pre-historic beasts, Hammond boasts that park provides the best amenities for guests, including gourmet ice cream.

“We spared no expense”, Hammond declares.

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THERE’S ALWAYS ROOM FOR JELLO

While Hammond marvels at his creation, one of the park’s guests, mathematician (and chaos theorist) Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by current internet darling Jeff Goldblum), asks the question that is central to the theme of the film.

It happens during this exchange between Dr. Malcolm and John Hammond:

Dr. Ian Malcolm: If I may… Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now
Dr. Ian Malcolm: you’re selling it, you wanna sell it. Well…
John Hammond: I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before…
Dr. Ian Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Did you spot it?

If you didn’t, it might be because it was more of a statement than a question.

Here it is: Dr. Malcolm tells John Hammond “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Dr. Malcolm said the words “could” and “should”.

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…and when you say words like “could” and “should”, philosopher’s ears perk up.

because words like “could” and “should” are words philosophers use when they’re doing ethics.

What’s ethics?

Ethics is:

…a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct… Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. As a field of intellectual enquiry, moral philosophy also is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory. (definition courtesy of Wikipedia)

At the heart of the story of Jurassic Park is a morality tale.

Dr. Malcolm’s challenge to John Hammond is moral – should we do something because we can do it?

Or, if you’re the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), you’d say Ought Implies Can.*

Ought Implies Can (OIC), the ethical principle attributed to Immanuel Kant, states that people have a moral obligation to perform an act only if it is possible for him carry out the act.

For instance, if I borrow money from my uncle (with the intention of paying him back), and I have the means to pay him back, I am morally obligated to pay my uncle the money I borrowed from him.

  • I ought to pay my uncle because I promised to pay him back (We are morally obligated to keep our promises).
  • I ought to pay my uncle because we are morally obligated to pay off our debts.
  • I ought to pay my uncle because I have the means to (can) pay him back.
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DON’T LET IT COME TO THIS

In the film (and book) Jurassic Park, human scientists discover the means of creating living dinosaurs from long-extinct dinosaur DNA − CAN

Hammond and his scientists conclude if man possesses the ability – if people can recreate extinct animals using modern technology, then we OUGHT to bring them back. Jurassic Park flips Kant’s moral principle − Can Implies Ought.

That is, the film Jurassic Park asks Kant’s question backwards: We can, ought we?

John Hammond believes that the technological ability to create long-extinct dinosaurs implies (perhaps even demands) that the dinosaurs be recreated at Jurassic Park.

If we can do it, shouldn’t we do it?

Not just for the entertainment, but also for the scientific knowledge we would gain through the observation of dinosaurs?

After all, can recreating dead dinosaurs be any worse than blasting a Tesla into outer space?

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YEP. THERE’S A TESLA IN SPACE

Of course, Dr. Malcolm’s challenge to John Hammond isn’t deontological – it’s utilitarian.

For those who might have forgotten, utilitarianism is:

the doctrine that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct. (definition courtesy of Bing)

What Malcolm is asking is what is the value of bringing back the dinosaurs?

Malcolm tells Hammond that the dinosaurs had their chance and they failed – the dinosaurs went extinct.

Recreating an extinct species in an environment in which they do not belong, Malcolm believes, can only bring about bad results.

Is the enjoyment from walking with dinosaurs worth the risk to human life?

Given what happens in the film the answer seems no.

You see, no matter how careful you may think you are, carnivorous prehistoric beasts will eat things, including people.

Let’s not forget that a T-Rex ate San Diego.

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ADMIT IT. YOU LIKED THE T-REX UNTIL IT ATE THAT DOG, RIGHT?

Rampaging dinosaurs are responsible for several dozen human deaths throughout the film series.

The millions of dollars in possible property damage (not to mention the cost of insurance) would make recreating potentially man-eating dinosaurs a cost-prohibitive venture.

But, if a utilitarian can argue why we shouldn’t do something, rest assured that a utilitarian will also argue exactly why we should do something as dumb as lab engineering a ferocious dinosaur like the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

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SCIENTISTS RECREATE LONG-EXTINCT, CARNIVOROUS SPECIES USING THE DNA OF ANOTHER SPECIES THAT CAN CHANGE GENDER… WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG????



We can imagine the (well meaning) utilitarian saying that the dinosaurs posed no significant danger to humans at all. Many of the dinosaurs are not inherently dangerous to people and dogs. Any fatalities associated with the dinosaurs were due mostly to human error, sabotage or just people doing dumb shit. We can remedy that. So long as people obey the rules and don’t do anything sinister or stupid (and with better genetic manipulation of dinosaur DNA), the utilitarian reasons we can create visitor-friendly dinosaurs without major loss of life.

Scientists benefit from the ability to study real-life dinosaurs and park guests can enjoy unparalleled world- class entertainment.
…including some bomb-ass ice cream.

That’s because Jurassic Park SPARES NO EXPENSE.

So… so long as Jurassic Park implements better safety measures (and perhaps including a better background check for employees), we should be good to go, right?

 

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NOPE. NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT, SAN DIEGO

 

According to utilitarianism so long as everybody’s happy an act is morally permissible.

More than that, it’s morally obligatory.

Therefore, we ought to create dinosaurs.

You know that’s not the right answer, don’t you?

Dr. Malcolm says to John Hammond, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Malcolm isn’t just concerned with the utilitarian consequences of Hammond’s scientists’ actions, he’s also bothered by Hammond’s defiance of nature.

We see Dr. Malcolm’s (nature-based) uneasiness with resurrecting dinosaurs in this conversation with one of Hammond’s scientists:

Dr. Ian Malcolm: John, the kind of control you’re attempting simply is… it’s not possible. If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is.
Dr. Wu: You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will… breed?
Dr. Ian Malcolm: No. I’m, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way.

Malcolm frames his concern as a question of defying nature, but the question: just because we can do something, should we do it? is also a biblical question.

Got something to do with who defying the will of God.

if we’re being specific, the question, Who gets to play God?

you-are-not-god

In the Old testament, Adam and Eve are cast from the Garden of Eden for taking from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.

Coz there are things that man ain’t supposed to know.

… and things people ain’t supposed to do.

In the Bible, the story of Adam and Eve (and humanity in general) ends tragically.

The punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is death.

You die if you try to do what God do.

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And that is exactly what leads to the tragic end of Dr. Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s cautionary tale of the modern Prometheus – Frankenstein tries to play God.

In Shelley’s novel, man (Victor Frankenstein) attempts to harness the power of creation – a power that belongs solely to God. Frankenstein’s monster is his Tower of Babel, a monument of man’s conceit. And like the Tower of Babel, Victor Frankenstein and his monster are destroyed.

Likewise, Dr. Malcolm sees John Hammond’s Jurassic Park as a monument of Hammond’s conceit. According to Malcolm, the (technological) attempt to control nature plants the seeds of our own destruction. Nature finds a way, Malcolm warns, meaning once man attempts to control the power of nature, nature, or God (or Nature’s God, if you’re Thomas Jefferson) inevitably will conquer man.

Jurassic Park, like the Tower of Babel and Victor Frankenstein, are doomed to fail.

What Dr. Malcolm knew (that John Hammond and Victor Frankenstein didn’t know) is just because you can do something, it doesn’t always mean that you ought to do it.

 

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ME TOO, DR. MALCOLM. ME TOO.

 

 

Especially if the thing that you ought not do eats San Diego.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Kant’s Ought Implies Can should not be confused with Hume’s Is-Ought problem. The Is-Ought Fallacy postulates what ought to be based on what is. For example, if nature does not make it, we shouldn’t have it. Well, nature doesn’t make clothes or houses, but very few people would say that we shouldn’t have clothes or houses simply because clothes and houses do not occur naturally.

 

SOURCES:
Jurassic Park. Screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1993. Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures.

https://www.bing.com/search?q=utilitarianism&form=EDNTHT&mkt=en-us&httpsmsn=1&refig=08459d68e48f48cf880067e52649d77a&sp=2&qs=HS&pq=utili&sk=HS1&sc=8-5&cvid=08459d68e48f48cf880067e52649d77a&cc=US&setlang=en-US

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics

BETTER LIVING THROUGH KANTISTRY

ETHICALLY SPEAKING, I’M PRETTY much all over the place.

I would never admit it to anyone, especially not to my old ethics professor, but my ethics often depends on my mood.

And no, I wouldn’t say I’m an emotivist.

Even an emotivist has consistent principles.

emotivism-right-and-wrong-depend-on-whats-right-for-you

I have more of a whatever happens happens kind of ethics.

Some people say that’s treating ethics like a buffet. You pick and choose only what you want to eat.

I had a professor who called it theory shopping.
Well, if theory shopping is what I’m doing, then color me a shopaholic.

 

For many years I called myself a Kantian Egoist. My first blog was called The Kantian Egoist. I still kind of consider myself a practitioner of Kantian egoism.

…and it doesn’t violate the categorical imperative.

Now, anybody who has ever tried it, knows that adopting a purely Kantian ethics lifestyle is next to impossible. Anyone who wants to keep friends would ever tell an axe murderer that the murderer’s intended victim is hiding in a closet.

Even Rahab lied to protect the Israelites.

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That’s kind of where the egoism comes in.

But there’s a problem with egoism.

To wit: this problem with egoism is this

Rosenbaum-291

She’s not the only egoist-slash-objectivist, but she’s certainly the most famous one. And if I have any goal in life, it is to not be associated with being a devotee of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead.

Besides, being an egoist just makes everybody hate you.

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I’ve tried virtue ethics. I’ve done moral relativism. I dabbled in moral nihilism and at various times called myself a practitioner of hedonism, and of classical, act, and rule utilitarianism.

Still…I just can’t get over my fondness for Kantianism.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not gaga over everything Kant.

There’s not enough bitcoin I could mine to pay me to slog through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason again.

It’s a book of pure something, but it ain’t reason.

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I may be guilty of a philosophical sin, here, but I prefer Kant’s ethics over his metaphysics.

Yeah, I know. They’re connected.

How could one POSSIBLY be a fan of the categorical imperative without also accepting transcendental idealism as the end-all be-all of philosophical metaphysics????

I know, right?!?!?

You see, I spent exactly 3.7 years as a practicing utilitarian and all I got for it was a mess of bad decisions motivated by the expectation of good consequences.

I did more than a little bit of bad trying to do the greatest good.

The best-laid plans of mice and men, eh?

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Utilitarian ethics is all based on calculating consequences, and I suck at math.

That’s precisely why I like Kantian ethics. It’s so cut and dry. No consequences. No evading my moral responsibilities with a that wasn’t supposed to happen, or it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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Kantian ethics is pretty (somewhat) easy.

Ok. I know what you’re going to say: “The Mindless Philosopher, you said, not more than a few semi-paragraphs ago, that, anybody who has ever tried it, knows that adopting a purely Kantian ethics lifestyle is next to impossible.’

Yes, I did say that.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, the fact that a theory is difficult to practice as a lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean that the theory isn’t easy to practice on paper – aka, the place where all good philosophical theories work best.

Allow me to give an example.

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Because of your all-consuming railroad track fetish, you spend countless, unproductive hours staring at train tracks, waiting for “something” to happen. One day, while observing your favorite pair of diverging rail tracks, you spot on one track, Track A, a group of five people who have been lashed to the rails. On the other track, Track B, your five-year-old child has taken up the family tradition of hanging out on busy railroad tracks for no good reason. A large freight train is racing down the track. Your option is to pull a lever that diverts the train down either Track A) the track with the group of five, or down Track B) the track with your weird kid.
YOU must pull the lever to decide which track (A or B) the freight train takes. Do you save your kid and kill five people, or do you kill your ONE kid and save the five?

This is, of course, the famous (or infamous) Trolley Problem thought experiment. The thought experiment is intended to test utilitarian ethics.

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The utilitarian’s decision, to pull the lever to send the train down Track A or Track B, depends on what the utilitarian believes will bring about the best consequences e.g., the greatest good for the greatest number.

Now, can Kantian ethics solve the Trolley Problem? No, not necessarily. But – the problem with utilitarian ethics is, despite our most calculated calculations, we might arrive at the wrong outcome.

Our initial utilitarian instinct when dealing with the Trolley Problem is to say that our utilitarian duty would require us to sacrifice the one life to save the lives of the five.

The net good of saving five people is greater than the net good of saving one person.

…because five is more than one.

But wait a minute… utilitarian ethics requires us to calculate the right course of action based on expected consequences. Of course, because human knowledge is limited, we can’t know what the consequence of an action will be. Utilitarian ethics is, at best, based on speculation.

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There’s no way we can know that your weird five-year-old child (the one we decided to kill to save the five) would grow up to discover the cure for herpes, saving millions from the pain and embarrassment associated with the disease.

There’s no way we can know that one of the five people we saved was a serial killer, who promptly rewarded your kindness by slaughtering you and the other four people you saved.

…along with a few more people.

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That would not be the greatest good for the greatest number.

Fortunately for us, Kant does not require us to speculate consequences.

Kant’s ethics is based entirely on DUTY.

Consequences be damned, Kant says, we do what we do because it is the right thing to do.

It’s the right thing to do because the categorical imperative tells us so.

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Kant’s Categorical Imperatives are absolute and non-negotiable. They hold for all people, under all circumstances, at all times.

There are four formulations (are there four? I know there’s at least three) of the Categorical Imperative, but the most important (at least the most well-known) is the first formulation:

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

There’s also the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never as merely means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

 

That is, don’t use people to get things that benefit only you.

If you just take formulations one and two, it’s virtually impossible to do anything wrong!
And there’s absolutely no need to worry about consequences because you won’t be doing anything bad in the first place!

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You won’t cheat on your spouse or on your taxes because we wouldn’t want to make infidelity or cheating on taxes universal law.

You won’t want to use people to your own advantage because people are not here as mere means to our ends.

…and we wouldn’t want to make using people a universal law.

So many bad decisions would be prevented with the simple question “Would I want everyone to do this?”

If the answer is no, don’t do it.

But…what about that trolley, tho?

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Now, if we’re utilitarian, we’d strain a muscle patting ourselves on the back for our morally correct decision making. After all, we saved the lives of five people. The Kantian, on the other hand, does not engage in such muscle training activity. Namely, because the Kantian realizes that

YOU KILLED SOMEONE.

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Remember: for Kant, the consequence does not matter. What matters is the principle that got you to what you did. If you flip the switch, are you using the one as a mere means to the ends of the other five? Would we want to say it’s ok for everybody to disregard one life because it makes other people feel good? *

You see, just as Kant would not want us to lie to the axe murderer, because lying is a violation of moral principles, we can’t violate our moral principles just because it is expedient for us to do so. Kant tells us that we must respect the lives of all (rational autonomous) beings, and that we cannot, no matter what beneficial consequences might result from our actions, violate the autonomy of a fellow rational being.

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If we believe that it is morally wrong to kill, it is always wrong to kill – no exceptions.

I guess the Kantian would just walk away, or something.

…or ask an egoist to pull the lever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*I am aware that there is an argument to be made that Kant would pull the lever. I am not making that argument. Play along.

The Utilitarian Calculus Will Shut That Shit Down, NO EXCEPTIONS

WELL… IT’S FALL and if autumn means one thing, it means the return of my favorite hate to love/love to hate TV show, The Walking Dead.
I’ve been watching this show, basic cable television’s highest rated zombie-infused soap opera, since the first episode aired in October 2009.

It’s only now that I’m really beginning to question if I should have devoted so much time to this t.v. show.

Now, before you start going on about how if I don’t like the show, I should just stop watching, for starters, I’ve been telling myself that for the past three seasons. Second, I would stop watching The Walking Dead if they would stop putting so much philosophy in it.

It’s the worst best philosophical show on t.v.
Best because the show combines my two favorite things: philosophy and zombies.

Worst because of this guy

 

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UGH.

 

That’s right. I’m no fan of Negan.

The more I watch Negan, the more I kinda miss the Governor.

 

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GOTTA ADMIRE A GUY WHO CAN USE THE SIGHT OF HIS GUN WITH AN EYE THAT ISN’T THERE

 

Rick Grimes’ current nemesis , the mononymously named Negan, first appeared in the season six finale episode “Last Day On Earth”. Armed with his barbed wire-wrapped Louisville Slugger Lucile, Negan declares himself the ultimate badass, bludgeons not one, but two of Rick Grimes’ group (Abraham and Glenn), humiliates Rick in front of his people, and nearly forces Rick to cut off the arm of his son Carl.

Negan does all of this and he still becomes a fan favorite.

Seriously, just Google Negan cosplay.

Up until season eight Negan was just a deranged, leather coat wearing, inexplicably leaning back, monologuing, constant dick joke telling, bat wielding psychopath. But, in the season eight episode 5 episode “The Big Scary U”, The Walking Dead shows us is that Negan isn’t just a guy with a ridiculously wide, bright-toothed grin in a leather jacket who’ll bash your brains in, he’s actually got a philosophy.

Dare I say the man’s got ethics.

Being that this is The Walking Dead, one guess what system of ethics Negan uses.

You guessed it: Negan is a utilitarian.
The big scary U is utilitarianism.

 

u_utilitarianism_philosophy_chemistry_symbol_cork_coaster-rd24c068a8b6e4f749d1842a335b58ffb_ambkq_8byvr_512

THAT U IS BIG… AND KINDA SCARY

 

Well, actually in the show it’s the unknown.

However, ethically speaking, the big scary u guiding damn-near every dumb decision ever made by any character on The Walking Dead seems grounded in the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.

I say seems grounded.

Because most of the time they get it wrong.

 

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LOOK CLOSELY: RICK IS JUST CAME UP WITH ANOTHER DUMB IDEA

 

Well, before I get into how they get utilitarianism wrong on The Walking Dead, it’s probably a good idea to explain what utilitarianism is.

Utilitarianism, the consequentialist ethical theory which stats that an act is judged morally right or wrong depending on the consequences (of that action). Although consequentialist ethics have been around since humans have had ethics, the origin of utilitarianism s credited to the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748 –1832).
Bentham’s consequentialist ethical theory (hedonism) is grounded on the principle of utility.
Bentham states:

By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.

For Bentham, maximizing pleasure is the goal of any action. The maximization of pleasure is the highest good.

 

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HEDONISTIC PLEASURE: MAXIMIZED

Although Bentham is credited with inventing modern utilitarianism, the British economist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is the philosopher most associated with utilitarianism.

 

I guess if you don’t include Peter Singer.
Or Henry Sidgwick.

…or G.E. Moore.

Mill rejects Bentham’s hedonistic calculus (Mill states that pleasure alone cannot be the standard by which we judge the morality of an act). According to Mill, an act is morally right if the act maximizes the happiness of the community.

Mill defines happiness as well being.

The primary principle of Mill’s utilitarianism is the Greatest Happiness Principle.
And that, according to Mill, is:

The creed which accepts as the foundations 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.

We’ve seen plenty of (sometimes opposing) ethical systems on The Walking Dead.

The deontological ethics of Dale Horvath.

Hershel Greene’s biblically based morality.

The egoist tendencies of the Governor.

The Hobbesian nightmare of Terminus.

Daryl Dixon’s ethics of loyalty.

The moral grab bag that is Rick Grimes…

 

the-walking-dead-7-times-rick-grimes-was-the-ultimate-badass

SERIOUSLY, WHERE ARE THIS GUY’S ETHICS?????

 

So, when you see a man beat a man to death with a baseball bat, one may be inclined to ask, “exactly how does he justify doing this?”

Luckily the fifth episode of season eight tells us exactly that.

Negan’s justification is Utilitarian.

 

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THERE’S SOMETHING NOT RIGHT ABOUT HAVING TEETH THAT BRIGHT THREE YEARS INTO A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE

 

Negan explains to Father Gabriel that he hasn’t “killed anyone who didn’t need it”.
In an exchange with the recently deposed leader of the Hilltop (and all-around weaselly guy) Gregory

Apparently, no one has a last name in a zombie apocalypse.

Negan explains to Gregory that he is not guilty of committing brutal murder. On the contrary, Negan says, his seemingly evil actions are not only justified but necessary.
Their conversation goes like this:

Gregory: Listen, I mean it when I say it – Negan, I don’t like killing people any more than you do.
Negan: I like killing people… I say it’s about killing the right people. So you kill the right people at the right time, everything falls into place. Everybody’s happy. Well, some people more than others. But you kill one, then you can be saving hundreds more – and THAT is what we are all about. We save people.

The right people.
The right time.
Everybody’s happy.
We save people.
Saving hundreds.

Furthermore, when Father Gabriel suggests that Negan’s workers are being forced to work against their will, Negan tells Gabriel (or “Gabey”, as Negan calls him) that his worker class is “an economy”. Negan says no one is a slave no one goes hungry.
No one goes hungry.

 

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AN INEXHAUSTIBLE SUPPLY OF PICKLES: THE PERKS OF TURNING COAT AND SELLING OUT YOUR FRIENDS TO NEGAN

 

If we evaluate Negan’s explanations to Gregory and Father Gabriel, according to Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle, a Sanctuary full of happy, safe people with full bellies make a damn good argument in favor of Negan’s justification for killing a few people.

Even if those people are Abraham and Glenn.
And Denise
And Olivia
And Spencer
And Benjamin
And Sasha…

 

 

 

 

 

SOURCES:

The Walking Dead. “The Big Scary U”. Story by Scott M. Gimple, David Leslie Johnson & Angela Kang. Teleplay by David Leslie Johnson & Angela Kang. Directed by Michael E. Satrazemis. Original airdate: November 19, 2017.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/

The Problem With the Trolley Problem

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell.
“The Trolley Song”, from Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

 

THE PHILOSOPHER Albert Camus famously said there is one philosophical question.

According to Camus, the one philosophical question is whether one should commit suicide.
I don’t know what Camus did to occupy his spare time, but I doubt that many philosophers think of things so drastically.

 

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Certainly, there has to be one question that isn’t… that question.

For most philosophers, philosophical questions are mostly hypothetical.
So you’d only hypothetically be committing suicide.

Wait – was Camus speaking hypothetically?

Philosophers call their hypothetical questions thought experiments.
However, unlike real professions, philosophers don’t “experiment” in laboratories in white coats with test tubes and Bunsen burners. Philosophers experiment in their minds.
Philosophical thought experiments don’t require any specialized training or talent, other than the capacity to make up stuff.

"I'm not either goofing off! - I'm doing a thought experiment!"
So, what is a thought experiment?

“Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. They are used for diverse reasons in a variety of areas, including economics, history, mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences, especially physics (SEP)

In Camus’ world, the ultimate philosophical question may be whether to commit suicide, but in the realm of thought experiments, there is only one philosophical problem: the trolley problem.

Credited to the British philosopher, Philippa Foot (1920 – 2010), the trolley problem is an ethical thought experiment.

 

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PHILIPPA FOOT, INENTOR OF THE TROLLEY PROBLEM.

 

Specifically, a utilitarian thought experiment.

The “experiment” goes as follows:

“The general aim is this: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: 1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. 2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person

Which one is the ethical choice?

At least this is the experiment according to Wikipedia.

The intention of the experiment is to test how and why we make ethical choices and how our method of choice can present us with additional moral dilemmas.

Although I suspect that a Randian ethical egoist would never consider the trolley problem moral dilemma inducing.

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Unless you’ve been living under the only rock on the internet, even if you don’t know diddly poop about philosophy, you’ve undoubtedly seen the trolley problem.

It’s quite popular.
There are entire websites, Facebook pages, and memes devoted to the trolley problem.

Devoted.

 

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THIS IS A REAL BOOK, BY A REAL PHILOSOPHER, ABOUT THE TROLLEY PROBLEM.

 

Now, if you do live under a rock and you don’t do memes and you’re still convinced that you’ve never seen the trolley problem before, I’ll inform you that trolley problems are everywhere. You may have talked about or mulled over a trolley problem-like scenario without knowing it.

The list of trolley problem-like scenarios includes (but is certainly not limited to):

The Lifeboat
The Drowning Man (for some inexplicable reason, the drowning man is almost always Hitler)
The Fat Man
The Organ Transplant/Donor

…and the trolley problem’s considerably less attractive cousin, the “Sophie’s Choice”.

 

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I CAN’T RECOMMEND WATCHING “SOPHIE’S CHOICE” ENOUGH, BUT WATCH THE MOVIE ONLY IF YOU HAVE SOMEONE AROUND TO CHEER YOU UP AFTERWARD.

 

If you’re a Star Trek fan you’ve undoubtedly seen shades of the trolley problem in Starfleet’s Kobayashi Maru test.
One famous variation of the classic trolley problem presents us with the choice sending the trolley down one track, where (at least) five people, presumably strangers, will be killed by the train or to divert the oncoming trolley down another track, where our own child has chosen (God knows why) to hang out.

Waiting for trolleys, I guess.

 

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SERIOUSLY, WHY IS THAT KID EVEN ON THE TRACKS?????

 
The situation forces us to make the choice between quantity (saving five people) and quality (valuing the life of our child over the lives of others). Is our child worth more than five lives?

Yes, you say?

What if our child is Hitler?

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No matter the situational variation, there is one question at the heart of the trolley problem’s moral dilemma: given two shitty choices, which one would you choose?

The trolley problem requires us to decide who lives and who dies (that’s the ethics part).

AAANNNDD since the trolley problem is a test of utilitarian ethics, our decision to pull the lever (or to not pull the lever) usually has something to do with the principle of utility – that is to say, who is the most valuable?

Or rather, who is the most expendable?

Wait – do I gotta write something about utility, now?

The principle of Utility is…well, the “founder” of utilitarianism (technically hedonism), the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), says:

“By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves if every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of a party whose interest is in question…”

In short, according to the Principle of Utility, an action is right if the action produces happiness (for the greatest number of people) and an action is wrong if it causes people pain or unhappiness.

 

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I WONDER IF BENTHAM WOULD SAY IF THE CONSEQUENCE OF HAVING HIS CORPSE ON DISPLAY BRINGS  HAPPINESS… OR UNHAPPINES?

 

Ok… so you might be saying at this point that the trolley problem seems a little bit boring and dumb. How could this “problem” be THE philosophical problem. How is it that philosophers have devote so much time (decades, man. DECADES) to coming up with variations on such an uninteresting and easily answerable supposed moral dilemma.
And honestly, if you said that you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

But there’s a reason why the trolley problem is so popular. There’s a reason, even if you’ve never set foot in a philosophy class, why the trolley problem has invaded internet memes and our favorite TV shows.

It’s because the trolley problem, at its heart, is pretty f’ed up.
Contemplating the various scenarios, deciding who and how many people we place on the tracks, drowning in the lake, or in the lifeboat, allows even the meekest moral philosopher to go full-on Jigsaw, placing (hypothetical) people in increasingly elaborate and horrific ethical games where most of them will end up dead.

 

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OBVIOUSLY A UTILITARIAN

 

The trolley problem allows us to evaluate the way we make decisions that will affect other people. By deciding who lives and who dies in a thought experiment, we can speculate on the long-range consequences of our actions. We must weigh the consequences of ho we choose to save very carefully. Making the same choice of who to save under different circumstances may yield different consequences. Choosing to save the child might save the child who eventually grows up to cure cancer.

…or we might have saved the child who invented World War II.

In the real world, our choices may not be so extreme, but we do make choices that may bring happiness to many and unhappiness to one, or may save one at the expense of many others.
Whether it’s Congress deciding which social program to fund or Shane deciding to shoot Otis in the knee to save Carl

You didn’t think I wouldn’t sneak a The Walking Dead reference in here, did you?

 

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SERIOUSLY, DID OTIS THINK IT WASN’T GOING TO END UP LIKE THIS?

 

 

 

We all, in some way, at some time, decide to pull the lever.

Or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SOURCES:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thought-experiment
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

 

THE WORLD’S WORST UTILITARIAN FOOD FOR THOUGHT

HANG AROUND WITH philosophers long enough and you’ll realize that philosophers think about some strange things.

I was going to say strange shit but I’m not sure about the parental settings on my blog.

Now, you can drop acid and open the doors of perception but as much as I enjoy “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, I ain’t ever seen anyone tripping on LSD think up something as far out as transcendental idealism or logical positivism.

Philosophers think up this kind of stuff sober.

There’s a little thing that some philosophers do called ethics.

These ethics-practicing philosophers (or ethicists, if you prefer) sometimes engage in a game of “what if?”

An ethical “what if?” is pretty much about thinking up the most f’ed up situation one can think of (with moral implications, of course) and then asking, now, what would you do?

Folks on the outside call those kind of what ifs hypothetical situations.

If you’re a philosopher, you call those f’ed up situations a thought experiment.

If you don’t know already, thought experiments, as defined philosophically:

Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things…
The primary philosophical challenge of thought experiments is simple: How can we learn about reality (if we can at all), just by thinking?

In ethics, thought experiments allow us to test ethical theories and by examining the principles or consequences of an act, we can determine whether an act is morally right or wrong.

Hypothetical situations like thought experiments allow us to be prepared for when a similar situation (or moral dilemma) confronts us in the real world.

There are many famous thought experiments:

The Trolley Problem

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Brain in Vat

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The Chinese Room

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The Ticking Time Bomb

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The Experience Machine

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Schrodinger’s Cat

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The Drowning Man

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Funny thing about that drowning man thought experiment…

For those who are unfamiliar with the scenario, The Drowning Man goes as follows:

You’re walking along (alone) by a lake when you see a man in the lake flailing his arms and yelling for help. It is clear that the man is drowning. Do you jump in the lake to save the man?

At first glance the answer is obvious: jump in the lake and save the man.

Most of us would jump into the lake to save the drowning man without hesitation.

But because this is a question cooked up by philosophers, it ain’t that easy.

A philosopher might throw in another “what if” like, what if getting to the lake requires you to cross a patch of grass and there’s a sign that says “Stay Off The Grass” or what if you can’t swim?

or, what if you’re in Germany in 1920 and the drowning man is ADOLF HITLER????

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UNFORTUNATELY HITLER APPEARS IN TOO MANY THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS

The goal of the “what ifs” in The Drowning Man thought experiment (and any variable in any thought experiment) is to put a moral obstacle in front of you.

Most people would step on the grass to save a drowning man. But what if the sign read TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT? What if the sign read DO NOT STEP ON GRASS BY ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT?

Would you risk your own life to do save a drowning man?

Would you violate a rule or a law (and what kind of rule or law would you violate?) to save a drowning man?

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THINK BEFORE YOU STEP. WHAT ARE THE MORAL RAMIFICATIONS OF TREADING ON THE LAWN?

For a deontologist, this question is more complicated than you think.

Thinking about The Drowning Man Scenario also kinda makes us ask another, less pleasant question of ethics: Are there some people not worth saving?

Is a drowning Adolf Hitler worth saving?

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FOR MANY PEOPLE THIS IS A PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE ANSWER TO THE DROWNING HITLER SCENARIO

If you’re a deontologist, this question is more complicated than you think.

Asking if there are some people not worth saving can get us to asking and even more unpleasant question, are there some people not worth allowing to live?

“Allowing to live” as in letting someone live in the first place.

For instance, would you kill baby Hitler?

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JUST A REMINDER, THIS IS WHO YOU WOULD KILL

Before we all answer a resounding “yes”, let’s figure out why the question is more complicated than we think.

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APPARENTLY THE READERS OF THE NEW YORK TIMES DON’T THINK THE QUESTION IS COMPLICATED AT ALL

Most of us would agree that Adolf Hitler was one of the worst, if not THE worst human being that ever lived. Its arguable that the world would be a better place if he hadn’t been born.

… Or at least the world would be a better place if Hitler was prevented from joining the National Socialist Party and becoming chancellor of Germany.

Although we aren’t capable of actual time travel, a thought experiment allows us to imagine what if we could? If we could travel back in time to April 20, 1889, what would we do?

More importantly, what would be the morally right thing to do?**

Let’s look at the question of killing baby Hitler from the perspective of the two leading ethical schools of thought: Deontological ethics and the consequentialist ethical theory, utilitarianism.

Deontological ethics is defined as:

…the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on rules. (Wikipedia)

Deontologists act from Duty.

It is our duty to respect the (moral) law.

Immanuel Kant writes

…to have genuine moral worth, an action must be done from duty… An action done from duty does not have as its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim where by it is determined.
Duty is the necessity to do an action from respect of law.

That means, damn the consequences, obey the law.

Let’s say a deontologist has a (moral) law, THOU SHALL NOT KILL.

*Maybe we should refine the rule: Thou Shall Not Murder (as defined as “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another”).

The law is to be obeyed – no exceptions.

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If the deontologist believes that a rule is a rule and we must follow the rules, regardless of its consequences, even if his future self deserves it, we can’t exempt baby Hitler.

Because murder is always wrong.

The deontologist is bound by duty to let baby Hitler live.

Since we can’t obtain moral justification for killing the infant Hitler (presuming that is what we are trying to justify), we’ll look to consequentialist ethics (specifically utilitarianism) to tell us what is the morally right thing to do.

Enjoying this thought experiment yet?

For the utilitarian, it’s the consequences that matter.

In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill writes

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.

If utilitarian ethics is based on the increase of pleasure and the decrease of pain, and we know that an individual is or going to be responsible for the destruction of over sixty million lives, we may be morally obligated not just to let an adult Hitler drown but also to kill baby Hitler.

However, there’s a hitch…

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Utilitarianism (and other consequentialist ethical theories) judge and action right or wrong based on its consequences.

At the time that we perform an act, we don’t know the consequences. We only know what we think might happen or what we want or expect to happen.

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REMEMBER, IF YOU DO UTILITARIAN ETHICS YOU CAN END UP SPENDING THE REST OF YOUR LIFE LIKE THIS

Right now, we have the benefit of hindsight; we know what Hitler and the Nazis did. But in 1889, when Hitler was an infant, no one could have foreseen what the newborn infant would do as an adult.

If we traveled back in time we would have to weigh the act of (preemptively) killing a child for something that the child hasn’t yet done against the death and destruction we know adult Hitler did.

It might be easy to walk away from a drowning man, especially if that man is responsible for the attempted genocide of the Jewish people, but even those who could walk away from a drowning Hitler in the lake may find it hard, if not impossible to purposefully kill a child, no matter how evil that child may become.

Another hitch with utilitarianism is that we have to consider possible consequences – multiple consequences. If we had some way to travel back in time or to see the possible futures of baby Adolf Hitler, we may also see future where he could be prevented from becoming the most evil man in history.

We discourage killing children, even children who have engaged in “evil” acts, because we believe those children can be rehabilitated.

If it’s possible to rehabilitate an potentially evil child, is this then, another option that we have for baby Hitler?

And if that’s a viable option (i.e., one that will produce good consequences), we can’t justify killing baby Hitler.

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YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY ONE, HANK

So… what would we do with baby Hitler?

What should we do?

A thought experiment can only ask…

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** Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way defending Hitler or suggesting that we should minimize Hitler’s and the Nazi’s atrocities for the sake of a thought experiment, nor am I suggesting that Hitler’s one life is worth more than sixty million lives world wide, including the nine million lives lost (including six million Jews) in Nazi concentration camps.

SOURCES:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thought-experiment/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deontological_ethics

Immanuel Kant. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. 2nd Edition. Trans. Lewis White Beck. 1997 [1785]. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 15-16.

John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. 2005 [1861]. NY: Barnes & Noble Books. 8.

DARYL KILLED GLENN, I THINK… MAYBE.

WELL FOLKS. IT’S OCTOBER and for those of us at The Mindless Philosopher being October means only one thing: the return of The Walking Dead.

In case it’s not (painfully) obvious from our previous posts, The Walking Dead is our favorite TV show.

Yep. TMP are philosophers. And our favorite television show isn’t Seinfeld.

Although you can argue that The Walking Dead isn’t really about anything, either.

Any fan of AMC’s highly-rated zombie somewhat soap opera knows that being a fan of The Walking Dead means that one’s favorite character can die at any moment. Season six saw the show kill off a few red shirts (Carter, David, Sturgess), say sayonara to a handful of characters we cared about (Denise, Deanna, Jessie, and Nicholas?), and pulled the fake-out with at least two characters. The season six finale “cliffhangered” the audience, teasing the death (via a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat named Lucille) of a major character.

The season six finale pleased some and angered many.

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And for the last six months, The Walking Dead fans, angry or otherwise, have been concerned with just one thing: WHO DID NEGAN KILL?

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And at THIS point I guess I should say SPOILER ALERT.

AND SO, last Sunday, The Walking Dead aired its season seven premiere episode.

After six months of waiting, we finally got to see who Negan killed.

True to form, the season seven premier pleased some. Angered many.

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I think from now on, I’m going to tell anyone who pisses me off to suck my nuts.

Hopefully not after I’ve been stuck on the noggin by a barbed wire-covered bat.

Now, being a fan of both The Walking Dead and philosophy, I got feels, not only because of the brutality of the act, but also because I was watching the episode through philosophy-tinted glasses.

If I wasn’t in the habit of underestimating the philosophical acumen of the writers of the show, I would have guessed that I was watching a thought experiment being played out on my TV screen.
To wit: an ethical thought experiment.

Seriously, if you haven’t watched the episode yet, there are SPOILERS AHEAD.

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So… as we end season six, we see Rick Grimes and ten members of his group (whaddya know, almost all major characters!) on their knees and at the mercy of the new bad guy – the barbed wire-infused bat-wielding, leather jacket-wearing, an F-bomb every-other-word saying (but not on basic cable), Negan.

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OF COURSE IT HAD TO BE A GOOD-LOOKING PSYCHOPATH.

 

Rick and his crew have, to quote Rick from an alternate take from the season five finale, “fucked with the wrong people”, and Negan is aiming to exact some payback on the people responsible for the deaths of a number of his men.

Negan says he’s going to beat to death one of Rick’s crew with his bat, Lucille.

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NEGAN TELLS RICK, “YOU KILLED MY PEOPLE, A WHOLE DAMN LOT OF THEM. MORE THAN I’M COMFORTABLE WITH. AND FOR THAT, FOR THAT YOU’RE GONNA PAY. SO NOW… I’M GONNA BEAT THE HOLY HELL OUTTA ONE OF YOU.”

Any interference, Negan tells the group, will not be tolerated (he does, however allow them to breathe, blink, and cry). Negan tells Rick and his group, “I will shut that shit down, no exceptions.”

Long story short, Negan plays a game of “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe”, eventually landing on Abraham as “it” and proceeds to bludgeon Abe with Lucille, exclaiming how the ginger-haired former military man took the first blow “like a champ”.

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Reminder: tell anyone who pisses me off the suck my nuts.

Now, it’s right around this time when a simple cudgeling becomes an even more complicated moral dilemma.

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Fan favorite (and possibly un-killable) Daryl Dixon decides to ignore Negan’s non-interference admonition and attacks Negan.

Negan, having already been previously interrupted by Glenn (he allowed Glenn’s interference due to the emotional weight of the situation), makes good on his warning and shuts that shit down, killing another member of Rick’s group with the barbed wired-sleeved Lucille: Glenn.

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Ok, we all know Negan carried out the physical deed. And in any court of law Negan would undoubtedly be sent to prison for double murder.

But any philosopher would tell you that legal guilt and moral culpability aren’t always the same thing.

You see, there may be more than one person to blame in all of this.

I think we can agree that Abraham’s death is 100% morally on Negan.

Negan announced his intention to kill someone and he did it.

Well, unless you reason that it was done as some kind of an eye for an eye, retributive justice thing, which opens up a whole other can of what is justice worms.

But there was more than one person killed AFTER Negan had exacted his revenge.

So who is morally responsible for Glenn’s death?

It was Negan’s initial intention to do one and done. Getting even with Rick and his group required the death of just one person – after all, the point of killing one person (in a particularly gruesome manner) is meant to break the group, not necessarily to commit mass murder. Rick and his group had been previously informed about Negan’s one-kill tactic: introduce himself to a new group, kill one person in the group, and demand half of what the group produces. Assuming there’s no problem of induction, Rick and his group had no reason to assume that Negan would deviate from his established method of operation.

Negan killed Abraham and was done, but Daryl, driven by anger and stuff that only Daryl fully understands (probably something that also has to do with Daryl not bathing), sucker punches Negan and THAT act is in direct violation of Negan‘s rules of conduct for Rick and his group. As Negan specifically states that shit will be shut down, no exceptions.

And that is precisely what Daryl does. Shit.

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If you link the chain of events, it’s not so implausible to assume that Glenn’s death is a direct result of Daryl’s actions. Negan kills Glenn because Daryl violates the rules.

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TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, GLENN IS THE ONE GUY WHO, UNTIL A HANDFUL OF EPISODES AGO, HADN’T KILLED ANY LIVING PERSON. DARYL IS POSSIBLY PARTIALLY OR FULLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DEATH OF THE LEAST MORALLY GUILTY CHARACTER IN THE SERIES… UNLESS YOU BELIEVE IN GUILT BY ASSOCIATION.

 

Negan’s moral culpability is undeniable. But can we say that Daryl bears some or all moral blame for Glenn‘s death?

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Well, it depends on who you ask.

If we assume that Daryl is motivated by a moral principle that says that one’s greatest moral obligation is to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, then we might say that Daryl is, at least in part, morally blameworthy for Glenn’s death.

How does that happen, you say?
Why , it’s just a matter of calculating the numbers.

Negan initially kills Abraham. It is obvious that Rick’s group (not to mention Abraham himself) is negatively affected by the brutal death. The group is collectively traumatized, in particular, Abraham’s ex-girlfriend Rosita and his almost-but-not-quite new girlfriend Sasha.

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Can we take a moment to talk about Sasha? This woman has nothing but bad luck in relationships on this show. First, Sasha begins a romantic relationship with Bob, but Bob is bitten by a zombie, kidnapped and has his leg eaten by a group of cannibals, and eventually dies from his wound (wounds?). Just when Sasha has recovered enough from PTSD to function somewhat normally in a romantic relationship, her blossoming relationship with Abraham is cut short by Negan and Lucille.

 

If killing one person inflicts a great amount of pain, then we can assume that killing two people inflicts more pain than killing just one. In this situation, we aren’t just calculating the pain felt by the group immediately following Glenn’s death, but also calculating the negative long-term consequences of Glenn’s death. Glenn’s wife, Maggie, is pregnant. We have to consider the fact that Glenn and Maggie’s child will be raised without a father.

That’s bad.

We should not forget that utilitarian-based ethics requites that Daryl also figure into our calculation.

We can assume the Daryl feels (at least somewhat) responsible for Glenn’s death. After all, Negan killed Glenn in response to Daryl’s actions.

And really, what was Daryl’s intended outcome, anyway? What did he hope to accomplish by attacking Negan? Negan had already killed Abraham. There was nothing Daryl could do to stop that. As Negan warned beforehand, the only outcome from a disruption would be the infliction of more pain on Rick’s group, which did, in fact, happen.

And if we’re assigning moral culpability based on consequences, according to this ethical position, Daryl Dixon is morally responsible for Glenn’s death.

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KIND OF MAKES YOU WISH DWIGHT KILLED DARYL, DOESN’T IT?

You see, when we assign moral blame according to consequences, it doesn’t matter what our intentions are. We can mean well, just like Daryl did when he lunged after Negan. But if our actions result in people getting hurt or killed, we’re morally culpable for what happens.

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We might consider the possibility that Daryl may have been motivated by the prisoner’s dilemma. Not knowing exactly Negan what intended to do, he has no reason to assume that Negan won’t kill others and therefore is motivated to attack Negan before Negan kills any more people.

Ok. Maybe Daryl isn’t thinking about consequences at all. Maybe he’s operating from a sense of duty to his group.

We know that Rick and his group think of each other as family. Families often have binding moral obligations to each other. Daryl sees that his the lives of his family have been threatened and he feels that it is his duty to protect them – as Negan says, no exceptions.

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We can assume that Daryl’s duty-bound obligation isn’t merely a suggestion or rule of thumb, but is a maxim that must be obeyed at all times by all members of the family. We can even put Daryl’s obligation in maxim form: In any situation wherein one’s family is in danger, one must act to protect them- no exceptions.

It is clear that Negan is a threat to the lives of Daryl’s family. Negan has already ruthlessly murdered one member of Rock’s group is still threatening to inflict harm on the remaining members. When one is morally obligated to protect others, one must fulfill one’s duty – even if others are hurt.

When one is bound by duty to others, consequences (even if someone is murdered by an axe-wielding maniac) do not matter.

If Daryl was motivated by a morally binding maxim, he was following a moral principle that he could not refuse to follow based on what might happen. In the end, Glenn’s death is an unfortunate consequence of Daryl’s actions.

So then, morally speaking, Daryl is in the moral clear.

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IT’S OK, FOLKS. WE DON’T HAVE TO HATE DARYL. WE CAN GO BACK TO OUR IRRATIONAL DARYL DIXON FANDOM.

So… to answer the question, who is morally responsible for Glenn’s death, the answer… well… we can clearly point to Negan. It is Negan who beats two men to death with Lucille. And it is Negan who decides to kill Glenn as a punishment for Daryl’s actions. However, we can’t neglect the role Daryl’s outburst plays in Glenn’s death. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Glenn may have lived if Daryl had just stayed on his ass like Negan has told him to.

Ultimately, the moral blame lies with someone I haven’t mentioned until now:

RICK GRIMES.

Dig this: Rick not only accepts the task of ridding the world of Negan and his men, he does so without any real reason for doing so.

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DON’T FEEL SORRY FOR THIS GUY. THIS IS ALL HIS FAULT.

Rick volunteers his people to fight someone else’s fight (Negan is initially the Hilltop’s problem) and arrogantly assumes that he and his group can quickly dispatch Negan and his crew without consequence.

Because they’ve done it before, Rick says.

Rick should have read up on Hume.

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Rick’s fatal flaw is that he is too arrogant to realize that his actions are not only morally suspect, but are bound to reap a bunch of bad consequences.

Rick, based on what he hears of Negan from the people at the Hilltop,  immediately concludes that violence is the only feasible solution to the (someone else’s) Negan problem and refuses to consider other alternatives including negotiation or less violent means of dealing with Negan.

… and not for lack of Morgan trying to persuade Rick over to his “all life is precious” philosophy.

 

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REMEMBER WHEN MORGAN WAS ALL ABOUT THIS STUFF?

Rick’s group, as Negan observes, killed more of Negan’s people than Negan’s people had killed Rick’s group (Carol and Maggie were taken hostage but not killed). Rick directs his group to commit mass murder on Negan’s group (while many of them were asleep).Negan’s people are shot, incinerated, and stabbed in the head by Rick’s group (ok, Carol setting those dudes on fire may have been justified). It wouldn’t be irrational to assume that Negan was protecting his people from Rick’s group.

As the primary authority figure in his group, Rick knew that his people would follow his lead – unfortunately without question.
Rick may believe his actions are correct. They’re not.

Rick Grimes is the embodiment of bad motivations with bad consequences.

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WHY BOTHER WITH THE EENY MEENY MINY MOE STUFF? JUST LUCILLE ALL OF ‘EM.

 

When you really get down to it, Rick killed Glenn and Abraham.

 

And I have one thing to say to Rick Grimes about this:
SUCK MY NUTS.

 

STRANDED

IT’S BEEN SOME time since the first half season of season two of Fear the Walking Dead ended.

I’ve had some time to sit back and think about what I saw.

For starters, I think the show is getting better.

It’s not great, but it’s better.

And secondly, I’ve noticed that some of the characters on the show are like walking philosophy.

The show should be called Fear the Philosophical Dead.

No. not really. It shouldn’t.

Although some characters are philosophically interesting,

Some, mind you, not all.

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NOPE. NOT INTERESTING ON ANY LEVEL

After watching Fear the Walking Dead for a season and a half, I think the most philosophically intriguing character on the show is the wealthy, debonair, and most importantly, mysterious captain of the Abigail, Victor Strand.

I gotta admit, when Strand was introduced, I was prepared to see the character die after a few episodes. You know, because, well, people like Strand have a habit of not fairing too well in the world of The Walking Dead.

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It seemed that Victor Strand was destined to become another victim of the being-a-black-guy-in-The-Walking-Dead thing, but he was an interesting character – by far more interesting than the characters we were supposed to be most concerned about.

The reason why I think Victor Strand is so interesting is because so many of the show’s philosophical dilemmas have to do with what Strand either does or says. Victor Strand is a one man philosophical conundrum generator.

I’ve spent a season and a half of Fear the Walking Dead trying to figure out exactly where Victor Strand stands philosophically. Is Strand a Randian ethical egoist? Is he a moral nihilist? An incredibly consistent utilitarian? An all of the above?

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More than a dozen episodes into the series and I still can’t figure it out.

When we’re introduced to Victor Strand in the season one episode “Cobalt”, we see Strand is one of many detainees imprisoned by the government.

We’re never told exactly why.

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We witness Strand goading a mentally fragile man to the point of a mental breakdown. And we learn that Strand is a man who is willing to exchange goods for favors from the National Guardsmen who are guarding the detainee camp.

Strand is introduced as a man who is cool, calculating, and not encumbered by empathy for others. Strand initially displays all the traits of a classic Ayn Rand protagonist. Strand is concerned with one thing: his own interests. Rand writes:

… he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.

We can imagine a dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged next to Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tsu’s Art of War on Strand’s bookshelf.

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MY BOOKSHELF, AS SEEN ON BUZZFEED

However, Strand quickly realizes that fellow detainee (and main character) Nick Clark is useful -insofar as Nick can serve as a means to Strand’s ends -namely, escaping from the detainment camp.

Using others to further your ends is not a very Randian thing to do.

Ayn Rand also writes:

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…

Although Victor Strand isn’t a very good Randian, he still abides by Rand’s principle of pursuing one’s happiness as one’s supreme moral principle. Strand does not allow the misfortunes of others interfere with his main task: surviving.

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Here are a few things that Strand says concerning his interests versus the needs of others:

 

[To Madison after she informs Strand that she sees some people at sea who need to be rescued]: I filled my mercy quota. Seven people saved to date.

Rules for Strand’s yacht, the Abigail: Please, let me explain the rules of the boat. Rule number one, it’s my boat. Rule number two, it’s my boat. And if there remains any confusion about rules one and two, I offer rule number three, it’s my goddamn boat. If I weren’t for me, you’d all be burned. You’re welcome.

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THE RULES FOR THE ABIGAIL ARE LIKE THE RULES OF FIGHT CLUB. IN THE END NO ONE PAID ATTENTION TO THEM

[Strand’s response after fellow survivors insist that the Abigail take on more passengers]: If I stop the boat, it’ll be to drop folks off, not take them on.

 

[Strand’s response when Madison insists that the Abigail take on an orphaned child]:
Children are the definition of dead weight.

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PICTURED: DEAD WEIGHT

Strand on the real danger in an undead apocalypse: You know what the real danger is on the ocean? People.

When other survivors hitch a lifeboat containing a young woman and her mortally wounded companion to the Abigail, Strand cuts them loose, reasoning that the survivors can’t risk their lives to save people who may be dangerous -especially a dying boy (who will become a zombie when he dies).

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SERIOUSLY, I WOULD HAVE CUT THEM LOOSE, TOO

Everything Strand says strikes of Ayn Rand’s clearly  (at least Any Rand influenced) ethics. Strand clearly puts no man ahead of himself.

This is why Victor Strand is a fan favorite.

And yet, Strand has considered the interests of others, and even put his life on the line to save the lives of people in his group.

Strand not only helps Nick to escape the detainee camp, he also agrees to house Nick’s family and another family (the Salazar family) in his home and on the Abigail.

Although Strand lays down the rules for admission on the Abigail, we know he isn’t just looking after himself. Strand could easily pull up anchor and abandon the group when they leave the Abigail to explore dry land.

Yet he does not.

Strand risks his life to help Nick escape from the detainee camp and in the season two midseason finale, Strand, after he’s expelled from a temporary sanctuary, risks his life to save Nick’s mother Madison.

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ONE OF THOSE GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS, WHICH ONE DO YOU WANT FIRST KIND OF CONVERSATIONS

Wait a minute. Does this mean that Strand is a secret utilitarian? Is he masquerading as a Randian while clandestinely pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number?

Perhaps.

But could is it possible that Strand has given up on all ethics? Is it possible that Strand believes that in a world without civilization all things are permitted? Strand tells Nick that the only way to survive in a mad world is to embrace the madness. Is Strand preaching moral nihilism?

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche writes:

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

Is Strand telling Nick not just to stare into the abyss but to leap headlong into it? Is Strand telling Nick to become a monster? Is Stand saying that all of the characters should become monsters?

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NICK, STARING INTO THE ABYSS

 

It’s worth noting that the first episode of season two is titled “Monster”. In the season two midseason finale, Nick Clark covers himself in zombie guts (a means of camouflage) and refuses to join his mother and Strand to safety. Nick chooses to join the horde of zombies that has overrun their sanctuary. Nick is last seen walking among the dead, one of the monsters.

Fear the Walking Dead is not a great show. Sometimes it’s not even a good TV show. But what the show lacks in quality it more than makes up for in philosophical interestingness. Victor Strand is just one of the philosophically compelling characters on the series. In a TV world dominated by reality TV it’s refreshing to find a TV show with characters that have us thinking about them and discussing a series days (sometimes months) after an episode has aired.

One can only hope that Fear the Walking Dead continues to be one of the most philosophical TV shows on television.

I’ve got my fingers crossed.

That years from now, when we talk about Fear the Walking Dead, we think of the show as more like Better Call Saul than like Joanie Loves Chachi.

joanieloveschachi_complete_e

I’VE GOT MY FINGERS SO CROSSED

WHERE’S CARL? (On The Walking Dead and moral culpability)

THERE ARE ONLY A FEW things that really get me excited these days.

One thing that gets me going is a good deal on outdoor summer plants at Home Depot.

Another thing is watching The Walking Dead.
I’m not going to say it’s the best TV show ever (Lord knows that’s Firefly), but I will say that, as a philosopher, The Walking Dead is chock-full of philosophical whatnot!

Whatnot is a legitimate philosophical term, by the way.

One philosophical topic that is particularly whatnotty on The Walking Dead is ethics.

The show is a never-ending bounty of moral dilemmas.

Philosophers love moral dilemmas.

moral dilemmas

 

After six seasons and approximately one and a half years of TV show time,

 

Seriously, how does Carl Grimes do five years worth of aging in eight months?

carl

THIS KID IS GOING TO HAVE A FULL BEARD BY SEASON 7

After six seasons and approximately one and a half years of TV show time, the primary goal of former sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes and his bad of fellow survivors is to survive. Morally speaking, the fight for survival would make the show much like Hobbes’ Leviathan – a world where life is nasty, brutish and short. A war of all against all.

 

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But there’s something else going on in The Walking Dead besides mere survival. The characters don’t just want to survive, they want to live. They want to make a better world. To bring about a greater good.

Unfortunately for Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors, morally speaking, The Walking Dead plays out more like a series of unfortunate events.

How the best of intentions sometimes paves the road to hell.

 

mg7ts

 

The idea of pursuing the greater good is the focus of the ethical theory of Utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism, most associated with the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), is based on the Greatest Happiness Principle, which is, according to Mill in Utilitarianism (1861):

 

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.

 

That is to say, utilitarianism dictates that an act is morally permissible if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number (of people).

However, unlike Kant’s deontological ethics, which emphasizes the intrinsic goodness of an act, utilitarianism is teleological, that is, the ultimate rightness of an act depends on an act’s consequences.

This only highlights the main problem with utilitarianism.

The focus is on expected consequences.

 

consequences

IT’S ALL YOU, CONSEQUENCES

You see, when we use utilitarian ethics, we notice something almost immediately. Utilitarian ethics seems very easy to do. We simply do what we think will make the most people happy. Unfortunately, the seemingly ease of utilitarian ethics is often deceptive.

Figuring out what “happiness” is, is often more difficult than it appears to be.

 

mad-men-don-happiness

 

There’s one, BIG problem with evaluating moral goodness on consequences.

 

the big problem

 

As the saying goes, even your best laid plans don’t always get you laid like you planned. Shit happens, and sometimes things don’t turn out quite the way that we wanted it.

 

meat

 

The Walking Dead seems to be plagued by a nasty, little cause and effect scenario: Some character’s (often well-meaning) direct action constantly leads to something worse happening.

And when something worse happens; when outcomes don’t turn out as planned, we’re in a position to assign moral culpability.

 

blame it on

 

Ok, utilitarianism requires us to make decisions based on expected consequences (what we think will bring the greatest good for the greatest number), but we often lack full knowledge of a given situation.

 

god

UNLESS YOU’RE GOD. AND IF SO, YOU PROBABLY ALREADY KNOW HOW THINGS ARE GOING TO TURN OUT

Because we do not possess full knowledge of a situation, our utilitarian moral judgments are always going to be based on our best estimates. There is always a chance that even our best estimates of what actions will bring about the greatest happiness will not result in the greatest good.

Even with the best of intentions bad things happen.

Remember: Mill tells us that 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.

 

  • So, when Carol tells Sam a story about zombies eating him so he won’t snitch about seeing Carol in Alexandria‘s food pantry/armory, Carol’s terrifying story eventually results in the deaths of Sam, his mother, Jessie, and his brother, Ron. Carol tells Sam the story with the intention of keeping Rick’s group’s plans to take over Alexandria (a move that Rick’s group thought would be for the greater good) secret. However, when Sam and his family are surrounded by a herd of the undead, Carol’s story repeats in his head, causing Sam to panic and draw attention to Sam and his family.

 

The show had already established that Sam was s bit unhinged and suggests that what Carol tells him is what sends poor Sam over the edge.

Because Carol failed to calculate the ultimate consequence of what she said, we feel that Carol bears (at least some of) the blame for Sam’s death.

  • Also in that scene, Michonne fatally stabs Ron with her Katana when Ron points his gun at Rick after Ron’s mother and brother are devoured by walkers. We (and Michonne, we assume) know that if Rick dies, the group will be leaderless.

 

And that would be bad.

Michonne, we presume, stabs Ron because keeping Rick alive would be good for the group (i.e. the greater good).

 

richonne

THIS MIGHT HAVE ALSO HAD SOMETHING TO SO WITH IT

 

However, what happens is Ron shoots Carl in the eye.

An unforeseen consequence.

Because Michonne didn’t calculate the possibility that Ron would flinch while being stabbed through the back with a katana, Carl lost an eye, it wouldn’t be too far fetched if we ascribed a little bit of moral blame to Michonne for what happened to Carl.

 

  • Then there’s Morgan, who lets a group of attackers (The Wolves) escape after they’ve viciously attacked and slaughtered people in Alexandria. Morgan allows The Wolves to escape because he believes that all life is precious and that not killing is the greater good. The bad guys, in turn, attempt to kill Rick. And – a lone Wolf that Morgan captures takes a hostage and nearly gets the woman killed while attempting to leave Alexandria. Morgan’s goal was to rehabilitate the Wolf – something he thought would be good for everyone.

 

It makes sense that people are pissed off at Morgan for thinking that “all life is precious”.

 

morgan jones

ALL LIFE IS PRECIOUS. EXCEPT FOR THIS GUY. F@#K THIS GUY

 

That’s because Morgan is morally culpable for The Wolves nearly killing Rick and the hostage.

 

  • Earlier in the series, Carl Grimes taunts a walker stuck in the mud and runs away when the re-animated corpse breaks free from the mud and grabs hold of Carl’s pants. The walker eventually makes its way to Hershel’s farm where it attacks Dale, who has to be put down. Carl wanted to prove that he was capable of handling himself and could contribute to the group and not just be a helpless kid, something that would benefit the group as a whole. However, Carl didn’t calculate that the walker he taunted would follow him to the Greene farm and kill Dale.

And viewers were right to be pissed at Carl for “killing” Dale.

 

Throws-rocks-at-zombie-stuck-in-the-ground-gets-Dale-killed-by-t-a77a78

 

We’re angry with Carl because Carl is (partly) morally responsible for Dale’s death.

 

  • In the series’ third episode, “Tell It to the Frogs”, Rick leads a small group back to zombie-infested Atlanta to rescue Merle who (whom?) Rick has left handcuffed to a pipe on a roof. Rick argues that rescuing Merle is the morally right thing to do. Despite the warning that the camp needs as many available men as possible to protect the camp from the undead, Rick insists that retrieving Merle and Rick’s dropped bag of guns will serve the greater good.

 

While Rick and the small group are away, the camp is attacked by a herd of walkers, resulting in the deaths of several no-named red shirts and a couple of relatively minor characters.

Rick failed to calculate the possibility that the camp would be attacked in his absence.

 

victim the-walking-dead-amy

SERIOUSLY, DOES ANYBODY REALLY MISS AMY?

 

Therefore, Shane isn’t all wrong when he says that by leaving the camp Rick bears some culpability for deaths in the group.

 

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BEING THE BAD GUY DOESN’T HELP EITHER, SHANE

 

That’s just a few examples of moral culpability in The Walking Dead.

You can write an entire book about philosophy and this show.

 

the walking dead and philosophy

WELL, WHADDYA KNOW?!?

 

Well – as season six of The Walking Dead draws to a close, there are sure to be more utilitarian miscalculations – as well as many other examples of philosophy gone wrong. And I’m sure I will be watching seasons to come, watching my weekly dose of philosophical whatnot.
That is, unless Daryl Dixon dies.

I’ll be too busy rioting.

 

 

 

if daryl dies we riot

 

 
SOURCES:
John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. 2005 [1861]. NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc.. p.8.

All About That Shane

WELL, ZOMBIE FANS it looks like another season of The Walking Dead is drawing to a close. It’ll be a whole half year until the adventures of former sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes, and his fellow survivors will return like a walker to entertain us with more, gruesome zombie killings and plot holed plotlines that will make a sane man scream like a madman at his TV.

PICTURED: A COUPLE WATCHING THE EPISODE WHERE OFFICER DAWN KILLS BETH. THE MAN IS UPSET THAT DAWN ATTEMPTED TO DOUBLE-CROSS RICK’S GROUP. HIS GIRLFRIEND IS PLEASED THAT THE CHANCE OF BETH HOOKING UP WITH DARYL DIXON HAS JUST DROPPED TO NIL

PICTURED: A COUPLE WATCHING THE EPISODE WHERE OFFICER DAWN KILLS BETH. THE MAN IS UPSET THAT DAWN ATTEMPTED TO DOUBLE-CROSS RICK’S GROUP. HIS GIRLFRIEND IS PLEASED THAT THE CHANCE OF BETH HOOKING UP WITH DARYL DIXON HAS JUST DROPPED TO NIL

Like many popular television shows, fans of The Walking Dead have created their own fan theories and in-jokes about the show: The Black Highlander Theory*, the mind-numbing stupidity of the show’s female characters… and the one sign that a character is certainly going to die – the moral compass.

don't be black

There’s been a number of characters on The Walking Dead who have occupied the position of the moral center of the group: Dale, Hershel, T-Dog, Bob, Tyreese, Glenn…

THE MORAL COMPASS’ LOOK OF MORAL OUTRAGE (AKA: DALE FACE). IT IS ALSO AN EXPRESSION THAT GUARANTEES A CHARACTER IS DOOMED TO DIE

THE MORAL COMPASS’ LOOK OF MORAL OUTRAGE (AKA: DALE FACE). IT IS ALSO AN EXPRESSION THAT GUARANTEES A CHARACTER IS DOOMED TO DIE

It’s worth noting that all of these characters are dead.

Oh wait,

Except Glenn.

Oh no….

Glenn

Although it’s a bit of an in-joke among fans of the show, the inevitable death of the moral center does present a bit of an ethical problem in the world of The Walking Dead. If the group’s moral center has a habit of dying, then we can assume that those who remain are the not-so-good people. In the Season 3 episode “Clear”, Rick Grimes’ long-lost friend, Morgan Jones, tells Rick that the good people die first.

morgan GIF

In a zombie-infested world where people must fight to survive and those who are prone to performing acts of goodness will be the first to go, we know that bad people population will explode at an exponential rate. But think about it, in a world where the only occupation you have is surviving to see the next day, how not so good is a person, really?

We can re-evaluate anyone’s seeming bad acts as good acts if, as Obi-Wan Kenobi tells us, we see truths from a certain point of view.

A certain relative point of view.

kenobi

The Walking Dead has had its share of bad guys (Dr. Jenner, The Governor, Claimer Joe, Gareth, Officer Dawn Lerner…) But there’s one bad guy that though he’s been called evil, if we re-evaluate him from “a certain point of view” may be the most moral character in the show’s five seasons: Shane Walsh.

SHANE WALSH: THE SEXIEST WIFE-STEALING, BEST FRIEND ATTEMPTED MURDERING PSYCHOPATH ON TELEVISION

SHANE WALSH: THE SEXIEST WIFE-STEALING, BEST FRIEND ATTEMPTED MURDERING PSYCHOPATH ON TELEVISION

He’s not going to win Miss Congeniality, but what Shane lacks in social graces he makes up for in his single-minded moral consistency. And that’s what’s important when discussing morality, isn’t it?

SHANE IS INITIALLY INTRODUCED AS RICK GRIMES’ SIDEKICK. HE IS A HAN SOLO TO RICK’S LUKE SKYWALKER - THE SCOUNDREL TO RICK’S HERO. AN EDGIER STEVE MC QUEEN TYPE TO RICK’S WHITE HAT GARY COOPER

SHANE IS INITIALLY INTRODUCED AS RICK GRIMES’ SIDEKICK. HE IS A HAN SOLO TO RICK’S LUKE SKYWALKER – THE SCOUNDREL TO RICK’S HERO. AN EDGIER STEVE MC QUEEN TYPE TO RICK’S WHITE HAT GARY COOPER

Unlike Rick, who is often criticized for his inconsistency** Shane is suffers from no moral ambiguity. He is totally morally consistent. Although his actions appear contradictory, Shane has a singular goal: to save Lori and Carl Grimes.

….and to eventually steal them both away from Rick.

shane friendzoned

The reason why Shane is actually a morally good person is because his motives are actually not all that bad.

Ok. I know. Shane wanted to steal Rick’s wife from him but think about it this way: Shane’s desire to keep Lori Grimes for himself actually saved the group.

We know that Shane is willing to violate moral rules, however, Shane is also willing to do whatever it takes to survive – which makes him, in a way, a very moral person.

Although it seems like the morally incorrect thing to do:

  • Shane defends a battered woman when her husband smacks her by beating the tarnation out of the guy.
  • Shane makes the right call when he leads the group to kill the walkers in Hershel’s barn.
  • He’s ultimately right in his decision to “cut loses” and discontinue the search for Sophia. Shane says that the group is needlessly risking their lives to search for Sophia who is more than likely dead (Shane is right about Sophia and Daryl is nearly mortally injured when he is thrown from a horse and impaled on an arrow).
  • Shane makes the right call in shooting Otis to save the life of Carl. He reasons that Otis did not belong in the world of the dead (He‘s right).
  • Shane even makes the right decision when he informs Lori that her husband is dead. Shane knew the Lori would not have left her husband behind if she suspected that there was a chance that he was alive. If Lori had stayed she and Carl would have likely died (In a flashback scene we see Shane attempt to save Rick while Rick is in a coma in the hospital when the facility is overrun by the undead. So contrary to what Lori thought, Shane didn’t abandon Rick. ).
  • Even Andrea observes that Shane has done more to protect the group than Rick. Andrea says Shane is willing to make the tough (moral) choices that others can’t (or won’t).
 SHANE’S SINGLE ACT OF PURE EVIL WAS THE MURDER OF THE PRISONER RANDALL. SHANE TAKES RANDALL INTO THE WOODS AND KILLS HIM AND THEN FAKES RANDALL’S ESCAPE TO LURE RICK INTO THE WOODS TO KILL HIM. SHANE USES RANDALL WTHOUT REGARD FOR THE PRISONER’S LIFE. THAT WAS DEFINITELY NO BUENO

SHANE’S SINGLE ACT OF PURE EVIL WAS THE MURDER OF THE PRISONER RANDALL. SHANE TAKES RANDALL INTO THE WOODS AND KILLS HIM AND THEN FAKES RANDALL’S ESCAPE TO LURE RICK INTO THE WOODS TO KILL HIM. SHANE USES RANDALL WTHOUT REGARD FOR THE PRISONER’S LIFE. THAT WAS DEFINITELY NO BUENO

Ultimately, even Shane’s bad intentions or “evil” (or self-interest if you think about it) sometimes has good outcomes. Although he’s selfishly focused on his own interests (Lori and Carl), by extension Shane’s selfish acts saves the lies of the group. Optimally, we want people to act on good intentions, but do intentions truly matter when the outcome is good?

John Stuart Mill writes:

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.

So if you think about it Shane is kind of a utilitarian.

Shane’s only rule is protect Lori and Carl at all costs.

… so maybe Shane’s a rule utilitarian.

Rule utilitarianism, as defined by Wikipedia is:

Rule utilitarianism is a form of utilitarianism that says an action is right as it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good, or that “the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance”

THIS CHART SHOWS SHANE’S ACTIONS ARE PERFECTLY OK

THIS CHART SHOWS SHANE’S ACTIONS ARE PERFECTLY OK

Ok, I know what you’re saying. Shane is a bad guy. He did bad things. He didn’t have to kill Otis or the walkers in Hershel’s barn. And Shane definitely played his bad guy card when he attempted to kill Rick. I admit it. It’s difficult to successfully argue that Shane Walsh is not just a good guy, but a guy whose moral aptitude is worth praising.

someone forgot to pack shane's morality

Rick Grimes may be the focus of the show, but Shane by far is the more morally interesting character. Shane leaves the viewer asking “would I do that?”. We get angry at Shane because we know that we’re also capable of going to extremes to protect the ones we love.

Sure, Shane does a lot of bad things: he sleeps with his best friend’s wife, points his gun at anyone who disagrees with him, attempts to rape his best friend’s wife after she refuses his advances… but we’re all putting Shane Walsh on our fantasy zombie hunting team because we know Shane is willing to do anything, ANYTHING to protect the people that he loves.

And that seems like a pretty good thing to do.
* If you’re curious about The Walking Dead and the Black Highlander Theory check out:

http://www.walkingdeadforums.com/tv-series/walking-dead-producer-dismisses-black-highlander-theory-spoilers/

** For a list of Rick Grimes’ inconsistencies: http://www.wired.com/2013/11/walking-dead-recap-indifference/

SOURCES:
John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_utilitarianism