We’re big into moral choices these days. Ever wonder why? I cannot mind read so I can only guess the reasons. But it has been a recent recurrent theme been in video games, movies, and most recently TV. Gotham is all about it as Mad Hatter (annoyingly) becomes more and more of the run time, and The Walking Dead decided to go gruesome and make an Abraham & Isaac parallel between Rick & Carl.
Since at least 2004, this has been a consistent phenomena. I can’t be alone in noticing the high number of narratives, in voluntarily chosen “entertainment”, where we are faced to deal with ethical dilemmas with gruesome consequences. From the most superficial interpretation, freely choosing this “entertainment” is prima facie apparent: we want to see destruction in a ruthless pursuit of power and material goods. Guts just serves as a proxy for that. Could that be as deep as it goes? Total superficiality, full stop?
Could be. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But what if it’s not?
Sorry to disappoint all the Hobbesians, but I don’t see the feasibility of us all being fanboys that want blood and violence and people getting hit in the gonads. Last time I checked, the majority of us (53%) had gotten to either Conventional or Post-Conventional morality. So maybe the appeal of such scenarios is slightly deeper than seeing blood and guts.
Maybe this type of entertainment is a form of comfort, if only obliquely provided. Maybe the scenario of choice is a way of providing constant ethical validation of making the “right” choice when there is no “good” choice. This may provide some consolation if you subscribe to a non-Just World. Fritz Perls and the Stoics would be happy, er, I mean “content,” I guess.
Given the ideology of stoicism, there is no way for this to make anyone “happy” without being a performative contradiction, so lets move on.
Maybe, on an interpretation that is deeper still, the choice scenario provides a violent fantasy fulfillment. Maybe its BDSM on the big screen. This would provide an uncanny bridge between having ultimate decision-making power and yet also being able to blame the Other. This would mean the appeal is more than seeing blood and guts per se, it would be about being a violent agent who determines the victims and the nature of their punishment.
For masochists, this is appealing because the problem of choice is removed. Their passivity from following demands becomes slaked. There is a combination of surrendering choice to others, but only after gaining trust that the director/writer/actor will make the right choice, i.e. craft a good movie or show that is worthy of our loyalty and the time invested by the audience.
For sadists, the appeal is in a vicarious exertion of dominance as a reprieve from societal roles where politeness tames impulses. With the restraints of manners removed, an obedience can be imposed from those that lack such authority in the 9 to 5 world of the office. The audience is elevated into the role that proxies the power of decision. And by putting the audience there, the medium has signaled a tacit acceptance of the role, meaning there is a mutual acceptance of the other’s hidden desires.
Do not misinterpret this. Those not interested in BDSM, those who refuse the scenario when presented, are still being violent. They are violent in their inaction. Violence is inextricably linked to choice because violence is manifested by removing options. By choosing and acting out one thing, you annihilate an infinity of possibilities. “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” You’ve merely replaced the subjective violence that is done by a person with objective violence that is carried out indirectly by institutional or societal actions where a sole perpetrator is hard to locate. This sustains the status quo and all the actions therein. This means the person never rises above playing the game. And so the inability to choose enables the worst choices by perpetuating the status quo.
“The Tolstoyan’s will is frozen by a Buddhist instinct that all special actions are evil. The Nietzscheite’s will is quite equally frozen by his view that all special actions are good; for if all special actions are good, none of them are special. They stand at the crossroads, and one hates all the roads and the other likes all the roads. The result is…they stand at the cross-roads.” – GK Chesterton
There are those who protest being given a binary choice when reality reflects a multitude of options. When the choice is between pepsi and coke, opting-out may seem justifiable. If there is No Exit, the choice may be in making one. For instance, if Katniss committed suicide in The Hunger Games, that action would have been a strong protest against the games, as opposed to her general passivity. The chosen action need not be so severe. In the face of Sisyphean tasks, one could maintain a goal of being happy in repetition because even in repetition there are choices, eg. to be happy or not. Absurdists like Camus eschew suicide but also want you to avoid happiness and meaning, and instead embrace a mentality of “lucid indifference.” They consider this a form of rebellion, but really it is not. Telling yourself to not kill yourself while also wandering aimlessly without a sense of meaning is not a huge advance for humankind; it’s the strongest thing upholding the status quo.
This type of ethical choice is not restricted to movie theaters and Netflix. This conundrum of how to act or whether to act permeates most of life. We have intuition and previous experience, but they’re both fallible. Everything beyond that is speculation and abstraction, which require advancing fallible layers to justify. But we must proceed, or we stagnate as a culture:
“In the face of uncertainty, one has to choose a course of action…It is of critical importance that know what impossible goals we are trying to achieve if we hope to achieve some of the possible goals. That means we have to be bold enough to speculate and create social theories on the basis of partial knowledge while remaining very open to the strong possibility and overwhelming probability that in some respects we are very off the mark.” – Noam Chomsky
Living with uncertainty is part of what we need to tolerate. We will never have ultimate certainty because we will never have all the facts.
“A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong.” – Francis Crick
Living with uncertainty is a luxury. One does not always start ab initio liking a luxury good, sometimes a taste must be acquired:
“Some humans lead certain, predictable lives. Miserable conditions lead to little uncertainty. Uncertainty is a luxury of dramatization. It can be deliberately induced for the sheer thrill of it. The less certainty we have the better. It would be best if all the general principles we use to guide our actions were left open for discussion. Certainty should not be the goal of intellectual life. You need the courage to act without certainty as we typically don’t have certainty. We make our practical decisions on the basis of experience. We don’t typically make our decisions on the basis of principle, nor should we.” – Richard Rorty
We all wish for a life of luxury. Be careful what you wish for.