In a memorable scene from the first season of "Breaking Bad" (AMC), the protagonist sits down to do some moral bookkeeping of a fairly literal variety. He is a 50-year-old high-school chemistry teacher named Walter White. A recent trip to the doctor to check on a nagging cough has left with a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer, giving him, at most, a couple of years to live. If you’ve seen the show (and maybe even if you haven’t, since it has received extremely good press and won more awards than I feel like counting) you know that Walter has decided on a hazardous way to provide for his family after his death. He applies his lab skills to the production of crystal methamphetamine.
The stuff he “cooks” (as the term of art goes) is exceptionally pure and powerful. The connoisseurs love it. If he can turn a profit of $737,000 in the time he has left, Walt will leave a nest egg for his wife and children and die in peace. As a middle-class family man, Walt lacks any direct knowledge of the marketing side of the meth business, and would prefer to keep it that way. His connection to the underworld is a former student named Jesse Pinkman, memorable chiefly for his bad grades. But Jesse is a gangsta wannabe, as well as a meth head, and nowhere near as street-savvy as he thinks or the job requires.
And so it comes to pass that Walter find himself facing an unforeseen problem involving a well-connected figure from the meth supply chain – a fellow who goes by the street name of Krazy-8. It's a long story how he got there, but Krazy-8 ends up shackled by the neck to a pole in Jesse’s basement, and he is understandably, even homicidally, unhappy. Walt must now decide between two options: let Krazy-8 live or kill him.
Being the rational sort, Walt tabulates the arguments on each side.The column headed “Let him live” fills up quickly, if redundantly: “It’s the moral thing to do. Judeo-Christian principles. You are not a murderer. He may listen to reason. Post-traumatic stress. Won’t be able to live with yourself. Murder is wrong!”
Under “Kill him,” the camera reveals just one entry: “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.” So much for weighing the alternatives.
In his method -- and ultimately in his actions -- Walt proves to be a consequentialist, as J.C. Donhauser points out in “If Walt’s Breaking Bad, Maybe We Are Too,” one of the essays in Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry (Open Court). Most viewers will have surmised as much, even if they don’t have a name for it. But there is more than one metric for judging costs and benefits, and so more than one species of consequentialist. Donhauser -- an assistant instructor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a lecturer at Buffalo State University – uses examples from other episodes to consider the options. There’s act consequentialism, for one (the realized effect of an act determine whether it is good or bad, even if the consequences are unintended or unforeseeable), which is distinct from rule consequentialism (“actions are better or worse, not in relation to their actual consequences, but in proportion to how far afield they fall from a rule that would be best for most people if everyone followed it”).
As for Walt, he belongs in the ranks of the agent-centered consequentialists, who “judge actions based on their consequences” but “also argue that the most important consequences are for the person carrying out the actions that produce those consequences.”
Each stance has its limitation – quite as much as deontology does. Deontology insists that consequences are irrelevant, since an act can be judged moral if and only if it could be universalized. Murder is immoral, then, because “if everyone did it, there’d be no one around for you to murder then! The same goes for stealing, as there’d be nothing left to steal.” So Jeffrey E. Stephenson put it, with tongue in cheek, in “Walter White’s American Vice.” Ditto for lying, since a society in which everyone lied constantly would be even more irrational than the one we live in.
Walt's list of argument for letting Krazy-8 live is not deontological by any means -- although “He may listen to reason” rests on a similar conviction that clarity and rationality are not just worthy aspirations but realizable possibilities as well. Despite his nickname and his criminal vocation, Krazy-8 is a well-spoken and seemingly pragmatic individual, with strong family ties of a sort that Walt can respect. And Walt very nearly reaches a decision on that basis.
On the other hand, not every consequence can be put in brackets while you seek the universally right thing to do. And “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go” is a pretty good example of that. Under the circumstances, even a deontologist would probably find a way to think of murder as obligatory.
By now, it seems as if every genre, blockbuster, videogame, superhero, hit program, or teen trend has been covered by at least one book in this niche, or will be in the foreseeable future. I picture them being produced in something akin to Walt’s methamphetamine superlab – with the important exception that Walt’s product is of famously consistent in quality. The popcult philosophy collections that I’ve sampled over the years tend to be pretty uneven, even within the same volume. The one constant is that most of the essays are clearly didactic. The implied reader for these books almost always seems to be an undergraduate, with popular culture as the candy coating on the philosophical vitamins otherwise missing from the educational diet. There is jocularity aplenty. In this volume, for example, a comparison of Breaking Bad and Augustine’s Confessions includes the information that the saint-to-be “had a rep for hooking up with the MILFs of Carthage” -- not unlike Peter Abelard, “a famous playa before his lover’s father and brother… cut off his junk and sent him packin.’”
Well, you do what you must to keep the students' attention. With any luck, these books will be the philosophical equivalent of a gateway drug, leading some readers to try the harder stuff.
But there must be more ways to go about it than by reducing every pop-culture phenomenon to a pretext for introducing well-established topics and thinkers. Another constituency for these books is the fan base for whatever cultural commodity gets yoked to philosophy in their titles. It was as a devotee of the show (one who has seen every episode of the first four seasons at least twice) that I bought Breaking Bad and Philosophy in the first place. And the striking thing about the program is that it's all about how decisions, consequences, and responsibility (or the lack of it) get mixed up in ways that no schema can account for very well. That is undoubtedly part of its appeal.
I’ll end by recommending one essay from the book that will reward the attention of anyone who follows the show closely. Titled “Macbeth on Ice,” it is by Ray Bossert, a visiting assistant professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He compares "Breaking Bad" and the Scottish play by reference to Aristotle's Poetics, to surprisingly appropriate effect.
In Aristotle’s analysis, the hero in classical tragedy is responsible for his actions and ultimately their victim. His character is admirable and doomed because of some flaw -- excessive pride, for example. That's the one Macbeth and Walter White share. The hero's motives and decisions are transformed as this flaw grows more prominent. It leads him to "incidents arousing pity and fear" in the audience, says Aristotle. Such incidents have the very greatest effect on the mind when they occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another; they arouse more awe than if they happened accidentally and by chance."
In Walt’s case, as his involvement in the meth business deepens, we see that his insistence that everything he does is out of love for his family is a kind of self-deception. More and more evidence of his rage and resentment accumulates. He feels trapped by his family, and his pride has been wounded too many times in his 50 years. As events unfold, Walt feels increasingly confident and powerful, and his running cost-benefit analysis leaves ever more collateral damage.
We believe in the character, writes Bossert, “because, in our own thoughts, we, too, resent being limited to a single role on life’s stage. We pity Walter White, and fear that we might make similar mistakes because we’re like him.” This seems exactly right. Bossert makes no predictions about how Breaking Bad will end (it is now counting down its last 16 episodes, 8 this summer and 8 in 2013) nor will I. But Walt has enormous potential in the pity and fear department, and the stage is sure to be covered with bodies before the curtain falls – even more than it already is.
Call it philosophical synesthesia: the work of certain thinkers comes with a soundtrack. With Leibniz, it’s something baroque played on a harpsichord -- the monads somehow both crisply distinct and perfectly harmonizing. Despite Nietzsche’s tortured personal relationship with Wagner, the mood music for his work is actually by Richard Strauss. In the case of Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings, or at least some of them, it’s jazz: bebop in particular, and usually Charlie Parker, although it was Dizzie Gillespie who wore what became known as “existentialist” eyeglasses. And medieval scholastic philosophy resonates with Gregorian chant. Having never managed to read Thomas Aquinas without getting a headache, I find that it’s the Monty Python version:
Such linkages are, of course, all in my head -- the product of historical context and chains of association, to say nothing of personal eccentricity. But sometimes the connection between philosophy and music is much closer than that. It exists not just in the mind’s ear but in the thinker’s fingers as well, in ways that François Noudelmann explores with great finesse in The Philosopher’s Touch: Sartre, Nietzsche, and Barthes at the Piano (Columbia University Press).
The disciplinary guard dogs may snarl at Noudelmann for listing Barthes, a literary critic and semiologist, as a philosopher. The Philosopher’s Touch also ignores the principle best summed up by Martin Heidegger (“Horst Vessel Lied”): “Regarding the personality of a philosopher, our only interest is that he was born at a certain time, that he worked, and that he died." Biography, by this reasoning, is a distraction from serious thought, or, worse, a contaminant.
But then Noudelmann (a professor of philosophy at l’Université Paris VIII who has also taught at Johns Hopkins and New York Universities) has published a number of studies of Sartre, who violated the distinction between philosophy and biography constantly. Following Sartre’s example on that score is a dicey enterprise -- always in danger of reducing ideas to historical circumstances, or of overinterpreting personal trivia.
The Philosopher’s Touch runs that risk three times, taking as its starting point the one habit its protagonists had in common: Each played the piano almost every day of his adult life. Sartre gave it up only as a septuagenarian, when his health and eyesight failed. But even Nietzsche’s descent into madness couldn’t stop him from playing (and, it seems, playing well).
All of them wrote about music, and each published at least one book that was explicitly autobiographical. But they seldom mentioned their own musicianship in public and never made it the focus of a book or an essay. Barthes happily accepted the offer to appear on a radio program where the guest host got to spin his favorite recordings. But the tapes he made at home of his own performances were never for public consumption. He was an unabashed amateur, and recording himself was just a way to get better.
Early on, a conductor rejected one of Nietzsche’s compositions in brutally humiliating terms, asking if he meant it as a joke. But he went on playing and composing anyway, leaving behind about 70 works, including, strange to say, a mass.
As for Sartre, he admitted to daydreams of becoming a jazz pianist. “We might be even more surprised by this secret ambition,” Noudelmann says, “when we realize that Sartre did not play jazz! Perhaps this was due to a certain difficulty of rhythm encountered in jazz, which is so difficult for classical players to grasp. Sight-reading a score does not suffice.” It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
These seemingly minor or incidental details about the thinkers’ private devotion to the keyboard give Noudelmann an entrée to a set of otherwise readily overlooked set of problems concerning both art -- particularly the high-modernist sort -- and time.
In their critical writings, Sartre and Barthes always seemed especially interested in the more challenging sorts of experimentation (Beckett, serialism, Calder, the nouveau roman, etc.) while Nietzsche was, at first anyway, the philosophical herald of Wagner’s genius as the future of art. But seated at their own keyboards, they made choices seemingly at odds with the sensibility to be found in their published work. Sartre played Chopin. A lot. So did Nietzsche. (Surprising, because Chopin puts into sound what unrequited love feels like, while it seems like Nietzsche and Sartre are made of sterner stuff. Nietzsche also loved Bizet’s Carmen. His copy of the score “is covered with annotations, testifying to his intense appropriation of the opera to the piano.” Barthes liked Chopin but found him too hard to play, and shifted his loyalties to Schumann – becoming the sort of devotee who feels he has a uniquely intense connection with an artist. “Although he claims that Schumann’s music is, through some intrinsic quality, made for being played rather than listened to,” writes Noudelmann, “his arguments can be reduced to saying that this music involves the body that plays it.”
Such ardor is at the other extreme from the modernist perspective for which music is the ideal model of “pure art, removed from meaning and feeling,” creating, Noudelmann writes, “a perfect form and a perfect time, which follow only their own laws.... Such supposed purity requires an exclusive relation between the music and a listener who is removed from the conditions of the music’s performance.”
But Barthes’s passion for Schumann (or Sartre’s for Chopin, or Nietzsche’s for Bizet) involves more than relief at escaping severe music for something more Romantic and melodious. The familiarity of certain compositions; the fact that they fall within the limits of the player’s ability, or give it enough of a challenge to be stimulating; the way a passage inspires particular moods or echoes them -- all of this is part of the reality that playing music “is entirely different from listening to it or commenting on it.” That sounds obvious but it is something even a bad performer sometimes understands better than a good critic.
“Leaving behind the discourse of knowledge and mastery,” Noudelmann writes, “they maintained, without relent and throughout the whole of their existence, a tacit relation to music. Their playing was full of habits they had cultivated since childhood and discoveries they had made in the evolution of their tastes and passions.” More is involved than sound.
The skills required to play music are stored, quite literally, in the body. It’s appropriate that Nietzsche, Sartre, and Barthes all wrote, at some length, about both the body and memory. Noudelmann could have belabored that point at terrific length and high volume, like a LaMonte Young performance in which musicians play two or three notes continuously for several days. Instead, he improvises with skill in essays that pique the reader's interest, rather than bludgeoning it. And on that note, I must now go do terrible things to a Gibson electric guitar.
At U of All People, as one of our sociologists, Professor Q. A. Wagstaff, once put it, “Faculty and staff eventually leave either vertically or horizontally.” As it happens, Wagstaff left with his own faculties intact, though the same cannot be said for the sociology faculty, which spent the next five years trying to regain the hiring slot. In any event, since many of our professors got their jobs in the late '60s, when all you had to do for a tenure-track position was cough in the right direction, more than a few are beginning to feel that it’s time to move on.
Sometimes poor health or a desire to travel motivates the decision. More commonly, as Professor Kahn Federitz in the history department noted, “The thought of facing one more set of student essays on the Civil War makes me want to puke.” For whatever reason, in the last few months, not a week has gone by without a retirement party. Professor Wagstaff, operating from a think tank of his own devising in his basement, has even drawn up a formula for these events, soon to be published in American Sociological Review of American Sociology. Below are the necessary steps, only slightly embroidered.
1. Settle on a time inconvenient for everyone, including the retiree. 1:30 on a Wednesday, when everyone’s either teaching or at a meeting, is a popular slot. Procure a room, though the Men’s Studies Caucus has taken over the function area in the Frump Humanities Building, and Students for Nondemocratic Change are occupying the cafeteria again. End up in the faculty lounge, with its shaky sconces and once-wine-dark carpeting, where the lumpy beige couch could also use a retirement party.
2. Shake down the department for a gift, the gold watch of yore having long ago given way to an online gift certificate that expires within a year. Choose the most untrustworthy faculty member to make the collection, the professor who misses his office hours with no note on the door — but who perhaps was hired by the retiree and now, two decades later, wants to return the favor. Add some scuffle about who’s kicked in and how much. At the last minute, if worried that the gift is insignificant, add a small Lucite plaque.
3. Plan a reception by working with Scrump-Chess, the campus food service that both overcharges and underserves, yet, miraculous in these hard economic times, remains the university’s caterer. Plan several menus but end up with the same cookies and weak iced tea that have been served since 1980. Possibly provide a punch bowl with a ladle that slowly submerges in the sticky, over-sweet brew.
4. Tap a few aged colleagues to make speeches, usually ancient anecdotes that have lost all relevance to everyone but the few principals involved, one of whom is dead. “I remember when the department needed some extra students for Soc. 120, and the only way Tom and I could get some was by going to the dormitories at six a.m. and beating a gong we stole from the music department.” Such stories are more poignant than funny: they conjure up an era when people in academia seem to have enjoyed more freedom and had more fun than is possible nowadays.
5. Discuss what the retiree plans on doing after leaving the institution. In the old days, a standard response was, “Finish my book.” The unspoken but heartfelt response is “Not grade any more papers.” Usually included in the plans is a lengthy vacation -- Morocco? Kenya? -- at an unseasonable time of year -- “Max and I are packing in October.” The return home occasions a period of boredom and casting about, followed by a request to teach an occasional class at adjunct rates. After all, where else can the retiree find a captive audience for recycled anecdotes about sociology?
But meanwhile, a polite round of applause, please. And then, the rest of you, get back to whatever it is you still do.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best,” chants the chorus in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, “but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came.” They make a quick inventory of life’s miseries, including pain, envy, war, and old age. Which seems like rubbing it in, considering Oedipus is an ex-king who, in the trilogy’s earlier play, tore his own eyeballs out of their sockets.
In any case, the sentiment is hardly original. Consider another king, Midas, of golden-touch fame. He kidnaps Silenus, teacher and drinking companion of the god Dionysus, and demands that he reveal the most desirable thing in the world. Silenus resists answering for a while but finally blurts it out: "Never to have been born." It's not the voice of clinical depression speaking but a nugget of grim wisdom from antiquity. It's Western civilization's way of saying that your parents did you no great favor.
I don’t see much good in arguing the point, one way or the other. Cosmic pessimism is a sensibility, not a proposition. It's not even that dour, necessarily. Silenus doesn't kill himself; in the myths, he seems to be having a pretty good time. If anything, pessimists might find life easier to bear. They’re less likely to be disappointed.
In her new bookWhy Have Children? The Ethical Debate (MIT Press), Christine Overall, a professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Ontario, assesses the usual grounds for having kids or deciding against it. She scrutinizes them like an IRS accountant in the middle of a ruthless audit. Few claims survive her red pen. To summarize her findings with somewhat reckless brevity, Overall maintains that many of the motivations for having children are, for the most part, at least somewhat ethically dubious -- while the decision not to have them tends to be less problematic.
“Deciding whether to procreate is a moral decision,” she writes, “…because it affects so many people -- not only the prospective parent(s), but also the prospective child, other family members, and other members of the community. Although one is certainly entitled to take into account the effects of having a child on oneself, if one decides only on the basis of a gamble about one’s future well-being, then one is refusing to treat procreation as a fully moral matter.” Having a baby to boost self-esteem, or save a marriage (does that ever work?), or simply because it's expected of you, grossly underestimates the seriousness of becoming responsible for someone's existence.
Conversely, even if a person's reasons for opting out of reproduction are specious or self-interested, that doesn’t make the decision itself bad. It has little impact on anybody besides the decision-maker, apart from the occasional unhappy would-be grandparent, perhaps.
She is particularly critical of arguments that there is some obligation to have children -- duty to nation or community, for instance, or obedience to a divine command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Her guiding concern is the moral right to autonomous decision-making about whether or not to reproduce. Otherwise, we have “the compulsory and unwilled use of people’s bodies for procreative purposes, whether they are other individuals’ or the state’s purposes.”
Here the phrase “people’s bodies” is a little more gender-neutral than strictly necessary. If presidential candidates or members of Congress tried to outlaw vasectomies, or made sperm-bank donations obligatory -- well, that would be bad, but it’s not something men tend to worry over. Given the extremely asymmetrical distribution of the burdens involved in procreation, the real issue is whether women can decide not to have children. The precondition for making an ethical decision about having children is that it actually be a choice.
Perhaps I’ve made the author sound like an echo of the chorus in Sophocles. She isn’t -- very much the contrary. Overall has two children, and the final pages of her book are a testament to the distinct satisfactions of raising them and seeing them grow into adults. She recognizes that antinatalism (the philosophical brand-name for arguments that coming into the world is a horrid misfortune) tends to be explicitly misogynistic. “The idea that it is better in every case never to have been [born],” she writes, “implies that women’s reproductive labor in pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and even rearing children contributes to the accumulation of net harm on this planet.”
For that matter, “the theory can be interpreted to mean that both contraception and abortion should be mandatory” -- hardly an attitude consistent with autonomous decision-making.
But antinatalism isn’t a real force in the world -- while the expectation that if you can have kids, you should, remains fairly strong. Overall’s book is a welcome antidote.
“Children are not essential to all good lives,” she writes, “nor are having and rearing children prerequisites to becoming a good person. Moreover, there are many childless persons who support, love, care for, and teach other people’s children. Chosen childlessness has as much potential for the good life as chosen parenthood has.”
There is more to this passage in a similar vein. It appears on page 219. I mention it because some readers might want to photocopy it to post on the refrigerator door, when the family comes around.