As "Breaking Bad" enters its final season, philosophers write about its moral universe. Scott McLemee samples what they've cooked.
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.
Breaking Bad and Philosophy, edited by David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp, is much like any other collection of essays in the Open Court series Popular Culture and Philosophy, of which it is volume 67. By the way, the publisher has registered “Popular Culture and Philosophy” as a trademark. Don't confuse it with The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series (37 volumes at last report) or the University of Kentucky’s line called The Philosophy of Popular Culture (23 titles, not counting updated editions).
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.
- Academic Minute: Dissolving Acids
- Academic Minute: Instant Poison Gas
- Academic Minute: Walter White’s Meth
- Essay on Supreme Court decision on affirmative action
- The t-shirt many professors would enjoy wearing
- Conference Time
- Gender Gap in Publishing
- Bergen Community College faculty and president in conflict over many issues
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