Morality in America: Spike & Dexter

This post is actually related to the post below about religion--however the relationship is tangential rather than direct, so I decided to post separately rather than in the comments.

I am rereading P.J. O'Rourke's commentary on Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. O'Rourke refers to a prior work by Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where Smith expounds on morality: what it is, how it works. O'Rourke argues it is difficult to understand The Wealth of Nations without understanding The Theory of Moral Sentiments; Smith's arguments in Wealth largely rest on accepting the truth that human beings are ultimately self-interested, even if they shouldn't be. Socialism doesn't fail (massively) because it is inherently evil; it fails because it doesn't take human nature into consideration (but, rather, wishes it away).

Rereading O'Rourke reading Wealth led me to musing on the nature of morality. Morality, to an extent, is something we can't see or label. It is either a mass of action (that is, it is quantifiable only over time) or a state of mind (there is a third option, which I will get to later). In other words, although morality results in observable behaviors, it is rooted in something that is beyond observation--Smith, for example, believed it is rooted in imagination, the ability of humans (unlike animals) to empathize, to imagine another state of being from their own.

To be extremely general, morality in our culture is rooted in law or in thought. In Dexter (specifically, the first season), morality is imposed on Dexter externally: the law of Harry (his foster father). Dexter does not feel, or claims not to feel, a sense of right and wrong (the character is complex enough to make this issue somewhat debatable), but he has enough self-preservation and respect to follow his foster father's external law. The accumulation of Dexter's actions make him a moral person (i.e., it is not the randomness of his actions but the totality of his actions that matter: observable behaviors over time form the abstract claim, This man is moral).

Spike, from Buffy Seasons 4-6 (that is, Spike post-chip/pre-soul), also has an external law that prevents him from killing humans (Spike is a vampire). I personally think more could have been done with this issue. However, Whedon and the Buffy writers chose instead to argue the second root of morality: no matter how good Spike behaves, he is never moral because he never feels moral. He is displaying positive moral behavior against his will.

This perception of morality has its roots, I think, in religious discourse, but it has spread through our culture to become a kind of emotional absolute. The religious claim states that a person who accepts certain laws or ethical obligations will be motivated to make moral choices. After all, external forces only work so far. A society where people did not feel any desire to do good would destroy itself fairly rapidly.

Unfortunately, that claim has morphed to mean, If I feel good, I must BE good, which, as Adam Smith could have pointed out, doesn't really work. After all, I could persuade myself to feel good about, oh, anything from smoking to socialism. For this reason, although I agree that God is Love, I also agree that God, as C.S. Lewis would say, isn't a tamed god. He doesn't exist simply to provide justification for any given emotional upheaval of the moment--hence the need to be grounded in a supernal but ultimately real and structured moral code.

Still, this concept of morality (morality as an internal process of thought), like the earlier concept (morality as an imposed, external law), is abstract--hence the tendency of law and college instructors to ask for evidence and essays, not just confessions. Which doesn't negate the need for, say, students to feel personally motivated to do well. Spike & Dexter can't be separated since both concepts of morality are necessary, and used, in our society. But since both cannot be applied in all contexts, knowing how they work could help us, socially speaking, determine how they should be applied.

This brings us to a third concept of morality, which, oddly enough, is more abstract and yet more grounded--morality is choice. A choice can sometimes occur over several days, weeks, or months. On the other hand, it can also be made in an instant. In both cases, it happens in time and is purely mental. We can't see it; we only know what results from it. Those results can be tracked, but they depend on internal, invisible decisions; the way is left open for both objectively realized evidence and unseen free will.

Morality as choice brings the two other concepts into harmony. It allows us to distinguish between unintended morality (which is still beneficial to society) and intended morality (which is necessary for our own moral growth). For instance, I would argue that post-chip/pre-soul Spike exhibits intended morality when he refuses to help Gloria and give up Dawn. He is motivated by his love for Buffy rather than by an internal code of ethics, but he makes a choice--he uses imagination or empathy to place himself in Buffy's shoes.

In the first season of Dexter, I would argue that Dexter's morality is proved at the very end of the first season, when he chooses his sister over his brother--he chooses to obey the law of Harry rather than thwart it.

But of course, that immediately begs the question, Was Dexter NOT behaving morally before when he kept the law of Harry? Well, yes, he was, so . . .

This is why I'm not a philosopher. I'll let O'Rourke, paraphrasing Smith, have the last word:
Adam Smith did not think we are innately good any more than he thought we are innately rich. But he thought we are endowed with the imaginative capacity to be both, if we're free to make the necessary efforts.


a calvinist preacher said...

The formulation of morality as external law (imposed), internal law, or mere choice doesn't quite get at it.

To be sure, morality necessarily entails choice. We only hold individuals accountable to the extent that they are able to choose, and both the internal and external law(s) are intended to influence that choice. This does not, however, elucidate the question of what they ought choose. It is, for instance, relatively easy to find instances when law - of either variety - encouraged what is immoral, i.e., not good.

Morality, therefore, also must entail a definition of what is good. Even more difficult, the question of morality entails a hierarchy of goods (and, by extension, evils), since sometimes we find ourselves in situations where choosing one good precludes another good or where all options are not good.

The objective nature of "good" is difficult to discern, though, since our means of discerning it are subjective. This has led some to declare that good (morality) is itself subjective and relative. Yet it cannot be so or there would be no moral basis for opposing even the worst of tyrants. Indeed, if good is subjective and relative, the very notion "worst of tyrants" comes to mean merely "leader I dislike intensely".

One must also distinguish between the QUALITY of being moral and the CHARACTERISTIC of behaving morally. I think this is what you're getting at with the external/internal law distinction. Even those who do not accept the constraints of law, or what the law affirms as good, may behave morally, not so much because the fear the law but because they have chosen to defer to another's judgment.

Conversely, even those who seem disobedient or immoral may have the quality of being moral if they discern correctly what is good and affirm it. Of course, the hope is that the quality and characteristic of morality will unite in a given individual.

Where religion comes into this is in the aid it provides us as we seek to know subjectively that which is objectively good and in fostering the union of quality and characteristic in believers.

Kate Woodbury said...

I think you are correct. I am thinking more about application than "first cause."

"First cause" comes down to the Law of Human Nature--most of which I understand from C.S. Lewis' writings. The Law of Human Nature always sounds to me like a law dealing with anthropology but, in fact, it posits that there is a fundamental understanding of what is good and right underlying, even superceding, our human experience, and it is only that understanding that makes it possible for us to criticize behavior as unfair, detrimental, or wrong.

The relevant passage from Mere Christianity can be linked to here:

The Law of Human Nature

On a tangent, this is one reason I consider the ideology of environmentalism for its own sake so silly. As Goldblum's character points out in Jurassic Park, nature doesn't care whether it is composed of people, dinosaurs, trees, dust, mud, or volcanos. Nature isn't good or bad, just indifferent. Only humans decide that one state of affairs is better than another.