Elysium: Everybody Loves a Good Death

Don’t worry. I won’t spoil it (all), although you already know the story. I actually enjoyed the movie, even if the preview made the plot look more nuanced than it actually was. You could make a number of criticisms that are not unique to Elysium. They are the hallmark of any action movie. Any action movie that takes on something larger than mano-a-mano combat still has to has that combat to bring about the ultimate resolution. Zizek said as much of The Fugitive years ago, the same was true of The InternationalElysium_Poster (which I watched mostly because of the Istanbul shots over the grand bazaar, but now everyone does that), and it is true of Elysium. Apparently, structural and societal changes are made when people get together and punch each other in the face.

Hey, I watch them frequently, so there’s obviously something appealing to me—and many others—about these scenarios, but I’m probably fooling myself if I think the movie is a deft critique of the growing discrepancy between rich and poor. Certainly it aims to be, but the scenario in which the critique is portrayed allows us to think that social and economic polarization is only due to a handful of clearly insane power-hungry monsters rather than embedded in the Joe Shmoes of society like you and I.

Okay, so this part is a bit of a spoiler. The president of Elysium represents the kind of “let die” response to those living on Earth. We won’t do anything to help them, but we won’t do anything to harm them either, and then we don’t have to feel bad about others’ lack in the midst of our safety and security. That would be a realistic—and certainly more common—representation of how most of us deal with the world. But then comes along the Defense Secretary of Elysium, the tyrant who is delusional with dreams of controlling everything, and we think that it’s evil people that corrupt an otherwise decent system. Yet every person on Elysium knows of the millions who don’t have access to the same level of care and live in relative squalor, eking out an existence.

Oppression isn’t just tyranny. As Iris Young notes in “Five Faces of Oppression,” it “refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions…the normal processes of everyday life.” It’s not as if we’re talking about a warning for “our” future. For many or most, this is right now.

And like all dramatic tales, how does Elysium make us care in a way that life does not? Through the portrayal of death. But not just any death, and not anonymous death, and not mass death. Singular, important death. As is common in action movies, many who the protagonist considers friends will die. We see his pain, but we think, at least he is still alive. And of course many countless others must die in the terrible conditions we see portrayed, but their deaths are left unnamed and implied. We are made to care about the deaths of the very good, and the very bad, those for whom we are given a narrative, a story.

But it’s not just that we’re made to care about certain deaths. It’s that the death allows us to render a final judgement, to see the final tally and make a decision, since there will be no further evidence. In the case of the protagonist, we can usually decide that it was worth it for him or her to die. We make a martyr for a larger cause. With the adversaries, we grant that they got what they deserved. These deaths have meaning. What of the others, the countless extras and nobodies who perish along the way? They were at best plot vehicles, with no significant meaning of their own. Considering the question of their deaths opens up a question of meaning, and when we cannot encode labels such as hero, villain, or martyr, we must ignore the death, for it cannot but mean.

My takeaways (in no particular order):

  • Death is way more important to us than we like to let on. Plots and narratives are advanced in relation to death, and death is the given against which we make meaning.
  • Certain deaths “count,” and others do not, and our valorization of those who we give the ability to die “well” allows us to ignore the rest who are not afforded the opportunity.
  • Jodie Foster’s accent is…not good.

I am probably thinking of this in ethical terms since I am preparing to teach a course on ethics for undergraduates. My background in ethics was relatively poor until fairly recently, as is the ethical background of many who are given the answers early on. After all, why continue to look for other ways to frame the question when you already have the answers? I guess the question I am mulling over is what criteria we do, and should, use when determining the value of a life. The perhaps well-intentioned human rights approach, based on life’s inherent dignity or human self-consciousness, seems no more tractable than religious approaches. Although we think we do, I’m not sure we really want to solve the problem that Elysium fictionalizes in the first place.


Euthyphro’s Dilemma…I Don’t Like It

Euthyphro is one of the so-called ‘dialogues,’ written by Plato, between Socrates and, you guessed it, Euthyphro. The dialogue is well known because of a particular dilemma—a dilemma in the original sense between two choices—that Socrates puts to his interlocutor. Euthyphro is filled with a sense of confidence at his ability to judge a pious, or right, action. When Socrates asks his criterium for deciding, Euthyphro responds that a pious action is one pleasing to the gods. Socrates then poses the question: “Is it pleasing to the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is pleasing to the gods?”EuthyphroCartoon

The dilemma often comes up in discussions of the relationship between morality and divinity, i.e., that we get our morality from a divine source. Neither answer to the dilemma is particularly appealing to religious folk. If an action is pious (or a thing is good) because it is pleasing to the gods, then it appears otherwise arbitrary. The gods picked a couple things they don’t like and some that they do, but it could just as well have been another way. This choice appears damaging to divine omniscience as well as problematic for a sense of divine love and care for us. The other choice is perhaps more damaging, from a contemporary religious point-of-view. If an action is pleasing to the gods because it is pious, then the action appears to have some preexistent standing before the gods, damaging conceptions of divine omnipotence. The gods, or God, like us, is just following the rules.

As mentioned, the dilemma is used to complicate understandings of our morality coming from a divine source. Your choices are: 1) God is arbitrary, or 2) God is impotent, or at least nowhere near omnipotent. Forced to make a choice between the two, I think many Christians would choose option one. That way, you could argue that it turns out the things God chose work for us, and we go on living our happy lives. Of course it gets messy if you’re in a situation where life dealt you a bad hand, or someone else’s pleasure is your pain. In that case you might be more inclined to see that morality is unequally beneficial. Secularists, on the other hand, tend to choose option two, including Troy Jollimore in a recent article on the subject, Godless Yet Good.

Jollimore uses the Euthyphro dilemma in response to his students’ common objection that without God, morality is totally subjective. Plugging in the case of murder, either murder is wrong because God says it is, or God says it is because its wrong. In the first case, there was nothing wrong with murder until God said there was, and in the second, murder is something wrong in and of itself and doesn’t need God’s approval to be that way. The idea that the only thing preventing people from running around killing each other is God’s disapproval—a view I have heard espoused many times—is itself immoral to Jollimore. He affirms instead that murder is wrong in and of itself.

I don’t like that option either. Luckily in life, there are always more than two possible choices. Actually, I guess my option is a version of choice one, albeit one that doesn’t involve God. From the standpoint of an objective mind coming up with the best possible scenario for humanity to live by, morality is arbitrary. But from a practical standpoint, morality is not arbitrary at all, because it serves many productive purposes. The fear of arbitrariness is the fear that things could change at any time, that the rules aren’t constant. Even if it were the case, our fear is not a justifiable reason to posit the stability of morality. What we can do, however, is look at history and see that the development of moral or ethical codes is slow and unlikely to change in a day, or even a couple decades. The fear of anarchy is an apocalyptic one, and the chances of its occurrence are slim. If we were to find out this was the case—that morality is completely arbitrary and thus could change anytime—then this has been the case all along and we’ve gotten along fairly well.

It looks to me as if Jollimore shares the same fear of the religious kids in his philosophy class: morality might be arbitrary. There is much more to his argument, which goes on to contrast versions of religious and secular ethics to indicate that there is hope for the latter. He highlights particularism, the idea that the ‘right’ thing to do in a given situation depends on, and cannot be separated from, the context of the situation itself. In contrast to rational or utilitarian viewpoints, answers to moral questions are not found by simply filling in the variables on all discrete circumstances. He suggests the following:

For particularists, then, individual perception and judgment are always necessary to decide difficult ethical questions: there is no theoretical ethical system that can do the work for us. Principles are useful, perhaps, but only as rules of thumb, practical guidelines that hold for the most part, but to which there will always be exceptions. At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.

I like this as a contrast to morality given from on high, but it must also emphasize that we are born into a world that gives us a conception of morality before we can judge one of our own, and even those who go through the most radical life changes cannot completely escape their shaping by the social circumstances in which they were born and grew. What this means is that we cannot ever have the certainty that we can isolate the self from social influence in any of our dealings. But that’s okay, because no one else can either.

Morals and values change over time, and even the most venerated of them—if we took murder for example—are violated all the time. That does not eliminate their functionality, although it does tell me that exposing the hypocrisies in our moral violations, to the embarrassment of religion and government, may be stepping stones to a more reasonable morality.