Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Dexter and the (im)morality(?) of homicide

I love the show Dexter. If you've never seen or heard of it, I'll fill you in on some basics. Dexter is a serial killer. And a cop. Not exactly new territory, but there are some intriguing details that make this one more interesting. Dexter is a particularly scary motherfucker. He simply has no conscience, no feeling of right and wrong. And Michael C. Hall is a seriously scary dude. He knows the rules, taught by his late adopted father, but he doesn't understand them or have any kind of emotional attachment or reaction to the rules. Some behavior is acceptable and other behavior is not. Period. The problem is Dexter has a compulsion. He likes blood and he likes to kill people. He needs to. Luckily he's a cop and his father, Harry, was a cop. Harry tried to instill a code within Dexter to govern his need for blood and taught him who to kill and how to avoid detection and capture. It's called "The Code of Harry" and Dexter is more attached to this code than he is to any of society's rules or expectations.

Enough background.

After watching the season opener last night (on the TIVO - I am SO behind!) my wife declared that Dexter was evil. This led to a (short) discussion about the nature of killing and whether it was wrong and why. Some might call it an argument. Whatever. Her stated opinion is that killing is wrong, just because, and anyone who kills people is evil. I had an argument against that point of view, but she didn't want to hear it. So I'm going to tell you.

Killing another human being (homicide) is wrong. We get this idea from various sources but I would also guess that most people simply understand the principle without knowing why. That, however, is the important question. WHY is homicide wrong? I'll define "wrong" here as unacceptable behavior. These are the common answers and refutations as I see them.

1. God says so - "Thou shalt not kill," etc. So the reason comes from God? Anyone who knows me knows that I hate "because God said so." All that says is, "I don't really know, but there has to be a reasonable explanation." My question there is: If God didn't exist, would homicide still be wrong? If His word is the only reason, then of course not. Yet we know this is not the case. So the reason cannot be God.

2. It's against the law. While the legal system has given unpleasant consequences to the act of homicide, the law itself simply a statement that governs behavior. It does not involve itself in the motivations thereof. What is legal is not always moral, etc., etc.

There are others I wanted to bring up, but they have been lost for the time being.

Quite simply, it is an absolute wrong to kill another human being for the sole reason that doing so deprives him of his right to determine his own destiny. It is a violation of his Civil Rights. However, we live in a society in which are rights are protected and defended by social contracts between men and nations. Violating such a contract obviously leads to the curtailment of those rights. On the individual level that usually means the revocation of a number of personal freedoms like voting rights. There's prison, too, and all the unpleasantness associated therein. Between nations we have embargos, boycotts, sanctions and, of course, strongly worded admonitions from the UN. We also accept as consequences for extreme behavior death, usually in the form of the death penalty (individuals) or war (nations). In terms of our social contract, homicide becomes simply the most extreme deprivation of rights one can experience as a consequence of behavior. When one has behaved in the extreme, one loses ALL of his rights.

So really, homicide is perfectly acceptable in the social framework humans have erected. Once it is decided that homicide (as it has been in virtually every society, past and present) is an acceptable behavior in some instances, the only thing left is the negotiation of how and under what circumstances. That negotiation is primarily based on what society can accept, not any rational method. We throw around terms like "humane" and "cruel and unusual" to assuage our guilt, but society as a whole has accepted that it's perfectly alright to kill another human being.

So is Dexter evil? Dexter's victims are usually killers themselves who haven't yet been caught and exposed. If these people WERE arrested, tried and convicted, they would probably be given the death sentence anyway. All Dexter has done is deprive his victims of their Fifth amendment rights. While abhorrent to (most) Americans, it can't really be argued that his behavior is evil, right?

In fact, as an unusual but fairly typical anti-hero, Dexter's actions can actually be classified by some as good. He channels impulses that would normally lead to great harm into actions beneficial to society as a whole, even while violating the rights of his victims.

So, as usual, my wife is wrong.

I love you, baby.

Update 11-07-07: A friend responded with a comment that was too long for blogger so I'm attaching it in full here.

From Pockets:

Greetings, your pantsness,

I should like to be among the first to offer commentary and additionally among the only sad, sad lot who would start a sentence with, “I should like.” I am available for beatings between comments.

While I do genuinely agree that murder is a reprehensible act that is deemed wrong or inherently evil based upon it’s superlative infringement upon a person’s rights (be they civil rights or basic human rights), I’m left with your very grand point still drawing in some of the same questions presented earlier. See, different people believe our human rights actually emanate from different sources. We can probably box them up into two camps, those who believe rights are inherently conferred by a higher power and those who believe there is no such right until granted or acknowledged by lawmakers. Perhaps there’d be a scant few who’d take a middling road, one that claims that a god gives rights unseen and unrepercussive until such time as earthly governing bodies recognize them and follow suit with legal jargon over martinis. I dare say that while common sense supports your assertion, it is as problematic as the lesser assertions discounted in your examples. To take away all rights granted by a god who might not be there or to take away all rights under a system only meant to govern behavior as opposed to one micromanaging personal motivation is as troublesome a point to make as simply saying, “Because God said so,” or “It’s against the law.” Even emotions, as intangible as they are, can be partially attributed physicality as explained with hormones and the hypothalamus. Rights, by comparison to emotions, are more flimsy, less real. They are a mental construct, thinner than shadow. They are an idea so important to so many that we lend them the conversational gravity of a higher power or a legal system in order to legitimize the fact that we share these ideas. We hold them as truths to be self-evident. Your point on rights, while keenly astute, still smacks of missing the mark. Posed, if a god or the government were to suddenly take all of a citizen’s rights completely away (on paper or by divine mystery), as horrible as that act would be perceived, wouldn’t we still think it not quite as horrible as an actual murder? Doesn’t common sense lead us to FEEL that a life with zero rights is somehow still of worth, a worth that need not be wasted in a murder?

I think murder is evil for differing reasons, reasons far too generalized and couch-potato-philosophic to make it into most water cooler debates. (There’s a better chance if they have Poland Spring. I like Poland Spring.) Every solitary individual has the capacity to murder. We do not even need a weapon. The martial arts have accidentally taught us 1347 Hollywood methods of killing somebody with a thumb. A person can study karate for years learning ancient history’s most in-depth methods of hand to empty hand combat, tested in repeated honor fights to the death. The naked, unarmed human body alone, perhaps even from animal origins, has the natural capacity to murder. Contrast that capacity, if you will, to somebody shooting a little girl in the head for two bucks and a cheap thrill. What’s the difference? There’s a death result verses a death result, between humans both arguably defined as murder.

As one example is combat, on the surface it may seem that the difference is self-defense. I disagree. Claiming self-defense, while both a common sense and a legal mainstay accepted by society, is really just another made up reason to structure which murder is fine and which is evil. To date it is used more often as an excuse than as an expression of truth. Plus, there’s always that pesky legal definition of self-defense, the one that lays it out as a reasonable person truly fearing for her/his safety. Who’s to say that a gun wielder couldn’t be truly frightened of a little girl is a pink dress. Dakota Fanning still scares the crap out of me! No, self-defense is not the difference.

The difference is that to master a martial art it takes years of discipline and education. It takes practice and knowledge and even wisdom to perfect combat techniques. And this lifelong dedication to learning cannot exist in a vacuum. It brings with it world knowledge and book knowledge. It brings with it inward reflection and interaction with countless others. It lives in a soup of constant discovery, language, perception, balance, philosophy, skill, fact, opinion, spirituality, commitment, meditation, and thought. It’s actually interesting that the purpose of the art form is to prevail in combat, a prevalence once defined by death, but that to master the form enough to do so, one would be wise enough never to use it to kill, wise enough to acknowledge the futility of ending a life.

The gun, on the other hand, is the elimination of all that. It takes the same natural human capacity to murder and eliminates the need for all the years and years of education and wisdom required to do so artfully. A weapon completely negates any genuine effort made toward prevailing over an unarmed other in a fair and balanced manner. It rips away the sought after skill and precision going directly to an end with no care as to the means. In a sense, it bastardizes our natural capacity to kill, making a completely unnatural act.

This is why murder is wrong. Anything unnatural is psychologically and linguistically aligned with the wrong, akin to the evil. It is something that simply is not “supposed” to be. A real life knife in the hand of a murderer is as unnatural and therefore as wrong as a fictional Dungeons & Dragons aberration crawling out from some viscous, antithetic plane of existence. Murder made simple is the real life equivalent of our most horrifying fictions depicting creatures and monsters that never could be. Certainly, some can still murder, bare handed, without skill. There are stranglers and the occasional neck-breaking enthusiast. Yet, in this light you can see how the body is being used as a blunt, uneducated weapon and not as the skillful tool that is in tune with any wisdom gained in mastering the tool. Murder is an unnatural act that ignores the part of plain, honest, humanity that could otherwise elect to kill only in a fairly pit and artful manner.


bullet said...

Putting "natural" and "unnatural" aside for a moment...

The origin of our rights comes from our power to conceive them. The Golden Rule is golden not because it supposedly came from the mouth of Christ, but because it is a simple rational construct defining what civilized society should be. Everything else (Magna Carta, Constitution, etc.) is only definition and clarification. We require neither God nor the law to grant us our rights. They live within us.

bullet said...

On "natural" and "unnatural"...

I think it's safe to say that two creatures competing for limited resources is natural. While wild animals use tooth and claw, man has no such natural weapons. Man's only true natural weapon is his mind and any weapon he can conceive in order to further his basic interests and the survival of his DNA would, to me, be a natural result of competiton.

Once man begins to live in groups larger than family, the dynamic changes. Members of the group are no longer competing directly with one another but sharing the benefit of pooled skills and resources. (I'm not going to touch on the nuances of indirect competition here. It will only muddy the issue.) The removal of the need to fight each other for survival leaves an opening for other rules of behavior to be developed. Man has come up with many sets of rules and those that are based on the inherent rights of man are the current leaders.

More later.

Pockets said...

The RIGHT to play Quidditch...

While I think we are, in a sense, agreeing as to the construct of rights, you stating they come from our "power to conceive them," me having asserted that they are "mental constructs," I would not necessarily agree that the construct of rights is synonymous with where rights come from. Claiming that rights originate and therefore exist "from our power to conceive them" is little different than arguing that Harry Potter exists because of our power to conceive of him. Similarly, if the construct of something is, by default, synonymous with where it comes from then Swedes are made of Sweden, meteors are made of space, and shit is made out of my ass. Truths and flying broomsticks just aren't that clean.

Hence, I agree that the building blocks of rights are ideas alone. However, the contention that there is a living power enough within us to lend these ideas more weight than any other idea, weight enough to be the deciding factor between universal right and wrong, good and evil, and life and death, that pans out to be a non-argument. Murder cannot be wrong ONLY because it robs a person of her/his rights. If rights live ONLY within us, then our rights die when we die and therefore murder would not be evil based on the elimination of the victim’s rights. It would be a non-argument.

There has to be something else, something that happens to this unalienable idea to codify it as more important than a figment, as uncontestabley real. Something has to affect the idea of a right that would make it more material. I have no clue what that something might be. It’s seems to be our opinions. It is our opinion that freedom from tyranny is more real than the wand up Hermione’s bum. It is our opinion that the rights of survivorship are more real than Bertie Bott’s secret hatred of children. Opinions are ideas themselves. They cannot be that linchpin something. Such would be defining an idea in terms of another idea the way we always have to define time by reusing the word time. This circular logic screams non-argument. No, until I figure out what that something is that makes a loss of rights a crucial argument as to the evil of murder, I will have to contend that murder is wrong for some OTHER reason. I maintain, that at least one such reason is its status as an inherently unnatural act.

Pockets said...

Rights as human rules…

Dropping the idea of rights as rules into the framework of competing for resources verses sharing efforts to obtain greater resources is a much more convincing construct. You’ve made me think here. It makes both human sense and a clear picture of the right to wrong pendulum. “If I murder you than the village won’t have as much gnu tenderloin to eat.” Good show!

I have to admit that I’ve never thought of rights as rules. Though it’s obvious that we cannot violate somebody’s rights because that is “against the rules,” (at least not without a condom and a safety word), I’ve always sooner thought of rights as a personal possession, something that is mine and with me wherever I go. To put them in terms of rules I then have to circle out to somebody else’s point of view on my own rights which are then in turn rules for them to abide by. I’ve never considered somebody else’s rights as rules that I stringently needed to follow because I never quite took aim to relieve them of their own rights. That’s a lovin’ mouthful!

My own repetitive words here, I think, are pinpointing what I’ve instead felt is the hair of difference between a right and a rule. A right is simple. It’s an axiom. “You shouldn’t murder me,” is a right. “Don’t murder me unless you fear that I am going to murder you and you have no escape route and I am in your personal home uninvited unless I am an officer of the law, when and only when I have identified myself as an officer of the law, and have presented a proper warrant to be on your premises unless I have reason to believe a crime is immediately in progress on said premises, all only under circumstances in which any reasonable person could see that I am neither abusing nor otherwise overstepping the bounds of my authority,” is a rule. There is that shred of difference, of clarification as you put it. Rights and rules are not the same. But defining rights in terms of rules at the figurative beginning of civilization makes a strong point.

I will not go so far as to say rights as rules wins the “this is why murder is bad” debate. However, I have to concede that the onset of rights as ideas, at least partially, is tied to the onset of human cooperation. Cooperation, a physically provable act, might well be the “linchpin something” that happens to the idea of rights to make them concrete.

bullet said...

Not debating anything you've said above, but something struck me.

"...I’ve always sooner thought of rights as a personal possession, something that is mine and with me wherever I go. To put them in terms of rules I then have to circle out to somebody else’s point of view on my own rights which are then in turn rules for them to abide by."

This statement coming from you, particularly, strengthens my belief that the majority of Americans have ceased to comprehend rights in a concrete sense except in a personal context. It's my right to call you an asshole, but if you say one more thing about my mother I'll kill you.