Pay it Forward is a film that is an appeal for Deontology, compassion and is a statement that human beings can bring about meaningful change in their lives without the systematic change that would largely prevent such horrors from happening. To quickly explain so as to get to the meat of the film, I am speaking of the detriments of commerce, government and religion (as always) and how they either bring detriment to society materially or psychologically or prevent the good (essential or healthy variables) from removing the harsher and savage elements from the human animal.
It also could be seen as a film that briefly explores the concept of despair and psychological motivations attached to visceral and phenomenogical states of being. The mother drinks assumingly to forget her problems (also out of addiction but we’re exploring the psychological rather than the chemical and physical reasons for addiction and action) and fails to be an ideal mother because of this. The person who is bereft with pain in a psychological manner, or is in a certain frame of existence is incapable of helping others. We see this in a sense with Jerry and his heroin addiction. Once he sees the woman about to commit suicide, he has a shift of being that a Buddhist or phenomenologist could discuss in length and is removed of his pain and (or arguably by) focusing on the pain of others – by asking her to save his life he’s saving hers and arguably his own. How this shift in perspective happens and what prevents it in others who are witnessing the trials of their fellow sufferers is ultimately a matter of psychology and ignorance. They cannot empathize with the sufferer, or is removed from the knowledge that the sufferer is far more like him than not, so is unable to realize his pain is both relatable and solvable and therefore cannot remove his own burdens to focus on that of others. The fellow in Existential Despair is a Universe upon himself, removed from existence, and in the worst possible way save other fundamental lacking in knowledge which can lead to improper action.
It’s also a film that has an internal discussion over the merits of Deontology and Consequentialism – and at first seems to side with the latter. When Jerry seems to be unreliable Trevor crosses his name out. Trevor still did his good deed(s) to the man, but they did not hold efficacy either for Jerry or for his future efficacy in positively influencing the lives of others. It is then safe to assume that Trevor does not hold simply performing good deeds for Jerry, his mother or for himself as his end but to genuinely make the world a better place by radically altering the mentality of those around him. This is seen in the end of the film – how others lose hope and accept what is comfortable and routine even if it is wretched and harmful for the organism and the environment he or she inhabits. So in other words, motives matter. Mind set matters, which is something that Kant goes into on length and could be seen as the main difference between Deontologists and Consequentialists. Of course all sane people must be Consequentialists in some sense, but Deontology (or an interpretation of it) can be seen within the framework of a nuanced Consequentialism, which is what I elaborated on in my On Deontology essay.
There is a scene where the black character is claiming that Pay it Forward was his idea and describes it as “some cosmological Aristotle shit.” I’m not sure if the writer was explicitly attempting to make a comparison to Aristotle’s philosophy, but regardless I think it can be done. Namely in his Virtue Ethics and relating them to the compassionate soul I spoke of earlier. What is healthy for an individual is to have an active and stable mind and body consistently doing something of value to society. Compassion and other altruistic impulses are not only favorable from a phenomenogical point of view but also referencing the healthy functioning of an individual’s psyche. The virtuous soul is one that is not self-concerned in a petty way, but is either concerned with others or concerned with his own excellence in a way that will be of use to others. The virtuous character in its finest has reason to a large degree, not only this but values reason to a large degree. With this being said it follows that an individual who is virtuous will value justice and strive at-least in polemics to see it implemented. Taking political action requires a different form of virtue and can be based on compassion but also rage and a litany of other motivators.
Nietzsche can also be seen in the films view on a large amount of relationships between men and women; namely the drunk and the enabler. Some who have low self-esteem give their power over to others and view their conquering as their own. You see this is in the vitriol of some Christians when they speak of the will of God being absolute and his might escaping no heretic or sinner. To submit and serve a deadbeat is self-abnegation in one of its highest forms, because it not only is surrender of will to someone, it is surrender of will to someone who is completely lacking in admirable qualities – surrendering even the notion of serving a noble end to him, making it an act of total surrender and negation of value. But when the drunk returns groveling, this too is merely a ploy for power. When the man begs to be forgiven, he is actually begging to be believed and for the woman to either allow herself to be deceived or to give in to what a part of her sub conscious mind may realize is a deception – yet enjoys the surrender of power and wants the cycle to begin once again. This is only a theory, one that to my knowledge has little to no empirical backing, but I am quite certain that in these types of relations, actual affection for the other person, or rather to see them as an end in themselves and wish them good for their own sake is almost wholly absent in both parties.
This is a minor note, but towards the end of the film there is a scene where Trevor seems to imply that if Eugene doesn’t take his mother back then he couldn’t care about him. Anyone who has divorced parents and has dealt with the idea that a mother and father had to be together to love the child knows how absurd this is. The idea of Paying it Forward involves some strain and sacrifice yes, but that doesn’t mean necessarily having to do the thing would require the most psychological difficulty or discomfort. It could have very well been that the two would not be an ideal match, since they seem to have very little in common; however, the film of course wants their love to be profound and their coupling is assured by the physical laws of Hollywood which are stronger and more incontrovertible than the pull of gravity that emanates from a black hole.
Ultimately the film seems to function intellectually as a critique of Utilitarian Calculus. For though it appeared that all of Trevor’s initial endeavor’s were futile they did bear fruit; simply not in the way(s) that he intended or could predict exactly. Though we can predict very broad and general trends, and to this extent Utilitarian Calculus in Deontological lines has efficacy, when it comes to the specifics of our world we are largely ignorant and will forever remain so as long as there are billions of microscopic factors we can never gauge for – at-least not with great precision. The Universe we embody is and may forever remain to us a largely chaotic and uncertain place, all the more reason to treat those who we cross paths with with tenderness, compassion, acceptance and understanding, both for what they are and who they could be if and when the proper variables of a just society come into play.