Monday, January 4, 2016

On Tarantino Films and Retributive Justice - Or: On the Virtue of Compassion over Malice



I just saw The Hateful Eight – a good film in terms of story (despite some flaws I may go into) but not in terms of what it, or Tarantino’s other films generally, represent.  If Tarantino’s movies embody one thing, asides from over-the-top violence (which is a give-in in an action movie and really doesn’t represent anything) it is the notion of retributive justice or justified vindictiveness.
All of his main films have a protagonist that is meant to be a hero and murders many in senseless string of revenge killings.  Because these people are fellow killers his film operates on Dexter logic – it’s okay to kill the killers.  Kant is the main modern philosopher to my knowledge who popularizes a notion of retributive justice – justice that has nothing to do with the consequences of punishment.  He justifies capital punishment as just because of the heinous nature of murder – even though the only way it’ll make the world a better place is removing the threat of a potentially violent (assuming there’s evidence they’ll commit the offense again which in no way is a give-in) man or woman which could be done without killing them. 
Mill justifies capital punishment as a type of humane form of Utilitarianism.  He argues it is both a more human punishment and a more effective social deterrent of future offense (of others, not the person to be executed obviously) than jail; Mill is correct on the first point but not necessarily on the second.  Evidence shows (to my knowledge) that the death penalty has no substantive effect in deterring severe crime such as murder.  In general, I adhere to a virtue-ethics notion of human motivation.  People with a moral psychology and certain attributes (produced partly by their innate nature and partly by their upbringing) are what we conventionally call “upright” because of traits they possess and many people who are criminals (or routinely commit the acts we rightly consider crimes) are so because of a combination of lacking in virtue (a deficiency – in part through nature but largely due to lacking in upbringing and proper societal molding in my view) and certain positive (that is traits that aren’t a deficiency but are a trait in themselves) traits such as hostility, ego and appetite.  So though in general crime can be prevented (to an extent) through effective threat of punishment I don’t find any evidence that either the death penalty is a more effective deterrent than imprisonment, nor that this is would necessarily be a justification for the State murdering a man or woman who does not consent to their lives being taken.
In the film there is a man who claims to be a hangman (who has a warrant in his possession that they don’t later explain how he possessed, him not being who he claimed to be) who expresses the notion that the distinction between a blood-lust killing and murder by the State is the latter is a dispassionate crime – when the sentimental(ist) argument for the death penalty completely destroys this notion of dispassion.  Wouldn’t you want the person that killed your mother to be murdered?”  Will it correct any wrongs?  No?  Will it add to the suffering of the world?  Yes?  Then no, frankly.  There isn’t a part of me that is tempted by the low sentiment of vengeance – at-least at this particular moment.  And when I am swayed towards notion of vengeance I possess both the reason and the capacity towards empathy necessary to realize that the generic criminal or monster is a causal being just as we are all.  They could not choose their plight any more than a man can choose to fall into a ravine after being pushed.  We are all pushed into life.  We all fall in a way dictated by our nature and how that nature is conditioned or molded by external variables.
Now, if we lived in an ideal society (an ideal world in all ways asides from bad people who do very bad things still exist) than all those who are a likely threat to others would be put in a place for those who both do not want help and are not capable of being helped – a society for criminals in a word.  Where their freedoms and basic sovereignty will not be hindered (in a way that is not necessary to preventing the pain of those who are not a likely threat to others) but they will not be able to harm anyone who has committed no offense – if we value the freedom of those who cannot help but be as they are we must accept this reality and refuse punishment (at-least for its own sake) even for murderers and thieves; like the question of suicide we can always offer a helping hand and should always help those who desire but must respect an individual’s decision and let them go down the road they choose. 
In regards to a criminal’s options of rehabilitation in society (which may involve some things which will be punishment in effect but not in conception or reasoning), the society of criminals (which in effect would be Stirner’s “Association of Egoists”) or “right of refusal” we must always remember this, this refusal which is essentially death, should always be an option but never a mandate.  If someone wishes to die they should always be able – suicide is in my view one of the most fundamental of rights both according to Negative Utilitarianism (consequential rights) and to basic human sovereignty (people own themselves; not their children.  Yet child-birth – birth without consent – is viewed a fundamental right in our corrupt society and not the basic right of ending one’s existence) but the State (or society, or any individual) should never end the life of someone unless it is absolutely necessary to prevent further pain.
It is true that in Tarantino’s films he is “pulling a Dexter” and only killing the killers – the bad guys.  But once again, we must remember that this (if Negative Utilitarianism is true) can only be justified through the prospect of the world being a less (a “cleaner” as Dexter would put it) pain-ridden place through murder – blood-lust or “what they did was bad” will not cut it.  But is there something to this?  The fact that I put a question mark at the end of that last sentence indicates that I believe it is at-least worthwhile to ask the question.  It seems neither guaranteed nor absolutely impossible to my mind; meaning it is entirely contextual like much of reality in consequential ethics.  Morality in concept is very complicated to a Kantian or Deontologist, but they seem to execute their universal bans on lying and suicide with ease.  Morality for a Consequentialist however is fairly easy conceptually but messy in reality – all the variables must be accounted for and weighed. 
In some cases, it may seem very-likely that murdering Hitler let’s say will alleviate or prevent much pain in the world; The Joker is another good example, and considering the cartoonish reality where he continually escapes then despite his mental illness I would be in favor of his execution.  In many other cases it may be that murdering someone (especially someone who is already arrested) will produce no bounty nor make any rotten fruit ripe and fresh once more.  Most cases fall in the latter category for me, especially when we consider the human potential to change and to realize one’s “moral place” in the cosmos (capable of alleviating or preventing pain) and others (and one’s self) “causal nature” in relation to things – i.e. people are not responsible for what they do and should always be helped, never hurt.  Hell is the epitome of injustice for it is a cruel God punishing people for what they had no choice to do or to be and inflicting pain on them which is both eternal and unbeneficial for anyone – asides from perhaps God and his sycophants in Heaven who are supposed to selfishly live in eternal bliss while others suffer needlessly; showing the egotistical side of Christianity among other faiths.
In conclusion (though there may be more to be said on this topic later) Tarantino’s films are very well-made and I respect his artistry and craftsmanship.  However, I cannot condone or support (except with my money) movies which exercise and stimulate the vengeful aspect of the human condition; a side which says it is right to hate rather than love, to inflict injury rather than to help, to hold continual blame for and continuing needless psychological injury rather than to accept and forgive – alleviating said psychological pain for both one’s self and to create a potentially brighter future for the person we help rather than shame or condemn for what they cannot help.  The answer is always kindness, never malice.  Beneficence not mercilessness.  I think that’s what Samuel L Jackson’s character was trying to say at the end of Pulp Fiction though I don’t think even he knew it.  As human beings we are capable of love, understanding and aiding others in physical and psychological pain; exercising this love and empathy is always the right thing – acting on malice and hurt feelings is always beneath a virtuous character – and though exceptions are feasible this moral absolute to me is consistent with my understanding of consequentialism; love will relatively speaking always produce better results than hate.  Despite its many flaws this is a truth articulated (and contradicted numerous times) in the Bible that apparently men like Augustine and Kant (despite their Christianity) are incapable of understanding or accepting.  As trite as it may seem, love is the answer.

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