Monday, 11 June 2012

Philosophy in Film: Morality and Ethics

Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi thriller, Hollow Man, raises the question ‘What would you do if you knew you couldn’t be seen?

Every day we make decisions. We make some of these choices based on what is best for us, and what is best for others. But why do we need to think of others when making these individual decisions? What’s in it for us? Society has taught us what is right and wrong, but how do we develop this sense of morality, and who is to say whether our virtues are good or immoral?

As a modern day nod to Plato’s Ring of Gyges, the film Hollow Man follows Sebastian Caine, a scientist who discovers a formula for invisibility. After testing the formula on himself, Caine seemingly begins to lose his moral responsibility, as he explores his newfound freedom.

Throughout the film, Caine is illustrated as arrogant and egotistical, as he watches his neighbour from afar, but without pursuing. Like us all, Caine is abiding by an unspoken social contract; making moral decisions in order to avoid the consequences. As Rowlands (2005) states, most people in society are egoists, and only act morally to avoid punishment.

Hollow Man, Sebastian Caine with Linda
After the experiment, and he becomes invisible, Caine seems to lose his ‘inhibitions’. When given the same voyeur situation with his neighbour, this time his decision is different. He chooses to act on his urges, breaks into her apartment and rapes her. Caine’s decision changed because he is now invisible, he knows he will not get caught. He is no longer bound by the social contract which restricted him before; it seems his invisibility has set him free.

Although Falzon (2007) disputes that Caine is liberated by his invisibility, and rather states that he has become a slave to his darkest desires. This film shows Caine with an unquenchable thirst; becoming more and more out of control as he tries to fulfill his urges. This film shows what could happen when you remove the motivation to act in a good and moral way. If you can get away with it, is there any reason not to behave in the same way as Caine does?

Before Hollow Man, Plato’s work The Republic (Falzon, 2007) tells a similar tale of a shepherd, Gyges, who stumbles upon a magic ring. The ring gives its wearer the ability to become invisible, and Gyges uses this to commit murder and gain power. Hollow Man shows Caine acting in the same way, as he begins to realise the endless opportunities of not being held accountable for his actions (Falzon, 2009). Voyeurism, rape and eventually murder, are committed by Caine with very little remorse; “Imagine what you can do when you don’t have to look at yourself in the mirror anymore” (Verhoeven, 2000).

This allows the audience to question their own morality. Would our moral responsibility disappear if we did not have the fear of being caught or punished? Glaucon (Falzon, 2009) questions whether anyone is so virtuous that they could resist such temptation, and that morality itself is only a social construction. Implying that the only reason we have virtues, ethics or honesty, is to satisfy the way others see us – our reputations.
Caine, wearing a synthetic mask

On the other hand, Plato argues that maintaining our ethical reputation allows us to be a happier person, adding that morality results in a well-ordered soul (Huang, 2008). He established that the main urges of the soul are being satisfied if you behave in a just and moral way; ensuing one will pleasure from their own good deeds (Falzon, 2007).

But what defines a moral act, and does it still count if done only for one’s own pleasure? I know many (including myself) would love to be a fly on the wall overhearing certain conversations, but who is to determine whether that is immoral or not? If you were able to act with impunity, would your moral character evaporate? Would you be able to maintain your ethical reputation?

Reference List
Buckingham, D. (2003). Media Education: Literacy, learning and contemporary culture. UK: Polity Press.

Falzon, C. (2007). Philosophy Goes to the Movies : An Introduction to Philosophy. (pp.99-140). New York: Routledge.

Falzon, C. (2009). Chapter 54: Why be moral? In Livingston, P., Plantinga, C. (Ed.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. (pp. 591-600). New York: Routledge.

Fumerton, R. A., & Jeske, D. (Eds.). (2010). Introducing Philosophy through Film: Key Texts, Discussion, and Film Selections. Part IV: Ethics. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Huang, Y. (2008). “Why be moral?” The Cheng Brothers' Neo-Confucian Answer. [Online Submission]. Retrieved from QUT database.

Litch, M.M. (2002). Philosophy through Film. New York: Routledge. Part III.

Rowlands, M. (2005).The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: Philosophy Explained through Science Fiction Films. Chapter 6. ‘Why be moral?’ London: Elbury Press.

Verhoeven, P. (Director). (2000). Hollow Man [Motion picture]. Columbia Pictures.

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