Some of you may have spied the new Marvel series, Jessica Jones, on Netflix. Being a keen superhero fan I delved into this not long after it appeared. Despite a reasonably dry start I found myself getting stuck into the story within a few episodes, but following the poetic end I found my mind going over some of the key issues surrounding the big bad, Kilgrave. Here I’ll examine some of these thoughts, the main one being the ethics of mind control; to what extent can we justify allowing its existence?
Who is Kilgrave? (SPOILER ALERT!)
Jessica Jones follows the forenamed Marvel character with her power of super strength as she works as a Personal Investigator. Soon we discover a deeper level to her life; that she was previously controlled by a character we learn to be Kilgrave. This man, played by the impeccable David Tennant, uses his power of mind control with a chilling lack of morality. By simply commanding something in the presence of another person, he can get that person to do whatever he wants. Whether that’s to make his dinner, be his chauffer, or in Jessica Jones’ case, become his girlfriend and even murder for him.
As we find out more about Kilgrave and what he did to Jessica, she delves deeper into the case and we become desperate for him to be stopped. It turns out Kilgrave is in love with Jessica and so as she finally homes in on catching him, when they finally meet again he allows Jessica to have free will – but threatens other innocent bystanders if she leaves him. Realising Kilgrave wants and needs her, Jessica attempts to turn the tables and control him instead. She notices on the news a family being held hostage by their father, and directs Kilgrave to accompany her to the crime scene. She convinces him to join her in venturing into the hostage location where he commands the father to let the family go. He then tells the father to put the gun in his mouth, to which Jessica explains it is not Kilgrave’s job to decide the punishment for this man, and that he must be handed over to the authorities. Luckily he agrees and instructs the man to hand himself in, however this begs the question; what would we have done if Kilgrave had still stopped this criminal but had killed him in the process, on purpose, thereby becoming himself judge, jury and executioner?
Could we allow a “good” Kilgrave to exist?
Firstly let’s consider if Kilgrave had acted what we would consider “perfectly” in that situation, i.e. he had gone into the crime scene, told the man to let the family go and then told the man immediately (without Jessica’s prompting) to hand himself in to the authorities. If Kilgrave acted appropriately with every single crime he could prevent a lot of immoral activity and help keep society safe – great. It seems Jessica at least thinks so, and she seems to consider what the possibilities are if Kilgrave could become “good”, i.e. he is then kept alive and becomes the closest he can to being a productive member of society.
However, even if this was the case, Kilgrave possesses the incredible power of being able to control whomever he wants, whenever he wants, and after finding his scientist father again he goes on to develop his powers even further – now it only takes a phone call to someone to control them, rather than physical presence. This power, although it could be used for good, is also extremely dangerous. Allowing this person to exist at all poses serious problems for humanity, even if he is considered “good”. In fact, do we only consider him to be so because he has told us that we have to think of him as such? He could easily tell us what and how to think, such that we wouldn’t even know we’re being controlled; we thought it was all our own idea. If he was in that crime situation, couldn’t he just tell a senior police officer that the best thing to do is to let Kilgrave kill him and then that authoritative person has deemed it permissible for Kilgrave to do so? This then negates the whole concept of the justice system. So even if Kilgrave was good – how could we truly know that he was good, and that he wasn’t just controlling our considerations of him being good?
How could we keep Kilgrave under control?
Aside from this, if we did allow Kilgrave to become a productive member of society, how would we control him if he went rogue? Jessica Jones if the only one who is impervious to his powers and she has her own super powers. Does this mean we have to have a superhero to keep a lid on Kilgrave going awry? Besides, even if we did catch him, he’s a good talker even when his powers are controlled (e.g. in the room Jessica keeps him in) and can surely convince a guard (e.g. the lawyer) to set him free in exchange for something else. Being such a powerful man, there’s not much he can’t offer in a bargain. Keeping him alive will always leave a danger that he will become free again, and the possibilities for him to control other human beings means in turn that his power over others can only grow exponentially as he moves across the world.
Kilgrave: Better Alive or Dead?
Essentially then, we can’t keep Kilgrave under control. Even with superheroes like Jessica Jones, we saw how he managed to get out of his cage – and once he’s done so, he’s even more dangerous. If he was to turn good, this danger would still remain because he possesses the power to control people at his slightest whim, so if he decides to do something, no-one can really stop him – he’d be able to climb down the slippery slope of evil very quickly if he even had the tiniest inkling. So can we allow the existence of someone like Kilgrave in society? Essentially, no. To allow one person this kind of power puts humanity in grave danger. If he was to be kept alive, a solid, impermeable cage would have to be formed; one that would mean he’d never get contact with any human being, as to do so would danger not only them, but the whole of humanity.
Last month I posed the question: what if superheroes really existed? And I addressed this in relation to whether their attempts to be good would actually work.
Now though, I will consider whether superheroes would be able to exist in peace with the human race. I will do this by considering the X-Men films, in particular X-Men: The Last Stand, where some of the characters with superpowers waged a war on humanity. If this was to happen in reality, could humans and mutants ever live in harmony together?
Humans and Mutants
A mutant is a human being who possesses unnatural powers which enhance their capabilities, for example the ability to manipulate metal (Magneto), the ability to read minds (Professor X). These enhanced humans can choose to use their powers for good, in order to help other people, which may lead to them becoming a “superhero” who is worshipped by humans for keeping them safe.
Alternatively a mutant may choose to use their powers to benefit themselves or other mutants. Some mutants believe that their possession of enhanced abilities to normal human beings represents an advance in evolution, in which they are free to take advantage of those they can overpower; in other words, they can treat other human beings as they wish, in the same way that humans can overpower animals.
In the X-Men universe, mutants might be taken into Professor Xavier’s school for gifted children. This school teaches mutants how to become valuable and functioning members of society. Students who go to this school usually nurture their unnatural abilities and might even become a member of the ‘X-Men’, a group of mutants dedicated to protecting humanity against evil mutants.
In contrast, other mutants might support the idea described above that mutants are the next stage in evolution and can therefore treat humans as they wish, in some cases even attempt to wipe out humanity as a whole. In X-Men: The Last Stand, mutants who believe this form an army led by metal-manipulator Magneto, and they call themselves The Brotherhood.
To Join or Not To Join?
The premise of The Last Stand is focused on these opposing positions and a war breaks out between The Brotherhood and humans, the latter of whom are attempted to be protected and supported by the X-Men. The Brotherhood wage war, however, as a result of humanity’s inability to accept mutants as part of society, being constantly afraid and resistant to them.
If you were a mutant, repelled from society, branded a freak and disowned by your parents – “have you tried not being a mutant?” asks Iceman Billy’s mother – would you join The Brotherhood? If mutants really did exist, would they have a chance of living in peace with humans?
Mutants In Society
The first question is whether humans could ever accept mutants into society. These beings are at an advantage to humans and could potentially modify their surroundings to their own benefit. We see this, for example, when Mystique infiltrates the government by impersonating a dead politician in order to gain political control. Therefore, allowing mutants to become functioning members of society could jeopardise society itself. Girl who can walk through walls, Kitty Pryde, could walk into a bank one day and steal lots of money. For mutants and humans to live in peace, therefore, humans would be required to trust every single existing mutant that they would each act fairly and justly towards other human beings and would not commit immoral acts – because if they did, humans would be pretty much powerless to stop then.
Moreover, even if mutants obeyed this, could the mutants themselves accept being in society? Would they be able to adhere to laws and rules put in place by humans who essentially cannot enforce such laws onto mutants? We see this after the first film where Magneto is in a plastic prison and Mystique fairly easily manages to break him out with a little help. Granted, this could be the same case with humans in that they can in rare cases break out of prison, but with mutants it is far too easy. Besides this, the amount of tax money that is spent on special prisons keeping mutants like Magneto in captivity just doesn’t bare thinking about.
For humans, trusting mutants to behave in society seems a tremendous risk. For mutants, agreeing to become a part of society who doubts them and have attempted to disown them also seems a risk, if not a wasted effort. So why try?
The X-Men attempt to form a middle ground, trying to keep the peace between the two extremes. However, from examining the events of the third film, it does regrettably seem likely that if mutants did exist in real life then they would probably end up in a war against humans. Essentially, no matter how many mutants work on the side of good, there will always be those who strive for power or act immorally, no matter how much we teach them, often for reasons beyond our understand. Statistically there would always be mutants who acted in this way.
Living in Harmony
Having said this, the hope for humanity would lie in these other mutants who decide to do good and work on behalf of humans; these superheroes, the X-Men. They could help to control those mutants who were acting immorally and perhaps persuade them to work in favour of humanity rather than against it. If this was a success and those immoral mutants were able to be contained or retributed, then and only then could mutants live in harmony with human beings. Until then, we are at their mercy.
Good job they don’t really exist then… except in possible worlds, of course.
We all love the idea of superheroes. A person, often with supernatural powers, who is able to fight on the side of good to save lives and conquer evil. In the real world we know that superheroes are a fantasy ideal that just doesn’t exist… but what if they did? And if so, to what extent would their attempts to do good actually work? In the face of real-life evil villains intent on malice, is being altruistic essentially a futile effort? *Spoilers ahead!*
Marvel film Kick Ass investigates the premise of real-life superheroes with the protagonist Dave, who loves superheroes and wonders why no-one has ever tried to be one in real life. He formulates his own superhero identity as the wetsuit-donning Kick Ass, who soon discovers being a real-life superhero is extremely painful, which is perhaps why no-one has ever attempted to become one before. That is, until he meets genuine superheroes Big Daddy and Hit Girl, both incredible fighters who apparently spend all their time training and preparing for an inevitable “big battle” with Big Daddy’s nemesis, Frank D’Amico , the city’s lead drug dealer. Innocent Dave gets mixed up in this fight through Red Mist, a wannabe superhero, actually Frank D’Amico’s son Chris D’Amico, who leads Kick Ass, and subsequently his friend Big Daddy, into a trap which leads to Big Daddy’s death.
In Kick Ass 2 we see a mournful Mindy (Hit Girl) intent on revenge for her father’s death and still focusing on her superhero duties. Her abilities have not wavered and she can easily take out a whole gang of villains in one go. Chris D’Amico has also been focused, but not on being a superhero. He is now “The Motherfucker”, a dangerous supervillain. This all begins as a hilarious tongue-in-cheek attempt until he sets after Kick Ass and Hit Girl in revenge of his father. This results in the death of good people, most notably Dave’s harmless father, who sacrifices himself to save his son, turning himself in as Kick Ass when the authorities imprison anyone claiming to be a superhero, and later being murdered by other inmates who are working on behalf of Chris D’Amico.
What these two films have highlighted is the stark difference between fantasy and reality. In films like Spiderman and The Avengers we see glamorised heroes and villains where all the deaths are reasonably clean and the good guys always win. On the rare occasion that a lead character dies, it tends to only be some dispensable good guy who no-one was really attached to. Either that or they come back in the next film with a few changes such as Jean Grey in X-Men 2 and X-Men: The Last Stand. In real life, however, this wouldn’t be the case, as Kick Ass highlights; the people who should not be harmed at all are the ones who are tortured and killed. In the first film, Kick Ass is tortured for trying to make a difference. In the second, his father is brutally murdered.
In light of this, to what extent is it actually worth it to be altruistic in the face of evil? Kick Ass spent the entire two films trying time after time to do good for the sake of others, but this consistently led to him being in extreme pain or the death of someone he cared about. Is this justifiable sacrifice? Why should Dave be the only one trying to do good? Surely for the sake of society and humanity we should all be trying to live well with one another, and if this was the case then Kick Ass wouldn’t even need to exist, let alone put himself through such trials to try and help others.
Moreover in regards to the specific events of the second film, Dave’s behaviour didn’t actually get him far. He became part of a group of superheroes who attempted to fight crime, but this group was then targeted by The Motherfucker and the leader was killed. Then later, his father was killed in his place when The Motherfucker discovered Kick Ass’ identity. In this respect, perhaps Kick Ass should have quit whilst he was ahead, as his constant presence in the public eye only aggravated Chris D’Amico further into plotting his revenge. If Kick Ass had remained inconspicuous, however, perhaps The Motherfucker might never have escalated to using such violent and determined means to kill Kick Ass. In this respect, perhaps Kick Ass would have been better off not being altruistic as it only got him into further difficulties with his enemy.
Despite this, altruism in general should not be written off. The key issue with Kick Ass’ superheroes is that they all make themselves so obvious. They wear these, to use the words of Harmony from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s ‘The Wish’, “‘come bite me’ outfits” which encourage evil-doers to target them. To make matters worse, each outfit clearly identifies each different superhero, so we can all see the difference between Hit Girl and Kick Ass. This wouldn’t be a problem if they had actual superpowers as they could then more easily defend themselves, but in a real world where you don’t have Wolverine’s healing abilities, Superman’s super strength or Iron Man’s suit, these superheroes are far more likely to die. The easy solution to this would be for these superheroes to blend in, perhaps with a uniform… oh wait, but doesn’t that just sound like a police officer? Yes, yes it does. The solution for these superheroes is to just blend in. Sure, they can go into special forces or become some kind of MI5 special agent, but essentially they need to be part of a bigger unit which will help to protect them. So if I was to meet a pre-Kick Ass Dave tomorrow, recommend to him that if he wants to do good and be altruistic then he should work on joining the police, because honestly that is a lot safer for him and those around him than attempting to become a glorified superhero, whilst still gets to undertake the same altruistic activities and helping others.
Essentially, as long as humanity exists so will evil, and we shall never escape those people who become overcome by the desire to do harm to others, for whatever reason. In which case, superheroes will always be needed so long as humanity continues. So perhaps what we should really be questioning is whether or not these superheroes need to be in the like of Kick Ass, James Bond or just a good old Hot Fuzz friendly police officer. From Kick Ass we learn that for the safety of those we care about, particularly if they are innocent, the safest way to fight evil is via the latter two, and not as a “superhero” wearing a bright green wetsuit.
For anyone who has seen an episode of the epic Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they’ll know that Buffy is a strong feminist figure. She is a girl chosen to fight against “the vampires, demons and the forces of darkness”; a heroine working on the side of good, a role model for young girls. So what’s wrong with this image? Essentially, nothing. But the more we see of Buffy as the show progresses, the more it comes to light that she has become somewhat conceited, taking her power to mean she is better than her peers, begging the question: does a physical advantage equate to being “better” than another person? This attitude of Buffy’s finally comes to a head in season 7’s ‘Empty Places’ where her friends confront her on her mind-set and Buffy finally faces one of her biggest demons yet: herself.
This piece will examine Buffy’s role in the series and her character’s attitude towards her abilities as a slayer and how that impacts other people. I will assess whether Buffy is indeed a good role model or whether in fact her conceitedness is too much to bare, and is a bad example to viewers.
Why Buffy shouldn’t be counting her chickens
Buffy’s ability is, as Anya puts it, “handed” to her. She didn’t earn it. She should feel lucky, be humbled by her position as a slayer – she was chosen as a slayer, but as season 7’s revelation of potential slayers demonstrates, any of these potential slayers could have been chosen too. And this is highlighted even in season 2 when Kendra is called as a slayer – there are plenty of girls all ready to take the slayer position, they just need to be called. So Buffy isn’t quite so special after all; she’s one of many girls who have been chosen as potentials. The way her power is thrust upon her rather than being something she has achieved is even highlighted in the early seasons, where in season 1’s ‘Prophecy Girl’ she exclaims “I quit” in her reluctance to accept her duty, something which she didn’t ask for or desire.
Yet despite this reluctance in the early seasons, Buffy also maintains a level of drama around her position as slayer at pretty much all crucial times. She consistently makes a fuss of attempting to keep others safe, how every fight is “her” fight, and refusing to accept help. She yells at her friends for trying to help her, at one stage even exclaiming how they “get in the way” and she can’t spend all her time trying to protect them. Her brash treatment of the ‘Scooby Gang’ in this respect depicts a conceitedness of character from even seasons 1 and 2.
We see further such behaviour in season 3 with the arrival of Faith, who brings out this conceited attitude in Buffy. Of the two of them, Buffy is definitely the “good slayer”. Yet she still errs from the “right” course at first, going along with Faith in ‘Bad Girls’, where we see Buffy led into crime and carelessness as she uptakes an attitude of “want, take, have” – something which is later echoed in season 7’s ‘Touched’ where she walks into a man’s house and demands him to leave – “it’s what all the cool kids are doing”. She does what she likes with little regard for the people it affects, believing that she is better than them so is entitled to do as she pleases.
By season 5 this conceitedness manifests in a general ‘I’m better than everyone [because of her power] therefore I can beat anything’ attitude, and we see Buffy at perhaps her most frustrated when she is taken down a peg or two by Glory, a hell god. Later in the season, Buffy is required to undertake tests by the Watchers Council, where after briefly submitting to them, she rebels back, arguing that she quits the council – she no longer needs their help, they need her. Which was probably true, but this experience seems to fuel her conceited attitude. Later, in season 6, she goes through a tough time – what with being resurrected and so on. Yet with a younger sister of 16 – the age Buffy was when she first hit our screens – you would think she would allow said sister to help her on patrols, or at least with research. But no, it’s always “too dangerous”. Which we could accept as a valid excuse, except that Willow and Xander at 16 (essentially helpless teens back then) were allowed to tag along (at least with research) without much persistence of Buffy (except patrols and physical battles – she didn’t like them joining in on those). So, um, why is slaying (or rather, research) only “your” thing Buffy? Because only she has the ability, the special slayer powers to do it. It’s her exclusive thing that makes her better than others. Yet this contrasts everything we’ve seen of the rest of the Scoobies, who quite frankly didn’t seem to be doing too badly protecting Sunnydale from the vampires (including going out on patrols) at the beginning of season 3 whilst Buffy had ran away from her responsibilities. So clearly being a slayer doesn’t mean only you exclusively can slay vampires. Season 7’s normal human and vampire hunter Robin Wood is also an example of this.
“Luckier than us”
By season 7 Buffy’s attitude gets the better of her. She treats the potential slayers like children and even looks down on her ability-equal Faith, being outraged during the ‘Empty Places’ intervention-type discussion with her friends when they make the suggestion that Faith becomes leader for a while. Buffy fails to see how anyone could surpass her abilities and skills, even though Faith has a similar level of experience and has the same biological slayer abilities as Buffy. Really, there isn’t actually much of a reason why she shouldn’t have a go at leading.
What I find the most frustrating about Buffy’s conceited attitude, though, is that despite frequent underlying suspicions throughout the show, she finally actually admits it to Spike in ‘Touched’, where she talks about how she has “always cut herself off” from others as she feels she is in a different league to them because of her slayer skills – “being the slayer made me different”. The issue that needs to be addressed is whether or Buffy is actually “better” than normal people because of her skills. Well, Buffy herself has not been awarded her slayer skills; they just happen to have been assigned to her. There’s no denying she’s done a good job as the slayer; she is, after all, the longest living one. However, her abilities do not make her better than her peers for the very reason that she did not earn them. As Anya quite nicely puts it, “that doesn’t make you better than us; that makes you luckier than us”. Buffy has been blessed with these abilities and should act accordingly with them; this includes not becoming conceited and working on behalf of, and with, others – including a reformed Faith, who having overcome her own conceitedness, is able to work alongside others to do good with her abilities. What’s ironic about this, of course, is that in season 3 we were all begging Faith to be like Buffy; but by season 7 in some respects we’re kind of hoping for it to be the other way around.
Is Buffy a good role model?
On paper, Buffy is a good role model – she’s a hero, she always saves the day and tries to do what’s right. As a slayer, she is a good role model – she succeeds in her trials, she fights well and she is a fierce leader. She gets the job done, and she’s not overcome by evil in the way Faith was in earlier seasons. Buffy’s a safe bet. But her character also possesses an underlying conceitedness which means she is a bad role model. Her subtle haughtiness throughout the show does not induce feelings of sharing and equality to viewers, and this is potentially quite dangerous. In particular, in season 7 when her behaviour eventually manifests in a smash of opinions as her friends confront her on her behaviour. Given that it was something that needed to come to a head in the final few episodes of the show, clearly even writers could see that this character had some serious arrogance issues which needed addressing. Buffy’s power got out of hand, and her attitude with it. Her behaviour, particularly towards the end of season 7, demonstrates how power can corrupt a person, giving them a feeling that they can do anything and treat others how they like, and for this reason Buffy is not a good role model. In her case, her friends had enough and this is what led to what viewers see as an epiphany-type discussion with Spike.
Following this, Buffy began to accept that others might be as strong and important, or even more so, than herself. For example, when she refers to Willow as her “big gun”, where Willow’s spell was the most crucial part of her plan – not her own performance. Finally, it’s not just Buffy fighting by herself: it’s everyone. And so by the end of the final episode, she finally achieves a good role model status, a leader who sees her “army” as equals; they could have continued fighting without her. For a character who has been a conceited, bad role model for the rest of the show’s 142 episodes up until the last two, though; well, it’s just too little too late.
TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer created by Joss Whedon is available now on DVD from amazon.co.uk.
The recently released Iron Man 3 was an incredible film. Brilliant CGI, astounding acting and edge-of-your-seat suspense kept viewers interested until the last moment; but then, I would say this is as expected of a Joss Whedon creation. No, there is definitely no doubt it is an excellent film. So if you haven’t seen it, go away now and watch it, because there are spoilers from here on out!
So Tony Stark creates the Iron Man suits, and he is working on upgrades. We see one of these suits speaking to his girlfriend Pepper and interacting with her, later discovering that Tony is not inside the suit: the empty suit is being controlled by Tony remotely; it is for all intents and purposes, a robot. Later in the film we discover that Tony has an army of these suits who are autonomous – he instructs them to destroy the enemy (persons with the Extremis substance injected into them) and they do so. Unfortunately this also includes his girlfriend, who has been kidnapped by evil nemesis Killian and injected with Extremis, so he has to suddenly try and save her.
Tony’s robots are incredible, and they certainly help him to save people, as we see in the film’s climax. However, to what extent are these robots, who act autonomously under a general direction from Tony, potentially dangerous? Can we blame the consequences of their actions on him, because he created, programs and directs them? Or should we blame the robots’ actions and their consequences on the robots themselves? Or even the technology of the time; that man-made creations have advanced to the extent that they are autonomous and can cause danger to humanity itself? This post will investigate this.
The robots try to harm Pepper, undertaking what we would undoubtedly consider to be an immoral action with potentially tragic consequences. The robots do this under instruction from Tony. So surely this would mean Tony is responsible for Pepper’s harm? Moreover he created the robots, designed and instructed them to perform in the way that they did. Perhaps he could have prevented them from harming Pepper by giving more specific instructions. This would suggest that Pepper’s being harmed was an avoidable situation and that Tony’s actions did in fact lead to the robots attempting to harm her. So yes, perhaps Tony is to blame.
At the same time though, one cannot pre-empt the consequences or sub-consequences of every decision they make. In the film, Tony was under immense time pressures and gave direct, but general, orders. He was unaware of Pepper’s affection by the Extremis procedure so the attack from his robots was, in effect, unavoidable. Given that he gave the orders in order to save the President and other innocent people, it was a necessary requirement of him that he should make such orders because in doing so he knew he would save them. The robots attacking Pepper was an unfortunate sub-consequence of this decision which was unforeseeable by Tony and therefore cannot be blamed on him.
The Robot’s Fault
So if it’s not Tony’s fault, then can we blame the robots? Well, they don’t have autonomy, so it wouldn’t seem so. All their actions are as a result of an order, directed by Tony (or whoever is controlling them). So really, we’d have to blame their director; but as we’ve just discussed, it’s not Tony’s fault.
So if we can’t blame the robots, and we can’t blame Tony, then who can we blame for the robots’ attempted attack on Pepper? Well, maybe the issue isn’t who is to blame, but rather what is to blame: technology. The whole difficulty in this Iron Man example situation is that technology has progressed so far as to be out of our control. Granted, Tony created the robots and directed them, but clearly he could not control them far enough as they still attempted to attack Pepper. In this respect, perhaps there is an extent to which robot technology is dangerous and should be prevented; but at the same time, without the robots or the Extremis technology, Tony and Pepper would not have been able to defeat evil Killian. Although without the technology, Killian would not have risen in the first place!
Essentially though, the fact that the robots attempted an attack on Pepper was an oversight not on their part, but on Tony’s part. Granted we have accepted that he was not to blame, but the mistake here seems to lie in human fallibility, not the robots themselves. Sure, technology has progressed to an extremely advanced, almost worrying extent, but ultimately only at the control and direction of humans, and we all know humans are not perfect: we make mistakes. Ultimately it’s these mistakes that are the root cause of the problem; not the technology. In this respect we can say that robot autonomy is acceptable, provided the director has done their utmost to prevent possible issues and foresee potential dangerous consequences in all potential instances.
Iron Man 3 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from amazon.co.uk.
For further discussion on the ethics of robotics, I recommend checking out Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics edited by Patrick Lin, Keith Abney and George A. Bekey.
It’s the zombie apocalypse!
What do you do? Where do you go? How do you survive? These are all key questions addressed in modern zombie drama The Walking Dead. As the series progresses we follow the characters as they adapt to their traumatic situation and learn to live with the revolutionary world changes brought with the coming of the zombies (or “walkers”, as they like to call them). Developing alongside the characters are their ethical decisions and perspectives on morality; how do we decide what’s right and wrong in this new, horrific world? This post will use The Walking Dead as an example to examine to what extent morality itself changes with an apocalyptic situation, and how it is interpreted by the people acting according (or in many cases, not according) to it.
Morality: objective or subjective?
Let’s start at the beginning. Where do we get our ideas of what is morally right and wrong from? Philosophical perspectives differ on this; some argue we gain our ideas of morality from our subjective upbringing, so we learn about “good” and “bad” actions from what others tell us, and other perspectives claim there are objective moral values, i.e. there’s an invisible concrete code of which actions are right and which are wrong.
Let’s consider that moral values are down to one’s upbringing, for example one might gain their moral values from the country in which they live. So if Person A lives in a country where the death penalty is standard for crimes such as murder, then Person A might believe that killing someone who is a murderer is permissible. Alternatively, Person B who lives in a country where there is no death penalty might believe that killing someone else, or even allowing them to die, is never permissible, regardless of what crimes they have permitted.
Changing Morality in the Wake of Zombies
In The Walking Dead season 1 we follow Officer Rick on his journey of survival after waking up from a coma during the zombie apocalypse. After encountering a group of people being threatened by hick thug Merle, Rick tackles Merle and handcuffs him to a pipe on the roof of a skyscraper. The group encounters some trouble and end up having to leave the city. Rick wants to go back to save Merle. Now, in current society this would be deemed the moral thing to do; after all, it’s how Rick has been brought up. He is a cop; he’s meant to undertake selfless actions despite personal sacrifice and he certainly couldn’t let anyone die of thirst and exposure like that, regardless of how villainous they are.
Yet as the series goes on we notice Rick becoming hardened by his experiences. He has to murder other, live (i.e. not zombies!) men to “protect the group”, and claims that they are “no longer a democracy”. Surely this goes against how he has been brought up, in regard to moral values? He lived in America, where democracy is respected and adhered to, and now he rebels against that; something he never would have done in season 1. Moreover, he is killing people to protect his group. This is definitely something he would never have done in season 1, where he was willing to give anyone a chance. Now, at the first sign of an attack or any kind of self-defence, such as with the prison inmates in season 3, Rick kills the person.
The most prominent morality change in a character though, aside from Shane in season 1, has to be Carl in season 3. Beginning his story as an innocent child, Carl becomes ruthless with a gun, at first simply attacking zombies but later killing a surrendering teenage boy, clearly scared, who had disarmed himself. Farmer Hershall witnesses the sharp shooting from Carl and alerts Rick, who semi-disbelieves the incident. We see Carl leave behind his father’s sheriff badge when the group leave the jail; symbolic of his loss of innocence and the old moral values. Now, it is kill or be killed. In this way, the stories of The Walking Dead suggest that moral values are dependent upon our upbringing, as the characters’ values of what actions are permissible and impermissible changes dramatically over the course of each season. Just as Rick would’ve given someone a chance to explain in season 1, for example the group of youths caring for the elderly in a shelter, by season 3 he’d rather not take any risks and even suggests to Daryl that a viable option with meeting newcomers is to just slaughter them. Nice.
Interpretations of Morality
Yet perhaps objective moral values do exist; we just interpret them differently in extreme situations such as the rise of zombies in The Walking Dead. This would explain why even when Rick does kill others during season 3, he does it with a heavy heart and clearly feels guilty for his actions, at some stages even border-lining on insanity. Likewise, Rick understands the importance of teaching Carl when killing is justified after Carl kills the surrendering boy. If Rick felt killing recklessly was clearly permissible he would not have emphasised this point to Carl.
So it would seem that although their actions have changed, our characters’ perceptions of what is right and wrong hasn’t necessarily differed. Rather, the way in which they interpret and act on morality has been changed in adapting to their strikingly different living situation. Therefore it might be suggested that ideas of morality don’t depend upon upbringing alone; in fact, there may well be objective moral values, however the way that they are interpreted and influence a person’s actions depends upon the environment in which they live. In such an extreme situation as the one the characters of The Walking Dead face, the strictness under which objective morals are adhered to is fairly loose; characters have to be sceptical to survive, and it is very much a kill-or-be-killed world. We need to remember that really, that’s not necessarily the humans’ fault (unless you’re the Governor and a bit crazy); in fact, it’s because of the horrendous living situation they are facing. Essentially, they have to allow a looser ethical presence not because they’re heartless, but because they want to stay alive. So if you want to blame anyone, blame the zombies: they started it.
The Walking Dead is a TV series currently in development for its 4th season and is available on DVD from Amazon.
Special thanks to master philosopher Richard Playford for a philosophical discussion sparking ideas on this topic.
What influence do our memories have upon who we are and our identities?
For most people, memories make up a large part of who we are. It’s how we identify where and who we are. As evident from many amnesia and Alzheimer’s patients, without our memories we can lose awareness of our surroundings and even our own feelings to some extent.
The film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind delves eagerly into uncovering the mystery of just how our memory makes up our identity in such a way. This post will thereby investigate whether or not we are still able to discover our true path or destiny when having lost memories of key moments in our past by examining the events of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and contrasting them to philosopher John Locke’s idea of identity. I will then briefly examine some of the ethics involved in the events of the film, finally concluding that if such technology existed it would be permissible for it to be used in extreme psychological cases.
The role of memory
Philosopher John Locke argued that what makes us the same person today as the person we were yesterday is that we have memories of being that person yesterday. So we know Buffy in season 7 is the same person as Buffy in season 2 because in season 7 she remembers (and references) events that occurred in season 2 (which I won’t reference so I don’t spoil it for those of you who are yet to watch it).
So if memory is the criteria of our identity, what happens when memories are lost? This is the premise examined in Eternal Sunshine: the idea of the perfect happiness (“Eternal Sunshine”) of a mind without negative memories: a “Spotless Mind”.
Joel and Clementine have a turbulent relationship. Clementine discovers a surgery where people can have all their memories of certain people (or in some cases, animals) erased from their memory, so it is as if that person never existed for them – they become a stranger. In an impulsive moment of anger after an argument Clementine decides to have this procedure undertaken so that Joel is erased from her memory. Joel in turn discovers what she has done and undertakes the same procedure for Clementine.
How does the procedure affect their identity?
Well, from the beginning of the film we see them going about their daily lives… until they meet each other (believing they are strangers) and have an incredible spark. So having had their memories removed, they seem to regress to the people they were before meeting – finding each other attractive and beginning a relationship. This suggests that certainly at least a large part of one’s identity resides in their memories.
This is also evidenced by the fact that when Joel’s memories are being removed he begins to resist the process. He realises that he doesn’t want to have Clementine removed from his memory as she has become a part of who he is; the memories he has of her have helped him get to where he is today – and he still loves her.
An ethical procedure?
From the events of the film, it appears the memory removal procedure is not an ethical one. Both Joel and from what we see, Clementine too, are able to go into the procedure without being fully aware of what the procedure will do and the implications of it for the rest of their life. It is, in a way, the reverse of a mind tattoo… that you’ll never have the evidence of.
Moreover, the Dr in the film appears to use it to his advantage, having his assistant who he had an affair with undertake the procedure so that they could continue working together. This poor girl remains in love with the Dr never knowing that they had already had a failed affair; it certainly doesn’t appear ethical in that those with the power to undertake the procedure are able to use it to their advantage. Further abuse is demonstrated in the clear carelessness with which the procedure itself is undertaken, as the Drs are drinking alcohol, eating snacks and even jumping on the bed of the patient.
Having said that, there may be some cases where it is permissible for such a procedure to be used. For example, in a case where someone is abused and it is seriously affecting their mental health, it could be argued that removing the memories of the abuse is the kindest thing to do and restores them to their original identity. On the other hand, some abuse victims believe that, in retrospect; undergoing such horrific experiences have actually given them a different outlook on life and have made them stronger as people. So how can we know, if we undertake such a permanent procedure, that the patient won’t have felt similarly a few years down the line? We can’t.
Does a Spotless Mind induce Eternal Sunshine?
Having a spotless mind, i.e. a mind without certain negative memories, does not induce eternal sunshine and happiness. Losing memories removes a part of who we are, it kills a part of our lifetime experiences, which accumulated give us a sense of awareness about the world.
Certainly, for some people having a spotless mind might induce some sort of happiness in returning to their former selves, but surely having such a procedure done cannot be kept a secret forever (as we see in the film), and once discovered can only have perhaps even more painful consequences. Therefore if such a procedure was to exist it would have to have strict ethical guidelines as to who could have it undertaken.
As a result, when trying to remove the grey clouds of memory to reach eternal sunshine, maybe we should just let it rain instead. After all, who said a spotted mind couldn’t lead to eternal sunshine too?
In the infamously shocking Game of Thrones series, two characters whose circumstances are easily paralleled but who are poles apart (both geographically and mentally) are Daenerys Targaryen and Theon Greyjoy. I am going to investigate exactly why Daenerys and Theon go such strikingly separate ways in the series when in fact they begin in very similar situations. I will then draw on the works of Plato to explain how Daenerys draws influences from ancient philosopher Socrates to provide an example of how a humble leader is often the most effective.
Daenerys & Theon: Similar Origins
Despite being introduced to them in prominently diverse settings, Theon and Daenerys both begin as outsiders struggling to gain a foothold in a chaotic world. Both have been ousted by those who love them, whether deliberately or by chance. Theon has been sent to live with the Starks in Winterfell as a result of peace terms following his father’s rebellion, and consequently feels shunned by his family. Meanwhile Daenerys’ family were slaughtered by the Mad King Aerys, all but her abusive brother Viserys, hence she feels alone and again abandoned by those who loved her – in this case her would-be subjects if she were to have remained a part of the royal family.
The most important similarity between Daenerys and Theon, though, is that they both strive to regain the power that has been lost to them after experiencing a trigger, or catalyst-like, event. For example, once she begins detaching herself from Viserys, Daenerys realises her capability of becoming a leader and reclaiming the Iron Throne. Similarly, once Rob Stark rebels against the south and claims himself King in the North, Theon begins hungering for his own leadership as ruler of the Iron Islands.
What marks the difference between Theon and Daenerys’ journeys? How do they end up in such different positions, Daenerys with a loyal army and Theon with a failed leadership attempt?
The difference, I believe, is humility. From the moment we first meet Theon he is dripping with arrogance. Despite his helpfulness to the Starks, his interactions with them almost entirely consist of snide comments, bitter remarks and the encouragement of violence, and as soon as he believes the opportunity is available he is frantic to stake his claim to the Iron Islands. Upon his return home he treats his kinsmen like lessers and subsequently fails to gain their respect, in turn leading to drastic, horrific actions to attempt to regain it. The pure conceit Theon displays when ransacking Winterfell and slaughtering its inhabitants is repugnant and marks the clear failure of his attitude in successfully gaining a position as a respected leader of his people.
In stark (excuse the pun) contrast, Daenerys’ attitude towards leadership is one of respect and humility. Despite facing a perilous and frankly terrifying situation in marrying Dothraki Khal Drogo, she faces her fate with bravery, accepting and adapting to her circumstances by requesting her handmaids to help her in pleasing Drogo in the bedroom – something that other female characters of her age would never have dared to do (consider Sansa Stark, for example). After Drogo’s death, her focus is not just upon her own aim to take the Iron Throne; no, Daenerys sets slaves free and attempts to aid the remainder of her Khalasar. She never forgets where she came from and who helped her along the way, providing rewards where they are due, such as Ser Barristan Selmy becoming a part of her Queensguard, and punishing where betrayals are met, for example with Ser Jorah Mormont. She becomes an adored Queen, reflected in that her followers refer to her as their “mother” of dragons, begging her help for which she hears as many subjects in court as possible. Her acquirement of the Unsullied is used to set slaves free and prevent crimes in the cities in which she rules, and she does not abuse her position with frivolous activities or squandering of money.
Daenerys and Socrates: Wise Souls
It is in this way that I believe that the character of Daenerys draws upon some key ideas of ancient philosopher Socrates as evidenced in Plato’s works. Socrates emphasises the importance of humility in wisdom; he believed that he was no wiser than anyone else, despite his reputation as a valued philosopher. In Plato’s Meno, for example, Socrates explains how all humans are born with knowledge; they just require a teacher to question them in order to retrieve the answer. In this way, no human is wiser than the next; it just depends on who has been asked the right questions.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates investigates the origin of wisdom with his friend Chaerephon, who asks “the oracle” whether there is anyone wiser than Socrates. To Socrates’ surprise, the oracle says no. After investigating, Socrates discovers that although other people appear wiser or to have more extensive knowledge, often they are exaggerating and claim to know more than they do, or to be wise when they are not – in a similar way to Theon, with his broad arrogance in abilities and claimed wisdom in leadership which both prove to be false. From Socrates’ investigation we can then infer that one is wise if they are, in actual fact, wise and with extensive knowledge, but also do not know/are not arrogant that they are so: they are humble.
This theory is successfully evidenced by Daenerys. She accepts, from the beginning, that she has much to learn, and seeks to learn it – the sign of a good philosopher, according to Socrates. She asks debates with those around her such as her maid Doreah and her knight Ser Jorah in order that she might gain knowledge, just as the slave boy does in Plato’s Meno. At no point does she believe she knows everything or is all-wise; she keeps advisors around her who she includes and requests to aid her in her decisions, often debating with them in doing so. One could even argue that she uses Socrates’ “elenchus” method of debating to “get to the truth of things”, as philosophers often do.
Perhaps the main evidence of Daenerys’ wisdom is her dragons. They are her constant focus, and she asks anyone she can about their origin whilst testing her own abilities with fire, such as holding her dragon egg in the fire. She is constantly learning with them after they hatch, asking for others’ opinions and attempting to gain further knowledge of them: never being arrogant in what she already knows. It is this constant curiosity and unquestionable acceptance that she always has more to know, alongside her beliefs that others around her are wiser, that demonstrates Daenerys’ humility, and this is what makes her so loved by her followers: she respects them and does not act as if she is better than them, because she knows she was once one of them.
Daenerys: Winning the Game of Thrones?
Following Socrates’ example, Daenerys is constantly developing her wisdom and knowledge with humility and respect. Contrasting her with Theon Greyjoy has demonstrated how this humble attitude has shaped her as a strong, beloved leader of her followers compared to Theon who repulses those who he hopes to follow him. Since we first met her, Daenerys’ attitude has developed her to become perhaps the most developed character in the series, something which I believe may be putting her in the winning position in the Game of Thrones – a good position to be in, considering “you either win or you die”. However, in this game nobody is safe, so humility remains essential if one aims to win. Good job Daenerys has perfected that, then; now let’s just see if she can keep it up.
For more information on Plato (and Socrates) on wisdom, check out Stanford, or read Plato’s Apology and Meno, available from Penguin or Kindle books.
Game of Thrones is a book series by George R.R. Martin which has been made into a HBO TV series. Seasons 1 and 2 are out now on Blu-ray and DVD and Season 3 begins airing 31st March 2013.
Nietzsche. He’s very much the marmite of philosophy, dividing his readers down the middle in a barrage of differing opinions that equate, well, to marmite.
Whilst studying Nietzsche’s middle period, a concept which particularly interested me was ‘Eternal Recurrence’. If taken as a guide for how to live, I believe this would provide a directive for the actions of renowned Buffy the Vampire Slayer character Faith. I’m going to take a look at this, and consider whether Eternal Recurrence is successful as a guide for living life – firstly in regard to Buffy character Faith, and secondly in respect to humanity in general.
Faith is essentially a slayer gone wrong; the “bad” slayer, the slayer without friends and family – Buffy’s total opposite.
After Buffy drowns and is resuscitated in Season 1, another slayer, Kendra, is called, and later killed by Drusilla. In turn, Faith is called, turning up in Sunnydale in Season 3 to wreak havoc amongst our Scooby gang – and she plans to stick around, too.
Initially working for the side of good (or so we believe at this point), Faith joins Buffy on patrol, their “synchronised slaying” being very much enjoyed by passionate Faith. This develops into a show of power in ‘Bad Girls’, where Faith tempts Buffy on wild wander into the realms of teen naughtiness by stealing, skipping classes and the ultimate bad: murder.
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’” (The Gay Science S341)
Nietzsche’s thought experiment above is asking us to consider how we live our lives. Are we in the loneliest loneliness, living miserably and not making the most of what we have? If so, we’d be horrified at the prospect of re-living our lives. Or are we living happily, as we want to, elated at the idea of being able to experience all these fantastical things we have done all over again?
Nietzsche wants us to be the latter, living life to the fullest, so that re-living it would be gratifying.
Nietzsche wants us to live life as we’d like, in a way that we would enjoy it the most. Faith is the personification of this idea. From the moment we first see her, she’s oozing with a sexual confidence which leads her to, as she puts it, “want, take, have” whatever she feels she needs, including people. She believes she is “better” than others because of her slayer power, giving her the right to do as she likes.
And she enjoys it, revelling in her ability to abuse her power in any way possible, whether that’s seducing Angel, trying to kill Xander, or even murdering a human being. She’s having fun and she’d be happy to, when confronted with Nietzsche’s demon, re-live it all again and again for eternity. After all, she doesn’t feel guilt:
Buffy: “Faith, you killed a man.”
Faith: “No Buffy, you don’t get it. I don’t care.”
So Faith is a happy, evil bunny, adhering to Nietzsche’s suggestion. But does Nietzsche really mean that we can live however we want to, even if it’s at the expense of other people? There’s not much that suggests otherwise, although I won’t rule out contrasting evidence – I’m not a Nietzsche scholar, after all.
Does Eternal Recurrence work as a guide for Faith?
Well, anyone who has seen either Buffy or Angel, or both, will know that it doesn’t. After her evil alliance with The Mayor at the end of Buffy’s Season 3 episode ‘Consequences’, her definite cross over to the path of evil was confirmed. She later falls into a coma, and once awoken in Season 4, goes after Buffy and co. Upon wreaking havoc yet again in the good slayer’s life, Faith escapes to LA where she finally breaks down to Angel and admits experiencing guilt for her actions: she’s a mess. After Buffy shows up and more drama ensues, Faith finally turns herself in to the police and serves time for her actions.
So although she was “five by five” after committing murders, enjoying being evil, her conscience caught up with her and she began to atone for her behaviour, undergoing significant emotional suffering to do so. Now surely that isn’t something she’d want to re-live in Eternal Recurrence?
For this reason, Eternal Recurrence fails as a guide to life for Faith. She does, however, come out better on the other side, joining Angel in Season 4 to help restore his soul and arriving fully prepared to sacrifice her life for him in ‘Orpheus’. She then joins Buffy and co in the fight against The First, again, putting her head on the chopping block if it means helping to save the world.
Despite a supposed sacrificial nature, we still glimpse Faith’s dark side in Buffy’s Season 7 when she takes the potentials out partying, enraging Buffy (what’s new?) as well as getting flirty with Spike (upsetting Buffy again) and getting kinky with Robin Wood – that one didn’t upset anybody, though. Anyway, despite being “good”, Faith still manages to act in a “want, take, have”, Nietzschean way… to an extent. It appears she has more of an awareness of her actions at this point, being able to exert control and immediately backing down at any point of confrontation. In ‘Empty Places’, she doesn’t argue for her role as leader, it is simply handed to her, whereas Season 3 Faith would have got a power kick from it. Is this a more considered Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence attitude? Perhaps. Or it could just be maturity.
So, does Eternal Recurrence work as a guide for life?
Using Faith as an example, Neitzsche’s idea definitely shows promise. I think to use it as a guide to life would have to be vague; we don’t have much specificity in the concept, which may be why Faith is such a car crash character.
Having said that, the principle does hold down a generally desirable idea – I’m sure most of us would want to feel, at the end of our lives, that we could happily re-live it without a huge amount of regret or negative feeling. Hence if we were to accept Eternal Recurrence as a guide to life, we would need to do so loosely; using common sense and our conscience to ensure we do not undertake actions which may later come back and, well, bite us in the butt (or neck, if we’re dealing with vampires). Exerting superpowers was all very well for Faith, until she remembered she had a soul (and therefore a conscience), and so began an influx of immense guilt. Probably best to avoid that if you’re going to have a life of Eternal Recurrence! Therefore, I conclude that Eternal Recurrence does indeed work as a guide for life, if combined with common sense and a conscience, though not very well for Faith.
Souls. What are they? What do they represent? What is the purpose of a soul?
These ideas are explored at length in the Buffyverse and I’ve noticed a contrast between early/later Buffy and Angel in the way that they approach the concept of a soul. To illustrate these differences, I will draw on some philosophy from John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I will also briefly draw on certain characters to exemplify the role of souls within the Buffyverse – there’s so many I could bring in, and in such detail, but I’ll just give a brief overview here.
Let’s start at the beginning. In Buffy the idea of a soul is introduced as a condition for good-ness. For example, in Season 1 we discover that Angel is a vampire. Initial response: omg horror, Buffy has kissed an evil thing! Then we find out he has a soul. Ok, this must mean he is “good” then. Generally he is accepted as part of the Scoobies and Buffy’s life goes on.
After he sleeps with Buffy in Season 2, Angel loses his soul and is described as being “evil” again. Again, we generally accept this and Buffy knows she must kill him. Angel is a clear example: having a soul = good, not having a soul = bad.
John Locke’s Souls
John Locke had a similar idea in the concept of a soul. He discussed the differences between a “man” and a “person”. A man, he argued, was simply a living being of a particular shape; i.e. what sets us apart from other species of living thing. What makes us a person, however, is the possession of a soul. This soul possession explains how we recognise a person to be the same person over time – their identity. So for Locke, a soul is the criterion of personal identity – but that’s a kettle of fish for another post! The crux is, a soul is what makes us more than an animal – it’s what makes us human. An animal might behave irrationally, for example killing other animals recklessly, whereas a person has the capacity to think, deliberate and take responsibility for their actions.
Locke & Early BtVS
Locke’s concept of a soul, then, seems to align with the early BtVS idea of a soul. Locke’s distinction between a man and a person is dependent on a soul; Buffy’s distinction between good and evil is dependent on a soul. A person, with a soul, is capable of good, moral actions. A man (i.e. human animal) is not capable of this. This is reflected in Angel’s behaviour. When he has a soul he performs “good” actions: he saves Buffy’s life, he helps the Scoobies beat the bad guys and stakes vampires. When he lacks a soul he acts immorally: he kills people for his own pleasure, plots to destroy the world and follows his instincts to feel satisfied.
However there are limitations to this similarity between the soul ideas of Locke and BtVS. If we are to follow Locke’s concept of a soul being the distinction between a person and a man, then all beings without a soul should be animals, basic creatures without the capacity for complex thought. Evil, soulless beings in Buffy certainly aren’t like this. In fact, most of them have given the Scoobies a definite run for their money in terms of intelligence and mental abilities. I mean, it is for precisely this reason why Angelus is so dangerous – he knows his victims and how to inflict the most pain on them, and uses this knowledge to implement his evil plans. The fact that he has plans alone should be a huge indication that he is far more than just a base being!
So, if we start with Locke, the concept of a soul appears straightforward; however BtVS begins to blur the lines of what its purpose is. Locke would have its purpose as what sets us apart from animals; it gives us a capacity for guilt, responsibility, and humanity. Buffy would have it as the criterion for a good person – potentially. But the concept of a soul gets more complicated as the series develops and spin-off Angel is established. Let’s consider some later Buffy now for even more blurry-lined fun.
Our favourite rouge slayer is the prime counterexample to the soul = good, soulless = evil theory. In fact, we don’t really think about the fact that Faith has a soul until Angel mentions it in “Enemies”, but even then it’s not really addressed. No, Faith is considered in BtVS as evil, the bad slayer. But wait! She has a soul! This should mean she’ll feel remorse, but as she admits herself in “Bad Girls” after she murders an innocent man, ‘I don’t care’. This contradicts everything we had established in the first two series of Buffy – having a soul doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the good side.
And being soulless doesn’t also necessarily mean you’re on the bad side, either. Spike is the perfect example of this. His obsession with Buffy and the Initiative chip in his head lead him to help the Scoobies in fighting evil in Season 4, and in Season 5 he submits himself to horrific torture to protect an innocent Dawn. So a soul’s purpose isn’t always to be “good”, then. We don’t need a soul to act morally.
But then we see Spike’s darker, evil side in “Seeing Red” when he tries to rape Buffy. This behaviour, from a soulless being, should be unsurprising; however it is his feelings of guilt which propel him to seek out his soul so he can be worthy of her. Yet surely if he was evil (being soulless) he wouldn’t feel this guilt in the first place? Something doesn’t add up here in the soul = good concept.
This is addressed further in Season 4 where we see characters face increasingly more real-life situations of other human beings (with souls) committing immoral actions, for example Parker who uses Buffy for sex, Oz cheating on Willow and even Buffy herself with her treatment of Riley in Season 5. But most crucially, the issue of souls and their real purpose is addressed in Buffy’s spin-off Angel, where we examine the concept of Angel as a vampire with a soul in further detail, and the real role of a soul in the Buffyverse mythology.
Souls in Angel are like a huge murky puddle in comparison to Buffy’s early days of a clear freshwater pool where we knew it was clear-cut that a soul = good. In Angel, Wolfram & Hart are an evil law firm, of whom many employees are human. So they have souls. And sure, they might occasionally feel guilt – Lindsay does in “Blind Date”, but quickly goes back to the dark side, persuaded by the promise of a bigger office. A soul’s purpose in Angel then, is definitely not for someone to be “good” – many (if not most) of the lawyers at W&H are human, with souls, and they’re evil.
Darla’s a funny example because she’s gone through so many changes since we first saw her on Buffy. In Angel Season 2 she’s human, but acting evil. Then she admits she feels guilty. Then she becomes a vampire and is evil (again). Then in Season 3 she gets pregnant with a human baby and the baby’s soul affects her, allowing her to feel soul-like emotions like love, which lead her to stake herself for the baby to be born. The prime example of a murky puddle, Darla straddles good and evil as long as we see her, and we’re endeared to her by the time she dusts. And we didn’t really like her when she had a soul!
So how are we to interpret this? Spike and Darla together illustrate that soulless beings might, actually, be capable of good actions. And Faith and Wolfram & Hart illustrate that having a soul doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good (although Faith does repent so she’s another blurry one).
There isn’t an easy way to reconcile these difficulties. After giving it a lot of thought, I think that in the Buffyverse the presence of a soul simply makes it easier to be good, makes it more likely that you’ll feel guilty for acting immorally, more likely that you’ll act morally, and generally want to work alongside other beings with souls to live in harmony.
I also think that certain characters are more affected by the presence of a soul than others, dependent on their core personality traits. Spike, before he was sired, was an extremely sensitive and loving man. This is reflected once he loses his soul through his affection for Drusilla, and we later see this kind of devotion in his feelings towards Buffy, which would explain his selfless actions in protecting her and Dawn in Season 5. Likewise, a resurrected Darla in Season 2 wants to stick to what she knows – evil – which leads to her confused immoral behaviour. Her sudden change in being capable of love in Season 3 she attributes to her child, however I feel that there must be some part of her capable of feeling this way in the same way that Spike feels about Buffy as an evil vampire. Interesting that both soulless vampires Spike and Darla are capable of love around the same time in Buffy and Angel timelines, too.
So what is a soul’s purpose?
Probably to push its owner in the right direction. The soul is, as Locke suggested, what enables them to become a better man, a person (although to a different extent than he suggested – Angelus wasn’t a base demon). Whether one’s soul direction is towards evil and back towards good (Faith), to finally affirm feelings (Spike), to enable love (Darla) or to facilitate a journey of redemption (Angel), the possession of a soul has been a guiding presence in many of our characters’ journeys. And that, I feel, is the Buffyverse’s soul purpose.
For soul-related Buffyverse fun, have a look at Buffy Season 2 for Angel, Buffy Seasons 3 and 7 for Faith, Buffy Seasons 5-7 for Spike and Angel Seasons 2 and 3 for Darla.
Check out Stanford for more information on John Locke and his idea of the soul.