Can Kant Be Redeemed?

May 4, 2009

Start at 1:02 if you must, you impatient person.

For sure, one of the clearest messages in The Wire is that everything you do depends on your position. As Thomas says, the show isn’t about people, it’s about institutions. In The Wire, the viewer is urged to identify with the characters and understand that their actions are not necessarily reflective of their most fundamental traits, but rather are a product of circumstances and personal histories.

Still, part of what makes this show so great is that it never settles for easy explanations when they are dealing with the motivations of real people. The Wire certainly avoids condemnation and attempts to depict even murderers and drug dealer sympathetically, and yet the Sobotka brothers, Frank and Louis, provide a revealing contrast within the show.

Frank is the perfect example of a guy who isn’t really bad but sometimes does bad things. Not terrible things, mind you; Frank doesn’t get directly involved in the affairs of his business partners, he just agrees to look the other way. And, as even the police point out, Frank is not driven by some evil lust after drugs or gaudy material possessions. He lives simply, and uses whatever money he has to help his family or fellow union members.

His brother, on the other hand, apparently lost his job years ago, since which time he has lived boringly and in poverty. We aren’t given many details, but somehow, given similar beginnings, he has ended up in a completely different place from his brother.

The key phrase, in the preceding dialogue, is when Louis describes his actions as “not noble, right.” In saying this, he rejects Frank’s characterization of his actions as part of some grand, long-term plan. For Louis, morality is simple, even when it’s not easy. By making one small decision after another, he avoided the route his brother took. He made his decisions, as he tells his brother, not because it was noble, but because it was right. Even in The Wire, where we do witness people at the extremes of human morality, people aren’t offered clear-cut decision points accompanied by a flashing sign that says “TEST OF CHARACTER.” Rather, every day, little by little, a person like Louis makes small, boring decisions that ensure that he never has to face the truly hard decisions.

The universe depicted by The Wire is not so amoral as it seems at first glance. When we meet its main characters, they already are where they are, and their positions within their institutions and its hierarchies have a tremendous influence on how we see them act. Louis Sobotka doesn’t lead a life interesting enough to have his own TV action-drama, but it’s hard not to see that he’s the happier of the Sobotka brothers.

I’m writing this post after watching this interesting video (possibly distracting in its anti-Jon Stewartism) about the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The blog I got the reference from is, by the way, a very good one, though it’s also the best argument for RSS I’ve seen in recent times. I quite enjoyed this comment:

His defense may be impassioned but it’s unconvincing on its own terms and, like every other defense of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, does not even broach the question of why the U.S. should have sought the unconditional surrender of Japan.

My point, if I have one, is that WWII was such an awful war, it seems to me that some out of the box thinking is required. But for on thing, August 1945 was probably too late to be making this kind of decision.

Kantian ethics is basically debunked at this point in history, but I’m not convinced that more nuanced and complicated ethical theories deliver much better results, even in our complicated world. The Sobotka brothers are an illustration (albeit a fictional one) of how always planning for the long-term, as Frank does, can make you worse off than someone who ignores the long-term and focuses only on doing what is right, right now.

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