New Material: Movies

December 30, 2008

In order to keep up my readership, I’ll do my best to keep posting notwithstanding the lack of comments so far (hint hint).  So here goes…

I’ve often noticed that Hollywood producers use movies to convey political messages, and not just in the obvious Michael Moore mockumentaries.  It is important to analyze the subtler messages we receive in movies, to get to the worldview underneath. 

In this regard, the most disturbing movie I have ever seen is The Cider House Rules, starring Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Michael Caine.  Most conservatives would find the obvious pro-abortion messages in the 1999 film offensive.  However, an even more sinister message underscores the film. 

The “cider house rules” were a list of rules on the wall of a cider house occupied by black apple orchard workers.  The black workers could not read, so they had lived in the cider house oblivious to the rules for some time.  Along comes Tobey Mcguire’s character, who begins to read the rules to them (rules they had been unknowingly breaking all along), but the patriarch of the black family abruptly interrupts and says that those rules were written by someone else who does not live here, but we (black workers) live here and we make our own rules. 

To me, this is an obvious metaphor for a very common attitude: God does not live here, we live here, so we make our own rules.  It does not matter if abortion or anything else is immoral or prohibited by God, we humans are the measure of all that matters on earth.  Scary stuff. 

This attitude is largely echoed in law schools today.  The school of legal positivism, prevailing among law professors, declares that the law is simply what we humans decide it is, and there is nothing natural, inherent, or moral about it.  It is arbitrary.  Legally speaking, the difference between allowing rape and prohibiting it is about the same as that between designating the right or the left hand side of the road for driving (there may be reasons for choosing one or the other, but the law itself is indifferent to the choice).

Please share any movies you found particularly disturbing on a worldview level. 

I would like to add here, to make this post a little more pleasant, that I recently saw the movie the Gran Torino.  While the movie has more racial epithets and swearing than any other movie I’ve ever seen, it had a very redemptive message.  I commend it to mature audiences.

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12 Responses to “New Material: Movies”

  1. Motspur Says:

    So you’re cool with it when Hollywood uses movies to convey conservative views but not liberal ones? By the way, I type this with a smile on my face and not entire seriousness, as I know that is not what you meant. 🙂

    For people who do not believe in a God, something like “we live here, so we make the rules, not God” is a very sensible way to live.

    “Legally speaking, the difference between allowing rape and prohibiting it is about the same as that between designating the right or the left hand side of the road for driving (there may be reasons for choosing one or the other, but the law itself is indifferent to the choice).”

    I don’t think this is quite a correct analogy. Whether we drive on the right or left of the road may have practical pros and cons for either choice, whereas rape is violent and excessively harmful to those affected by it. Not a very good comparison.

  2. Sarah Says:

    Motspur,

    Forgive me if I have misinterpreted your comment; I’m unsure if you are arguing against naturallawyer’s point or if you are arguing against the ideas taught in law schools.

    As I understand it, naturallawyer is using the rape vs. driving law example to demonstrate the result of legal positivism (the idea that “law is simply what we humans decide it is”). During his time at law school, naturallawyer truly heard this sort of thing being taught. (You can take it up with him if you disagree that ideas such as these are prevalent in law schools.)

    If I have understood correctly, his point is actually very similar to yours; there is an enormous difference between laws against rape and laws against driving on the left side (in the US).

    Perhaps yours and naturallawyer’s reasons for seeing a distinction differ, however. You say that rape is “violent and excessively harmful to those affected by it.” I agree wholeheartedly and my guess is that naturallawyer would agree also. However, I think that he might look to a much deeper reason for it being illegal. He hints at this when he says that positivists ignore the idea that there might be something “natural, inherent, or moral” about law-making.

    I think that naturallawyer would argue that some laws (such as that against rape) are not based on some arbitrary decision; rather, they are based on a natural moral sense that some actions are inherently immoral.

  3. Sarah Says:

    (I am not the same “Sara” who commented on the December 27th entry.)

  4. Motspur Says:

    No Sara, I think you interpreted my comment correctly. I have no idea what is taught in law schools so I can’t argue on that topic 😛

    Hrm yes, and I would agree with him to some extent, however I think our “inherent” moral feelings are taught, not inherited or in our minds by default. Morals change greatly from society to society, culture to culture – even such big ones as morals against killing each other, cannibalism, and rape, for some examples. We are what we are because of how we are brought up. I do not believe we have inherent morals – only inherent instincts, which may lend themselves to morals.

  5. Motspur Says:

    No Sara, I think you interpreted my comment correctly. I have no idea what is taught in law schools so I can’t argue on that topic 😛

    Hrm yes, and I would agree with him to some extent, however I think our “inherent” moral feelings are taught, not inherited or in our minds by default. Morals change greatly from society to society, culture to culture – even such big ones as morals against killing each other, cannibalism, and even rape, for some examples. We are what we are because of how we are brought up. I do not believe we have inherent morals – only inherent instincts, which may lend themselves to morals.

  6. thenaturallawyer Says:

    (a) I disagree that morals change from society to society, especially the “big ones.” In point of fact, from what I am told (by someone who has studied this), if you ask a cannibal if murder is wrong, he will reply, “of course!” Then if you follow that up with “then why do you eat people?”, he will respond, “oh, well, people from that tribe are not actually persons.” Sound familiar? 🙂 The cannibal knows that murder is wrong, and he deals with his conscience accordingly, by justifying his behavior. If he didn’t have a problem with murder, he would not have a need to rationalize it.
    Furthermore, the fact that some societies practice immoral acts does not mean that they do not think them immoral, let alone that such actions actually are not immoral. There are plenty of people who willingly do things they know are wrong. The more people do such things, the more people feel like it’s no big deal, but they still know it’s wrong.

    (b) If morals come from society, then did the Nazi soldiers act morally? Did MLK act immorally (see LFBJ IV, posted above)? If you think the Nazi soldiers acted immorally, from whence do you get your standard, and how are the Nazis (whose laws sanctioned their behavior) bound by it?

    (c) Instincts are not morals, and I’m not sure they are inherent. We have all sorts of instincts that we clearly know are immoral, and instincts seem (to me) to differ from person to person, though we might disagree on what counts as an “instinct” (what does?). When I play ice hockey, sometimes players on the opposing team hit me in a way that violates the rules. Sometimes my instincts take over and I hit the player back, sometimes even a few minutes later. Usually, around the time of the end of the game, I recognize my immaturity, that my instincts had gotten the better of me and I behaved immorally. I would think giving in to the “revenge” instinct, and the experience of subsequent guilt, is a pretty common experience.

    With regard to (b) above, I think later I’ll do a post on the old English common law case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, in which a British court imposed its judgment of murder, and overruled defendants’ defense that the court’s morality did not apply to them, even though the act was committed on the high seas.

  7. thenaturallawyer Says:

    As you probably suspected (based on your emoticon), I actually am completely fine with liberals making liberal movies and conservatives making conservative ones. In fact, I don’t think either of them can possibly make a movie that fully contradicts his/her own worldview.

    I also would agree with Sarah, my point wasn’t that there are no reasons for choosing one law or another. The problem with legal positivism is that there are no immoral reasons. Thus, if one society condemns rape and another approves it, the legal positivist can only say, “well that’s different.” Before you respond, “well there are social utility reasons for opposing rape…”, note that there may be some societies and some legal constructs that are indifferent to social utility (according to the legal positivist worldview). Perhaps some of them encourage outright chaos. The legal positivist has nothing to say to this, other than “that’s different.” Law is only what humans make of it.

    Thus, the idea that humans are the measure of all things is scary. We know that rape (or murdering Jews, or torturing infants for fun) is wrong for all societies, even when legally sanctioned in that society. But that only makes sense with a transcendent standard.

  8. Motspur Says:

    a – That is interesting about the cannibals. I suppose I should not make comments about such things which i don’t know anything about. I would be interested to see such research.

    b – I don’t believe the Nazis acted morally, but I do believe that that is just my opinion. I get my standard from what I have been taught, and the society I have been brought up in.

    c – I think our instincts are the cause of a lot of our morals. The moral that killing is wrong comes from an instinct to protect oneself and one’s own, and the knowledge that killing others will probably result in retaliation. The feeling that killing a helpless baby is somehow worse than killing a fully-grown man, for example, comes from knowing that a baby is no real threat so there is no real reason to kill it. I am speaking in a very base and crude way, of course, but I do not know the specifics & science of these issues… I am merely presenting a theory. I don’t KNOW this, this is just what seems logical to me.

    Of course, I’m not saying that instincts = morals, and obviously some instincts are “immoral” by many peoples’ standards. And of course it is often good to resist our instincts, because that makes sense in today’s society, and we learn and unlearn behaviours and instincts over the generations. Perhaps the revenge instinct was useful thousands of years ago, to our less-intelligent ancestors, and today’s feeling of guilt which we often get from acting on such an instinct, is part of our evolution.

    What counts as an instinct? I would say an intrinsic and inbuilt inclination to react a certain way to a situation, which we have inherited from our ancestors. That would be my definition, though it is hard to say exactly of every behaviour whether it is inherent or learnt.

    “Thus, if one society condemns rape and another approves it, the legal positivist can only say, “well that’s different.” Before you respond, “well there are social utility reasons for opposing rape…”, note that there may be some societies and some legal constructs that are indifferent to social utility (according to the legal positivist worldview). Perhaps some of them encourage outright chaos. The legal positivist has nothing to say to this, other than “that’s different.” Law is only what humans make of it.”

    Well, I suppose I am a legal positivist then, though I’ve never heard that term before, because each society is, in my opinion, only “different”, not necessarily wrong. It SEEMS wrong to me, sure, this society which approves of rape, is indifferent to social utility and encourages outright chaos, but I am sure that my society seems wrong to them, too. I will not be arrogant enough to say I am right and they are wrong and that is the end of it. We are simply different. If there was to be any sort of eventual deciding of who was Right or Wrong, I suppose whichever society became most successful or lasted for longer would be, technically, right. Then that would speak for itself. But that would be which society was more Effective, not Right – this would not make them inherently morally right… does what I’m saying make sense?

    “Thus, the idea that humans are the measure of all things is scary. We know that rape (or murdering Jews, or torturing infants for fun) is wrong for all societies, even when legally sanctioned in that society. But that only makes sense with a transcendent standard.”

    Presuming there is an inherent moral Good and Bad, Right and Wrong… as someone who does not believe in a god, I can still believe that it is possible. It seems… inconsistent, to me, but possible. While I am not a religious person I consider myself quite spiritual. I think it is possible that we are all linked by a force or a sort of collective consciousness that runs through the deepest part of our brains… thus the swing of human thought & morals can be seen as… a whole… rather than individuals just “making it up”. I do think that humans are the measure of all things human, I don’t think there is a god deciding things for us. But I think we are all connected. and together, our minds are… sort of like a god, I suppose you could think of it that way. There is something common which speaks to all of us, and connects us, and perhaps it is this which creates our inherent morals.

    I’m probably not making any sense. I apologise if that is the case. I had fun writing this comment though. 🙂


  9. Motspur: I’ve been MIA for a while (sorry about that; I do intend to continue the dialogue), but I really enjoyed this comment.

    (By the way, in case “MIA” isn’t used much in Australia, it’s a US military term meaning “missing in action”, which is sometimes used by civilians who are trying to be funny when describing a period of prolonged absence)

    Anyway, I am still digesting your comment, but I’d like to ask a couple really basic questions in the mean time. First, do you believe knowledge exists? If so, what is knowledge, what does it mean to know something, and what is the difference between an opinion (or a belief) and knowledge? What kinds of things can we know (if anything)?

    Also, don’t your following two statements, “I think our instincts are the cause of a lot of our morals” and “of course it is often good to resist our instincts, because that makes sense in today’s society”, lead to the conclusion that morals that come from instincts mean nothing if you can get away with your behavior? In other words, your biology might make you feel bad, but if you can deal with that, and if there are no negative societal repercussions, there is nothing actually wrong with violating those “morals”, because instincts are not morality, the experience of guilty feelings is based solely on instinct, and instincts are sometimes to be disregarded anyway. Thus, if I intentionally hurt someone just because I don’t like them (and there are no witnesses and the victim is a reputed liar with no credibility), and if I start to feel guilty, I can just remind myself, “oh, that’s just your biology talking”, and that’s fine? And if I do that enough that my body stops giving me guilty feelings, then it’s not immoral?

    Also, to the extent you might say that morality is a standard set by “society”, how do you define “society”? Is society your friends? A school or workplace? A town/city? A state/province/region? A nation? A hemisphere? The world? And do you mean a majority of that society (50% + 1), or a large majority, or a history/tradition, or something else?

    Obviously, there are going to be different moral standards depending on your frame of reference. If the concept of morality is dependent on society’s construction, how do you deal with the problem that an action may be immoral in a nation, but permissible (or even mandated) in a city within that nation?

  10. Motspur Says:

    Interesting points! And I too apologise for my ridiculously long absence.

    “First, do you believe knowledge exists? If so, what is knowledge, what does it mean to know something, and what is the difference between an opinion (or a belief) and knowledge? What kinds of things can we know (if anything)?”

    This is a question that has plagued philosophers for a long time, and I do not presume to think that I can even begin to answer it! My feeling towards the issue is that when you strip away it all, no, we can never truly KNOW anything. Everything is subjective and we all view things a different way (to the basic level where my eyes are shaped differently to yours, so I see things differently to you.) So, everything is really opinion.

    However we can’t always be thinking that way, because no one would ever get anything done. What becomes important here is not the fact of what is knowledge or what is opinion. What is important is that every person on this planet understands that everything is (or can be) subjective, and keeps this in mind when dealing with other people. If everyone kept in mind that everything is opinion and no-one can be solidly RIGHT, the world would be a much better place with fewer wars & arguments. We have to be willing to hear other peoples’ opinions and try to work out a solution which will suit the most people and create the most happiness. (this comment brought to you by Utilitarian of the day!) 😛

    “Also, don’t your following two statements, “I think our instincts are the cause of a lot of our morals” and “of course it is often good to resist our instincts, because that makes sense in today’s society”, lead to the conclusion that morals that come from instincts mean nothing if you can get away with your behavior?”

    That’s not really what I meant by the second quote. What I meant was, our society often frowns upon things which are instinctual (for example, getting it on with any attractive person you see) and as such it is often a good idea to resist said instincts, because if you don’t, you’ll get in trouble! 😛 (actually, I’m not sure if this is what I meant since I posted that comment so long ago, but this is what I would mean if I said that now, so there you go. Time-between-comments fail. Sorry. If I haven’t answered your question properly, please feel free to ask it again.)

    “Also, to the extent you might say that morality is a standard set by “society”, how do you define “society”?”

    Society as I understand it means the world in which we live and the way we rely on the approval of others. Society includes the media, general traditions & codes of behaviour, human beings at large etc, but of course we are also most influenced by the parts of society closest to us, such as friends, family, school, and immediate government/nation. The media is becoming a more & more influential part of society, though.


  11. My feeling towards the issue is that when you strip away it all, no, we can never truly KNOW anything. Everything is subjective and we all view things a different way (to the basic level where my eyes are shaped differently to yours, so I see things differently to you.) So, everything is really opinion.

    Sorry, I can’t help asking this… Is the idea that we cannot ever “know” anything something you know or just your opinion? Is that a subjective view or an objective fact? Because you are claiming it as objective fact, applicable to both of us. It’s as though you’re saying, “there’s no such thing as a sentence.” You need a sentence to express it, thus nullifying the very thing you’re saying just by saying it.

    We have to be willing to hear other peoples’ opinions and try to work out a solution which will suit the most people and create the most happiness. (this comment brought to you by Utilitarian of the day!)

    The first part of that is of course true, as it is the foundation of all education. No one is infallible, but some people are “right.” Because, after all, you’ve said nobody is “right.” If that is the case, then you are “right” about that. If that is not the case, then somebody else is “right.” Here again we have a case of “there’s no such thing as a sentence.”

    As to the utilitarianism, I reject utilitarianism, but you would still need an objective way of measuring “happiness” or else you would have a fiat system of government based on an elite’s desires, however good or bad they might be.

    Subjectivism leads to tyranny. We must have an objective standard that applies to everyone if we are to have just laws. We might have a democratic system of choosing leaders, but then the leaders would have nothing but their own desires to go on (sort of like what’s going on in the United States right now, unfortunate as it is). The only way to get justice is to believe in objective justice and hold our leaders accountable to it.

    “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; right derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.”
    — John Adams

  12. Motspur Says:

    Ah, yes indeed, you have pointed out that my opinion is somewhat of a paradox. But I’m okay with that. Life is pretty paradoxical 😉 No, my opinion that one can never KNOW anything is just my opinion, I’m not claiming it as an objective fact, it is yet another opinion. And I’m fine with that. 🙂

    Yes, I agree that defining and measuring “happiness” is nigh on impossible. It is just my feeling that whatever we do should be for the good of the majority of people where possible, though I can’t define or measure that.

    “Subjectivism leads to tyranny. We must have an objective standard that applies to everyone if we are to have just laws. ” Yes, this is true. For the convenience & sanity of all, certain things tend to be taken as universal truths within our society, and this does need to happen or else we would all just wander around in philosophical hazes. But those “universal truths” do tend to differ between societies, and areas, and they wax and wane and change and shift over the years. Morals do. Just the fact that you and I have different moral views shows me this must be true. I would not be arrogant enough to presume that I am more intelligent than you or more certainly right than you for any reason. And I would expect the same humility & respect from you, and any other person. These things are evidence (to me eyes) that there is no set defineable RIGHT or WRONG in this world. Only our opinions.

    As for the John Adams quote, can’t say i totally agree with that, as I don’t believe in a god… but I do believe everyone has certain rights which are universal truths – the right to do what they will, if it harms none. And that’s the one I live my life by.


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