Morality in the movies

I have made a living from the analytical professions, but my passion has always been for stories. Fiction has the great advantage of allowing us to make things up, rather than passively reflect the world as it is. It involves people making complex moral decisions while in movement. By choosing a form nearer to human life, the great authors of novels, plays and movies could turn out to be our finest social thinkers: Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Dostoievsky, Melville, Eisenstein, Kurosawa. The best recent work of anthropology might be The Sopranos. Just a thought.

Morality concerns the principles of good behavior, what we ought to do. Although it is possible to express “the good” abstractly as a rule – “always be kind to children and animals” -- morality can only be expected of persons who face the choice to be good or otherwise in complex situations that cannot be reduced to simple rules. What politics, law and business have in common is that they define “the good” in a collective sense. A group must be protected from subversion, disorder or loss and this more general good may require leaders in particular to sacrifice personal morality to that impersonal end. It costs too much if people must always be forced to do what you want. It helps if they can be persuaded to do something because they believe it is right. Often that means believing that a leader is a good person. It is not easy in practice to separate the impersonal ends of society from their personal instruments.

When society is organized through depersonalized rules, as ours has been for a century or more, the normative exclusion of personal judgment as a force for good or evil provokes a permanent moral crisis. It is hard to discuss this crisis using the methods of impersonal social science, although that hasn't stopped some from trying. Works of fiction, especially movies, are designed to give dramatic expression to this very question. My favourite example is Company, an Indian film about organized crime in Mumbai.

The crisis of this movie comes when Mallik, the big boss, tries to limit his reliance on Chandu, a young lieutenant he has plucked from nowhere. He delegates a hit to Chandu, the assassination of a politician, that he decides to abort for operational reasons. Mallik moves swiftly to have Chandu killed; but, thanks to the friendship of their women and the mobile phone, he escapes and civil war breaks out, spreading as far as Nairobi. The resulting mayhem fragments the Company and lends strength to their enemies, including the police. Towards the end, someone says, “whatever’s happening is the fault of the business, not one man.” But, of course, the business can only operate with one big boss or it fragments into impotence, as in this case. Chandu hands himself over to the state and tells Mallik. “I am about to do what I think is right. If you suffer any losses, don't take it personally.” Don’t take this personal, it’s just business. But actually this is Chandu's attempt to salvage morality from the mess. The hit man’s dilemma is between morality and politics.

Chandu embodies this contradiction. He is a classic individualist, in a long line of American westerns and gangster comic strips, the loner who doesn’t believe in justice unless he does it himself. He considers official society to be as corrupt as he is, but less honest; and in any case he is excluded from it. Chandu meets his match in the clever and basically decent policeman, Sreenivasan. The latter knows the police can’t be effective if they always stay within the law. The law doesn’t measure up, but it is all we have if we are not to be subject to rule by the mob. Morality is what we ought to do, the law is what we can get away with. The lines between official politics, the law and crime are blurred in practice, but the public prefers to believe that they are separate.

One recurrent jingle chants in Hindi “Yes, it stinks, but it’s business.” Gangster movies allow us to see society from outside the self-protective cocoon of law, bureaucracy and business that the middle classes normally inhabit. Moreover, by evoking normal capitalism, the gangster “firm” offers a metaphor for its dark side. Tony Soprano crosses the thin line between hoodlum and suburbanite many times every day. Impersonal society in its official guise can be just as immoral as criminal enterprise, except that thieves have personal lives and morality of a sort, whereas abstract impersonal norms have no room for morality at all.

Company’s series of human catastrophes hinges on an objective contradiction, the one Max Weber identified with patrimonial bureaucracy. The origins of impersonal government lie in the king’s use of palace organization to assert his independence from the feudal barons. He recruits to his own staff individuals who owe allegiance solely to him. But distant officials are pulled towards asserting their own independence of him by their reliance on local resources. If any of his henchmen get too big, they might try to take his place. Relatively stable forms depend on institutional rules for checking this structural contradiction.

Most of Shakespeare's history plays and tragedies hinge on this tension between human personality and impersonal institutions. How can a holder of high office reconcile his public role with being just a man? If feudalism was a mess and basically unjust, what is the role for human personality in a more equal and universal social system? Is it possible to move beyond kingship and mob warfare to a genuinely democratic society? His Elizabethan audiences sat on the edge of their seats, knowing that the future of their own Tudor state was at stake in the drama. When Hamlet asks “To be or not to be?”, he is posing the dilemma that forces some people to choose to be human or inhuman, personal or depersonalized, often as a matter of routine. Shakespeare dug deeper into this issue than anyone after him. The world has changed less since then than we sometimes think and the dialectic of personal and impersonal agency is just as strong now as it was then. Stories about gangsters, both medieval and modern, remind us that the moral dilemmas of political life have not gone away.

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