to download as a pdf. here
“[I]f there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
I really don’t know, if directors study some techniques to either involve, engage us emotionally in the events or detach us emotionally from the events so they can pose their questions clearly, throw them in our faces. May be, they do not intend to do that deliberately, and it is up to viewers!
However, this movie, can stir your mind up, mess it up, fill it up with embezzlement (it is actually a minefield of moral conundrums), without ever get involved emotionally.
This movie is a reincarnation of an old, perpetual, eternal problem; Justice.
In evolutionary psychology, justice is discussed in terms of reciprocal altruism(cooperation) and retaliation1 (Eye for an Eye) or (Tit for Tat).
Justice through the eyes of gods:
You might think that there is a resemblance between this movie’s theme “seeking for justice” and the theme of the Iliad and the Odyssey, but I see that there is a big difference here. At first, there is a big difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey2. In the Iliad, the gods are somehow neutral, but in the Odyssey, they are more prejudiced to Odysseus’s cause. Justice was very blind in the Iliad. Blind retaliation to the violation or disobedience to the moral or sacred rules, was guaranteed once you break the rules. No matter who you are, you just win your punishment ticket, once you breach the rules; you incurred your deserved punishment.
It seems like, the moral codes were Gods-made, but they were autonomic, characterized by “Apply to all”. In the Odyssey, Zeus and Athene were obviously rooting for Odysseus’s cause by all means, through his journey, from the beginning (Released by the intercession of his patroness Athene) till the end (slaughter of the Suitors) 3. In our movie, Gods don’t play any apparent role, maybe they were just viewers like us, although I prefer to see them latent behind the stage. They may just responded to Martin’s craving for revenge, by putting his plan into action. They granted martin god-like abilities to reinforce his cause: when he called Kim, while she was laying paralyzed at the hospital, she fell down once he hanged up, before she was able to reach the bed. But, even if we are talking about gods reinforcing justice, there was not a single hint to how martin managed to work his plan through, The Murphys didn’t stop to ask. It seemed like Martin was himself the god of retribution.
The Biased god: Retribution as a Justice.
Trying to match his mother up with Steven, he was trying to compensate his mother’s loss of her man and his loss of a father4. The question here: if he were to succeed in this match up, wouldn’t he induce the sickness to the family? I think, if he were to succeed, it would be like a double win situation. Win to compensate his mother’s loss and his loss, also a win to distort Steven’s family. Sweet revenge!
But, unfortunately, he didn’t succeed. Steven was loyal to his beloved, perfect family. Even when Martin tried again to persuade him about his mother: I think she, I think she likes you. I mean, she’s attracted to you… And, to be honest, I think you’re perfect for each other… She’s got a great body. Steven reminded him: Let me remind you. I’m a married man. And I love my wife very much and my kids, and that we are very happy together. That was the first retaliation plot, just a retaliation within truce. Martin didn’t take no for an answer, he escalated the pace of war, turned the table.
He was thorough through his final plan; we may say he organized his cards carefully. He attacked twice (at two frontiers; Bob, then Kim) to get a double retaliation; small, trivial one for him and another unfair one to his mother’s pride. First, paralyzing Bob, so the attention of the parents is focused on Bob’s health. He can now slip to Kim’s world, giving her the attention, the care she missed since her parents now are attentive to, caring Bob. She became close to him as he was to Steven. Being close to Martin was vulnerable to catch the bad habit of smocking, so he retaliated by being closer to her so she could be as vulnerable to catch that bad habit. Although, this might seem unintended outcome, but it seemed to me like he took an oath to retaliate everything bad happened to him after his father’s death. The other one, when she fell in love with him, she offered herself to him, as martin’s mother did with Steven, he repeated Steven’s words: I can’t, it’s late, I’m sorry. But it was harsh, unfair retaliation, he was biased.
Although he told Ann that Steven has been flirting with his mom, that didn’t happen actually, we didn’t notice this. Martin’s mom tried to remind Steven about their last encounter at the hospital: Do you remember me coming to the hospital? Flirting with my mom, he said!
When Ann visited Martin, she asked him: If my husband made a mistake… I don’t understand why I should have to pay the price. Why my children should have to pay the price.
He replied: I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.
Actually, Martin’s final retaliation was not only because Steven operated on his father while he was drunk, but also because Steven didn’t comply to Martin’s wish to replace his father.
Steven’s rejection to Martin and his mother was enough to blow the horn of war.
Therefore, Martin was blinded by rage and revenge, but did he represent justice? Or was what happened later a close approach to justice?
Need for Justice: Between Harm and Repair.
whether it’s justice or not, Why do we need justice? Do we need justice like that; that do more harm than repair?
We obviously need justice as a cohesive mechanism in times of struggle and dispute -which can take the society apart-. However, I think that we don’t need this thorough, rigorous concept of “Eye for an Eye”. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s criticism to that principle point out why we don’t need that rigorous concept of “Eye for an Eye”. In his words: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.”
In evolutionary psychology, cooperation and competition (intertwined) are the cornerstone of explaining a wide array of human’s behaviors. Intelligence and many other feats of human brains can be ascribed to this (vicious spiral) of cooperation and competition. “Most researchers accept the social intelligence hypothesis: that the greatest pressures for advanced intelligence arise from the need to track the identities, status, powers, and intentions of conspecifics and to respond to them to best advantage. Animals like dogs, dolphins, and primates have to cooperate with conspecifics subtly enough to earn the resources obtainable only together. But they also need to compete with them to maximize their share of socially earned resources without risking prospects for future cooperation.” 5
Even in competition, we can find rules that prevent any offense to cooperation. Tolerance is not an option towards breaching the cement that bring the society together (cooperation). Here comes justice to bring balance in cases of murder or any infringement that can threaten the social structure. However, justice may dictate harm but all -at the end- for favor of the greater good. Therefore, we could resort to harm, if it leads to balance (repair) 6. Alternatively, we might not 7!
“Game-theory models show how cooperation can evolve through the simple rule of Tit for Tat: cooperate on the first move, and if the other partner does not cooperate in reply, withhold cooperation (or actively punish) on the next move. Yet Tit-for-Tat has one serious weakness: when one side makes a noncooperative move, the other side will do the same in response, and both will find themselves locked into a vicious circle of retaliation. Computer simulations suggest lifelike refinements to the rules to avoid this impasse. “Generous tit-for-tat” allows two defections before it punishes, so that cycles of retribution can be avoided.”8
“Tit for Tat” means “equivalent retaliation”. How can we evade the vicious circle of retaliation in case of justice, rather than cooperation? Why aren’t we all blind by “The old law of an eye for an eye”?
We are not all blind because the Generosity concept, although Generosity almost is taken as a weakness! Moreover, in many cases it can affect the survival of the Generous as much as infringements can raise your evolutionary advantages!
In an evolutionary context, religions took the “Generous tit-for-tat” much further. Christianity, for instance found a solution to the problem of the vicious circle of retaliation.
So, not only did Martin Luther King, Jr. criticized the principle of “Eye for an Eye”, but also did Jesus before him9. Focusing on the principle of tolerance or forgiveness, the Christian doctrine almost is based on the concept of love. Jesus sacrificed himself out of love, love your neighbors, and love your brothers. Although the Quran legislated the concept of “Eye for an Eye” Qiṣāṣ10, but it offered a backdoor to evade the blood bath in the concept of Diya, which is a financial compensation paid to the victim or heirs of a victim in the cases of murder. It’s obvious a punitive justice “Eye for an Eye” with an option of restorative justice (Diya).
The Nazi god: The Moral Dilemma.
In the context of applied ethics, we always think of dilemmas as being a forced choice between evils, something we agonize over11. Consider this dilemma: which of your children you should sacriﬁce, if a Nazi soldier orders you to hand over one of them to be killed12. In resemblance this dilemma to the movie plot, you might think, it’s a farfetched resemblance. To think that Martin is a Nazi god, I have my justifications. We are living in an era, in which you don’t own your children’s lives anymore. Lives of Steven’s family are sacred. Martin shouldn’t ask their life for his father’s. I assume he did that only because he could**. He ought to induce the sickness to Steven, and we would all be all right. Martin didn’t ask an Eye for an Eye, instead, he asked unwilling, uninvolved, innocent Eye for an Eye. Although he thought by doing that, he would punish Steven for killing his father. But Martin could easily induce the sickness to Steven! That’s justice to us all, don’t you think?
Martin set an example of justice when Steven kidnapped him13. He implicated that apologizing for killing his father hurt more, so the only way to soothe his anguish for his father’s death is for Steven to sacrifice one of his family’s sacred lives!
So, punishing Steven by putting him in such irresolvable dilemma (the dilemma is genuinely irresolvable, that there are no moral grounds that favour doing the one thing rather than the other.14), seems a bit harsh, savage, barbaric, genuinely Nazi to me. Not only it’s an irresolvable dilemma, it’s also a tragic one (it is impossible to emerge with clean hands15). May be we can argue that, Steven’s hands were already stained with Martin’s father’s blood, but do this fact justify the punishment Martin chose?
In making a forced choice, the agent is blameless16. So, whoever Steven chose to kill, he is blameless17. We notice after that, that Steven escaped the moral landscape very easily, very rapidly. He chose empirical action guidance to determine who to kill. We noticed at first that Steven was living in denial for so long18. Then he kidnapped Martin, tried to figure the situation out in a logical approach. We didn’t notice a lot of signs of internal struggle that was supposed to seethe within Steven.
How is that considered a punishment to Steven? Who was the real victim here?
Demi-god, Demon, or an Evil Spirit: The Struggle.
As we pointed out, that there was not enough sign of internal struggle19 to convince us that Steven was agonizing, considering the punishment Martin was convinced that it would be sufficient. So where was the struggle?
The struggle was external, between the wife and children. They were all clingy to life. Every one of them strategized his survival. What role did Steven play in this struggle? Was he the Demi-god, Demon, or an Evil Spirit? How can we see him in light of his obligatory situation to choose whom to kill? Absolutely, not a demi-god (except his challenge to god by kidnapping him), far from a demon, he was definitely an evil spirit. So, in which way was he an evil spirit?
In the way, his family tried to appease, supplicate to him to avoid his harm.
Although the struggle was external, but Steven was at the center of the struggle circle. How did Ann, Kim, and Bob tried to appease this infuriated Evil Spirit?
she tried to seduce him to have sex with her, when she realized that he was not in a good mood, she tried to persuade him logically:
I believe the most logical thing, no matter how harsh this may sound, is to kill a child. Because we can have another child. I still can and you can.
She didn’t stop seducing him, even in the scene of the “Death Roulette”, she dressed his favorite black dress. She was directing his attention away from herself, towards the children21.
Kim, was the most intelligent of the three, maybe she was the most tenacious to life. she just had her period, knew the life of love. She saw that there are many things that she hasn’t experienced yet, things that deserve living for. She was a blossoming flower, incandescing with life. At first, she tried to convince Martin that they could run away together, if she retrieve her ability to walk or run. Hence, she would be out of the equation, forcing her father to choose between Ann and Bob. Her trial was in vain, she tried to run away again (or crawl away). She made an impressive scene after they picked her up. She eloquently, wittingly tried to evade losing her life: I love you so much, don’t forget that. You gave me life and you, only you, have the right to take my life away. That makes perfect sense. You are my lords, my masters, and I am just someone who lives to obey your wishes. I love you so much. Remember that when I’m lying in my grave, unable to tell you, that I love you. She seemed so tolerable with the idea of her death, but she was petrified.
In a way she reversal psycholigi(ed) her father, erupting the latent emotions for her loss, when she said: Let me be the one who atones for your sins, Dad. Kill me right here in front of your eyes, so that you can be sure that I die, in case some fate spares me at the last moment. Kill me right here, in front of you and leave me with the ultimate joy of saving my own mother, and beloved brother from certain death.
he was in the worst situation, he even presented the weakest defense for his case. At first, he tried to appease Steven by getting a haircut. He crawled to Steven to tell him about it: Dad, Look. I cut my hair just as you wanted me to… I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you and get a haircut right away. I don’t know what I was thinking all this time. I would get so hot and have to comb it all the time. It was a total hassle. I should have listened to you and cut it off sooner. I’m gonna water the plants now.
Then, when Bob was bleeding from his eyes, his conversation with Steven was futile, meaningless; he was unable to imbue it with emotional content that may affect Stevin’s decision.
Death Roulette: Randomness Or Pre-intention.
Did Steven pre-intended to sacrifice Bob’s life? Or was it a coincidence, a strike of luck? Although we could be easily allured into thinking that it was all random, but with a little bit of scrutiny, it wasn’t. The room had four lamps, two at the sides of the couch where Bob was setting, one behind Ann and another behind Kim. Maybe, apparent randomness could help Steven get over his sense of guilt upon later contemplation about his choice, but he knew precisely where they were sitting, every time he took a shot. Instead of direct choosing between three choices, he preferred an eliminating scheme. The first shot, he stopped spinning, the muzzle was pointed towards Kim. He shot the lamp behind her, it seemed like he couldn’t shoot her. The second shot, was Ann, he shot the lamp behind her, couldn’t shoot her either. The third shot was towards Bob, he spared the lamps beside the couch, but he couldn’t spare him.22
Gods among Us: Trifling with Sacred Lives.
Let’s not forget that martin’s father’s life was sacred too. Maybe if we consider this fact, we could find a way to sympathize, root for martin’s cause and unfair, harsh plot. we can somehow see another perspective; Martin’s perspective: ” it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice”. Martin, playing the god role, tried to teach Steven and us a hard lesson: don’t trifle with sacred lives. Because I can, have the power to force you to trifle with your family’s lives (the dilemma) as you trifled with my father’s. Although, in our modern era, we are more inclined to restorative justice (less harm, more repair), we can notice that almost all Divine justice (“The wrath of God” or even Karma) characterized by reprieve (long term), aggressiveness, harshness (in terms of our humanitarian judgement). The reaction isn’t equivalent to the action, it often surpasses it (aggressiveness). As with Martin, maybe that’s the way to teach humans the values of the divine codes23.
Anyway, Are gods bounded or confined by moral rules? Could they be judged according to our moral rules?
In evolutionary psychology, I think there are answers for these questions. The answer to the two questions is; it seems not.
Gods are not bounded or confined by moral rules; firstly, because they often ordain the moral rules24! Secondly, I can argue that our human weaknesses (limitations of individual power) is a massive incentive to form the moral society. Aspiring for goals that you can’t reach alone (you have a limited individual power) push you to cooperate with others, but you need some rules to prevent the goals -you would get in the end- from being exploited by a single individual (morality organizes and maintains cooperation)25. Therefore, cooperation happens to benefit from the power/prowess of the multitude (maintained by rules), paired with (clean, fair) competition that depends on the power/prowess of the solitude. Clean, fair competition that can’t affect future cooperation is guaranteed and maintained only through a set of rules (morality). Moreover, cooperation can be fragile in the absence of punishment yet relatively easily established and maintained with punishment25. So, imagine a god with supernatural powers, why would he need to cooperate? How would you be able to punish him if he defects? If we consider Martin in real life as an example, he wouldn’t resort to cooperation if he managed to take his rivals down by inducing sickness. Also when Steven were to shoot Martin, Martin said: So if you’re gonna dig a hole in the yard, better make it a big one (for four). So, the conclusion is: the moral system emerged in the human society because the individuals are quintessentially humans, and it can’t be applied outside the human society.
So are gods above the law? It seems, they are. But, the common expression “No One Above The Law” indicate that being above the law is equal to being an outlaw26.
What about being judged by the society? Theoretically, you can’t judge gods according to the moral rules of the society, except if they interacted with the human society. Once you are a part of the society, you should abide to the general rules27 and then you are judgeable.
If we are saying that, you can’t judge gods according to the moral rules of the society, is this rule applicable to the benign traits of gods?! 28
Maybe, it’s an advantage, that we don’t find gods living among us, and we don’t need or want them to.
*actually, it was a mistake to misspell “deer”, and then my friend heeded my attention to this mistake. I am intrigued not to change it, as it falls into place with my ideas, especially the part of The Nazi God. Killing a dear, whom you don’t own or have the right to control his/her life, let alone ending it. Anyone’s life is sacred, it’s forbidden to mess around with.
** discussing this point later in: Gods among Us.
2:for more discussion about the differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey see Brian Boyd, On The Origin Of Stories, Book II, part 4.
4: Anyway, if you feel tired, you could stop the movie. Could go home and we could watch the rest, next time you come. Please, it’s my favorite movie, It was also my father’s favorite movie too.
5: Brian Boyd, On The Origin Of Stories, page 54.
6: you can read a high yield discussion about wars and cooperation in Nonzero: the logic of human destiny by Robert Wright, chapter 5: WAR: WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
8: Brian Boyd, On The Origin Of Stories, page 312.
9: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
-Jesus Christ, English Standard Version (Matthew 5:38-39)
10: “O you who have believed, prescribed for you is legal retribution (Qisas) for those murdered – the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. But whoever transgresses after that will have a painful punishment.” – Qur’an, 2:178
11: Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford, 1999), page 52.
12: Terry Eagleton, Meaning of life: A very short introduction, page 10.
13: when Martin bite Steven’s arm he said: I just want, want to show you an example, that’s all. Just one little example to show you what I mean. Should I apologize? No. Should I, should I stroke your wound? Actually, that would probably hurt even more, touching an open wound. No, there’s only one way to make you and me both feel better.
Then Martin bite his own arm, even more he took off a piece of his skin! Then he said: Do you understand? It’s metaphorical. My example. It’s a metaphor… it’s symbolic. Moreover, his example was extreme as much as his approach to justice. Meaning that in his example, his retribution for biting Steven’s arm was much more than just biting (he took off a piece of his skin).
14: Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford, 1999), page 56.
15: Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford, 1999), page 57.
16: Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford, 1999), page 59.
17: blameless in regard to his choice. But can he be blamed concerning what has happened?
18: Wouldn’t you be paralyzed already? How do you explain that? Ann replied: Yes, you’re right. Let’s wait a little longer until we’re all dead and then see what you can do about it.
19: when he burst into tears in the garden, he was really a tortured evil spirit. The tortured evil spirit doesn’t focus on the internal torment as it focus on acting out it’s rage. There is no salvation, even in acting out the rage, the harm. The torment inside is projected on the others. But we can notice that his ordeal was the obligatory situation Martin put him into. The internal struggle or torment was all projected outside. It seemed like Stevin’s subjective experiment of anguish was out of the picture. He dealt with everything superficially.
20: Although Ann was appeasing Stevin not to choose her as a sacrifice, she didn’t forget to appease the god of retribution not to paralyze her! She first take care of martin’s wounds then at the end, she helped him to escape from Steven’s detention.
21: we have an Egyptian proverb: “if the flood come by, put your child beneath you”. Selfish genes, huh!
22: parental investment theory may concur on Steven’s choice. Bob had the least investment (emotionally and non-emotionally).
23: the more painful the event, the more time you would spend reflecting on your action and it’s consequences… maybe, the more you could learn from it.
24: any one could argue: gods ought to be role models, restricted by the rules, laws they legislate!
25: even if the cooperative alliances are made to get to ignoble, degenerate goal, you would find rules too. Maybe, there is an honor among thieves, after all. See Evolutionary psychology4th edition, David Buss, chapter : cooperative alliances.
26: Martin and the Untouchable: can we project this arguments to the gods (in the political or the economic sense) the untouchable, or the big whales?
27: social contract!
28: this is no space to discuss this problem now. I hope I can get the opportunity to discuss it separately, later.