Sunday kicked off the final eight episodes of one of the most popular shows in both main stream and libertarian circles, “Breaking Bad.” The series has turned out to be highly entertaining and even more thought provoking for anyone interested in moral issues.
The show tells a story about a Willy Loman-like character, Walter White, a frustrated scientist relegated from a once-promising career to teaching high school chemistry. When White is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to spend the last months of his life selling crystal meth to make sure his family is financially set after he dies. At the same time, his brother-in-law Hank Schrader is a DEA agent out to keep meth off the streets. This fifth and final season details the collision of White and Schrader’s paths.
If you haven’t been watching, first of all you’re missing out on one of the great TV shows of all time. But you’re also missing out on a show that’s spurring some fascinating moral discussions — made even more fascinating by the fact that the they are being had between libertarians and non libertarians alike. Doublethink columnist Julia Shaw argued in an August 8 column that the show is about White “breaking bad” one step at a time because of his initial choice to enter the meth business. “For the past five seasons, viewers have seen Walter transform from a nominally good man into a bad one,” she wrote. “Through this process, Breaking Bad reveals the true nature of evil.”
While I agree with Shaw that White clearly slips into sociopathy as the series progresses, I think the brilliance of the show is that it shows that there is no true nature of evil — in the sense that evil can’t be Platonified or broken down into essentials.
Yes, White ends up committing murders and other heinous crimes. But as anyone familiar with economics or the libertarian position on recreational drugs can tell you, those crimes were a product of the War on Drugs. When you make something illegal, you don’t get rid of it; you push it into the black market and into the realm of criminals. The captains of industry in the alcohol business don’t kill competitors and their families now, but they sure did when alcohol was illegal in the 1920s.
Would White have committed the same crimes if meth were legal? I think the answer is a clear no, for the simple fact that he didn’t commit those crimes before he operated in the black market. He explains his motivations in season four, when he tells another dealer that he is in the meth trade because he relishes the opportunity to be the best in the world at what he does. “You asked me if I’m in the meth business or the money business. Neither, I’m in the empire business,” he said, a statement similar to those of world class athletes, entrepreneurs, and politicians. This isn’t to absolve him of his transgressions, but it makes a strong case that society is at least partially to blame for setting up the incentives that led to his immoral decisions — which brings us to Schrader.
Writers of the show depict Schrader as the well-meaning if a little boorish family man. He’s the kind of guy who you’d like to have a beer with. He’s also the kind of guy who would do anything to help a friend in need. Yet and still, he draws my contempt for uncritically accepting the state’s moral values. He has good intentions— what’s that saying about good intentions and roads being paved? — but is unwittingly participating in the unjust and destructive War on Drugs.
So what can we say about the morality of White vs. Schrader? White’s a cold, calculating sociopath who bases his decisions on pure cost-benefit analyses. Schrader’s someone who bases decisions on gut feelings and moral intuitions.
Perhaps you could say White is in the right politically but in the wrong ethically, and vice versa for Schrader. You also might say that White has bad intentions vs. Schrader’s good intentions, even though White selling meth isn’t inherently immoral and Schrader’s intentions produce disastrous results — making Schrader in the wrong if you’re a utilitarian but in the right if you’re a social constructivist, and again vice versa for White.
Making such distinctions might be useful to educate someone in the terms and jargon of basic philosophy, but I don’t think they tell the whole story. And that, I think, is the most useful lesson of the show. Moral judgments often can’t be made using black-and-white, essentialist methods. They require careful examination from a variety of different perspectives, and even then you don’t arrive at a clear answer. It’s refreshing to get such a breath of philosophic realism from TV, a medium that usually dumbs down good and evil to the point of making them distinguishable to a prepubescent child.
Ken Silva is a writer from Ohio. Paul Revere image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.