"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Founder

Tension between the founder of a business and the managers that eventually assume control is perhaps unavoidable. Such tension can be cut with a knife in the film, The Founder (2016), which tells the story of how McDonalds went from Dick and Mac McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California to a nationwide corporation headed by Ray Kroc. From an ethical standpoint, I submit that both the McDonald brothers and Kroc come out as less than salubrious.
With regard to Dick McDonald, his incessant “no-saying” to Kroc’s suggestions for improvements and expansion left Kroc in a strangle-hold of sorts. This is most evident when Dick held to the 1.5% going to Kroc in spite of the fact that Ray could not cover his costs. Excessive inflexibility in a contract puts it under severe stress, and few people would blame Kroc for turning to the real estate under the franchised stores for not only needed funds, but also some control. In short, the McDonalds brothers should have renegotiated the contract at Kroc’s request.
By implication, a political leader who clutches at control at the expense of permitting even adjustment in public policy or the governmental system itself to take account of a changing society unknowingly risks losing the control so ardently desired. Even continued refusals to work with other political parties in a legislature can spell defeat at the next election for the party in power. Like gel being squeezed in a hand, the stuff will slip through the fingers if the pressure is too much.
With regard to Ray Kroc, his refusal to act on his oral promise that the McDonalds corporation would pay the brothers a royalty of 1% in perpetuity is unethical. So too is his insistence that the McDonalds name be removed from the brothers’ original McDonalds restaurant. The brothers wanted to retain that particular restaurant so they could give it to their employees. The McDonalds corporation would have had control of that location, so I suspect Kroc’s motive was to be rid of the brothers, given the tension in the relationship when Kroc was under their control. Again we see that the brothers’ tight grip on control, against virtually any changes in the restaurants, worked against even the brothers’ own interests, which included being able to retain their own name in the restaurant they managed in San Bernardino. In short, it pays to work with people in such a way that there is some give and take, even and I would say especially if a contract gives someone the right to rigidly maintain total control.  Smallness has a way of losing, eventually.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Passengers

Augustine wrote that Christians are ideally in the world but not of it. The fallen world is not the Christian’s true home. For the 5000 (plus crew) prospective colonists hibernating aboard a mammoth spaceship in the film, Passengers (2016), the planet Earth was presumably not their true home—or maybe that home was becoming climatically rather untenable and the 5000 were lucky souls heading for a new, unspoiled home. In any event, the film’s central paradigm can be characterized as “travel to” and “end-point.” That is to say, means and end characterize this picture at a basic level. The film is particularly interesting at this level in that so much value is found to reside in the means even as the end is still held out as being of great value.
For Aurora Lane, intentionally woken by Jim Preston with 89 more years to go on the trip, Earth had not been home in the sense that home is where love has been found. For her, home was mobile—moving through space at half light-speed—for she found love with Jim in spite of the fact that he had deprived her of living to see the end-point, the colony-planet. In refusing Jim’s new-found way of putting her back to sleep so she could wake again just four months before the end of the voyage, Aurora must have realized that she had found her home with Jim traveling through space. With plentiful food and drink, and no need even of money, Aurora and Jim faced a downside only in the possibility of encroaching loneliness. Headless waiters and a bottomless bartender—all robots—could not be said to give rise to any viable sense of community.

It is strange, therefore, that 89 years later, at the end of the voyage, the awakened crew and passengers do not encounter any offspring having been made out of Jim and Aurora’s love. The couple having realized that they would not live to see the new world, would they not have naturally wanted to have children who would have a chance of seeing the prospective paradise? It seems to me that the screenwriter did not think out the consequences of the couple’s decision far enough in this respect. The awakened passengers and crew should have come upon both trees and the grown children whose entire life had been in space.

In spite of having only each other, perhaps Aurora and Jim relish the peace that can be so compromised in a community (imaging having an apartment complex all to yourself!) and the freedom from the insecurity of want—two assets that could only be found during the journey. The spectacular views of space are also worthy (although it is difficult even to imagine a ship of such material that could withstand such a close pass to a sun). Yet, even so, how difficult it is for us—the audience—to understand why Aurora and Jim could possibly come to prefer a life spent entirely en route, on transportation. We are so used to being goal-oriented, teleological beings that we miss the sheer possibility that the journey itself might constitute a full life worth living.

Abstractly stated, we are so used to relegating means to an end as long at the end is viable that we have great trouble enjoying the means apart from the end. As long as the end stands a chance of being realizable, we cannot ignore it and thus fully rest content along the way.

The ability to reason about means and ends is a virtue.[1] Interestingly, virtuous actions “may be pursued ‘instrumentally’ but must be done ‘for their own sake.’ . . . They must be ends in themselves. . . . Actions truly expressive of the virtues are actions in which the means are prized at least as much as the extrinsic ends to which they are directed. . . . The telos, the best life for human beings to live, is an inclusive end constituted in large part by virtuous activity.”[2] In other words, virtues are both means and ends. A person should value acting virtuously for itself, rather than merely as a means to an end. While not a virtue-ethics guy, Kant uses this characterization in Critique of Practical Reason to claim that human beings should be valued as ends in themselves, rather than merely as means to other ends (e.g., manipulated). Can a boss ever push his use of his subordinates for his own ends sufficiently out of his mind to value those people as ends in themselves—as having inherent value?

The space voyage in the film is shown at first as only a means to a distinctly different end, the colony. Yet by the story’s end, the spaceship comes to be an end in itself too. Due to the length of the trip and the appreciably shorter human lifespan, Jim and Aurora find value in the means not as a means, but only as an end in itself.  Yet as human beings, could they ever come to disconnecting the spaceship from awareness of its end? Could Jim and Aurora ever feel a sense of ease on board without the sense that they have lost or given up the spaceship as a means? For the remainder of their lives, the colony is ahead of them. Is it even possible that two human beings could become oblivious to this fact?

Here on Earth, the Christmas season is so oriented to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that it is scarcely imaginable that the festive atmosphere during the first three weeks of December could be chosen over Christmas itself. I suspect that more adults like Aurora and Jim, being without family, would prefer the season over the holiday itself—even opting out of it. Yet can a person come to enjoy a Christmas show or attend a Christmas party without having in mind the “not yetness” and the “betterness” of Christmas itself? What if the experience with friends at the Christmas Party two weeks before the actual holiday is better than the saccharine day itself? Can the experience ever hope to get its due regard and esteem for its own sake even as it is regarded as a means?




1. Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996): 24.
2. Ibid., p. 25.



Saturday, December 24, 2016

Secular Films with Religious Meaning: Film as a Potentially Deep Medium

A film need not be explicitly religious to proffer spiritual meaning. In fact, gritty stories that wrestle with thorny problems that people have faced or may face in everyday life can be more gripping even theologically than stories based on religious idealism, such as The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Ten Commandments.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Snowden

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words are moving pictures worth? Add in a script and you have actual words—potentially quite substantive words—grounding all that pictorial worth. Moving pictures, or movies for short, are capable of conveying substantial meaning to audiences. In the case of the film, Snowden (2016), the meaning is heavy in political theory. In particular, democratic theory. The film’s value lies in depicting how far short the U.S. Government has slipped from the theory, and, indeed, the People to which that government is in theory accountable.


Secrecy is synonymous with security, Corbin O’Brian, an instructor at the CIA, tells Snowden. To inform even Congress is tantamount to the intel getting to America’s enemies. Lest it be assumed that the secret FISA court is a viable fallback democratic check on the CIA and NSA, Gabriel Sol informs Snowden that the court is merely a rubber-stamp. This view is confirmed when Corbin confirms to Snowden that Jennifer, Snowden’s girlfriend, is not sleeping with anyone else. The extent to which the CIA could spy on American citizens is presented best through image rather than word, as Gabriel shows Snowden (and the viewer) how much information can be gleamed on a person by looking at emails, Facebook pages, and even webcams presumably turned off. The extent to which the CIA was spying on Americans is shown by Snowden himself as he moves a laptop cursor from country to country on a map. The number of emails, etc. captured does not match with the countries thought to be America’s enemies. Interestingly, the Japanese government refuses to spy on their own people for the CIA, saying that doing so would be illegal. Tellingly, the CIA went around the Japanese government and collected emails, Facebook pages, and other material on Japanese citizens. The lack of limitation is the motif that best describes American intelligence, and yet how very stupid it is to presume that no accountability is somehow ok in a democratic republic.
A video of President Obama referring dismissively to Snowden as just some 28-year-old hacker puts the president firmly on the side of the CIA and NSA. That the man who campaigned on “real change” would end up defending a corrupt old guard is a sad commentary that is only implicit in the film. The president’s arrogance is more apparent. That the DNC under Obama would unfairly favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the selection of the party’s nominee for president in 2016 can be seen as an extension of Obama defending the corrupt CIA and NSA.
Edward Snowden is left with the heavy duty of acting on behalf of the American people. They should know what is going on so they can decide whether the security interest trumps civil liberties as much as the People’s agents in the executive branch conveniently assume. An expose on CBS’s 60 Minutes, shown in part in the film, tells the viewer that working internally—being a whistleblower—is a recipe only for retaliation, so acting on behalf of the American People—trying to reach them—must be done outside of the government. In no way does acting on this duty constitute espionage; rather, the CIA and NSA are depicted in the film as being guilty of breaking the law in spying on untainted American citizens. By implication, the judges sitting on the FISA court must have been similarly guilty, in so far as they acted as a rubber-stamp resulting in Americans being spied on by their own government without any reason of suspicion to justify the permission of the secret court.
In the end, the film depicts the terrible power in the establishment, as well as how distant it is from the popular sovereign, the People. In terms of democratic theory, the agents are not well controlled by the principals. That is to say, the agency costs are high in the American republic. Historically, the American founders even in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 would have bristled at the CIA’s power depicted in the film. Surely those men would label such a government as a tyrant operating at the expense of liberty—ironically to safeguard what little is left. The purpose of the CIA and NSA is the true irony in the film, which succeeds in holding up an uncomfortable mirror both to the governors and the governed in the United States. In writing essays, I attempt a similar role, and in so doing I’m sure I have just lost some liberty in terms of privacy, since this essay is full of keywords—hardly the least of which is liberty, as from unreasonable searches.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Aimee & Jaguar

Aimee & Jaguar (1999) is a film based on a true story centering on Felice, a Jewish woman who lived in Berlin until 1944 and belonged to an underground lesbian, anti-Nazi (spying) organization. To be a Jewish lesbian in Nazi Germany cannot have been an easy life, with possible catastrophe just around the corner on any given day.  In the film, Felice becomes romantically involved with Lilly, a mother of four and wife to a Nazi solder who is fighting at the eastern front. The film is essentially a love story between the two women. I want to draw out some of the ethical issues raised in the film—with the love story serving as my critique of two ethical theories—utilitarianism and duty-based ethics—that are implied in the film.  




Bentham’s ethical theory of utilitarianism has for its goal the greatest good, which is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, for the greatest number of people. In terms of distribution, the principle can justify allocating a lot of money to some groups—whose individuals can be expected to get a lot of pleasure out of the funds—while depriving other groups of any money because they would not get a lot of pleasure out of even the limited funds. Invest in pleasure where most of it is likely to result. It is the consequence, rather than the means, that is important.
Under such a lopsided distribution as making what money there is available to non-Jewish Germans, the notion of declining marginal utility means that a lot more money would have to be added to the rich Germans to give pleasure equal to that which would come from giving the impoverished groups even just a little money. The utility of 1 DM, for instance, after getting 99 DM is less than the utility after getting 2 DM. This point is illustrated in the film.
In one scene, a fur-wearing, wealthy German woman, sensing that Felice and her three friends, Ilse, Lotte, and Klara, in the bathroom are hungry, and Jewish, sells them food-stamps for nothing less than 200 marks—an extravagant sum judging from the reaction of the three Jews. Based on declining marginal utility, it would take such a sum of money for the pleasure obtained by the rich woman to equal the pleasure from the mere food-stamps accruing to the four Jews. Hence, the exploitation.
The utilitarian distribution cutting off some people or entire groups from funds needed for daily sustenance can be extended to include outright extermination. In Nazi Germany, exterminated groups included the Communists, homosexuals, and Jews. Felice and her three friends were on the losing end in at least two of the three. It is ethically problematic that Bentham’s theory could be used in such a way to justify investing only in people who are most able to be happy (feel pleasure), whether from inner constitution or by external circumstance. Maximizing the pleasure in a society overall is an aim that can justify means that can easily be viewed as unethical. In fact, the resulting pleasure overall, as it is distributed in society (i.e., unequally) can be viewed as unethical. Fortunately, we can turn to Kant to make up for Bentham’s lapses.  
In contrast to Bentham’s theory, Immanuel Kant held that people have a duty to treat other rational beings not merely as means, but also as ends in themselves. Reason, by which we assign value to things (and people) is itself of absolute value, and so rational beings should not be treated merely as means, but are worthy by virtue of having reasoning capability of being treated as ends in themselves. This version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative is similar to the Golden Rule in Christianity (Kant was Christian). For the Nazi leaders to treat groups of people as means only to a Nazi vision of society and race would be for Kant, unethical.
Yet is it reasoning that gives humanity its absolute value? In the film, Felice refuses to go with her friends on a train to safety in Switzerland because she loves Aimee and thus wants to stay with her; the decision taken is not rational, for Felice must know that she could have gone and returned after the fall of the Third Reich; she must also have known that she would probably not survive for long, even if the days of Nazi Germany were obviously limited. “A catastrophe,” Aimee’s mother says when she learns, after Felice has returned from the train station, that she is not only her daughter’s girlfriend, but also Jewish. In such a context, how much value can we put on Felice’s love for Aimee? It seems to me that reason cannot assign value to such an object of such power, so such value must be undefined, and thus absolute. Means and even lofty ends that slight the human natural ability to love face an uphill fight in claims to being ethical rather than unethical.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Inferno: A Sequel that Goes Up in Flames

With the allure of additional profits to be had, Hollywood has been all too willing to torch high-quality brands as if with perfect impunity. A case in point is the film, Inferno, which followed The De Vinci Code and Angels & Demons in the Robert Langdon film series spanning ten years (2006-2016) based on novels by Dan Brown.

Noticeably absent from Inferno were any traces of theology, which had given the first film such narrative force, are arguably even sustained the second film. On first seeing the title, Inferno, I expected the film to involve the Christian concept of hell (hence Dante’s Inferno). L’Inferno, the 1911 European silent film, for example, is loosely based on Dante’s classic text. The film was an international success, taking in more than $2 million in the U.S. alone.[1] In contrast, the 2016 film received generally negative reviews and did not do well financially in the U.S. Rather than being about hell, or even religion,  Inferno is about climate change and over-population combined with biological warfare. The link to religious symbolism is tenuous at best, so the justification for the protagonist, Robert Langdon, is insufficient.


Film can indeed handle substantive theological issues. Films such as Rosemary’s Baby, Agora, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Devil’s are but a few stellar examples—exemplary still because their respective producers did not risk the brands by attempting to squeeze out more profits from a line of diminishing sequels. In contrast, the reputation of The Exorcist was diminished by Exorcist II: The Heretic and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist; both films, justifiably receiving stinging reviews, departed from the original storyline without bothering to be faithful to the original.
Producing sequels until the marginal revenue approaches zero is not a good business model for Hollywood. It is indeed possible for ensuing scripts of sequels to burn, or at least tinge, the original even long after it has been made into a film. Even from a business standpoint, the box-office flop of a sequel can negatively impact sales of the original film because of the hit to its reputation. Contradicting elements of the original story, such as occurred in sequels to The Exorcist, burn holes in the believability of the storyline itself. Was or was not the African boy, Kokumo, possessed by the demon Pazuzu?
In short, too much of a good thing can be counter-productive. If the reputation of a film’s “brand” means anything, it should be protected rather than prostituted out. Rather than pushing for sequel scripts, producers with one hit “under their belt” can better satisfy their economic and personal-brand self-interests by looking for another unique script. In the case of films with a theological dimension, scripts that engage a viewership with substantive problems rather than superficial protagonist-antagonist “drama” are the best bet.  






[1] Antonella Braida, "Dante's Inferno in the 1900s: From Drama to Film." In Antonella Braida, Antonella and Luisa Calé, Dante on View: The Reception of Dante in the Visual and Performing Arts (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007): 47-49.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Big Short and Concussion: A System on Sterroids

Watched one after the other or, more realistically, a day or two apart, "The Big Short" and "Concussion" provide an excellent picture of American business and society. As much as the revelations in the films are shocking, I'm more shocked that the American people just take things as they are. "Oh, that's just the way things go in the world," they might say as if this serves as a defense. In other words, we will doubtless get "same old, same old," at the ballot box in November. The disjunction between people's reaction to the substance of the films and the way the people vote is nothing short of astonishing to me. How can people be so shocked at Wall Street and the NFL, and yet continue to vote for the same epigones? We continue to use the same big banks and watch football as if the films were somehow really fictional. I suppose we get what we deserve. 

The key to understanding both films is actually made transparent in another film of the same sort. If you see "Spotlight," pay attention to the chief editor's point that the system, including all the parts..meaning people doing their jobs...was at fault...not just Cardinal Law. Hence, in "The Big Short" and "Concussion," we can reasonably extend the culprits even to the business ethics scholars who said nothing at the societal level about the rating agencies and the conflicts of interests in the big banks, as well as about the NFL. When you have a system wherein everyone is just doing his or her job, and yet is an accomplice, assigning blame to a particular part becomes artificial. It is the system itself--of business, government, and society--that is deeply flawed and thus in need of fundamental change.