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

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.