The Last Exorcism and Utilitarianism

I often use film as a teaching aid in class. In the first place, I love film. I have a visual imagination. Whether I am trying to work through a philosophical problem or a new poem, my brain “sees” main concepts in images which I can then “move” in relation to one another to “build” a solution. So film is a process I recognize, relate to and enjoy.

As far as my students are concerned, I recognize that we live in a visually saturated culture. I believe analyzing films offers my class an opportunity to connect with important philosophical concepts in a way that is relevant and meaningful to them. In addition, in the same way that I give my students tools with which to mine the meaning from texts, I feel it is important to expose my students to the reality that the content of visual story telling goes beyond the story being told to include the how of the telling. I encourage my students to become aware of not just what’s in the picture, but how the picture is framed and composed in understanding the author’s intent, presuppositions and underlying agenda. To sum up, films connect my students to the philosophical, connect the philosophical with their lives and help my students decode their visual universe (with the hopes that they’ll get all philosophical about it.)

This week in Intro to Ethics, we will be watching some opening scenes from The Last Exorcism. As many of you know, I’m a devotee of the exorcism film genre and this one is one of my favorites. The ending suffers from a Rosemary’s Baby over-reveal, but otherwise, the storytelling is really compelling. Ashley Bell’s performance is nuanced and intense. All well and good, but why show it to my ethics class?

In class, we are currently studying Utilitarianism, which along with Deontology and Virtue Ethics is one of three main schools of ethics we cover. The bumper sticker breakdown of Utilitarianism is “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.” Different thinkers crunch the numbers differently, but on the whole, you are trying to solve for “good” in a way that maximizes that good for as many other members of your community as possible. In other words, utilitarianism is largely about weighing consequences (as opposed to character or intentions.) Utilitarianism certainly has its detractors (Elizabeth Anscombe for one), but it remains an important line of thinking (my favorite is Hutcheson).

Back when I first starting teaching the class, I was scouring my DVD collection and Netflix queue for movies that contrasted the different ethical schools. What I found was that it was really difficult to find any positive depictions of Utilitarianism. American story telling very much prefers a Virtue Ethics model for its heroes. In that story, the protagonist is faced with incredible odds that they navigate by the strength of their outstanding, inner character.

I get why this is a winning story. We want to believe that all our investments into building good character will yield good returns. We want to live in a world where good people persevere. However, it also suggests that the people who don’t get a victory, who can’t overcome their circumstances just might be bad people. Aside from being a gross miscategorization of our society, this is where the American meritocracy ideal goes wrong. It’s also the book of Job: if you’re in this kind of mess, then you must have done something to deserve it, because we know good people come out on the good. If Utilitarianism is depicted in films at all, it’s usually employed by villains or other characters that are opportunistic, self-serving and suspicious.

lastexorcism-09But not in The Last Exorcism. In The Last Exorcism, the main character, Rev. Cotton Marcus, is an exorcist trained from his youth in the church. After his son’s birth and subsequent medical problems, he loses his faith, but continues to officiate exorcisms because he believes that he is still helping people, people who believe that their maladies are supernatural. However, when he is confronted by the possibility that children, especially disabled children (a reality that is really frightening), are being harmed by the rite, he decides to expose exorcisms for the sham that they are. He is seeking the most amount of good for the most amount of people and acknowledges that children are a special class of vulnerable people that deserve a special kind of evaluation in his ethical math. He is portrayed very sympathetically, which is absolutely rare in American film. Now, of course, the movie unfolds in such a way that Rev. Marcus is confronted by a real possession in this last exorcism, but that doesn’t tarnish his portrait as someone who is trying to bring about good through his actions.

Can you think of another film that presents “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people” in a positive light? I’d love to broaden my resources, but in the meantime, we’ll be watching The Last Exorcism.

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3 comments

  1. howellb1 · November 3, 2014

    This is an interesting post, thanks for writing. I’m new to Ethics, taking my first class in it this semester. I like the idea of using film to evaluate different frameworks, and I agree that many American movies rely more on Virtue ethics than Utilitarianism.

    For a narrative that may be better viewed through Utilitarianism, I might suggest looking to television like Breaking Bad or the Wire.

    In Breaking Bad, the main character has no delusions about whether he’s being virtuous – he knows he isn’t – but chooses actions that he feels are justified, given his unique circumstances, by what outcome they may bring to others.

    In the Wire, you might find more of a Deontological perspective of ethics. The universe of the Baltimore Police and drug dealers is one strictly guided by codes and rules. Characters who attempt to break those codes or rules receive swift justice from the enforcers, even if their actions would be considered virtuous or utilitarian.

    • brynelewis · November 3, 2014

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I completely agree that Walter on Breaking Bad is making decisions based on their consequences. However, the greatest amount of good principle is lost on him (or maybe just restricted to him). Walter acts have negative repercussions for most of the people around him, including people in his own family. For that reason, the show ends up in the category of narrative that associate utilitarian thinking with being self-serving or opportunistic. I haven’t watched The Wire, but maybe I’ll have to give it some time. Would you recommend the show?

      I hope your ethics class is going well.

      • howellb1 · November 3, 2014

        Breaking Bad was a wonderful show to watch and think about morality and ethics. It’s the best example of any ‘screen’ narrative (movie or TV) I’ve ever seen whose most intense and gripping moments are not the scenes with guns or explosions – but the scenes in which a character is thinking, making judgements and deciding how to act.

        If you have not seen the Wire, I’m sure you’ve heard about it – so I will just reiterate that yes, it is absolutely worth watching, especially for the analysis of ethics. It allows a clearer interpretation of Utilitarianism than Breaking Bad, since the narrative is more coherently focused on the institutions society creates and uses to maintain the ‘greatest good’ (the police, the news media, the school system) Where Breaking Bad portrayed the ethical dilemmas of the individual, the Wire portrays the ethical dilemmas of the Institution.

        The Wire’s narrative constantly brings into conflict a deontological and utilitarian framework – while the police must always adhere to the codes and laws that govern them, those enabling structures are simultaneously their greatest obstacles to success – and the criminal organizations they chase grapple with identical dilemmas, which gives the show a quality of universality. All institutions face these problems, not only those which are considered virtuous.

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