An Ethicists’ Rambling Thoughts on Dexter

The following is straight from my facebook notes, so some of you may have already seen this. I just can’t do a blog on fiction and ethics without talking about Dexter because the guy is like… the motherload of ethical weirdness. I hope to do some more posts on Dexter in the future, but for now, here are my preliminary thoughts:

I won't tell if you won't

I just finished watching Season 2 of Dexter (which is as far as Netflix will let me watch instantly), and I have very mixed feelings about it. However, from an ethical point of view, the show is absolutely fascinating, and as a fledgling ethicist I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I thought I’d put down a few of my thoughts while they’re still fresh. This probably won’t interest you unless you’ve seen the show, but I don’t think I’ll be giving away any spoilers, so feel free to read even if you haven’t seen it. If you want a quick overview of the character, I think this is a pretty good character study music video. Beware of graphic, disturbing, and sexual images (i.e. NOT for the kiddies or the queasy). There are also minor spoilers:

My basic line of thought is on how Dexter is a very postmodern hero/antihero, and how that is both highly disturbing, really really interesting, and potentially a really good message, and how those three ideas fit together (or don’t). Warning: since I haven’t seen the entire show, there could very well be important aspects to his character that I don’t know about yet.

Okie, dokie. So, Dexter is a sociopath and a serial killer who structures his life according to his step-father’s code: 1) Don’t get caught 2) Only kill the people who deserve it. Thus, he pretends to live a normal life as a forensics blood expert with his sister Deb, his girlfriend Rita, and her two kids Astor and Cody while secretly tracking down and brutally killing other murderers and serial killers who have somehow slipped through the cracks in the justice system. This is supposed to be a way of “positively” channeling his sociopathic tendencies.

I want to make it clear that I do NOT think that we as the audience are meant to see what Dexter does as somehow morally right. However, I do think that we are meant to see where he is coming from and why HE thinks what he does is justified. Dexter brings a lot of commonly held moral assumptions into question, and that is why I find him interesting and likable.

First and foremost, he does what he does because he is a sociopath. This is not his fault, and sociopathy is (in theory) incurable, so to what extent is he culpable for his actions? He is responsible for them, but responsibility does not equal culpability (it’s a fine distinction, but an important one). If he is culpable, then the most likely punishment– execution– would place us and the law enforcement in the same position as him: we are “taking out the trash.”

The fact that Dexter is doing the same thing as the justice system, or even the same thing as the classic fairy tale hero by defeating the “bad guy” could be read several different ways. It could be a critique of the justice system or our ideas of heroism in saying that they are no better than murderers. It could also be a critique of our conception of murderers in saying that, from their perspective, there may be something good or just in what they are doing– labeling them as “monsters” is too simple. Heroes kill bad guys all the time– does the fact that Dexter straps the “bad guy” to a table with plastic wrap and dismembers them with power tools make him inherently different? Maybe, but how so?
Is Dexter the hypocrite or are we?

The fact remains that, even if he is pretending in his everyday life to be normal (and I’m not sure he is pretending as much as he thinks he is), he is still doing a lot of good. Deb, Rita, and her kids are much better off for having Dexter in their lives. He’s even downright heroic (in a non-controversial sense) when it comes to Astor and Cody. Could the fact that he still manages to do good things even, without the empathy and emotions of normal people make him more heroic? Is this good negated by the lie? Is it a lie?– he is fairly honest with Rita, after all, she just doesn’t fully understand what he’s talking about.

I think that the audience’s reaction to Dexter is important to the message of the show. I like Dexter, and that scares me, but why? And why do I like him? All the other characters (except Doakes, of course) like him because he’s…well… likable. He’s nice,he’s hardworking, he’s got a good sense of humor, he takes good care of Rita and her kids, etc. But we as the audience get to see his dark side and we know that much of his “nice guy” image is a fabrication, and yet we still like him. I think this is because we get to see him struggle with his “dark passenger”, and we identify with that. We see that he wants to do the right thing, even if his idea of what the right thing is is kinda twisted. We see that his murders are the result of him trying to feel alive and make sense of the world, and even though we disapprove, we identify with that need. Also, there are several instances where we do approve of his retaliation: (spoiler alert) when he kills Lilah after she almost burns Astor and Cody alive (among other things), or when he gets Paul sent back to prison by shooting him up with heroin. Perhaps he uses a more extreme form of retribution than I would have advised, but I identify with the twisted sense of justice.

If I like Dexter, what does that say about me? If I am disgusted with the fact that I like him, what does that say about me? Serial killers, psychopaths, and sociopaths are often thought of as inhuman or inherently evil and worthy of death, but how do we justify this assumption? They do wrong, yes, and they even arguably are wrong, but aren’t we all?

I have more to say on Dexter– particularly in comparing his relationships with Rita and Lilah and how they fit into his potential recovery, but that takes us into spoiler territory, and I’m not sure I really know what I think about that anyways (side note… does anyone else find it hysterical that there is a sexy/dangerous girl named Lilah and a character played by Julie Benz? No? Didn’t think so). I do want to state, for the record, that I think Harry is an awful bastard– Dex is a sociopath, but what’s his excuse? Anyways…

I don’t think that Dexter gives us any answers about ethics, and I don’t think he was meant to. The show just shakes up our ethical assumptions and forces us to say “it’s not that simple,” and that’s the main reason why I think the show is postmodern. The show fascinates me, gives me hope, and scares me beyond belief all at the same time. All I can say is that, as someone who is interested in antiheroes and the philosophical relationship between stories and ethics, Dexter is a gift. A really, really terrifying gift.

~ by ntertanedangel on May 31, 2010.

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