Saturday, September 6, 2008

Unexpected Insight on Consequentialism

I’m not a big Ben Affleck guy. I can’t really think of a role I’ve enjoyed him in since Good Will Hunting. So my expectations were not high when I picked up Gone Baby Gone to help pass some late night laboratory hours. You can imagine my surprise to find a well made film, with strong acting, characters I cared about, and a rich sense of place. I don’t know if Casy Affleck is a good actor or not[1] but the protagonist in Gone Baby Gone was completely in his wheel house and he nailed it. But the biggest surprise here was not the success of the Affleck brothers, but the totally worthwhile themes.

Spoiler Alert: Gone Baby Gone is a mystery and is, therefore, by nature, built on a surprise ending. I can’t discuss the themes without reveling it. So if the movie interests you I recommend seeing it before reading this post. However, I have to warn some of my readers that it has very dark moments, is built around a narrative arc of a child kidnapping and includes violence against children (I find I have less stomach for this sort of thing since Charis was born).

Patrick and Angie (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) are missing persons PI’s who are hired to assist the police in an investigation for a missing girl. The girl was apparently kidnapped while left alone (a common occurrence for her) as an act of revenge against her addict mother for a drug deal gone awry. The deeper the PI’s get into the case, though, the less sense it makes. People start dying and at one point, Patrick finds himself in a room with a child molester and a dead boy during a police shootout…and he puts a bullet in the man’s head. This string of events leads to this exchange with the officer in charge of the search (Remy played by Ed Harris):

Patrick: They say how old the boy was?
Remy: Seven.
Patrick: Second grade.
Remy: Should be proud of yourself. Most guys would've stayed outside.
Patrick: I don't know.
Remy: What don't you know?
Patrick: My priest says shame is God telling you what you did was wrong.
Remy: F#*$ him.
Patrick: Murder's a sin.
Remy: Depends on who you do it to…Would you do it again?
Patrick: No.
Remy: Does that make you right?
Patrick: I don't know.
Remy: It doesn't make it wrong, though, does it?

Far from an off-narrative tangent (which it seemed at the time) this little discussion foreshadowed the film’s central theme. Gone Baby Gone asks the question: Is the moral value of a decision determined by its outcomes? As the movie unfolds Patrick figures out that Remy and the girl’s uncle were the actual ‘kidnappers’ staging her disappearance and death to get her out of her dysfunctional and dangerous family situation and into the care of a heartbroken, kindly, retired police Captain (played by Morgan Freedman and his incomparably sad eyes). In the movie’s closing minutes Patrick confronts the Captain and is faced with the decision of whether to turn him in or walk away. Freedman passionately made the Captain’s plea:

“You know why you haven't (called the police)? Because you think this might be an irreparable mistake. Because deep inside you, you know it doesn't matter what the rules say. When the lights go out, and you ask yourself "is she better off here or better off there", you know the answer. And you always will....You could do a right thing here. A good thing. Men live their whole lives without getting this chance. You walk away from it, you may not regret it when you get home. You may not regret it for a year, but when you get to where I am, I promise you, you will. I'll be dead, you'll be old. But she... she'll be dragging around a couple of tattered, damaged children of her own, and you'll be the one who has to tell them you're sorry.”

And suddenly, with minutes left in the film, it shifts from a dark PI thriller to a serious bit of philosophical art…because we know the answer too. We have no doubt that the girl would have a ‘better life’ (“with birthday parties and sandwiches with the crust cut off”) in the care of the Captain and his wife. The outcomes of walking away are irrefutably superior. Remy, the Captain, the girl’s uncle, even Patrick’s girlfriend all justify their behavior in the name of an ultimate good, the safety and nurture of an innocent child. And this makes them philosophical pragmatists…ethical consequntialists. It is hard not to side with them. But moral goods are not evaluated by outcomes.
Patrick makes the lonely decision that the right choice may not have the comfortable justification of superior outcomes. At great personal cost[2] he reports the kidnapping and the girl is reunited with her mother. In the sad epilogue we see that while improved, this is still not an environment designed for her flourishing. And it is Patrick’s (seemingly nominal) religious conscience that sentences her to this life.

Gone Baby Gone tells the story of how philosophical consequntialism makes the desire to do ‘a good thing,’ something ‘men live their whole lives without getting this chance’ into a potentially self destructive impulse. It tells the story of the loneliness of accountability to a transcendent oughtness. I guess, in the end, it just tells a very compelling story. I owe the Affleck’s a second chance.

[1] He was horrible in The Last Kiss but I can’t think of anyone involved in that film that can be proud of their effort.
[2] His girlfriend tells him she will leave and does.

1 comment:

kelly said...

I liked Gone Baby Gone (and part of it was filmed on my friend's street), and I think the questions you raised are interesting ones.

I worked in a residential setting for teens removed from their homes on a short term basis by DSS for a year after I got my masters, and part of why I couldn't keep doing it (besides massive problems with the organization and pitiful pay, which only worsens the problems these kids face, because it's hard to get and keep qualified people in these positions) is that it felt a bit like tilting at windmills. On one hand I know that there are at least a handful of kids that are better off because they were in the program, and some of that has to do with the shift in family dynamics that occurred (DSS can be a wake up call sometimes for both the parent and the kid), and some of it had to do with longer term services that got put in place, and I like to believe that some of it was the work I was doing in individual and family therapy, and just being an adult who was interested in these kids and who cared enough to sit down and listen and try to understand. At the same time, for as much good as the system does, it can act as a bulldozer, and I'm sure there are kids that are damaged by the process that is supposed to protect them.

On one hand it's a philosophical question about how do you determine what is right, the means, or the end? And then there is the real problem we struggle with in this nation about kids at risk and how we help them. MA is in the middle of a HUGE project based on the "Rosie D" lawsuit. It used to be a lot easier to get a kid placed out of their home and keep them there, and people thought that it was damaging to kids, and it probably was for some. But then I saw kids at my program (the longest stay for a kid was supposed to be 45 days, the average was 2-3 weeks) who came back time after time after time, and each time the family was even more of a mess. Would it have been better to keep them out? I sat in meetings with these families and was in disbelief of how these adults spoke about their children, and treated the other adults including their spouses. What kind of role modeling were these kids getting (and one would assume one would be on their best behavior in a DSS meeting)? Or was it the process of removing them and placing them in residential care with other troubled kids that made it worse to begin with?

And that's not even touching the huge problem around kids that age out of the system without a decent safety net and the skills they need to survive. A lot of people aren't ready to make it on their own at 18, or even their early 20s. I lived at home until 25, and that's pretty common now. A lot of former foster kids struggle and end up homeless once they age out, and there isn't enough being done to help them.

It's easy to say that the system is screwed up, because it is. What's hard is figuring out how to fix the system.

That's what hit me at the end of the movie. This is what we do to thousands of kids every day. We take them away from their parents because we believe it is what is best for them. And it saves lives. And yet it can also change and possibly ruin lives too. We, the educated, mostly white, (and when it comes to policy makers, mostly male) social services professionals think we know best. And I'm not so sure we really "know" anything.

(getting off soapbox) I ramble sometimes.

Also, if you haven't seen it, you might want to check out Hollywoodland for evidence that Ben Affleck can indeed act.