Breaking Bad’s Walter White (and Amoralism, Internalism, Humeanism, and Moral Motivation)

Walter White, the amoralist

Walter White, the amoralist

There are many qualities to love about “Breaking Bad”, but I think the feature that so deeply engrosses audiences is the moral terrain that Walter White walks, and the cool and collected manner he amorally navigates it. I will argue that Walter White is an amoralist, and then posit that White’s amoral existence undermines the internalist’s argument against cognitivism, and by extension, moral realism.

1.1.Walter White

Krazy 8 thinks that White is an undercover cop.

Krazy 8 thinks that White is an undercover cop.

Walter White is a gifted chemistry teacher, who upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer uses his skills to make potent methamphetamine for distribution in order to leave his family with financial security. White quickly finds out that the drug trade comes with many occupational hazards, and in the first episode alone is faced with a life-or-death situation; he kills to survive. One assailant is poisoned by a concoction of chemicals, the other, Krazy 8, is knocked unconscious, leaving him to be executed by White later. White is reluctant to so directly take a man’s life, and is close to letting the man free when he realizes that the man has a weapon and will murder him upon being freed. Walt strangles him to death.

This is a defining moment for White’s character. We see that he does have a sense of moral right and wrong, such that he is not a psychopath, but that he fails to be motivated to act in accord with those moral standards.

1.2. White as an Amoralist 

An amoralist in the philosophical sense is, “an agent who on a single occasion fails to be motivated by a moral judgment that he endorses” (Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defense, page 145). In other words, the amoralist genuinely makes a moral judgment but is not moved to act in accord with that judgment.

For example, an agent acts amorally when they think, “In this situation, it would be morally wrong for me to steal the money from the tip jar”, and then proceed to steal the money from the tip jar. Independently of whether or not the action is immoral, we can always wonder whether an agent acted amorally. Moral propositions are action guiding in that they express beliefs about what actions to take, such that if one genuinely holds a moral belief to be true, it seems strange not to be motivated to act in accord with that moral belief. When we are unmotivated by our moral beliefs we act amorally.

It seems to me that White has a set of moral beliefs, one of which is that it is morally wrong to murder another person. murder sceneWhite is faced with a strange dilemma: he has a moral reason not to kill Krazy 8, and a non-moral reason to kill Krazy 8 (namely, that Walt will be killed). As such, this is not a standard moral dilemma where one must choose the better of two morally bad acts, but a choice between acting on a moral reason or a non-moral reason. Walt desperately wants to act on the non-moral reason because he cannot shake the feeling that Krazy 8 will murder him. At the same time, he is compelled to let the man go due to the moral reason that it is wrong to commit murder. That the dilemma is so agonizing for White shows that he genuinely believes that it is true that it is wrong to murder another person. Yet he murders Krazy 8. Thus, White was not sufficiently motivated to act in accord with his own moral beliefs. Therefore, amoralism is a logical possibility.

White instantiates amoralism frequently throughout the series. Anyone who has seen the show will agree that countless times White says to Jesse Pinkman (his main accomplice), “Jesse, I know ________, but ________”.

White frequently convinces Jesse Pinkman to ignore moral reasons.

White frequently convinces Jesse Pinkman to ignore moral reasons.

White says something along these lines too often to count. When he does, he notes that there is a moral reason against the action, but there is a non-moral reason for the action. Thus, he frequently concedes to Jesse that from a moral point of view they should not commit the action, but that they will commit it any way. This shows that it is possible to have moral beliefs that one holds as true, but be unmotivated to act in accord with those moral beliefs. Further testament to the possibility of amoralism.

2.1 Moral Motivation Internalism and Moral Motivation Externalism

Moral motivation internalism (hereafter MMI or internalism) denies the possibility of an amoralist; internalism is the theory that there is a conceptual connection between moral judgments and motivation. The thought is that moral judgments are action guiding, so if someone truly believes a moral judgment, they will be motivated to take that action. It is also maintained that this theory accounts for the rarity of witnessing someone genuinely endorsing a moral belief and then doing the opposite.

The problem is that this claim is far too strong; positing the conceptual connection of moral belief and motivation rules out the logical possibility of the amoralist, which I have argued is logically possible, as evidenced by Walter White.

Moral Motivation Externalism (hereafter MME or externalism) is the denial of internalism. “Externalism claims that the motivational force […] of moral considerations depend[s] on factors external to the moral considerations themselves” (David Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics, page 42). Making a moral judgment is not sufficient for being motivated to act in accord with it, says the externalist, one needs additional desires and beliefs.

The externalist allows for the possibility of the amoralist. The externalist might notice that Walt has a moral belief about the wrongness of murder, and a non-moral practical belief about what to do to stay alive, but due to background desires he is not motivated to act on the moral belief.

Given their commitment to the logical connection between belief and motivation, the internalist must deny that White actually believes the moral judgments that he expresses, such that his moral beliefs lack true moral content. White might think that he genuinely believes in his moral beliefs, but obviously he does not, because otherwise he would be motivated to act on them, says the internalist. The debate comes down to this:

  • Internalist: Internalism is true!
  • Externalist: Internalism isn’t true! If internalism is true, then amoralists don’t exist, but amoralists do exist, so internalism is false. (modus tollens)
  • Internalist: No, internalism is true! If internalism is true, then amoralists don’t exist, and internalism is true, so amoralists don’t exist. (modus ponens)

Now, I’m not trying to imply that the internalists argument is bad; their argument is valid, and just as valid as the externalists’. It’s just not very convincing by itself, because their response to the objection is that the objection isn’t possible because their view is true. The argument is valid, but it is wanting, such that, without an independent argument for internalism we are well advised to reject it.

2.2 Michael Smith on Internalism

Recognizing this standstill, Michael Smith has attempted to develop an independent argument for internalism. It is simple enough. He asks us to imagine a virtuous person and consider whether that person does good things because they desire to do certain actions, and those actions happen to be good, or that person does good things because they desire to do good things, and so desire to do certain actions that are good. Smith thinks the former statement is true, such that the internalist view is vindicated.

However, as thought experiments go, this one is pretty poor, because I have the opposite intuition! If someone just took actions, and the actions were good then that is all well and good, but it seems he lacks the agency and autonomy necessary to say he is virtuous. I think a virtuous person is someone who desires to do good things. Smith’s idea of a virtuous person just sounds like a morally lucky person to me.

Smith needs to deny the possibility that we can have desires without being aware of them. Otherwise the externalist can easily retort that it only seems like we have a desire to do that one action, really we have an unfelt desire to do good, and so derivatively we desire to take that action, such that without that unfelt desire we would not desire to take that action. This does seem a tad farfetched but I don’t want to stake too much on it either way.

The problem is that elsewhere in his book, The Moral Problem, he posits that we can have desires without being aware of

David Hume has had a lasting influence on metaethics.

David Hume has had a lasting influence on metaethics.

them, and does so to fend off the anti-Humean critique against motivational Humeanism, a theory he supports. Motivational Humeanism is the theory that “motivation has its source in the presence of a relevant desire and means-end belief” (Michael Smith, The Moral Problem, page 92). The idea is that no one is motivated to undertake an action unless they in some way desire to undertake the action.

Anti-Humeans (beginning with Kant) thought that a person could be sufficiently motivated to undertake an action with just a means-end belief, that is, without desires. Anti-Humeans posit that we can perform a moral action just because of a belief. They point to occasions where we have the strong desire to steal money from the tip jar, but the belief that it is wrong to steal, and wherein we ultimately do not steal the money from the tip jar despite not feeling any desire to do the right thing. Smith’s response is that we can have desires without feeling them, but if this is so, then the externalist can easily say that we have the desire to do good, but we just do not feel it. Thus, if we can have desires without being aware of them then externalism cannot be ruled out very easily, or if we cannot have desires without being aware of them then motivational Humeanism seems to be defeated. In the next section I will show why this dilemma is significant.

2.3 The Anti-Cognitivist Argument

I have argued that because we either can or cannot have desires without being aware of them, either internalism or motivational Humeanism is false because both cannot be true at the same time. The reason why this is significant is that both internalism and motivational Humeanism must be true in order for a standard argument against cognitivism, the view that moral judgments are beliefs, to be sound. Moral realism entails that we have moral beliefs that are truth functional, and that independently existing moral properties either make our beliefs true or false. Stated like this, one can easily see that for moral realism to be true, cognitivism must be true. By showing that the main argument against cognitivism is not sound, I hope to make moral realism a more tenable position. The idea of the argument is that if we are always motivated by our moral judgments, and beliefs are never motivating by themselves (I’m not motivated to do anything in virtue of just the belief that 2+2=4), then moral judgments must not be expressions of beliefs, but of emotions or preferences.

The anti-cognitivism argument is well stated by Shafer-Landau, so I will quote him at length.

  1. Necessarily, if one sincerely judges an action right, then one is motivated to some extent to act in accordance with that judgment. (Motivational Judgment Internalism [what I referred to as Moral Motivation Internalism]
  2. When taken by themselves, beliefs neither motivate nor generate any motivationally efficacious states. (Motivational Humeanism)
  3. Therefore moral judgments are not beliefs.         (Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism: A Defense, page 121).

The argument is valid, meaning that the truth of the conclusion follows from the truth of the premises, but in order to be sound, such that the conclusion is certain to be true, both premises must be true, which I have argued is impossible.

If we can have desires without being aware of them then Michael Smith’s positive argument for internalism fails, and given that the internalist could not provide an argument against the possibility of the amoralist that was not question-begging, without Smith’s separate support for internalism we should take externalism as true. Or we could hold that internalism is true, because we cannot have desires without being aware of them, but if this is so then we have good reason to doubt motivational Humeanism.

It might be useful to see how if even if one premise is true, the falsity of the other makes the first premise safe for moral realists. If internalism is true but Humeanism is false then we could be sufficiently motivated to act on our moral judgments because we think our moral beliefs are true. If internalism is false, but Humeanism is true, then we could be motivated by external desires to act on our moral beliefs. In either case, cognitivism is not defeated, and moral realism remains a viable metaethical position.

3.1  Conclusion

Walter White exhibits the characteristics of an amoralist, such that he serves as a counterexample to moral motivation internalism. If White is not an amoralist, then motivational Humeanism seems dubitable. In either case, cognitivism is a viable position, and either combination of the premises makes reasonable hypotheses for moral motivation. I am somewhat skeptical of motivational Humeanism, but given that it is widely accepted, to the point of being the orthodox view of human motivation, I do not want to rest a defense of moral realism on its negation. Instead, I favor accepting moral motivation externalism, and I think Walter White, as an amoralist, gives us good reason to take this position.


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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on December 13, 2013 - 10:33 pm

    Interesting. Since we established last time that I’m not a moral realist (in the sense of believing in an objective morality), I’ll be interested to see if my view holds as you write more on it.

    Internalism does strike me as intuitively false. How would we ever have a guilty conscience if it was true?

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on December 14, 2013 - 11:51 am

      Very good point! It seems the internalist has to deny the genuineness of a guilty conscience.

      Reviewing your view as posted in the last entry, it seems it could be compatible with internalism or externalism.

      When a person makes a moral judgment, are they just expressing the overriding evolutionary instinct for the situation, in the same way that one could be expressing an emotion or preference? These latter options reflect desires, and it seems your view could be understood in this way. When we make a moral judgment we express our desire to act on our strongest evolutionary instinct for that situation. The thing is, desires are not truth-functional; whereas beliefs are truth-functional because they are supposed to fit with the world, desires are not truth-functional because the world is supposed to fit with our desires. Intuitively it just makes sense to say that a desire is not true or false (but stating a belief that you have a desire can be true or false, that it just adding another layer). Thus, if you think that when we make moral judgments we are expressing a desire to act on evolutionary instincts, then your view is non-cognitivist, as cognitivism holds that moral judgments are beliefs.

      So last time we discussed your idea that humans’ evolutionary instincts constitute morality. The question now is whether you think our moral judgments are expressions of desires to act on evolutionary instincts, or moral judgments are statements of beliefs about the overriding evolutionary instinct in the situation.

      It seems to me that by the conceptual meaning of ‘strongest evolutionary instinct for the situation’ that if we make a moral judgment and a moral judgment is the expression of the instinctual desire given by evolution, that the person who makes the judgment will be sufficiently motivated to act in accord with the judgment. I say this because I understand ‘evolutionary instinct’ to be synonymous with ‘instinctual desire’, making your view desire based and thus, non-cognitivist. But if your view entails that judgments are expressions of desires, and desires are undeniably motivating, then it follows that your view entails that moral judgments are internally motivating, in virtue of them being the expression of desires.

      All of this is to say that perhaps you should be more open to internalism, or articulate your view in a way that fits well with cognitivism. I have suggested here that the meaning of the terms you have used suggests a good fit with non-cognitivism. This suggests a tension between your view and your denial of internalism. I might be wrong about this though; you could argue that moral judgments are statements of beliefs about the overriding evolutionary instinct in the situation.

  2. #3 by jmeqvist on December 15, 2013 - 7:10 pm

    Great entry, and not just because I love Breaking Bad!

    My one issue would be with the initial distinction between moral and non-moral reasons. I am not convinced that it makes sense to speak of a range of reasons as moral and another range as non-moral.I am more convinced by an approach that integrates what is traditionally called the moral, with other ethical concerns into a broader, singular moral/ethical approach to reasoning.

    I tend to see Walt’s dilemma in terms of competing set of ethical reasons. On one hand there is a the survival of himself and his family to whom he has obligations, and on the other side the general obligation he has to all others to treat them with respect. Clearly, Walt makes the wrong choice in that he sacrifices a larger moral consideration, to one with less weight, but I don’t see why this is an issue of moral versus non-moral reasons.

    Furthermore, if we want to separate moral from non-moral reasons is there any reason why moral considerations ought to take precedence over non-moral reasons when we have a situation in which we have a non-moral reason to act in one way and a moral reason to act in a different way?

    Once again this was an excellent post.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on December 15, 2013 - 9:55 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, as a huge fan of BB I relished the opportunity to write on it. Thanks are also due for your insightful comments.

      I think you raise a fair objection regarding the possibility of distinguishing moral reasons and non-moral reasons. I think moral reasons are a sub-group of reasons for action in general, such that the set of moral reasons does not exhaust the set of reasons for action. For example, I think there is a reason not to eat cheeseburgers everyday, but I do not think that this is a moral reason — it wouldn’t be morally wrong to eat cheeseburgers everyday, though it would be practically irrational.

      This speaks to your last query about the overridability of non-moral reasons by moral reasons or vice versa. I think moral reasons override non-moral reasons for action because moral actions by definition directly affect other beings, whereas non-moral actions do not necessarily affect others. I think we see this as an intuitive truth of morality, but trying to justify it further would take us too far afield for now. Suffice it to say, you raise an important question, and one that it not easily answerable. [Brief aside: My question for you, though, is: it seems that even if all reasons are moral reasons (as you have suggested) that we have some sense of moral reasons to benefit others as being more demanding of obedience than moral reasons to benefit myself. In other words, even if all reasons are moral reasons, it still seems we need to explain why some moral reasons are more commanding than others, but what is it that is internal to moral reasons that makes this so? But again, you raise a fantastic question.]

      But of course, your objection is not answered by this, because you justifiably note that there seems to be a moral reason to kill Krazy 8 due to the danger he poses to Walter. I think this intuition makes sense, but I think it is nonetheless erroneous on further inspection. Here’s why:

      Moral reasons logically imply reasons for action, such that it is morally bad (precisely because one did not act in accord with a moral reason) if one ignores a moral reason. By the same token, it is practically bad or irrational, if one ignores a practical reason. This gives us testable implications. I’m positing that there is a non-moral reason to kill Krazy 8, and you are positing that there is a moral reason to kill Krazy 8.

      According to the theory of reasons I have just laid out, if there is a moral reason to do an action, and one does not perform that action, then it is morally bad that one did not do that action. If there is a non-moral, which is to say practical, reason to perform an action, and one does not perform that action, then it is practically bad that one did not perform that action.

      What this means is that to test whether the reason White had to kill Krazy 8 was moral or non-moral we can look at what we would say if White had not killed Krazy 8. If White had a moral reason to kill Krazy 8 then it is morally bad that White had not killed Krazy 8. If White had a non-moral reason to kill Krazy 8, then it is practically bad that White had not killed Krazy 8. Now we must ask the question: Would it be morally bad to not kill Krazy 8? I don’t think it would be morally bad to spare Krazy 8’s life. While there are circumstances where it is morally permissible to kill someone, I do not think there are ever any circumstances where it would not be morally permissible to spare someone’s life. I do think it would be practically bad, though. I think this shows that White did not have a moral reason to murder Krazy 8, such that he was choosing between not killing Krazy 8 due to a moral reason, and killing him due to a practical reason.

      Perhaps you will not find this reply satisfactory. That might be because you don’t think it disproves the central insight of your objection. That might be so; like I said before, your objection is legitimate. Thanks again for sharing it.

      P.S. I’ve been enjoying your recent posts, particularly your entry on friendship; I really appreciated the unique perspective of consumer preference that you brought into the conversation. I searched and searched but couldn’t find the comment entry box, for some strange reason. Anyways, great writing.

      • #5 by jmeqvist on December 28, 2013 - 6:41 pm

        Thanks for the compliment on my entries. It is appreciated. That is weird that you could not find the comment box. It seems to appear for me.

        This is an excellent and interesting response.

        FIrstly, to me what would make Walt’s act to not kill Krazy 8 wrong is not the danger that Krazy 8 poses to Walt, but rather the danger that Skylar and Walt jr would be put in. Although, Walt could have taken care of this by turning himself in, and haivng the police ensure that his family was protected. So i see the conflict between a moral reason against killing life, and a moral reason to ensure that others are not killed (even if they were not Walt’s family this reason would hold).

        With regard to the more technical issue of moral vs. non-moral (practical) reasons I think we largely agree on what is at stake as you are right that even if I reject the distinction between moral and non-moral reasons I still have to show why some ethical reasons are stronger than others, and I largely tend to see what is obligatory as concerning others while those reasons that don’t concern others are largely not obligatory. However, there is a subset of reasons which while they do not concern others (ie the reason I have to live a fulfilling, meaningful life) are nonetheless obligatory.

        While it may be odd to say that it is morally wrong to eat cheeseburgers everyday I would want to say that there is a ethical, rather than a moral problem with doing this. The ethical problem is that I am quite clearly failing to understand the importance of health to a well-lived life. I prefer the term ethical to moral, because moral inherently has a connotation of other-regarding action, and therefore when we use the term moral and non-moral we fail to see the connection between self-regarding and other regarding responsibilities. Both of these responsibilities are necessary elements of a good life.

        So I am in agreement with the need to distinguish between reasons that command us more strongly and those that are weaker, but I want to emphasize the relationship between other regarding and self-regarding action, because I do agree with Charles Taylor that we too often focus on what is right to do, but neglect the question of what is good to be, and this is focusing on the moral at the expense of the ethical, and I find this problematic.

        Now the question that arises for my position is what do I do if ability to live a rich and meaningful life requires me to participate in cruelty? While I would say that participating in this cruelty would destroy the richness of one’s life, nonetheless for the sake of argument let’s pretend that it does not. In such a case I do something wrong however I act, but the greater evil is participating in cruelty, but this is because the duty to live a meaningful life is a duty to achieve a positive good, whereas the duty to avoid harm and cruelty avoid others involves avoidance of an evil. And simply intuitively I think we have a greater obligation to avoid evil than we do to promote positive good. My intuition derives from the fact that if we think of a society that achieves many wonderful goods, but participates in slavery, and a more mundane one that does is nonetheless just and affirms equality, we tend to think that the latter is taking a better course of action. Likewise, the individual who participates in evil, but writes beautiful poetry that he finds fulfillment in has lived a worse life, than the individual who has not participated in evil, but has failed to find fulfillment and meaning.

      • #6 by ausomeawestin on December 28, 2013 - 10:55 pm

        Glad that was worked out, I look forward to commenting on your entries in the future!

        On your first point regarding obligations to Skylar and Walt Jr. as a moral reason to kill Krazy 8, I think understand your view, but nevertheless, I am hesitant to say that this creates a moral reason or obligation to kill Krazy 8. The murder of Skylar and Walt jr. (hereafter S&Wj) is a moral decision for Krazy 8 to make, and we should say that it is Krazy 8’s moral obligation to not kill S&Wj, but I don’t think this transfers any real obligation to Walter to kill Krazy 8 so that S&Wj are not murdered. As Kant posited, ought implies can, and while Walt can decide whether Krazy 8 lives or dies he cannot decide for Krazy 8 whether S&Wj will die. For sure, Walt can force a “decision”, in some sense, on Krazy 8 by killing him, but this would not be to allow Krazy 8 to autonomously make the decision himself. Thus, I think there are layers of effects, and Walt cannot have an obligation to cause indirect effects that are not his to choose, due to the ought implies can principle. After all, Krazy 8 could decide not to murder S&Wj, which goes to show that Krazy 8 CAN decide in one of two ways, whereas Walt can only make one decision for Krazy 8, such that there is not a relevant ‘can’ and thus not a derivative ‘ought’. That being said, I think Walt has practical reason to kill Krazy 8 due to the potential loss of his and his family’s life.

        As for your second point on the ethics of eating cheeseburgers every day, I am not sure what to say. I suspect that we are talking past each other in the sense that we are using the same word to talk about different things. The closest I can come to understanding your use of ‘ethics’ is in the sense of “a good work ethic”. To me that means someone who works hard, likely due to a sense of duty for completing the work. In this way we are not speaking of morality, because we are not talking of the moral goodness and badness of his particular actions, we are talking about his character in an evaluative way, but which is not moral, in the sense of describing virtues and vices. If you understand ‘ethic’ in this sort of way, then I can agree, eating cheeseburgers everyday is not ethical, or rather, is not of a good ethic. So, your use of ‘ethical reason’ is synonymous with my use of ‘practical reason’. Thus, reframing the discussion in your language, I have argued that Walt has a moral reason not to murder Krazy 8 and an ethical reason to murder Krazy 8. I must admit that is strikes me as strange to say there is an “ethical reason for murder”! Please let me know if I’m understanding you correctly, I am enjoying this conversation immensely.

  3. #7 by jmeqvist on December 28, 2013 - 6:59 pm

    PS I should correct myself. I was sure that there was a comment box on my last few posts, but WordPress must have done an update, so that now I have to check a box to allow comments, and I had not been checking that box. My apologies; you were correct that there was no place to leave comments on some of my recent posts. There is now a comment field on my last three posts including the one pertaining to friendship.

    • #8 by jmeqvist on December 29, 2013 - 3:03 pm

      Thanks for the reply.

      I think you are close to understanding me, but I was a little but unclear on a couple of points.

      I should have been more specific in stating what the competing reasons are in Walt’s case. I would not say that Walt has an ethical reason to murder Krazy 8, but I would say that Walt has an ethical reason to do what he can to prevent harm from coming to others. This is, for me, the reason why I would want to say that there are two ethical reasons at stake. Walt does not have an ethical reason to murder Krazy 8, but he does have an ethical reason to prevent harm to others which can be misinterpreted as requiring him to kill Krazy 8. This would be a misinterpretation as it requires Walt to egregiously violate the foundational other-regarding ethical reason that all shall be treated with respect.

      In this sense, now that I think of it the conflict that I was pointing at is only apparent, rather than actual, as Walt could at once treat Krazy 8 as an end, and save his family, and presumably himself, by going to the police.

      When I use the term ethical I mean it in the sense of the art of living well. So, thus I would say the ethical is bigger than the moral, but inclusive of the moral.
      Consequently, I think we are talking past each other, as I would ordinarily say that practical reason is inclusive of what you refer to as moral reasons, but also inclusive of what you call non-moral reasons. The distinction between “moral” and “non-moral” for me is thus within “the ethical” or practical reason.

      I am trying to get past the reduction of goodness to moral goodness, and show that moral goodness is one variety of goodness, and while it is exceedingly important, it is connected with other forms of goodness that relate to virtues. I am really just subtly pushing back against the idea that the only thing that determines a person’s goodness is that they treat others with respect (meet the demands of morality in your sense of the term). You are right that goodness that relates to virtue rather than morality involves something other than moral evaluation, but I still think that it does make sense to speak of it as a species of goodness. So to circle back to the ethical, living well involves not only moral goodness, but also other forms of goodness relating to character. A person who lives an outstanding moral life, but fails to develop virtues or try to lead a rich, fulfilling life fails to live life well in a certain sense, and likewise to the person who fails morally but has a fully developed character (ie Bernie).

      • #9 by ausomeawestin on December 29, 2013 - 3:47 pm

        Alright, I can get on board with that, thank you for taking the time to write further, I think I understand your view and agree with it. I have been thinking on the ordering of categories of reasons, and it seems to me that you think moral reasons are a subclass of ethical reasons (which I have been calling practical reasons). I am drawn to this view as well, though what I have written before suggests that I think there are two separate sets of reasons. I’m still working this out for myself, but it certainly seems that moral reasons are a more narrowed set of ethical/practical reasons. If this is so though, it might be in conflict with the methods I suggested for distinguishing moral and ethical/practical reasons. One way to resolve this conflict would be to maintain that there are no other subclasses of ethical reasons other than moral reasons, such that the counterfactual test I proposed uncovers which reasons are moral reasons and which reasons are not moral reasons, where not moral reasons are ethical/practical reasons that exclude the subclass of moral reasons.

  4. #10 by Adam Zanzie on July 10, 2014 - 9:40 pm

    Hi Awestin,

    I’m currently editing a bloggers’ eBook guide on Breaking Bad for Take2 Publishing and was wondering if we could include this article in the guide. The purpose of the eBook is to promote the work of film & TV critics whose work is otherwise not getting the attention it deserves.

    Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll have my boss work up an agreement which includes royalty agreements based on how much the guide sells.

    Thanks, Awestin!

    All the best,

    Adam Zanzie

  5. #11 by rung2diotimasladder on October 11, 2014 - 7:39 pm

    First of all, I love this post. Breaking Bad is a great show for engaging in a philosophical discussion on ethics. So inspiring. I may have to write a post about it. Thank you so much!

    I haven’t read the comments yet because I’m afraid if I do, I’ll lose what I’m about to say. So I apologize if I’m repeating what someone else has already said.

    I’m not sure Walter White is an amoralist in this example and according to your definition of amoral.

    “For example, an agent acts amorally when they think, “In this situation, it would be morally wrong for me to steal the money from the tip jar”, and then proceed to steal the money from the tip jar.”

    Here’s my interpretation: It’s not as if Walter held the view that killing is wrong, then acted contrary to that view. He picked up that broken plate out of the garbage can, saw the intentions of Crazy 8 and realized that this killing would be a case of self-defense. I believe that killing is right in self defense, (albeit, not when I have landed myself in this situation to begin with.) I think in this example, WW is acting according to his views, which are misguided to a certain extent given the circumstances, but somewhat reasonable, if you think about it. If he doesn’t kill Crazy 8, he will get killed himself. And probably his entire family too.

    WW goes much further in later episodes, where he kills for little or no reason at all. WW post-Crazy 8 episode would not think “It is morally wrong for me to steal the money from the tip jar.” He would think, “Those suckers who get duped all their lives think it would be wrong for me to steal the money from the tip jar, but they don’t know the way the world works. Morality is a lie, a convention created to protect the weak.” I hope you see what I mean.

    For WW and many others, the world must exhibit the moral truths they believe in as proof of their veracity. (Of course, verification of this sort is flimsy. Keep in mind he’s not a philosopher and far from a Kantian.) This scene demonstrates a shift in his worldview. If Crazy 8 had proved to be a good guy, the series would have ended with WW going back to his humdrum but moral life. However, Walter has had a few reasons to believe that might makes right (for example, when he gets screwed over by his partner, who takes his idea and makes a fortune, leaving Walter in the lurch), and this showdown with Crazy 8 is a turning point. Each episode shows him moving in increments from a somewhat conventional, moral worldview to a Nietzschean worldview. Events around him only confirm the latter.

    When you mention all those times when WW talks to Jesse and says, “Jesse, I know ________, but ________”. He’s really saying, “Jesse, yes, the world thinks______, but you and I know it’s not real.” THEN he becomes truly amoral. (And we love Jesse because he’s never quite convinced.)

    Of course, your argument is still very interesting and doesn’t rely on this example at all. There are many examples of someone holding a belief and doing the opposite.

    “The thought is that moral judgments are action guiding, so if someone truly believes a moral judgment, they will be motivated to take that action. It is also maintained that this theory accounts for the rarity of witnessing someone genuinely endorsing a moral belief and then doing the opposite.”

    Can internalism be true and yet people can still be hypocrites and make mistakes? What if I’m motivated to do the right thing—to avoid stealing money from the tip jar—and yet I steal the money anyways because my lower desires have trumped my higher ones? Then later I feel guilty about it? And later if I’m perceptive I remember that guilt and act according to my higher moral instinct? In other words, the desire to be good and do right is the guiding force all along, but I just get sidetracked. I’m made unhappy when I make mistakes and I feel happy when I do right.

    • #12 by ausomeawestin on October 11, 2014 - 10:55 pm

      Thank you for the very kind words about the entry, and for your fair comments, they are all very appreciated. I look forward to reading any entry you write, but particularly one on Breaking Bad.

      I’ll admit that in some aspects Walt seems like an amoralist and in others he does not. While writing this entry, I remember going back and forth as to whether he was an adequate example of an amoralist, and considered other characters that might better serve my purpose, such as Michael Corleone of the Godfather (a personal favorite). Alas, I was in the throes of a Breaking Bad binge and was consumed by a desire to think about the implications of the show as much as I could (it is that good of a show, after all). So I can admit that there is reason to be skeptical of Walt being a genuine amoralist.

      Still, I think it’s important to not overplay how temporally close two events must be in order for them to be inconsistent. In the lead up to killing Krazy-8 Walt could not muster the will power to kill K8. The best explanation is that he truly believed it morally wrong to kill him. But during this time K8 still posed a threat to Walt and his family, if let go. So it’s fair to say that even then, when Walt felt he and his family were in danger, he could not bring himself to kill K8 because it would be morally wrong to do so. The question then is what provoked in Walt the drive to kill K8?

      The answer the show provides is that K8 gets a shard of ceramic plate that could be used to kill Walt. We are to understand that the threat has become real. But is it any different than the hypothetical danger K8 posed before he had the weapon? Not really, Walt could just leave K8 down there to starve to death, being as he is locked up by the neck. Thus, nothing about the situation truly changed enough to warrant Walt coming to the conclusion that it would be ok to kill K8 now because it would be in self-defense, unless it had always been ok to kill K8 on the grounds of self-defense, but in which case, he could have had the motivation to kill K8 long ago, and that he didn’t have the motivation from concerns for self-defense shows that self-defense was not the reason Walt killed K8. No, the true change was in Walt, and has nothing to do with a change in the situation as justifying killing K8. Killing K8 was always going to be an act of self-defense, so the reason why he is suddenly able (motivationally speaking) to kill him cannot be for the reason of self-defense. The change was in Walt, in that he was no longer motivated by his moral belief that killing is wrong. I submit that he had the belief that killing is wrong but acted contrarily to it, and thus, acted amorally.

      As per your last question, the proponent of internalism might be a strong internalist and think that such instances are impossible — for them it is impossible to make a value judgment and then not act on it — or they might be a weak internalist, and instead think it possible to have a moral belief but act in opposition to it, but in doing so, one is being irrational, in that, they are using conceptual terms that have certain logical functions, such as committing oneself to an action, incorrectly.

      • #13 by rung2diotimasladder on October 12, 2014 - 9:11 am

        I admit to binge-watching Breaking Bad as well. It’s definitely my favorite show. I love that the plot development comes from the changes in character…it’s not something you see often in a television series.

        I see your point that self-defense could have been a reason for Walt to kill C8 all along, and Jesse knows this too, from being a part of the drug scene for so long. We in the audience know that C8 will try to kill Walt if he’s released. But I think Walt did not quite know this, because he doesn’t know the rules of the drug game just yet. He has a long talk with C8 (after making him a sandwich and cutting off the crusts!) in which they have a heart-to-heart. Walt’s objective is to find out if he really has to kill C8, and he says so candidly. He really wants to let him go, but he has to find out if C8 will get revenge. Things get a little personal in the discussion, C 8 convinces Walt that he won’t kill him in revenge, and Walt decides to let him go. Just as he’s about to go downstairs to release C8, he thinks of the broken plate and decides to fish it out of the garbage and puzzle it back together to see if there’s a piece missing. He sees that there is, that C8 has been lying to him. Then he decides C8 must die. Before he had no certainty about C8’s motivations, but now he does.

        As for the hypocrisy question, I might be a weak internalist, then. But there’s got to be an account for guilt, as SAP pointed out in the first comment. “Weak internalist” sounds really awful though. Can we change the name to “Awesome Internalist”? 🙂

  1. Tsarnaev (and capital punishment, the morality of the death penalty, and equivocation) | ausomeawestin
  2. Review of “Ethical Intuitionism: Re-Evaluations” | ausomeawestin
  3. Weakness of the Will and Particularism (and Dancy, cognitivist internalism, and moral motivation) | ausomeawestin
  4. Notes on Robert Audi’s Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, pt IV: Practical Reason and the Foundations of Ethics | ausomeawestin
  5. Ralph Wedgwood on Internalist Moral Motivation | ausomeawestin

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