American Hustle (and hedonism, lying, and the American Dream)

Great scene on masterful lying.

Great scene on masterful lying.


Drinks, smokes, and jazz.

I recently saw “American Hustle”, a Hollywood picture about FBI agents staging sting operations to convict politicians of corruption charges, aided by a con-artist making good on a plea-bargain, played masterfully by Christian Bale. I became convinced Bale was a fantastic actor by his stellar performance in “The Fighter”, wherein he plays the wry and wily crack addict brother of the protagonist, and Bale’s deeds in “American Hustle” confirmed it: Bale is a talented actor. He accomplishes the feat of wearing his desperation and his lust for life on his face unflinchingly throughout the course of the film, though communicating through his body how his own plans for life have defeated him.

Though the plot was straightforward (a crime thriller meets a love triangle), the central theme of the film was profound: even of people who lie for a living, the wildest and most brazen lies we tell are the ones we tell ourselves – in order to attain the American dream we must lie, not necessarily to others in order to reach it, but rather, to tell ourselves that we have already reached it and that it was worth reaching, lest the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure become meaningless. That is the lie of the American dream; that is the American Hustle.

This raises a few points that I’d like to address:

Against the Pursuit of Pleasure Alone
Acting for the pursuit of pleasure alone does not lead to a good life. Bale’s story of mistresses, fine drinks and cigars, and scamming persons desperate for loans, suggest a life so dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure that he on the whole is a bad person. It is not just the fact that the acts Bale engages in our vicious, but that he does them in the pursuit of pleasure that makes him a bad person.

Cooper wants justice.

Cooper wants justice.

Bale’s character is juxtaposed with Bradley Cooper’s, a power hungry FBI agent who becomes obsessed with the sting operations to the point of making violent and impulsive decisions. As I understand it, Cooper’s acts of catching corrupt politicians are good in the sense of promoting justice, but the increasing pleasure he gets from his job causes him to do those acts not because they are right but because they please him. Thus, both Bale and Cooper act for their pleasures, and although Bale’s acts seem vicious and Cooper’s virtuous, neither is a morally good person due to the hedonistic and non-virtuous character of their intentions for acting, and both suffer for it (hope that wasn’t a spoiler). What this suggests is that in order to live a good life, one must live a moral life, wherein intentions and not just actions themselves matter morally.

Lying to Oneself
“In the domain of Ethics, standards of interpersonal conflict are central” (Robert Audi, Moral Perception, page 1). It seems to me that morality guides our interactions with other persons, and that intrapersonal actions are not of the realm of ethics, but rationality. By this I mean that it is not possible for me to morally wrong myself; I can act irrationally, in a way that would harm my future self, but this is not immoral (let us put aside matters of personal identity that might complicate this, though click here for an earlier entry that touches on a basic theory of personal identity that fits with this).

To lie to myself is to deliberately convince myself of a falsehood. To deliberately convince another person of a falsehood, in many but not all cases, is morally wrong. Yet it seems untenable to claim that it would be morally wrong to lie to myself, the reason being that to morally wrong someone follows from their being treated in a way that they do not consent to or approve of, and it seems that a person always tacitly consents to their own actions, such that they necessarily consent to how they treat themselves. So, all actions towards oneself are prima facie morally permissible.

In order to succeed in everyday activities we lie to ourselves by “exaggerating the truth”, and while these lies seem harmless, American Hustle suggests that lies we tell ourselves can be morally wrong when as a result we lie to others. Bale’s relationship with his wife is complicated for the viewer to decipher; we are led to suppose that he doesn’t love his wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and loves his mistress and business partner (played by Amy Adams). Bale claims to Adams that he stays with Lawrence only because he must take care of Lawrence’s son, whom Bale has adopted.

Lawrence and Adams fight over Bale.

Lawrence and Adams fight over Bale.

But I suspect that Bale is conning himself here, and that he loves Lawrence, seeing his double life with a wife and mistress as part of the American dream, the pursuit of pleasure and happiness. As such, he lies to himself about not loving Lawrence, so that he doesn’t feel the guilt of cheating on her with Adams, and so that Adams thinks he loves her and thus stays with him, all for the pursuit of pleasure. Thus, while it at first glance seems that all actions towards oneself are morally permissible, American Hustle suggests that some self-affecting actions are not morally permissible, because derivatively they affect others persons in ways they would not consent to, such as in this case, Lawrence and Adams.

Concluding Remarks
Let me conclude by acknowledging that it is likely that someone will see American Hustle and not see any basis for the claims I have made. That is fine. I tend to read more into movies than is there (check out my Movies & Television Shows category for more philosophical readings for more proof of this). But I think nothing I have said here contradicts the film, such that my interpretation is at least compatible with the film.

And for the record I thought the film was quite good, either a 7.5 or 8 out of 10. It’s worth seeing just to witness Bale acting at his finest. Plus, Louis C.K. has a minor but very Louis C.K.-like role, almost like the part was written with him in mind.

The American Dream, the American Hustle

The American Dream, the American Hustle

Some review of the movie.

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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on December 29, 2013 - 10:07 am

    Interesting. I haven’t seen the film. I’ll have to check it out.

    But I wonder about the observation that living for pleasure is bad. Certainly living for selfish or short term pleasure can be destructive. But would it not be more accurate to say that we should live for long term rather than short term pleasures, for prosocial rather than selfish ones?

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on December 29, 2013 - 3:32 pm

      I think that is a fair point. My interpretation of the film was that it is commenting that it is bad to live solely for present pleasures, so it seems possible that the film might condone the sole pursuit of long-term and prosocial pleasures. My point was not that living for pleasure is bad, certainly pleasures are necessary for a good life, I meant to posit that living purely for the pursuit of pleasure can take various forms, even actively dedicating oneself to justice. I take the film as a warning on the dangers of living only for pleasure.

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