I am a big fan of television show Breaking Bad. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, let me give a brief synopsis of the plot. Walter White is a technically brilliant chemist but an underachiever at life (at least by his own lights). He had a chance to make big money using his chemical skills, but instead he wound up teaching chemistry to bored high school students while moonlighting at a car wash to make ends meet. He finds out he has lung cancer and probably only a short time to live. This is especially devastating to him because he knows he will not leave enough money behind for his wife and children to live comfortably.
Here is where things get really interesting. Walt’s brother-in-law Hank is a DEA agent. When Walt goes on a “ride along” with Hank when he busts a meth lab, he learns there is a lot of money to be made in the meth business. Walt decides he will provide for his family after he is dead by cooking and selling meth and building up a nest egg during the brief time he has left. And since Walt is a brilliant chemist, he will not cook just any meth. He will cook the best meth on the planet. The remaining five seasons of the show explore the consequences of that decision.
The consequences are not good. The series is about Walt’s downward spiral into evil. Over the course of the series we watch a startling metamorphosis as Walt transforms himself from a likable but bumbling and timid nerd into a truly monstrous criminal capable of appalling acts of cruelty and violence.
Breaking Bad is at its core a show about ethics, a morality play if you will. Philosophers speak of consequentialist/utilitarian ethics and deontological ethics. Briefly, the consequentialist says that an act is “good” if it creates the greatest net happiness. Jeremey Bentham put it this way: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Because the consequentialist focuses on “overall” happiness, he can justify doing “bad” if he believes the bad act will result in a net overall increase in happiness. Deontological ethics, on the other hand, focuses on the “inherent” goodness of a particular act without regard to consequences. Thus, it is never good to do evil, even if one believes that somehow a greater good can be achieved by doing evil.
An example might help to demonstrate the difference between the two approaches to ethics. Let us say that we can be certain that a young child will grow up to be a serial killer. The consequentialist would say we should murder the child in his crib, because that will increase overall net happiness. The deontologicalist says that murdering an innocent child is evil and can never be justified on any ground. The Latin legal phrase Fiat justitia ruat caelum (“Let justice be done though the heavens fall”) captures this approach to ethics.
Walter White is a consequentialist. Over the course of the series he justifies every evil act by appeals to a “greater good” that will result from the evil he commits. Producing illegal meth? How else is he going to get enough money to leave his family a little nest egg? Killing a captured drug dealer? I have to kill him to cover my tracks and provide for my family. By the end of the series Walt has committed numerous murders and even poisoned a young boy to further his own selfish ends, and every step of the way he says he is doing it “for the family.”
I applaud Breaking Bad’s writers for exposing Walt’s consequentialism for the lie that it is. They do this in two ways. First, they turn Walt’s own consequentialism on its head. One of the reasons evil is so bad is that we cannot in fact cordon off the consequences of evil actions in an airtight compartment. Things have a way of spinning out of control, and Breaking Bad works as a morality play, because it does not let Walt off the hook. In the end Walt loses everything. He loses his wife, his children, his home, his ill-gotten money, his friends, and, finally, his life.
Even more importantly, Breaking Bad exposes the consequentialist for a liar even to himself. In the last episode Walt, knowing he is about to die, is saying goodbye to his wife Skyler:
Walt: “I just wanted to say that everything I’ve done . . .
Skyler: “Stop! Just stop! I will scream if I have to listen to you say one more time you did everything for the family!”
Walt: “No, that is not what I was going to say. I did it for me. I did it because I like it. I was good at it, and it made me feel alive.”
That 30 seconds of dialogue is the crowning achievement of the five seasons of an already fabulous series, and my hat is off to the producers and writers.
In the end Walt finally admits that he had been lying all along. He didn’t do evil to achieve a greater good. He did evil to achieve his own selfish ends. And that, dear readers, is a lesson that every consequentialist who has ever tried to justify his evil acts by sanguine appeals to a “greater good” should learn. You say you want to do evil to achieve good? I’m not buying it. You want to do evil because you want to do evil. Stop lying to me and, more importantly, stop lying to yourself.