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The Fundamental Immorality of The Matrix

by D. A. Madigan

part 1 of 2

Kill Them All and Let Neo Sort Them Out

It seems like it’s time to piss off another fresh batch of folks by once more providing a brief and irrefutable overview of exactly why The Matrix is a fundamentally immoral and ethically corrupt, anti social film that none of you should spend money supporting, unless, of course, you actually want to live in a society where good, noble, heroic fighters against Evil commit enthusiastic mass murder simply as entertainment.

I love the smell of napalm in the morning

So I just had this long discussion with this woman I know about the inherent immorality of the movie The Matrix, and I completely failed to convince her... well, actually, I suppose I convinced her, she simply didn’t care. She feels that the fact that The Matrix was a philosophically ‘deep’ movie, in that it introduced into the pop gestalt the concept of the subjective/objective dichotomy (she’s a Christian Scientist, so she thinks that’s pretty cool) and made people generally conversant with the idea that the consensus reality could in fact be ‘programmed’ from without is the most important thing about the film, and justifies any moral excesses the movie may have had. More generally, she thinks it’s silly to worry about the moral subtext of a dumb action movie, because she is of the apparent opinion that these things really don’t matter and kids really aren’t going to learn anything meaningful from The Matrix.

Let’s take that last point first. I personally think kids learn an enormous amount from media artifacts, whether they’re conscious of it or not (I picked up a lot of my basic morality from Silver Age superhero comic books, scary though that may sound). I don’t know for certain that kids absorbed the gratuitously and murderously violent (im)moral subtext of The Matrix, but I certainly suspect they did, whether they are consciously aware of doing so or not. And I will point out here that the producers and creators of The Matrix went to enormous pains to avoid an R rating specifically so they could reap millions of dollars from a young (impressionable) audience. Add to all that the fact that I personally believe all creators who benefit from the social contract (which is pretty much all of us, especially those of us who can swing multimillion dollar movie deals) have an implicit obligation to create moral fiction, whether we’re aiming it specifically at kids or not, and I don’t think one should ever simply blithely dismiss whether a movie (or a TV show, or a novel, or a short story, or a comic book) sets out a morally consistent and socially acceptable storyline or not, simply because ‘it’s just a silly (fill in the blank).’ If you’re planning to sell your work to an audience, and if the local network of laws and civilized customs in any way benefits you, you should simply not be implicitly or overtly teaching within your fictional artifact that immoral behavior is rewarding. Or, to put it another way, in moral fiction, evil must inevitably be punished, and virtue must inevitably be rewarded. If the villain flourishes and the hero ends up stymied, defeated, suffering, or dead, you’ve produced an immoral work of fiction, and by doing so... by presenting a story to an audience in which right fails and wrong prevails, you have betrayed the fundamental social principles that keep you (and more importantly, me) out of the cannibals’ stewpot.

If that sounds extreme, I can’t apologize. I am very aware that I am a child of a technological civilization; when Y2K was threatening, I took a good, hard look at myself and my own particular skills and abilities and capacities, physical and non, and realized on a fundamental level that I simply could not survive without the surrounding support system of my civilization. (Even if I could somehow survive, it certainly wouldn’t be a life much worth living.) And unlike a lot of people, I myself am very aware that the computer, the DVD player, the television, the CD player, the radio, and the very electricity that powers all these wonderful things, all of which hugely enhance my life in positive and desirable ways, not only could not have ever been invented without the nurturing cradle of a protective technological civilization, but could not have been manufactured and would not continue to be supplied without that same technological civilization. Without the codes of mutual cooperation that the majority of civilized people adhere to, we would all be armed savages hunting each other through the ruins. Maybe you don’t want to deal with that simple truth, but I’m very aware of it. And the very least I can do, as a creative individual, is not write fiction that dignifies evil and demeans social behavior, much less that subtly or overtly teaches that corrosive, destructive, murderous, anti-social behavior is ever acceptable within a social context.

Badges? We don’t got to show you no steenking badges

Now, having stated that, let’s get to what probably all five of the people reading this are primarily wondering: have I lost my mind? What the hell was so goddam immoral about The Matrix? I mean, sure Neo and the other ‘heroes’ killed roughly 2.4 kazillion people during the course of the film, but it’s an action movie for Christ’s sake, and the people they killed were minions of Evil! Killing minions of Evil is okay, right?

Well, let’s compare and contrast The Matrix with another film: another one of your favorites, most likely, Star Wars.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen a few people at least start to morally criticize Star Wars, on the grounds that when Luke blows up the Death Star in the movie’s climax, he pretty much commits mass murder. And you’re probably thinking, ‘yeah, you must love those assholes, because you’re saying exactly the same stupid goddam thing about The Matrix, and God, you suck’. However, in point of fact, I think the people who call Luke Skywalker a mass murderer and turn their noses up at the film Star Wars because of it are basically incapable of really working a functional moral equation. They’ve heard a couple of other thoughtful, conscientious media commenters offer similar criticisms of, say, some Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and they’ve turned around and blindly applied what they rather non-discerningly regard as a sort of ‘ethics formula’ to Star Wars, to show that they, too, are capable of controversial social insights regarding beloved mass media artifacts.

The problem is, they’re wrong. First, it’s important to remember that Luke’s action took place in a military context, and Luke, and his fellow pilots employed by the Rebel Alliance, were going after a legitimate military target. If you’re going to say that Luke’s action in blowing up the Death Star was fundamentally immoral, you’d have to find the actions of any soldier who has ever destroyed an enemy military installation to be equally immoral. There may be those in the world who would argue that, but I suspect they’d be arguing from a point of view that finds all violence to be inherently evil, and while that point of view may or may not be valid, it’s certainly not one that can be seen to work well within the heroic adventure genre. Which is my way of saying, I am not a moral pacifist, nor am I going to simply define all fictional portrayals of violence as being pro forma immoral. (For that matter, I don’t believe that all real world violent acts are necessarily immoral; if I shoot a mugger who is coming at me with a knife, I haven’t done anything wrong.)

Violence can be portrayed in an ethical context, generally, one in which only the Bad Guys initiate violence for purposes of their own self gratification, while the Good Guys, on the other hand, generally only respond to violence offered by the Bad Guys, by which I mean, they get violent in defense of themselves or others. (Again, see my ‘if I shoot a mugger who is coming at me with a knife’ example.)

At this point, it’s worthwhile to recall the scene in the otherwise pretty much worthless Return of the Jedi, where Darth and the evil Emperor are urging Luke to give in to his anger and strike the Emperor down. In this context, neither Darth nor the Emperor are directly threatening Luke; if Luke were to take lethal action against either of them, he would be initiating that action, taking an aggressive and unnecessary violent, even murderous action... which, of course, is what they’re trying to goad him into, to get his foot on that road to the Dark Side. Such an action on Luke’s part, in defense of no one, but merely indulging his own desire for vengeance, would be evil, and the movie clearly portrays that.

In contast, let’s remember that at the moment Luke destroyed the Death Star, the Death Star itself was seconds away from blowing up an entire inhabited planet. Luke knew that, and in fact, Luke and the rest of the Rebel Alliance also knew perfectly well that the Death Star was capable of blowing up a planet, and that the crew of the Death Star was perfectly willing to do so, because earlier in the film, the Death Star had been used to blow up another entire planet.

So, yeah, maybe there were some neutral electrical contractors still on board the Death Star working on the wiring, who were only there to get a paycheck so they could feed their families. Bummer for them. The Death Star was absolutely a legitimate military target, and in the morally simplified world of George Lucas, it had also been pretty clearly established to be a massive murder weapon being employed by Absolute Evil. Luke’s actions cannot be seen, in that context, or in our own, as immoral; it would have been far less moral for him to be suddenly overcome by conscience pangs and to have refused to pull the trigger when he had a chance, thus dooming himself and all his fellow pilots, and all the members of the rebellion on the moon below, to dying in the cosmic explosion that would have ensured a few seconds later. In other words, Luke acted in both self defense and the defense of others, making his violence essentially ‘moral’.

Up is down. Black is white.

Star Wars is a good point of comparison for The Matrix for another reason: both films take place in a morally simplified context. There are really no ethical shades of grey in either; even Han Solo, a supposedly amoral mercenary, proves to be ‘good’ in the climactic moment of Star Wars, risking his life and his newfound wealth in order to help his friend, Luke. The good guys are pretty much entirely virtuous, the bad guys are entirely vile, and there is no middle ground, no ‘justifiable evil’ or morally questionable actions taken ‘for the greater good’. The Rebels are fighting for freedom, the Empire is fighting to ensure and extend its totalitarian power (and in our own cultural context, ‘freedom’ is one of those words that pushes all the ‘good’ buttons, while ‘totalitarian power’ immediately gets our hackles up).

The Matrix is set in a similarly morally simplified context. The heroes, as represented by Neo and his crew, are fighting to free mankind from an illusion that holds us all enslaved while an alien computer drains our life force, and the opposition, said alien computer, is, well, using virtual reality to keep the vast mass of humanity tranquilly docile while it drains our life force. Not too many shades of grey there; you got your white hats, you got your black hats, now I want a good clean fight.

In a morally simplified environment like this, it’s extremely important to make certain that all the actions your Heroes with a capital H take are, well, Heroic... which is to say, everything they do had damned well better be unquestionably moral and socially positive, because when you tell your audience that these are the Good Guys, you can’t then turn around and have your Good Guys running around acting like the psychotically ultraviolent thugs from A Clockwork Orange. The actions of your Heroes are by definition being held up to your audience as positive behavior; if your Heroes are running around blowing up buildings and using unrestrained deadly force on their opponents, you had better be extremely careful to only have them doing so in a context in which such extremely violent actions are completely justified... such as, for example, the situation where, if you don’t blow up the giant artificial planet in the next couple of seconds, it’s going to kill you, your friends, and at least a few thousand other people.

Unfortunately, there is no such moral imperative for the diabolically exciting mass murders presented as visceral and entertaining eye candy, and, worse, upright, noble, morally necessary behavior, in The Matrix.

Now, the fact that Neo and his buddies are effectively outlaws battling to not only disrupt, but to comprehensively destroy, the existent status quo, is dealt with quite neatly by the movie’s establishment that the status quo is an unhealthy illusion being inflicted on mankind by a malign alien intelligence. I won’t dispute that this makes Neo’s actions, which are, by definition, anti-social (attempting to destroy a virtual society is still anti-social) nonetheless, morally justified and, in fact, imperative. (Sometimes anti-social behiavor is morally justified; Gandhi’s actions were socially disruptive and doubtless annoying to people trying to get around India at the time using the bus system. We would not judge Dutch partisans planting bombs in Gestapo HQ buildings as harshly as we do, say, Irish Republican Army members planting bombs in public libraries.)

Within the adventure fiction milieu, such a context justifies the employment of violent, and even lethal, force, assuming there is no other moral alternative.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2005 by D. A. Madigan