Dexter Morgan might just be the world’s most-loved serial killer; blood-spatter analyst for Miami Metro Homicide by day, and a killer by night – but only a killer of killers. What makes Dexter so fascinatingly different is that he has a code to follow for his victims – they must be, without a doubt, murderers likely to strike again. Whilst it makes for a thrilling twist in a psychopath, is it morally right?
Many of you will have heard of Kant, the philosopher who is credited with sparking Deontology, a theory of ethics which states that we must focus on our actions in themselves out of a sense of duty. Kant has two main rules an action must pass in order to be considered moral, which I’ll summarise:
1) Only do something if you would be happy for (and it to make sense for) everyone else in the world to do the same.
For example, stealing would be wrong not only because I don’t want people to steal from me, but also because then the whole concept of stealing and ownership goes out the window – if everyone is allowed to steal, then no one really owns anything to steal in the first place.
2) Never use anyone – including yourself – as a means to an end.
Again to use the example of stealing, this doesn’t pass this rule either, because stealing from a person is to use them as a means to making yourself wealthier.
In terms of Dexter, he fails to pass both tests. Firstly, no one can sanely desire that every person in the world becomes a serial killer, since (just in case it doesn’t go without saying) this gives us and our loved ones a great chance of being killed ourselves. Secondly, Dexter kills his victims for his own pleasure, which definitely constitutes using someone as a means to an end.
So that’s a big thumbs down on morality from Kant.
For a Utilitarian however, their main concern is generally that which creates the maximum happiness for the maximum amount of people, which actually seems to be the case for Dexter. Sure, Dexter’s victims aren’t really seeing the greater good, but there’s a definite increase in pleasure for Dexter himself, not to mention that there’s less suffering for the victim’s would-be-victims and all of their families and friends. If we’re just judging by the overall outcome, Dexter’s actions could be seen as perfectly moral.
But regardless of whether or not we see him as moral, we cannot argue that we love Dexter as a character – we never want him to get caught. Could it be that there’s a vigilante within all of us, yearning for justice for the villains who slip out of the grasp of the law? Does Dexter satisfy this need within ourselves and provide the viewer with that vicarious feeling of righteousness?
But then, Dexter’s killings aren’t actually motivated by this sense of duty or vigilantism, but rather from the deep-rooted urges of his ‘dark passenger’ – he simply enjoys killing and feels the need to do so. Dexter’s code of killing only killers is primarily functional in keeping him safe and undetected, as opposed to easing a conscience that isn’t there. Does this make a difference? It seems that in this case, if we want to favour Dexter on the grounds that his actions bring about some kind of moral balance, we have to accept that the motivations for doing so don’t matter, since his motivations differ from our own. Is this a statement we’re really ready to make?
Intentions are the only key distinction between “manslaughter” and “murder”, or else between accidents and foul play. The legal system views this distinction as worthy of (in some areas of the world) life or death, or even just years of your life. More personally, intentions impact our human ability to forgive and understand. It would be fairly easy to make the argument that the public loves Dexter because he brings justice if that were in fact his intention, but it is not; he simply wants to kill. So this still doesn’t answer why we love him. Is it simply the very nature of a series (or else a book or a film) that compels us to root for our beloved psychopath, just to see how the story of the protagonist will continue to play out? Is it following his story and seeing his perspective that allows us to feel such tolerance and even affection?
Haunting as the idea is, we can’t help but love this serial killer. If you think you’ll disagree, watch for yourself… (Although probably only up to the end of Season 6 if you’re the kind of fanatic who will be traumatised by a deeply unsatisfying final two seasons.)