Mad Max and ethics

Normative and applied ethics in relation to the films Road Warrior and Mad Max: Fury Road

This is written for PAR102, to illustrate what a film report could look like

Warning: spoilers

by T.P. York

In this short essay I will show how elements of three related films by director George Miller – Mad Max (1979), Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – can be understood through normative ethical theories. I will refer to theories contained in the anthology The Moral Life.[1] The films are post-apocalyptic fictional scenarios in a world in which resources are scarce and competition for water and gasoline become a life and death struggle. In such a context, some moral decisions – such as whether to help others or not – take on great importance.

The narratives presume the collapse of industrial civilization and civil society, perhaps due to climate change and the overconsumption of finite resources. This setting underscores the prescience of Garrett Hardin’s thought-experiment, “the tragedy of the commons,” in which competition for short-term gain leads to a long-term loss of the commons for all.[2] The absence of law and order leads to the rise of a criminal class who prove too strong for the police to contain. Civilians are forced into what Hardin would term “lifeboats.” He is referring to nation states and the question of foreign aid, but his idea can be applied to survivalist communities as well. This development seems to affirm Hobbes’ theory that in the absence of the law, the life of human beings is “nasty, brutish, and short” – for which reason a social contract (what Hobbes terms “a covenant”) is needed.[3]

From a deontological perspective, the criminals are individuals who can choose between good and evil. In this narrative they choose evil, which Kant defines as putting their own “self-love” (self-interest) ahead of the good of everyone (the prescription for which is Kant’s “moral law”). They cannot rightly blame their actions on psychological or social conditions, though in the first movie of the series (Mad Max), one of the criminals pleads for his life, saying, “I’m not a bad man. I’m sick. I have a personality disorder.”[4] Kant, who stresses free will, would dismiss this abdication of personal moral responsibility as an example of “heteronomy of the will”[5] because all rational beings, no matter their circumstances, can choose good over evil. James Stockdale says that choosing to abdicate in the face of pressure from the enemy entails selling one’s soul. The protagonist, Max Rockatansky, would seem to agree with Kant’s emphasis on free will and Stockdale’s Stoic ethos. He administers a form of retributive justice. This is a principle operative in our legal system, but in the absence of law and order, Max takes on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. As we learned in class, the death penalty is the most extreme form of retributive justice because it is irrevocable.

Initially, in The Road Warrior,[6] Max decides only to engage in a contract with the survivalist community of civilians (thus illustrating the ethic known as contractarianism). When the leader, Pappagallo, is asked by a subordinate if he will just let Max go, after the contract, and not take his vehicle, the leader says “He fulfilled his contract. He’s an honorable man.”  In primitive situations, where human beings must compete to survive, the creation of rules and contracts represent a necessary form of justice, based on reciprocity, according to philosopher Richard Taylor.[7]

However, after Max is run off the road and injured by the criminals (who also kill his dog), he switches from contract-making to altruism, more in line with Kant’s Categorical Imperative.[8] This principle says that we always ought to act as if though the maxims of our actions (the rules we give ourselves) should become a universal law. It is essentially a prescription for a universally inclusive social contract, one that includes the interests of all. He demonstrates this by choosing to drive the truck for the good of the group, even though it is a great risk to himself. By choosing to adopt this ethic for the group, rather than a maxim predicated only on reciprocity, Max shifts gears, ethically speaking.

After Max returns, a tactical decision is made by the group to split into two groups: a decoy group, to divert the criminals, and the main party. Those who volunteer for the decoy group can be said to exercise utilitarian decision-making, heroically trading their own lives for the survival and long-term happiness of the group. Max takes the same risk himself. The group itself is motivated by the prospect of a future on the coast, illustrating Victor Frankl’s lesson in Man’s Search for Meaning: that hope for the future is what can facilitate our survival, rather than thinking of the past.[9] Interestingly, Max thinks primarily of the past: he is haunted by his dead wife and child, but is called into the present moment by the sense of moral duty to help others. This higher purpose – which Frankl would term living in the present – is what transforms him from the status of survivor to hero.

In Mad Max: Fury Road,[10] we witness a first-class action movie that could be called feminist in orientation, because it shows a demonic hierarchical patriarchal despot, who enslaves women for breeding purposes, and extols a matriarchal communal society as ideal. Immortan Joe, the despot, exemplifies evil because he violates the Formula of Humanity by enslaving others who are properly “ends in themselves.” [11] By reducing them to breeding, he is using them as “means to an end.” He also hoards resources (water). The heroine of the movie, Furiosa, liberates the sex slaves, which initiates a battle with the patriarchal despot. Formerly enslaved women, at the end of the film, release the water to the masses, symbolizing the transition from despotism to egalitarianism.

Feminist theorist Alison Jaggar might argue that Furiosa’s decision to defy Joe is based on the feminine values of care and compassion. The film certainly has a strong feminist sub-text, even to the point that Max is portrayed as assisting Furiosa, who is the real protagonist. Moreover, the homeland she seeks, “the green place,” is a communal matriarchy, as distinct from the villainous patriarchy of Immortan Joe.

Max again finds himself in the position of reluctant hero, helping the women against an evil warlord, and in so doing demonstrates a strong sense of moral duty. His engagement with them awakens what Kant terms “the moral law within,” which is illustrated by the fact that he does not appear to be motivated by any incentives other than the law itself. He walks away from the group at the end, no better off than before, seeking nothing for himself. The “warboy,” Nux, also represents a moral transition from religious fanatic and soldier to a moral decision maker willing to sacrifice his own life for the good of others. He experiences existential disappointment at losing the favor of Immortan Joe, whom he wrongly regards as a god (which theologian Paul Tillich would term “idolatry”), but finds redemption through love and self-sacrifice.

Louis Pojman’s essay “World Hunger and Overpopulation” distinguishes between conservatives and liberals.[12] The conservative worldview is one in which it is not one’s duty to help others, but if one chooses to do so, that is admirable. Max exemplifies this ethic. He initially chooses not to help, but later changes his mind, once “the moral law” is awakened in him. The liberal worldview better describes the civilians, who regard it as a mandatory moral duty to help the group. The villains, Humungus and Immortan Joe, both represent an attitude that Peter Singer would regard as evil, but which Ayn Rand might not disapprove of – though defenders of Rand’s philosophy would probably disagree.

What other ethical systems do the films help to illustrate? Max is very notably a Stoic in his life attitude, out of necessity. He is accepting of the brutality and unfairness of life, and lives by his own code of honor, and like James Stockdale, retains his dignity even in the face of great adversity.[13] The narrator of The Road Warrior is Feral Kid, who hero-worships Max, thereby illustrating an element of virtue ethics. Max, for Feral Kid, represents strength, honor, and goodness. Max’s good example contributes to the boy eventually becoming “leader of the northern tribe.”

[1] Louis Pojman. Lewis Vaughan, eds. The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics
and Literature
. Oxford University Press: New York, 2014.

[2] Garrett Hardin, “Living on a Lifeboat,” in Pojman, pp. 856-7.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, “On the State of Nature,” in Pojman, p. 48.

[4] Mad Max. DVD. 1979.

[5] York, T. P. Slideshow: Kant on Evil, for PAR102, 2017.

[6] Road Warrior. DVD. Directed by George Miller. 1981.

[7] Richard Taylor, “On the Origin of Good and Evil,” in Pojman, p. 125-6.

[8] Immanuel Kant, “The Moral Law,” in Pojman, p. 253.

[9] Victor Frank, “The Human Search for Meaning,” in Pojman, p. 561.

[10] Mad Max: Fury Road. DVD. Directed by Georg Miller. 2015.

[11] Kant, in Pojman, p. 253.

[12] Pojman, pp. 905-910.

[13] Stockdale, “The World of Epictetus,” in Pojman, p. 429.