A Futile Controversy


Everything that exists or happens results from earlier conditions or events. Only chance loosens causality. Everything that a person is or does or thinks is determined by his biology, experiences, and good or bad luck. This is the determinist doctrine. It denies that people have any scope to make decisions that are genuinely their own.

Controversialists on both sides agree that chance operates on both subatomic and human levels. One cannot say that everything since the Big Bang was fated to happen. Frederick III, briefly German emperor in 1888, was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria and imbued with classical liberalism. He met an early death and was succeeded by his authoritarian and militaristic son William II. In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York. In February 1933 an assassin’s bullet narrowly missed President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events? Anyway, chance no more establishes a person’s free will than freedom from causation would.

James B. Miles (The Free Will Delusion, 2015) finds the free-will doctrine false but appealing, not only because it seems to describe what people themselves feel but also because it lets fortunate people congratulate themselves on their own characters and accomplishments while blaming others’ poverty or criminality or even handicaps on avoidable weakness of their wills. The doctrine excuses indifference to the fate of the less fortunate. It encourages archconservatives, anyway, to rejoice in blaming the poor for their plight. Thus, Miles continues, it is a profoundly immoral doctrine. It also appeals to many because it absolves God of responsibility for human nastiness. (But what about earthquakes and hurricanes and disease?) God himself, if he exists, cannot have free will (Miles, p. 223).

In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York.

But determinists hold no monopoly on morality. Free-will adherents also recognize that biological inheritance, physical and human environments, events, reading, preachments, earlier thoughts — all profoundly influence major and minor choices. But not totally. They and determinists alike can sympathize with offenders whose unfortunate biological inheritance and early upbringing have led to a life of crime. Despite this sympathy, determinists and free-will adherents alike can agree that protecting the public may require locking the most dangerous criminals up, even for life (and, arguably, deterring others by even crueler punishment for the worst crimes).

Could a man who shoots his uncle to inherit his money have refrained from this act? No, says a consistent determinist, because the murderer was driven by biology and circumstances and so forth, over none of which he had control. Agreed, history cannot be undone; but future wickedness can be made rarer by greater attention to morality in private and public life and by dependably imposed legal penalties.

The concept of responsibility goes along with the concept of freedom. The question of holding someone responsible for something concerns reward or punishment. We do not hold an insane person responsible, for he offers no point for applying a motive (Moritz Schlick, Problems of Ethics, trans. 1930, chapter VII).

How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events?

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position. Argument presupposes that listeners or readers, although free to accept or reject it, ought to accept it without being fated or compelled to do so. In academic controversy, is every book and article, every reply, and every rejoinder predetermined in detail, except as loosened by chance? Why take part in such a charade?

In reply each controversialist might think that he is contributing to a sound intellectual environment for his fellows. Or he might recognize that he is helplessly predetermined to think and write as he does. Similarly, if Clarence Darrow argues against convicting a criminal because he could not help what he did, the jurors might respond that they had no freedom to acquit him.

James Miles emphatically condemns blaming unfortunate people for their plight. Yet he repeatedly and with gusto heaps blame on philosophers unfortunate enough to propagate erroneous doctrines. He comes close, at least, to denigrating the personal characters and morality of philosophers whom he names, especially Daniel Dennett. Is there some inconsistency here?

The determinist doctrine is irrefutable in the bad sense explained by Karl Popper: it carries built-in immunity to any adverse evidence. Whatever anyone says or does, however astonishing, is explained as the consequence of biology, experiences, and chance. The free-will position is better, though not much, regarding built-in immunity to contrary evidence. If a large random sample of persons who had thought that they had freely willed some action could be shown in convincing detail just how their action had been totally predetermined, the free-will doctrine would indeed be shaken. Conceivably, also, free will might have “emerged” from other conditions, rather as human consciousness evolved from the more primitive brain or even as life itself emerged from inanimate matter. This possibility supports the free-will doctrine, but not much without evidence.

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position.

The rival doctrines do not contradict each other on moral principles, on how anyone should live his life, or on public policy. Any difference between them is not operational. Sometimes I think that my choice is mine, free from total compulsion. My will is mine, just as my tastes in food, music, clothing, cars, or houses are mine and just as I can choose accordingly, regardless of how my will and tastes themselves may have been shaped by external causes. (On consumers’ tastes, see F.A. Hayek, “The Non Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect,’” Southern Economic Journal, April 1961.) Anyway, my decisions still take place, along with their moral and practical justification, if any.

The history of philosophy has left us stuck with the two terms “free will” and “determinism.” People drift into thinking that if a term is in use, it must have a referent, some thing, event, arrangement, attitude, argument, or whatever that it refers to. (This confusion of labels with things is called “hypostatization” or “conceptual realism.”) Sometimes, further, we drift into seeking knowledge of the essence of the referent by brooding over its label: what is Virtue, Honor, Democracy, Truth—whatever? Karl Popper condemned such a style of investigation or argument as “essentialism.” Joseph Schumpeter (History of Economic Analysis, 1954, p. 898) also identified “the deplorable ‘method’ of trying to solve problems by means of hunting for the meaning of words.” The terms “free will” and “determinism” exemplify these errors, and in contexts suggesting that they label opposite states of affairs.

Over the centuries philosophers have failed to specify what observations could distinguish between the states of affairs labeled “free will” and “determinism.” Both doctrines have built-in immunity to counterevidence, which, as Karl Popper might say, deprives them of scientific status. We therefore should not let their labels cloud how we perceive or describe reality. We perceive that biological and environmental conditions, along with luck, strongly affect our choices and behavior. No one denies that. Still, we have a strong sense of weighing some decisions and making choices. Even the determinist philosophers among us, to judge from their polemical writings, also have such a sense. The prevalence of two contradictory terms does not indicate that one or the other of two distinct states of affairs exists.

We might better discard those terms and describe what we actually observe. This conclusion is not some compromise (called “compatibilism”) between distinct doctrines. If we can invent a new word that aptly labels perceived reality, fine. If not, we will have to continue using a string of words. But let us not persist in empty controversies.

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The Star Wars Lesson for Libertarians


With Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, and a new trilogy helmed by science fiction superstar director J.J. Abrams beginning on December 18, Star Wars is in the news in a way it has not been for over a decade. This may be the time to observe that a valuable lesson for libertarians can be found in the original Star Wars trilogy, a lesson easily overlooked by the millions of obsessive Star Wars fans — as well as by libertarians.

Consider what Darth Vader says to Luke Skywalker in the lightsaber duel near the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Vader seeks to goad Luke into an angry hatred of him, hoping that this will lead Luke to the Dark Side. Also consider Return of the Jedi, where Vader and Luke duel again, and Vader tries to threaten Luke into becoming angry with him. Again, the implication is that anger and hatred lead to the Dark Side. This interpretation of Star Wars also echoes the teachings that Yoda gives Luke in his Jedi training. I don’t want to spoil the movies for those who have not seen them, but it becomes clear that the Emperor’s plans to turn Luke to the Dark Side also focus on making Luke angry and full of hatred. A pivotal moment comes when Luke attacks the Emperor, an attack which the Emperor invites as part of Luke’s path to the Dark Side. And the conclusion of Jedi is defined by the conflict between love and hate.

Social conservatives should focus on cultivating virtue in themselves instead of focusing on hatred of sin in others, because this hatred of sin really is the sin of hatred.

Here’s the interesting thing that few fans notice: Darth Vader and the Emperor want Luke to become angry at, and direct his hatred toward, none other than Darth Vader and the Emperor. Hatred and the Dark Side are practically identical, while love is the central power of the Force.

The principle can be described like this: “Goodness is love and evil is hatred. Hatred of evil is more akin to hatred than it is to goodness. Therefore, hatred of evil is the path to evil, not to goodness or love. Love of goodness is not the same as hatred of evil. Hatred of evil is hatred, and is therefore evil.”

This set of ideas, which we can call the Star Wars Principle, has obvious applications to both social libertarianism and economic libertarianism. The people who want to criminalize drugs are fueled by their hatred of drugs. But this hatred of drugs is hatred, which is evil. The good thing for them would be a love of goodness, in this case sobriety, which they could manifest by choosing to be sober and live a drug-free life. Social conservatives should focus on cultivating virtue in themselves instead of focusing on hatred of sin in others, because this hatred of sin really is the sin of hatred.

The Star Wars Principle means that you should focus on goodness in your own life and ignore evil in other people’s lives, other than to defend yourself from it when it assaults you. If you don’t do this, you will be consumed by hatred toward the evil in others, which will make you a mean, nasty person, constantly full of anger. The Principle reduces to a “mind your own business,” “live and let live” attitude that is quintessential libertarianism.

Peaceful, calm, respectful civility is absent from our politics; and sadly, this is also true of many libertarian radicals who demonize their enemies.

In economic terms, hatred of the rich is quite different from love of the poor. Instead of making money and donating money to charity or working to create economic opportunity for the poor, the socialists and leftist liberals make war on the rich and the owners of private property. The culture of the Left is a culture of hatred of the rich, driven by envy — a hatred of people who have been more successful than you, instead of a sincere caring about people who have been less successful. As such, socialism is very clearly a servant of the Dark Side. In contrast, a culture of love of the poor, if it was strong with the Force, would focus on charitable work for the poor, on donating one’s own money to help the poor, but with an understanding that you can’t donate money unless you first make money. It would not be focused on stealing other people’s money to help, or try to help, the poor.

The political climate in the United States is dominated by anger and hatred, of Left against Right and Right against Left. Which Fox News or MSNBC political talk show airs without insults or anger? Which political candidates run campaigns in which they promote themselves as good and do not try to tear their opponents down as evil? Peaceful, calm, respectful civility is absent from our politics; and sadly, this is also true of many libertarian radicals who demonize their enemies and are full of anger against “supporters of the state.” The Dark Side, where you get power by making people angry, is easier and more seductive for people who seek to rule, at the expense of love, goodness, peace, and the Force that embodies them. Libertarians would do well to learn this Star Wars lesson.

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Internal Deliberations


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Three Good Books


I have an apology to make. I have been far behind in letting you know about books I’ve enjoyed, books that I think you will enjoy as well.

To me, one of the most interesting categories of literature is a work by a friend of liberty that is not the normal work by a friend of liberty. The typical libertarian book (A) concerns itself exclusively with public policy, (B) assumes that its readers know nothing about public policy, (C) assumes that its readers are either modern liberals or modern conservatives, who need to be argued out of their ignorance, or modern libertarians, who need to be congratulated on their wisdom. I find these books very dull. I suspect that when you’ve read one of them, you’ve read them all. But I have no intention of reading them all.

What I want is a book that has a libertarian perspective and actually tells me something new. One such book is Philosophic Thoughts, by Gary Jason. You know Gary; besides being a professor of philosophy, he is also one of Liberty’s senior editors. The book presents 42 essays, some on logic, some on ethical theory, some on metaphysics, some on applications of philosophy to contemporary issues. Libertarian perspectives are especially important in the discussions of ethical theory, where we have essays on such matters as tort reform, free trade, boycotts of industry, and unionization (issues that Jason follows intently). The attentive reader will, however, notice the spirit of individualism everywhere in the book.

What you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

The essays are always provocative, and Jason knows how to keep them short and incisive, so that the reader isn’t just invited to think but is also given time to do so. Of course, you can skip around. I went for the section about logic first, because, as readers of Liberty know, I understand that topic least. I wasn’t disappointed. There is nothing dry about Jason’s approach to problems that are unfairly regarded as “abstract” or “merely theoretical.” He is always smart and challenging, but he makes sure to be accessible to non-philosophers. In these days of fanatical academic specialization, it’s satisfying to see real intellectual curiosity (42 essays!). And Jason doesn’t just display his curiosity — he is no dilettante. He contributes substantially to the understanding of every topic he considers.

Another book that I’ve enjoyed, and I don’t want other people to miss, is a work by Jacques Delacroix, who has contributed frequently to these pages. In this case, you can tell a book by its cover, because the cover of Delacroix’s book bears the title I Used to Be French. Here is the cultural biography — cultural in the broadest sense — of a man who became an American, and an American of the classic kind: ingenuous, daring, engaging, funny, and again, curious about everything in the world. Whether the author began with these characteristics, I don’t know, but he has them now; and what you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

Arthurdale was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty.

It takes literary skill to project a many-sided personality; and the strange thing is that it takes even more skill to project the differences we all feel between American culture (bad or good) and French — or any other European — culture (bad or good). We feel those differences, but when we try to describe them we usually get ourselves lost in generalizations. Delacroix doesn’t. He has a taste for the pungent episode, the memorable anecdote. He also displays two of the best qualities of which a good author, American or French, can ever be possessed: an exact knowledge of formal language and an intimate and loving acquaintance with the colloquial tongue.

Sampling Delacroix’s topics, one finds authoritarianism, Catholicism, Catholic iconography, the Cold War, communism, diving, driving, the end of the Middle Ages, existentialism, food, French borrowings from English, the French navy (being in it), getting arrested, grunion, jazz, Levis, lovemaking, Muslims, the People’s Republic of Santa Cruz, political correctness, the Third World in its many forms. . . . Most (even grunion) are topics that a lesser author would inevitably get himself stuck to, but Delacroix romps through them all. If you want a loftier metaphor, you can say that they (even the grunion) are jewels strung on the book’s central story, as sketched in the summary on the back cover: “A boy grows up in the distant, half-imaginary continent of post-World War II France. Bad behavior and good luck will eventually carry him to California where he will find redemption.” And a lot of fun, for both the reader and himself.

Fun, also, in another way, is a book I’ve been perversely withholding from you for three years. It’s Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning, by C.J. Maloney (also, be it noted, a contributor to Liberty). What does that title mean? Well, Arthurdale, West Virginia, was a settlement begun in 1933 by the United States government under the inspiration of Eleanor Roosevelt. It was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty. Her idea — which was shared by a multitude of college professors, pundits, quack economists, and the usual products of “good” Eastern schools — was that there was an “imbalance” between rural and urban America; that the latter was too big and the former too small; and that the government should “resettle” hordes of Americans “back on the land” (where, incidentally, most of them had never lived). Mrs. Roosevelt was especially concerned with converting out-of-work miners into “subsistence” farmers. She and her New Deal accomplices designed a turnkey community for 800 or so lucky recipients of government largesse — land, houses, furnishings, equipment, expert advice. What could go wrong?

The answer, as Maloney shows, is “virtually everything.” The planned community had no plans except bad ones. The farms didn’t support themselves, and the farmers didn’t really want to farm them. Everything cost more — lots more — than it should have. Attempts to supplement small farming by small industry repeatedly failed. When the “colonists” managed to produce a surplus of something, the government wouldn’t let them sell it. The democratic and communitarian ideals hailed by government bureaucrats — who included some of the nastiest specimens of the New Deal, such as Rexford Guy Tugwell, one of the smuggest and stupidest creatures who ever attracted national attention — were continuously negated by the power of the Planners themselves.

It’s a good story, amusing though sad; and I wish I could say it was amazing. Unfortunately, it was just one of the predictable results of those dominating impulses of big government: arrogance and wishful thinking. Maloney’s well-researched book places Arthurdale firmly in the context of 20th-century interventionism, with plenty of information about the broader movements it represented and the people involved in them. The book is lively and pointed. Like the other books mentioned here, it is both an education and an entertainment. Like those other books, it is one of a kind, and not to be missed.

Editor's Note: Review of "Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy," by Gary Jason. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 416 pages; "I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography," by Jacques Delacroix. Santa Cruz CA: By the Author (but you can get it on Amazon), 2014. 420 pages; and "Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning," by C. J. Maloney. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. 292 pages.

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Iraq and Isolationism


I have no wisdom to offer about the current crisis in Iraq; I’m simply immobilized by astonishment over the idea, still dominant in Washington, that the United States should arrange and enforce a united Iraq. But I do have some thoughts about libertarian attitudes toward Iraq and other targets of American intervention.

Isolationists — and almost all libertarians are isolationists of some kind — can take pride in opposing the intervention that overthrew Saddam Hussein. It would have been better for virtually all concerned in this mess if Saddam, lunatic fool that he was, had stayed on his throne. Then at least we might not have seen the victory, in one part of the country, of a corrupt Shi’ite authoritarianism, and the worse victory, elsewhere, of a mob of howling Sunni fanatics vowing to lock women in their houses and behead or crucify all opponents of their holy cause. They have already advertised on the internet the massacre of hundreds or thousands of captured and disarmed soldiers of the Iraqi government — the kind of atrocity that even Hitler concealed.

It would have been better for virtually all concerned in this mess if Saddam, lunatic fool that he was, had stayed on his throne.

But there is something about this situation that isolationists should consider more carefully than we usually do. There is evil, intractable evil, in this world, and the more we isolate ourselves from it, the more intractable it reveals itself to be. America’s gradual withdrawal from world military conflict allows us to see more clearly that this evil cannot all be attributed to America, or the West, or colonialism, or imperialism, or G.W. Bush or Barack Obama or even the accursed Lyndon Johnson. The enslavement of women in Nigeria is not an effect of Western intervention. The vile fanaticism of the Iraqi insurgents is not the result of Western intervention. The modern steel gallows on which the religious leaders of Iran hang gay men are not the effect of Western hegemony. Like the other things I just mentioned, they are an attempt to appropriate the material culture of the West and place it in the service of depraved native ideals.

When I see a sign that says “Live and Let Live” my heart leaps up. That is liberty; that is what I believe in. But I do not believe that most cultures in the world are based on that principle, or that they would be if we would simply obey it ourselves. Libertarian commentary on American foreign policy often creates the impression that the extended meaning of “Live and Let Live” is “All Will Be Well If You Do.” It won’t. There is evil in America, and by the same token there is evil in the rest of the planet, and plenty more of it — inexhaustible supplies, in fact. Isolation is not the road to utopia. It should be the road to realism.

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Lying as a Research Tool


Several years ago a journal article reported on a mailing of hundreds of phony job-application resumés to potential employers. Conspicuously African-American-sounding names were assigned to some of the phony applicants. The researchers found a statistically significant degree of support for the differential response that they had conjectured.

Medical researchers convinced psychiatric hospitals to admit them as patients requiring treatment. Their purpose was to test how hard it was to convince physicians that these patients were sane, after all, and so gain release. In one twist, to see how admission procedures would be affected, one hospital was told, untruthfully, that fake patients would be sent its way (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, 141–142).

Research reported in NBER Digest, March 2013, involved sending about 12,000 phony resumés to employers who had posted some 3,000 job vacancies. The resumés showed how long a supposed applicant, if unemployed, had been unemployed. Statistics on “call-backs” from the employers supposedly confirmed discrimination against the long-term unemployed.

Such research raises several questions. Might not some of the employers (or hospitals) subjected to these experiments have vaguely sensed something peculiar and have responded or not responded accordingly? Is it fair to force the unagreed status of experimental guinea pig onto employers, wasting their time and imposing costs, all in addition to their ordinary burdens?  Most important, is lying a respectable tool of research? Should academics profit from having their own resumés augmented by such deceptions?

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Reverse Order


Grace, a new play by Craig Wright, opens to a minimalist set of simple bamboo furniture, the kind you might find in a Florida beach rental. A front door and a sliding glass door stand alone, but there are no actual walls. Dominating the set is a halo of blue sky and puffy white clouds projected on the back wall and suggesting a hint of heaven. This is appropriate, because the idea of heaven dominates the theme of this play. In fact, for the first ten minutes, the audience sees nothing else. People fidget, waiting for the show to start, wondering why it is delayed. But in fact, like a Pirandello play, it has already begun.

Suddenly the halo of light turns ghastly green. Three characters, two men and a woman, enter the stage and immediately collapse to the floor. After a few moments one of them, Steve (Paul Rudd), rolls up onto the couch in a slumped position and then sits upright. His body shudders, a shot rings out, and he points a gun to his head. The scene is about to rewind. Dialogue is spoken in reverse order. The words are cosmic in timbre but out of context and confusing. More shots ring out and then everyone is standing. It is one of the most stunning opening scenes I have ever witnessed.

And then the sky is bright blue again. Sara (Kate Arrington) is cheerfully folding laundry as Steve enters their apartment with happy news. They have come to Florida to start a chain of “gospel-themed” hotels, and an investor has just committed to sending them $9 million. They are perky and happy and in love. And they believe. Oh, do they believe!

As they praise God and pray their gratitude for being guided to this place at this time for this purpose, Tim (Michael Shannon) limps onto the set shouting “Thank you Jesus F-ing Christ!” It is a primal scream of ineffable pain. His arm is secured in a sling and his face is covered in a mask to heal what appear to be hideous wounds. The set, we learn, functions simultaneously as Steve and Sara's apartment and as Tim’s apartment next door. It isn't a staging shortcut but a metaphor for how lives intertwine. It also suggests that life is far from fair or equal, despite Declarations to the contrary.

Graceis billed as a comedy, probably to attract the fans of Paul Rudd, who is best known for his comic rolls in Judd Apatow's popular and often raunchy movies (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman). Grace does have moments of biting irony. Moreover, with Ed Asner cast as Karl, the crotchety old pest control man, one would expect a play filled with offensive anti-Christian jokes and rants. Indeed, when Karl calls Steve "Jesus Freak" — and he does so frequently — the audience roars its approval. "Gospel-themed hotels"? This is, after all, what they came for.

But it isn't what they get. Grace has more in common with Greek tragedy than with light comedy. As the characters come to know one another, the play asks the audience to consider the cosmic questions: What is the purpose of earth life? Does God exist? If so, why do people suffer? If God is going to interfere in the affairs of men, why would he use a miracle to make Steve and Sara rich, but not intervene to prevent Tim’s tragedy? As Robert Frost asks in his poem “Design,” “What but design of darkness to appall? — / If design govern in a thing so small.”

Another question the playwright asks us to consider is whether the world is governed by fate or choice. Several times characters plead, "Can't we just start over?" The opening scene itself is a rewind, suggesting that a do-over would be the greatest miracle of all. Would we change things if given a second chance? Or are our actions predestined?

Although Grace poses the questions, it wisely does not try toprovide the answers. Instead, what we have is a riveting story presented through deftly acted characters who seem as though they could indeed live next door. Tim, a rocket scientist, represents the atheistic view. His earthbound job of filtering out the data noise that interferes with “pure communication” from space is a perfect foil for the worldly noise that believers filter in order to hear the “pure communication” of the spirit. Karl provides not only comic relief but a poignant back story. Asner fans will be sorry to see that he is onstage only briefly, but his part is the subtle heart of the story.

Graceis a brilliant show with brilliant staging and a brilliant cast. Paul Rudd is particularly natural as the earnest and affable young Jesus Freak — er, Christian — who feels compelled to invite everyone he knows to accept the reality of Jesus Christ. He has his standard arguments that seem to prove the existence of God — at least to him. His open smile and eager enthusiasm reveal a surface-bound testimony. Sara is the one who presents the deeper meaning of what it is to be spiritually converted. Perhaps the real gift of miracle lies not in being protected from suffering, but in being helped to endure it.

Editor's Note: "Grace," written by Craig Wright, directed by Dexter Bullard. At the Cort Theatre on Broadway, New York City, until January 6.

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Prostitution and Coercion


I was recently thinking about why prostitution is illegal. As a libertarian I think that it should be legal, as an extension of people’s absolute right to own their own bodies. But many Americans disagree. If there is a rational, persuasive argument against the legalization of prostitutes (or “sex workers,” as they should be called) it is that a need for money would coerce poor women into becoming sex workers and selling their bodies. Poor women who need money to buy food and pay bills would feel economic pressure to become sex workers, this argument goes, so we need to protect them from coercion by denying them the opportunity to sell their bodies.

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism. The coercion argument goes far beyond the issue of prostitution; it is crucial for the integrity of libertarian theory that we have a definitive refutation to offer the public. This essay presents two strategies for refuting the coercion argument. I will focus on sex work to develop my ideas, but my arguments extend by analogy to every application of the coercion myth.

Assume that there is a poor woman (or man) who cannot pay utility bills and grocery bills and healthcare bills, and does not want to sell her body, but if she becomes a sex worker will earn enough money to pay the bills. Is this coercion? There are two approaches to arguing that it is not. The first approach is to argue, as a matter of deductive logic, that economic pressure can never amount to coercion, and therefore this scenario does not satisfy the definition of “coercion.” The second approach is to argue that economic pressure can be coercion but that capitalism is better than socialism at preventing the situation in which a poor woman has to do work she hates in order to have enough money. This involves showing why libertarian economic policy will create an abundance of economic opportunity for American working-class women.

In the remainder of this essay I will offer my thoughts on how to use each approach, focusing on the analytical approach first and the empirical approach second. I will argue that economic pressure is not and can never be coercion, because economic pressure does not fit the definition of “coercion.”

What is coercion? My 1998 Oxford Dictionary of Current English identifies it as the noun form of the verb “coerce,” which it defines as “persuade or restrain by force.” Dictionary.com defines “coercion” as “the act of coercing; use of force or intimidation to obtain compliance.” A serious question is whether coercion requires, by definition, physical force or the threat of it. I don’t feel it’s necessary to answer that question. I think a good common-sense definition of coercion is “threats of physical force or psychological intimidation that pressure someone into doing something he doesn’t want to do.”

The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

To make my point, permit me to present what academic philosophers call a “thought experiment.” Imagine an English sailor in the late 1700s who is marooned on a desert island after his ship was blasted apart by cannon fire from a pirate attack. This person washes ashore, explores the island, and finds that he is the only human there. There are some animals and plants and trees, and some land that he thinks could be farmed. This sailor faces a choice. Either he hunts for animals or farms vegetables and perhaps gets enough food to support his life, or he starves and dies. He could choose to seek food, which would require doing a lot of sweaty labor, or he could choose to be lazy and sit around and wait and eventually die. Work or death is the choice that he faces.

Few people would say he was coerced into working the job of hunter or farmer. Why? Because the thing that forces him to work is the nature of reality and the circumstances of the desert island. Coercion is typically regarded as an action, as something that one person does to another person to force the latter to conform to the former’s wishes. Where there is only one person there can be no coercion. Reality can be such that you must do something or face an unpleasant punishment, such as hard work, but reality has no mind capable of intentions and therefore has no intent to pressure you to obey some sort of scheme or plan.

It seems counterintuitive to say that reality coerces you, or that the aspect of reality called a desert island coerced you. It is the nature of reality, of humanity in the state of nature, that you work or die. If the sailor resents being forced to work by the human need for food, in a situation where it is obviously reality itself that poses this requirement, then he is rebelling against reality and the nature of human life. The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

This sheds light on the phenomenon that I call “worker’s rage,” a rage that most people feel sometimes and some people feel most of the time — a fear-fueled hatred of the fact that material success requires hard work and entails the risk of failure. I think that many socialists are motivated at a deep psychological level by the feeling that a strong socialist government could somehow create a magical utopia where there is no risk of failure or any need to do work in order to enjoy material comforts. Money and capitalism have come to symbolize the need to do work in order to survive. But as the desert island thought experiment suggests, the “work or die” condition of human existence is the result of humanity in the state of nature. It cannot be the result of capitalism if it exists someplace where there is no economic system. Thus “work or die” is perfectly natural; it is the condition of humans in the state of nature. The actual cause of worker’s rage is reality and not capitalism.

But now let us change the scenario slightly. Suppose that two sailors are shipwrecked on an otherwise desert island. One sailor, let’s call him John, finds a plot of land and sows some fast-growing fruit seeds and produces an orchard (or, for simplicity's sake, let's say a crop) of edible fruit. This sailor also builds a fence around his land, topped with sharp spikes. This fence cannot be scaled without serious risk of death. The second sailor, James, just sits on the beach, doing nothing but watching the waves.

Now James faces the same situation that the sailor in the first thought experiment faced: either he works or he dies of starvation. The new wrinkle is that if John were to give some of his fruit to James, then James would have a third option, to eat John’s fruit, not work, and not starve to death. Let us assume that James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says “no” and refuses to open the gate to his fence to let James in. Has John coerced James?

Here, for reasons similar to those of the first hypothetical, it's difficult to say that John has done anything to James that constitutes “coercion.” In the first place, there isn’t anything that John wants James to do. Therefore there is no intent or plan of John for James to conform to. We can hardly say that John coerced James into doing something when there is nothing that John wanted James to do.

The demands of reality are not coercion; they are merely human existence.

In the second place, if James dies from starvation, it will not have been John who killed him. Everything bad that could happen to James (such as starvation), will have been caused by the island, by the circumstances of not having an abundance of free food waiting to be taken, and by James’ own decision not to work. There is no threat from John directed at James, and any harm that befalls James will not have been caused by John. James’ death by starvation will have been caused by his own decision, combined with the nature of reality and of human beings, and the laws of physics and biology. Of course, John can prevent James’ death by giving him free fruit, but if he doesn't, he has still not taken any direct action toward him, so it can’t truly be said that John caused anything that happened to James.

“Ah, but John built that fence, and in so doing he murdered James!” the hardened socialist will say. If you don’t believe that anyone would seriously claim that the protection of private property constitutes coercion against the poor, let me inform you that the Robert Hale essay used precisely that argument.

My reply is that, in the first place, coercion requires the use of force or threats, at the very least to reduce freedom of choice. James’ freedom of choice has not been reduced. He is free to hunt, farm, sit on the beach, or do anything else he wants to do. John has done nothing to interfere with James’ freedom. Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.” That is what the government does when it gives orders to be enforced by the police and the army. John's staying behind his fence, farming and minding his own business, while James does whatever he wants on the other side of the fence looks nothing like coercion. John is not doing anything at all to James, and therefore is not “coercing” him.

The only thing that John prevents James from doing is invading his land and stealing his fruit — actions that are not properly within James’ scope of freedom. It strains credulity to think that protecting property that you have the right to own is coercion against people who try to steal it from you. If James were to steal John’s fruit, then James would be feeding off John as a parasite, and John would become James’ slave. James would be using force to steal from John. John’s attempt to prevent him from doing so, by building a fence, is not the aggressive initiation of force; it is merely self-defense. Self-defense protects the defender’s own freedom of action; it in no way pressures or controls the attacker. As can be seen from this example, James’ freedom of action and his ability to survive are in no way impeded. The only thing the fence does is prevent James from stealing from John. Even if John had fruit to spare, which he could give to James without missing it, the fact remains that John has done nothing to control or pressure James. If James cuts a hole in the fence and steals fruit from John, then one might say that James used violent force to coerce John into growing fruit for James to eat, and that James is trying to force John to stand between James and reality so that James can escape from the fact of having to work or starve. But it is reality and the desert island that punish James for his lazy choices.

John faced a risky situation. If he had chosen to reap his crop too late in the summer, a tropical storm might have wiped it out and condemned him to death. James wants to avoid the risks of having to make such choices. He wants to steal the bounty of John’s good choices, acting on the ground that John does not need all the fruit, but he himself does. This is robbery. For John to build a wall to prevent James from robbing him does not force James to make any of the choices available to him. The fence merely prevents James from exploiting John’s choices. Thus, John’s fence cannot reasonably be interpreted as a form of coercion.

Coercion is what would happen if John aimed a gun at James’ head and said, “Sing and dance or I will shoot you in the head.”

Now consider a third thought experiment. Assume that John and James are both stranded on the island, and that John has grown crops and built a fence, while James lies on the beach and enjoys the cool breeze in his hair. James asks John to give him some fruit, and John says "no." But now, with this third and final fact pattern, let us assume that John tells James that he would be willing to give him some of his fruit if in exchange for it James would be willing to do something for him. Here at last we have some elements that suggest the possibility of coercion: John has some purpose or intent that he wants James to fulfill, and James can avoid death by starvation, at least for a few days, if John gives him that fruit. The socialist would say that John has the power to coerce James with the threat of not giving him the fruit, and therefore John can pressure James into doing what James does not want to do. This is the heart of the coercion argument.

But let us look more closely. John does not want James to obey him blindly. John is proposing a trade whereby James does something for John (some sort of sex work, let us assume), and in exchange John gives something of value to James. This would be a free trade of value for value. John does not really want James to “obey.” He wants James to make a rational economic decision in which he gives John something of value to John, in exchange for something of value to James. When a baker gives twenty pizzas to a mechanic and receives a bicycle repair in return, both sides receive something that they wanted or needed more than the things that they traded away, so both sides end up happy. In a free trade both sides are always better off, at least in the sense that they always get what they want or what they choose, because if you don’t think you will be better off from making a trade you simply walk away from it.

But the socialist says that James cannot simply walk away. He says that James has no other choice than to make this deal, because John is the only farmer on the island and so owns all the fruit, and James might die if he refused John’s terms. But if we look at the scenario carefully, we see that nothing has fundamentally changed from the first and second scenarios. What will kill James is the desert island and starvation, not John; there is no aggressive physical force used by John against James. James is free to go off to another part of the island and build his own farm, and John is not restricting any of James’ abilities, with the single exception of his ability to steal. John owes nothing of his fruit to James. He would therefore be fully justified in not giving any of it to him.

Having established that James has no right to John’s fruit, we can see that it is good for James that John offers to trade some fruit in exchange for some work. Unless John chooses to give some of his fruit to James, there is no reason why James should be entitled to any of John’s fruit, so it is perfectly right and ethical for James to have to come up with some value he can give to John in order to make John freely and voluntarily give some of his fruit to James. It simply isn’t true that John is threatening James or trying to intimidate James, because James’ danger of starvation is caused by the island and not by John, and John is not doing anything to prevent James from going off and doing anything he wants, including starting his own farm.

Capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life.

Whether or not there is “unequal bargaining power,” as socialist lawyers like to say, is irrelevant. The fact remains that John has every right to make a proposal that James is free to accept or reject. John is free to accept or reject James’ request, and James is free to accept John’s offer or reject it and face the consequences of the dangers of life on planet Earth.

James’ freedom to choose is real and substantial. The socialists say in a capitalist system a poor person’s freedom illusory. Actually, however, capitalist freedom is the only kind that lets you make your own decisions rather than having someone else run your life. This freedom benefits everyone, rich and poor alike. When the socialists say that James’ alternative to accepting John’s offer is death, what they mean is that they don’t want James to have to do the work and take the risk of starting his own farm. They want to use their guns to tear down John’s fence and let James steal from John so that James won’t have to face risk and make choices, as is proper for a human being trying to cope with the harsh problems of life on earth.

My inquiry thus far has been about whether John is coercing James, not whether John should give James charity voluntarily and out of compassion. Obviously he should; in most cases it is a sin to let other people die, especially if you can help them without putting yourself in danger and they have not committed any morally repugnant crimes. And in a real market economy there is always competition, so no businessman can ever have the kind of monopoly on trade that John does. But I stand by the arguments presented above, which show that John’s offer of money for sex is not coercion. Leftists equate the mugger’s “your money or your life” with the employer’s “work for me on my terms or I won’t pay you, in which case you might starve.” The difference is that the former is a threat of murder, whereas the latter is merely the expression of “work or die,” a reiteration of the natural condition of human life. To say that in practical terms the cases are identical is to ignore every word I wrote in this essay. And where there is no threat there can be no “coercion.”

I will now shift gears and present the second approach to refuting the coercion myth, which is the empirical factual approach. This approach allows that economic pressure might be coercion, but libertarianism would actually produce less economic pressure than statism and would therefore be preferable.

The first step is to frame the question properly, in this way: assuming that economic pressure is coercion, which is the economic system that produces the least economic coercion and the most economic freedom? Is it the capitalist libertarian system, which would legalize prostitution, or is it the socialist, protectionist, statist system, which criminalizes prostitution and uses either central planning or a welfare state? Also, assuming that neither capitalism nor socialism has the ability to erase all poverty (poverty being, after all, a relative term), the question is not which system will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The logic of this argument must begin with a key observation. Even if prostitution is illegal, poverty will still put pressure on poor women to become sex workers. Criminalization makes prostitution more dangerous and therefore a less attractive choice, but it does not completely prevent poverty from coercing women into becoming sex workers. The widespread existence of sex workers in America proves just how ineffective the ban is. Therefore, whether or not prostitution is illegal doesn’t factor heavily into this analysis; the crucially important question is whether capitalism or socialism is more efficient at creating jobs for poor women.

So long as poverty exists and sex work is a way to make money, there will be economic pressure for women to become sex workers, so one might think that legalization of prostitution would necessarily increase coercion. But libertarianism is not the reason why sex work is repulsive to some women — or why it frequently pays well. That has its roots in human nature and the nature of sexuality. Assuming that the availability of other jobs is the best way to decrease economic pressure, it is perfectly reasonable to examine libertarianism and statism to try to determine which one would be better at providing more choices for women. We can say that a system in which most poor women are not forced to become sex workers is one that is not generally coercive.

The question is not whether it is capitalism or socialism which will eliminate coercion; the question is which system will minimize coercion, because that is the achievable goal.

The explanation for why, under laissez-faire capitalism, there will be more opportunities for the poor than under socialism is that in a capitalist system the entrepreneurs and business owners depend on the skill, talent, intelligence, and hard work of their employees in order to compete. The manager can’t do everything, so if the employees do a bad job, the business fails. Thus, management must always be searching for people who will do a good job, and seeking them wherever they may be found. An employee who is smart and works very hard is valuable. Employers will hunt for and abundantly reward productive employees. If a poor woman chooses to work hard and be a good employee, under capitalism she is likely to find a non-sex-work employer who will hire her. The public education system traps the poor in poverty by giving bad educations to children who can’t afford private schools; but privatization of education, using a voucher system, can solve this problem, and we can assume this as a feature of the libertarian system we are considering. We can also assume that wealthy people would support banks willing to give student loans to well-qualified poor people in order to develop the workforce necessary to compete with rivals.

More wealth in an economy and a higher average standard of living create more opportunities and career choices for everyone, including poor women. Capitalism is simply more efficient at producing wealth than statism, because it is better at providing the incentives that motivate people to be productive. Because free-market capitalism will create more career choices for poor women than statism, they will actually feel less economic pressure in a libertarian society than they would under socialism. Banning prostitution, on the other hand, simply eliminates a way to make money. A ban does nothing to solve the problem of poverty or to reduce the pressure to take unpleasant jobs.

One variation of the coercion argument is that a woman might choose to become a sex worker, but she would not want to if she had a choice (or, to be more precise, if she had money), and therefore the government should make her choice for her. This argument claims that protectionism actually increases freedom by giving people the situations that they would have chosen if they had been free to choose. But no one's choices can be predicted; the human mind is too complex for that. The only way to know what choice someone would make is to give her the freedom to choose, then see what choice she ends up making.

Outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills.

If a woman (or, again, a man) is horrified by the idea of becoming a sex worker, in a libertarian society she would be free to seek another job and persuade some employer that she would be a good worker and should be hired. F.A. Hayek's famous argument in The Road To Serfdom is that when people face a difficult choice (such as whether to become a sex worker or else have money trouble), they often want the state to eliminate this choice; but if the state destroys their freedom to choose, it has not eliminated the problem of a difficult choice. It has merely made that choice for the people instead of letting each person choose for herself. The poor woman who does not want to become a sex worker but who faces money problems must sometimes make a difficult choice, but outlawing prostitution does not magically solve the problem of poverty or help poor women pay their bills. It merely deprives women of the possibility of becoming sex workers if they wish.

There would probably be a sharp increase in sex work if prostitution were legalized. But there is no reason to assume that such an increase would be caused by coercion, not by the freedom accorded to women who would view sex work as comparatively easy money. There are some human beings who view sex as a physical act devoid of emotional or spiritual significance and who would view sex work and washing dishes as comparable. The idea that no woman could possibly want to become a sex worker is rooted in a very conservative, old-fashioned religious ideology. The state has no right to take the religious views of some people and force them upon others, particularly in light of the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

Looking beyond prostitution to broader issues of coercion, it is also worth remembering Hayek’s classic argument that when government makes people’s choices for them, there is but one authority that everyone must depend on, whereas in free-market competition there are hundreds of thousands of employers and millions of sales and deals happening constantly. The government has the power to coerce you by using its guns to force you to obey, but no capitalist can own every business or control every job. A worker under capitalism always has options and choices. If a woman faces poverty and hates the prospect of becoming a sex worker she is free to seek another job, and if one employer refuses to hire her then she can apply for positions with fifty others. The number of employers it is feasible for any one person to seek employment from, and the costs and sacrifices that any person must make in order to find a job, are real factors, real, empirical questions that vary for each individual. Some people may need to move to find a job, or to make other adjustments in their lives, just as they often do when seeking a spouse, getting an education, and so forth. Generally, however, in competitive capitalism there will be many more choices than in a socialist system.

To conclude: economic pressure is not coercion, but even if it were, libertarianism would produce less coercion than statism. Opposing arguments are common in American culture, especially among leftist or Marxist intellectuals and people influenced by them. The coercion argument is the foundation of many socialist illusions. It is the justification for laws that attempt to protect people from the tough choices that they would feel pressured to make in a free market. The truth is, however, that when the government tries to protect us by eliminating our freedom, that action is coercion. Libertarian capitalism, in which people can make whatever choice they want, is freedom, and freedom is a good thing. I hope that this essay’s framework — a double-barreled shotgun approach to refuting the coercion myth, with one barrel comprised of analytical deduction and another barrel coming from empirical fact — is a step in the right direction on the path toward replacing the state’s coercion with the people’s freedom.

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Classic Problem, Classic Films


The topic of this essay is a broad issue in moral philosophy: conflicts of loyalty, specifically, loyalty in war. My “texts” are four classic movies about World War II.

Let us start with some conceptual analysis of the central concept: loyalty. “Loyalty” means devotion to or consistent support of something. Loyalty is correlated with duty: to feel loyalty is to feel you have a duty to support something. But it connotes more than just adherence, it connotes the willingness to sacrifice one’s own good for the sake of the other.

The things to which a person can be said to be loyal of course include other people, either singly or in groups (such as families, friendship circles, gangs, companies, clans, tribes, nations, or ethnic groups). A person can also be loyal to a belief system (such as an idea or concept, a theory, an ideology, a religion, or a cause). My hunch is that when one is loyal to a belief system, it is usually because it is derived from or associated with a person or group with whom he feels personal loyalty. For example, an Irishman’s loyalty to the cause of Irish independence would, I suspect, derive from his strong identification with Irish family and friends. But I won’t pursue that theory here.

W.D. Ross’ view has the unwieldy moniker “Multiple-rule deontologism,” though it is simply common sense put forward in a highly abstract way.

Because a person is typically related to a variety of other people and groups in a variety of ways, loyalties often conflict. My loyalty to my friend may conflict with self-interest (loyalty to oneself, so to speak), or my loyalty to other friends. My loyalty to my family may conflict with my loyalty to the country, or for that matter my loyalty to my lover. The permutations here are endless.

Now, different ethical theories analyze moral phenomena in different ways. Perhaps the best known ethical theories are utilitarianism, ethical egoism, and natural rights ethics.

Both egoism and utilitarianism tie the moral rightness of an act (or anything else, such as an institution or a rule) solely to whether it leads to the best results. They differ about whom those best consequences are intended for: is it just for the person acting (egoism), or for everyone affected (utilitarianism)?

Natural rights theory is one of a variety of theories that tie the rightness of acts to things other than consequences, such as the motives or character of the agent. Specifically, natural rights ethics holds that your act is right if it flows from your rights and doesn’t violate the rights of others.

Each of these moral perspectives has its uses. For analyzing whether the country ought to enact a new law, say, utilitarianism is the obvious tool. For analyzing whether you ought to engage in a business, ethical egoism is a useful tool. To analyze whether a controversial business practice is just, natural rights ethics is probably the best instrument.

But for analyzing situations in which people act from conflicting loyalties, no better tool is at hand than an ethical theory put forward most clearly and compellingly by the subtle and sophisticated moral philosopher W.D. Ross. In the literature Ross’ view has the unwieldy moniker “Multiple-rule deontologism,” though I have always regarded it as simply common sense put forward in a highly abstract way.

In his view, in morally puzzling situations, we are faced with conflicting prima facie duties, and must determine from among them which one is our actual duty in the context. For example, suppose I am trying to decide whether to leave my wife after an unhappy marriage of many years. I have to sort through my obligations to my wife (whom I chose to marry and therefore to whom I have an obligation), to my children (whom we brought into the world and therefore to whom I owe something), and of course myself. In Ross’ perspective, the exact nature of the relationships you have had (and their specific histories) is what is crucial in determining your actual duty, and not (as in egoism) just your duty to promote your own welfare or (as in utilitarianism) your duty to promote the welfare of the human race impartially considered.

An important feature of Ross’ theory is that even when one prima facie duty overrides the others in a given situation, and hence constitutes the actual duty in that situation, the other duties are in truth none the less still duties, so as conditions change, one of them may override the others in turn. This gives his theory a dynamic aspect missing in many other ethical perspectives.

I think that Ross’ theory is a sadly neglected tool in the philosophy of film. I want to use it to analyze conflicts of loyalty in war movies.

More than any other ethically challenging situation, war raises issues about loyalties to others in conflict with the basic human imperative of survival, as well as conflicts between the general obligation to others to do them no harm and the imperative to kill the enemy. I will examine World War II movies, because WWII is generally considered the 20th-century war in which American involvement was most morally justified. This enables us to focus more on the personal than on the political struggles of the characters involved.

Let’s consider first a fine film starring two grossly underrated actors, The Enemy Below. This film tells the story of one particular small naval battle — a battle between an American destroyer and a German submarine — in the South Atlantic Ocean. The battle is shown as a kind of chess match between the two captains, both seasoned veterans. The US ship, the USS Haynes, discovers the U-boat as the sub is trying to make it to a rendezvous with a German merchant raider. The American commander, Capt. Murrell (Robert Mitchum) is trying to gain the full loyalty of his crew, who know about him only that his last ship was sunk. The German commander, Capt. Von Stolberg (Kurd or “Curt” Jurgens), has had his crew for a long time, and they are fully loyal to him.

An early part of the battle tips us off to Murrell’s (and Von Stolberg’s) capabilities. The American destroyer sights the German U-boat and closes in on it. But the U-boat escapes. Instead of pursuing it further, Murrell breaks off the attack and slows the movement of his own ship. His number one, Lt. Ware (David Hedison), asks him what he is doing. Murrell explains that he is trying to gauge his opponent. He explains that he gives the German captain so many minutes to reach a safe depth, level out and spot the destroyer, realize it is open to attack, and let loose a volley of torpedoes.

The crew watches in amazement as two torpedoes zip by harmlessly.

We cut to the sub, and see Von Stolberg, who after diving and leveling, does indeed realize the destroyer is open to attack, and remarks to his own number one, Schwaffer (Theodore Bikel) that the destroyer’s captain is either clever or foolish. Just as Murrell anticipated, Von Stolberg decides to test Murrell, and fires the torpedoes. Up above, Murrell, after waiting an appropriate amount of time, barks out the order to turn the ship sharply and increase the engines to full. The crew watches in amazement as two torpedoes zip by harmlessly. Von Stolberg now realizes that Murrell is clever, as the destroyer goes on the attack. It is clear to both captains they are up against able opponents, and the battle is joined. As Von Stolberg remarks, “This American captain is no amateur. Well, neither am I.”

In the end, after an extended battle of the ships’ crews and the captains’ wills, both captains make fatal errors and both errors are exploited by the opponent. The result is that both see their ships go down — a most un-Hollywood-like ending.

But as interesting as the naval chess match is to watch, the fascination of the movie comes in learning the personalities of the two warriors. In neither case is the motivation for such fierce fighting either some kind of extreme ideological commitment or exaggerated patriotism. In both cases the commitment is to their job and above all to their crews, whose deaths (should they occur) would be on their hands. In neither case do the other prima facie obligations — such as to friends, country, or humanity in general — disappear, and in another context, another prima facie duty will return as the actual one.

We see this repeatedly in various scenes and dialogical exchanges in the film. For instance, when asked by Ware what he thinks his foe is like, Murrell replies, “I have no idea what he is, what he thinks. I don’t want to know the man I am trying to destroy.” One is tempted to shout at the screen, “Just so!” When you are in the standard battle situation, you are under a general obligation to fight for your country. But your specific obligation, the first loyalty, is to those whom you command, and the foe — while understood to still be human — must only be the foe.

In a scene in the sub, after enduring an intense depth-charging run, one that makes the gung-ho and devout Nazi sailor Kunz want to surrender, there is this exchange:

            Von Stolberg: “Mueller, what is the condition of the ship?”

            Mueller: “We have not been hurt.”

            Kunz: “But we cannot escape!”

            Von Stolberg: “It will be your privilege to die for the New Germany.”

Von Stolberg’s sarcasm makes it clear he has contempt for the kind of men who wanted the war but can’t deal with what it entails. The loyalty is with those for whose lives you are responsible, not some abstract ideology.

Or consider the exchange between Doc and Murrell. The exchange occurs after Murrell has explained why he switched from the Merchant Marine to the Navy. In a powerful scene — one to which few actors besides the restrained Robert Mitchum could do justice — Murrell explains that he resolved to fight subs after the ship he was on was torpedoed by one, and he had to watch as the half of the ship — the half upon which was his newly-married wife! — sink rapidly to the bottom of the ocean.

Doctor: “Well, in time we’ll all get back to our stuff again. The war will get swallowed up, and seem like it never happened.”

Murrell: “Yes, but it won’t be the same as it was. We won’t have the feeling of permanency that we had before. We’ve learned a hard truth.”

Doctor: “How do you mean?”

Murrell: “That there is no end to misery and destruction. You cut the head off a snake, and it grows another one. You cut that one off, and you find another. You can’t kill it, because it’s something within ourselves. You can call it the enemy if you want to, but it’s part of us; we’re all men.

This dialog, which Mitchum delivers in a manner-of-fact, unemotional way, is the sort of dialog that would tempt a lesser actor to chew the scenery. Not Mitchum.

This scene brings up an interesting question. The viewer may wonder about the role revenge may be playing in Murrell’s actions. Now, it is one of the strengths of Rossian moral theory that it can explain a pervasive feature of our ordinary moral lives that is not easy to explain by other moral theories. I am referring here to loyalty toward the dead.

For example, let’s suppose that my parents (while alive) treated me with just the normal care and concern that parents typically render towards their children. My loyalty would be expected, even though they are dead, in such matters as giving them an appropriate funeral and carrying out their final wishes as expressed in their wills. These obligations are not explained by future consequences (for me in particular or humanity in general), or by the “natural rights” of the deceased — they’re dead! — but by our past mutual history as a family.

Von Stolberg’s sarcasm makes it clear he has contempt for the kind of men who wanted the war but can’t deal with what it entails.

But while seeing his wife die after a torpedo attack may explain Murrell's choice to seek duty on a destroyer, his demeanor and words make it clear that it is in no way impelling him to destroy this sub. He is no Ahab, for he has no history with that sub or its (at this point unknown) commander that would create such a desire for revenge.

It is clear in the film — from this and other scenes — where the loyalties of the protagonists lie. Von Stolberg makes clear his contempt for the Nazis and what they have wrought. He fights as a professional soldier for his country, but his first loyalty is to his crew. This Murrell understands, and respects, as shown in another scene. As the sub is being depth-charged savagely, and the crew is getting disheartened and beginning to panic, Von Stolberg puts a record on the PA system — a rousing song that the German U-boat cadets learn at their academy. He demands that the crew join him in singing it. They do, and begin to recover their courage. Up above, the destroyer’s sonar picks up the sounds, and Ware expresses wonder (for in playing the music, the sub is making it easier for the destroyer to locate it). Murrell immediately understands what the other captain is doing, and expresses admiration even as he returns to the attack.

Another insight into how the key protagonists in the movies view their loyalties comes near the end. Von Stolberg has gotten most of his men off the doomed sub, as Murrell has his. Murrell spots the German captain for the first time, and wonders why he hasn’t abandoned ship. Von Stolberg replies that his friend and number one is badly wounded. It is clear that the German’s duty to his crew is discharged by having them abandon their ship, which will sink at any moment. But he feels he has to risk his life for this man, and doesn’t expect his crew to do the same, precisely because the sailor was his long-time friend, not theirs. In this new context, Von Stolberg‘s prima facie loyalty to his friend has become his actual duty. This is a moral calculation that Murrell understands, and he helps in the rescue. In this contest, Murrell’s prima facie duty to humanity has become his actual duty.

At the end of the movie, the two captains converse side by side. Their ending dialog is telling:

Von Stolberg: “I should have died many times, Captain, but I continue to survive somehow. This time it was your fault.”

Captain Murrell: “I didn’t know. Next time I won’t throw you the rope.”

Von Stolberg: “I think you will.”

The Enemy Below is a superb action war movie. The director (and himself a fine actor) Dick Powell put in an enormous amount of effort on making it look realistic. It is filmed in color, and the display of naval action (such as the maneuvers of the ships, the depth charge firings, and so on) has a palpable realism. The film absolutely rightly won an Oscar for Best Effects. The support acting is excellent, especially David Hedison as Lt. Ware, as well as Theodore Bikel as Capt. Von Stolberg’s number one and good friend Heinie Schwaffer. Also excellent is Russell Collins as Doc. But the two leads are just superb. Mitchum at his best (as he is here) was one of the best in film, despite his never having won an Oscar, and Jurgens (who was nominated for a Best Foreign Actor BAFTA award for his performance) was a renowned actor in both Germany and the United States.

The second film is a much-neglected gem, Decision Before Dawn. The movie is about the last phase of WWII, during which the Russian Army is about to enter Germany from the east, while the Allied Army is poised to attack across the Rhine. Germany by this time has had its major cities pulverized by Allied bombing, and the country faces massive shortages.

The American military command expects that the Germans will fight bitterly to defend their soil, and has set up an intelligence unit near the border to identify German POWs who are potentially willing to go back into Germany and spy for the Americans. The intelligence unit is headed by Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill).

Devlin identifies two promising potential agents, given the code names “Tiger” (Hans Christian Blech) and “Happy” (Oskar Werner). We learn that these are quite different people with quite distinct motives.

Tiger is an outright egoist. Before the war he was a circus worker and a petty thief, and was drafted into combat. He is willing to go along with the Americans — or let them think he will — in exchange for better treatment. And, as all the other characters in the movie know, he returned from his last assignment alone — meaning that his partner was either captured or killed.

In contrast, Happy acts out of a sense that the war needs to be ended, for the good of all sides, not least of all for the good of the German people, who are suffering on a massive scale in what is clearly a losing cause — suffering for the stubborn pride of a few high military men. His resolve in this comes from seeing a fellow POW killed by other German prisoners for expressing the thought that Germany was losing the war.

Helping train Happy for his espionage work is a young Frenchwoman, Monique (Dominique Blanchar). Despite her understandable hatred of the Germans, she finds herself attracted to Happy.

The central drama of the film gets started when Devlin is told that a certain German general wants to negotiate the surrender of his entire command. Because of the high stakes in this operation, Devlin selects an American, Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart) to accompany Tiger and Happy in the mission. Tiger is generally suspected by everyone (again because he returned from his last mission alone), but he is chosen because he knows the area. Happy is assigned the task of locating the 11th Panzer Corps, because it may block the defection.

One of the strengths of Rossian moral theory that it can explain our loyalty toward the dead.

Rennick, like most of the Americans, generally suspects all the Germans in the training facility, since they are all — let’s be blunt — Germans. Worse yet, they are traitors. Even worse yet, they are traitorous German spies. As a narrator intones at the opening of the movie,

Of all the questions left unanswered by the last war, and probably any war, one comes back constantly to my mind. Why does a spy risk his life? For what possible reason . . . If the spy wins, he’s ignored. If he loses, he’s shot.

This brings up a fascinating feature of the flick: the viewer — no matter what his nationality — typically has a visceral, instinctive aversion to the traitor, no matter how well-motivated the treachery. We are instinctively revolted by treachery to the tribe, as we are to incest or touching the dead. This puts us in Rennick’s position of distrusting the sincere Happy.

The three agents are dropped behind enemy lines into Germany, and split up, with Rennick and Tiger making their way to a safe house, while Happy goes in search of the Panzer unit. Along the way, Happy and the viewer meet a variety of Germans. Some are clearly weary of the war, but one — a superficially friendly Waffen SS courier who is still a devout Nazi — poses a major risk to him.

As luck would have it, Happy (who is posing as a medic trying to return to his unit) is commandeered to take care of the colonel who is in charge of the very Panzer unit Happy was assigned to locate.

After treating the colonel, Happy sets off with the information to the safe house. He is by now being sought by the Gestapo, and almost gets captured, but manages to join the others. During this time, Rennick and Tiger discover that the general who was thinking of surrendering is now in a hospital guarded by the SS, so the unit will not be surrendering after all.

The film moves to a tense denouement, as the German spies and their American control — with important information but an inoperable radio — have to try to swim across a river to the American-controlled side. Tiger attempts to flee, and Rennick shoots him. Happy and Rennick swim halfway across the river to an island, but as they move to swim to the other side, the Germans discover them and start shooting. Happy, unable to make the swim, creates a diversion and allows himself to be captured, ensuring that Rennick can swim across to safety.

Happy is shot as a deserter. Rennick is faced with a cognitive conflict, arising from his attitude towards the enemy: his life was saved by one of the very traitorous Germans he despised so profoundly.

A bigger conflict lies in the heart of Happy. In agreeing to spy on the Nazi army, he has to put aside loyalty to the government for which he fought, and embrace a higher loyalty to his country and what is truly good for its people. This seems clear to the viewer from the start, but not to the American soldiers in the film, who condemn the “turncoat” Germans uniformly, with a reflexive loathing of those who would work against their country’s government (wrongly equating a country’s government with the country itself).

In the end, in doing his true duty, Happy pays with his life. His act of self-sacrifice grows out of his feeling of loyalty to the American officer who risked his life to accompany him on his mission.

This film is outstanding on every level. Visually, it has an uncanny verisimilitude. It was filmed on location in Wurzburg, where rubble still clogged the streets at the time of filming. (The German audience must have been especially struck by this film.) The movie was nominated for a Golden Globe, for Best Cinematography (in Black and White).

The dialogue is no less gritty than the setting, and the characters are true to life — no comic-book heroes here. The fighting scenes are quite convincing as well. Indeed, the movie was based loosely on real life: the Allied intelligence services did in fact employ German POWs to re-enter Germany as Allied agents.

The direction by famed European director Anatole Litvak is spot on. He gets fine performances from all the cast. Litvak was nominated by the Directors’ Guild of America for its Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures award, and the film was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Film Editing.

The viewer — no matter what his nationality — typically has a visceral, instinctive aversion to the traitor, no matter how well-motivated the treachery.

But the acting deserves special praise. Gary Merrill was always an outstanding actor — who can forget his superb support roles in the classic war film 12 O’clock High and the equally classic “woman’s movie” (as the studio categorized it), All About Eve, both truly great films? He is excellent here as Col. Devlin, the commander in charge of the operation. Also worth noting was Hildegard Knef as Hilde, the desperate German bar girl, and Dominique Blanchar as Monique, the French aide to the intelligence unit who finds herself falling in love with Happy. Also worth noting is Wilfred Seyferth’s performance as the Waffen SS courier Heinz Scholtz.

The three lead actors are especially fine. Richard Basehart played the American agent Lt. Dick Rennick, who accompanies the two German volunteer spies. Hans Christian Blech is perfect is perfect as the cynical Sgt. Rudolf Barth (“Tiger”). Most outstanding is the lead, a very young Oskar Werner as Cpl. Karl Maurer (“Happy”). Werner was an excellent visual actor, and his gift for conveying facially his character’s thoughts and emotions was superbly used in this film.

The third film is the remarkable recent German movie, John Rabe. The movie is based on the amazing true story of the eponymous hero, a German businessman who was instrumental in saving over 200,000 Chinese civilians during the conquest and occupation of Nanking (now Nanjing) in 1937–38, often and rightly referred to as “The Rape of Nanking.” (The reader may wish to read my earlier review of an outstanding documentary on the subject, Nanking, that appeared in the August 2008 Liberty, pp. 44-45.)

John Rabe was the head of the Nanking factory of the German multinational corporation Siemens’. (Siemens was a major player in providing pre-war China with electric power and telecom services). Rabe, we need to note well, was a committed Nazi. As the Japanese started their invasion of China in the 1937, he was of course sympathetic to them, since Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany had grown politically close, especially after von Ribbentrop became military attaché in 1934, and the Anti-Comintern Pact was signed in 1936. (When Japan invaded China — and China signed a military pact with the Soviet Union — in 1937, Hitler finally turned his back on China and sided with Japan completely.)

But as the actual Japanese military — as opposed to whatever idealized military Rabe envisioned — moved in, he saw how horrifyingly vicious they were. The Imperial Japanese Army at the time was governed by the Bushido code of warrior honor, which viewed it as the duty of a true warrior to die in combat rather than to surrender. That perspective had a dark side, however: it virtually guaranteed that whenever the Japanese Army won a battle, the victors would view surrendering soldiers (and the prostrate populace) with contempt, and consider them deserving of whatever cruelty the victors cared to inflict.

At the opening of the film, we meet John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur) and Dora (Dagmar Manzel), his beloved wife. They have lived in Nanking (then China’s capital city) for about 30 years. Rabe has come to love the country, and is reluctant to leave, but retirement looms. However, during his farewell party, the Japanese begin their attack, with their planes indiscriminately bombing the city. Rabe opens the factory gates so the workers and their families can come in and get some protection. In a striking — not to say jarring — scene, the employees stop the Japanese air strikes by spreading a huge Nazi flag above their heads.

The next morning, the most important foreigners remaining in the city get together to discuss what can be done to help the hapless citizenry. Here we meet the other central figures in the story. Dr. Rosen (Daniel Bruhl), a German Jewish diplomat, points out that Shanghai, which faced a similar attack, set up a “safety zone.” Valerie Dupres (Anne Consigny) — a fictional character loosely based on a real person — who is the head of a Chinese women’s college in Nanking, proposes that Rabe lead the committee for setting up the zone, in large part because she sagely realizes that his affiliation with the Nazi party can be useful in dealing with the Japanese. Dr. Robert Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who doesn’t like Rabe precisely because of his Nazi sympathies, is reluctant to agree.

In a striking — not to say jarring — scene, the employees stop the Japanese air strikes by spreading a huge Nazi flag above their heads.

The following day, Rabe is supposed to leave with his wife on the return trip to Germany. Nevertheless, he has decided to stay to help the Chinese, and watches his wife leave on the ship. As it leaves, however, it is attacked by Japanese planes, and Rabe fears that his wife is dead. In the face of his personal sorrow, he commits to setting up the safety zone.

In one key scene, we see the conflicts that Rabe feels mirrored in a Japanese officer. In this scene, the Japanese have captured a large number of Chinese soldiers defending Nanking. Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, the head of a lesser branch of Japanese nobility and a career military officer, orders the mass execution of the Chinese “captives” — a term covering not merely the POWs but any and all civilians. (In fact, it may have been his assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Cho, a political extremist, who actually gave the order, with Asaka only tacitly consenting).

A young Japanese major dissents timidly, but is immediately slapped down, and the massacre commences. (After the war, Asaka was lucky to escape prosecution for the war crimes committed under his command, when General MacArthur decided for political reasons to grant immunity to all of the Imperial family). It is obvious to the viewer that the young major is conflicted by his duty to follow orders (imperative in any military organization, but especially so in a viciously authoritarian one) and his more general duty to behave in a humane way toward POWs and non-combatants. There are universal rules that morally supersede military orders, some codified in the Geneva Conventions. I will return to this point shortly.

As the soldiers and then much of the general populace get murdered by a Japanese army driven mad by power and bloodlust, civilians pour into the safety zone that the Rabe-led committee had managed to set up.

The film vividly portrays a number of horrific events, including one in which Mme. Dupres refuses to allow the Japanese (who have found a group of Chinese soldiers hiding on the grounds of the Girl’s College) to take 20 of the young women along for sexual exploitation, and subsequently has to endure the sound of POWs being machine-gunned in reprisal. In another scene, while Rabe is negotiating with the Japanese commanders, his driver is hauled off and decapitated as part of a killing contest between two Japanese officers.

As the brutal occupation grinds on, an improbable friendship forms between Wilson and Rabe, leading to some lighter scenes of their drinking and singing songs (one of which mocks Hitler). During the committee’s Christmas celebration, Rabe faints — he has received an unmarked package containing his favorite cake, tipping him off to the fact that his wife is alive. Wilson discovers that Rabe is diabetic, and saves his life by procuring some insulin from the Japanese enemy he detests.

In the new year, the situation becomes grave. Rabe uses the last of his savings to help buy rice for the refugees, and discovers that the reason the supplies of rice are being used up so rapidly is that the Girl’s College is hiding some Chinese soldiers. Rabe and the rest of the committee realize that if the Japanese discover this, they will close the zone and likely kill all the people protected there.

This leads to the denouement, in which the Japanese decide to march into the protected zone. But Rabe is tipped off by the young Japanese major, and the Japanese troops who march in find that the committee and the Chinese civilians have formed human shields to protect the POWs. Japanese tanks are brought in, but before shots are fired, the Japanese discover that international journalists and diplomats have just returned to the city, and the Japanese are forced to back down.

The film ironically ends more happily than its real-life hero. The film ends with Rabe being taken to the harbor for his return to Germany. He is cheered by the Chinese as he reunites with his wife. In actuality, Rabe did return to Germany with his wife but was immediately arrested by the Gestapo, precisely for bringing the Japanese atrocities to the world’s attention. He was released after the war, but — unbelievably — his request for “de-Nazification” was initially denied by the British authorities. In 1950, he died poor and unremarked. Only in 1997 did he receive belated recognition for his humane and honorable work when the Chinese moved his remains to the Nanking Memorial Hall. And finally, in 1993, the German government got around to acknowledging his decency and bravery.

As the soldiers and then much of the general populace get murdered by a Japanese army driven mad by power and bloodlust, civilians pour into the safety zone.

Some have noted a resemblance between John Rabe and Oskar Schindler (the subject of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List). There are analogies, to be sure. Both Rabe and Schindler were real businessmen, both were initially drawn to the Nazi movement, and both in time became committed to saving the lives of at least some of the intended victims of the Axis war machine.

But there are some major relevant differences as well, the biggest being the presence of internal conflict of duties in the case of one character but not the other. Schindler was, from what I can tell, an opportunist who came to see the humanity of the victims of the Holocaust, and fought for some of them, but was never conflicted about it. In contrast, Rabe believed — yes, foolishly — that the Nazis were better than the viciously cruel Imperial Army. This absurd belief comes out in Rabe’s letter to Adolf Hitler:

To the Fuehrer of the German people, Chancellor Adolf Hitler: My Fuehrer, as a loyal party member and upstanding German, I turn to you in a time of great need. The Japanese Imperial troops conquered the city of Nanking on December 12, 1937. Since then I have witnessed atrocious crimes against civilians. Please help to end this catastrophe and make an appeal to our Japanese allies in the name of humanity. With a German salute — John Rabe

Here we see the conflict between Rabe's commitment to his country and his allegiance to people who had worked for him and among whom he had lived. Parallel to this is the conflict faced by the young Japanese major who, in spite of tremendous pressure to carry out unquestioningly the war crimes demanded by his commanders, first risked the good opinion of his superior officers by questioning the order to summarily execute unarmed POWs, then risked his life by tipping off Rabe about the imminent Japanese incursion.

In facing their conflicts, both Rabe and the major are rather like Sophocles’ Antigone. In the play, Antigone disobeys King Creon’s order that her dead brother Polynices (who had fought against Creon’s favorite, Eteocles and lost) be left unburied, for the animals to eat. Antigone buries her brother with her own hands, and when Creon demands an explanation for her breaking of the law, she replies that she is following a law older than that of kings. As she says, "Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man, / Could’st by a breath annul and override the immutable, unwritten laws of Heaven."

In saving the Chinese, Rabe and the young Japanese officer were obeying a higher and older law, one that demands that we protect the innocent, no matter what state alliances apply, and no matter what prior personal allegiances have been established.

This film is a fine piece of cinematic art. It was highly acclaimed in Germany, garnering seven “Lola” (German Film Award) nominations, and winning Lolas for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design. Besides winning the Lola for Best Actor, Ulrich Tukur also won the Bavarian Film Award for Best Actor, for his very impressive performance. But as popular as it was in Germany, the movie was, alas, shunned in Japan. Not one Japanese distributor could be found to show it. The Japanese, it must be admitted, to this day still have not come to grips with their often atrocious behavior in WWII.

As the brutal occupation grinds on, an improbable friendship forms between Wilson and Rabe, leading to some lighter scenes of their drinking and singing a song that mocks Hitler.

Tukur well deserved his awards, giving a powerful performance, at once restrained but revealing. Steve Buscemi is excellent in support (he was nominated for a Lola for Best Supporting Actor, a rare nomination for an American), playing the more emotionally open American doctor who worked with Rabe to save the Chinese. Florian Gallenberger, who wrote the screenplay, also did a superb job in directing the movie. And Jurgen Jurges did an outstanding job on the cinematography. At the time of filming, a lot of 1930s-era housing stock in Shanghai was being demolished for new high-rise buildings, and he was able to use footage of it in portraying the damage done by the Japanese bombing.

The final movie I want to take up is rightly characterized as a classic. It is one of David Lean’s many outstanding contributions to cinematic art: The Bridge on the River Kwai. Like John Rabe, Lean’s movie is based on historical reality, though (as we shall see) it is not as faithful to history as the Rabe movie.

The Bridge on the River Kwai starts with a unit of British POWs captured at the fall of Singapore, marching into a Japanese work camp in western Thailand. They march in whistling the rousing “Colonel Bogey March,” a popular British tune dating to the First World War. They are assembled in front of the camp’s commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).

As the British march, we meet another character, US Navy Commander Shears (William Holden), who is helping bury a dead POW. We get a sense of his egoism and general skepticism about the war when he bribes the Japanese captain supervising him and his fellow grave-digger (an Australian named Weaver) with a cigarette lighter taken from one of the corpses, and intones over the grave

Here lies Corporal Herbert Thompson, serial number 01234567, valiant member of the King’s own, or Queen’s own, or something, who died of beriberi in the year of our Lord 1943. For the greater glory of . . . [pause] what did he die for? . . . I don’t mock the grave or the man. May he rest in peace. He got little enough of it while he was alive.

The British POWs are commanded by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). Saito informs the British that they are to work on a bridge over the River Kwai for a railway line. He tells them that he will require all POWs, even the officers, to start work in the morning, Nicholson tells Saito that the Geneva Conventions forbid compelling officers to work, but that only makes Saito repeat his orders furiously.

The next morning, when the POWs assemble, the officers refuse to work. Saito at first threatens to shoot them, then backs down, leaving them in the scorching sun, then putting them in a punishment hut. Saito orders Nicholson to be put in “the oven,” a tiny iron hut that is exposed directly to the sun, where Nicholson stays without food or water, to break his will.

The British medical officer, Major Clipton (James Donald), an obviously reasonable, rational medical scientist, faced with two stubborn career military men following what they view as their military codes, attempts to negotiate — but Nicholson refuses all compromise. As all this is going on, the British soldiers are doing their best to passively resist — by feigning work and slyly sabotaging the project.

This leads to one of the great scenes in this great film. Saito, the Bushido-bound martinet, faces an even more code-bound martinet and the possible failure of his own project. He feels that such a failure would obligate him to commit actual suicide — Seppuku — in accord with Japanese tradition. At this point, Saito gives in, using the excuse of the anniversary of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War to release Nicholson and exempt the other officers from the actual construction work.

Nicholson reviews the status of the project, and finds it in shambles. To the surprise of his men, he says that he wants to build a “proper” bridge, i.e., one that will succeed in bearing the weight of railroad traffic. The officers and men clearly wonder aloud if this isn’t outright collaboration. But Nicholson replies that only by working as real soldiers on a real bridge will he be able to restore his men’s discipline, self-respect, and morale — all essential to surviving the harsh conditions imposed on them. He thus subordinates his loyalty toward military goals to loyalty toward his men.

At this point, three of the POWs — including Commander Shears — attempt an escape. Two are killed, but a wounded Shears manages to escape, and (with the help of some locals) manages to make it to safety. The movie focuses on Shears, who is recovering at a British Ceylonese hospital. Shears makes time with a gorgeous nurse and looks forward to shipping out to the US.

But Shears' plans are upset by the head of the British Special Forces in Ceylon, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins). Warden wants Shears to volunteer to accompany and guide a commando unit back to the POW camp to blow up the bridge. Shears, ever the egoist, informs Warden that in fact he (Shears) is not an officer, but an ordinary seaman who switched uniforms with the real Commander Shears after their ship had been sunk and Shears was killed — because the seaman knew that officers get better treatment in captivity. But Warden has already discovered this, and the US Navy has assigned the egoist to Warden’s command. “Shears” has no choice, so he “volunteers.”

One might suppose that Shears' agreeing to go on Warden’s commando mission would be a case of conflict (between his innate egoism and his loyalty to his country’s cause in the war), but it isn’t, really. His decision is easily explicable on egoistic principles. He has been unmasked; thus he faces return to the States and a mandatory court martial. Depending on how the trial goes — would the judges view him as having deserted? or as having allowed the real Shears to die? or maybe even having killed the real officer? — the seaman faces a long time in military prison, and maybe even execution. So he decides to take his chances on going along with the mission, which may result in his being exonerated, receiving an award, and retaining the simulated rank of Commander that the Navy has allowed Warden to offer the egoist. No, his conflict comes later.

We return to the POW camp and reach another interesting plot twist. In order to get the bridge done on time, Nicholson offers Saito to allow the British officers to do physical labor along with the enlisted men, if Saito allows the Japanese officers to do the same. This immediately arouses the careful viewer’s attention: wasn’t the protection of his men, including making sure that they were all treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, exactly the matter over which he fought Saito so fiercely? What strange shift in loyalties is going on in the man?

We now rejoin the commando team as it parachutes in, near the POW camp. One of the commandos is killed in the jump, but the other three — Shears, Warden, and a Canadian Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) — with the help of Thai villagers (almost all women) make it to the bridge. Warden is wounded along the way, and wants the others to leave him, but Shears insists they all push forward. When we see Shears pushing the mission forward, insisting that Warden be carried, we begin to realize that the egoist is beginning to transcend his egoism and become committed to the mission.

The group arrives at the bridge, and Warden sets up a plan. Shears and Joyce plant the explosives at night, and are to set them off in the morning, when a Japanese troop train is scheduled to pass over it.

Here we reach yet another plot turn. In the morning, the wiring to the explosives is visible, because the river lever has dropped during the night. As Nicholson and Saito are giving the project its final inspection, Nicholson sees the wires ands alerts Saito. As the train approaches, they try to stop the pending explosion. Joyce jumps out and kills Saito, and Nicholson calls out for help, meanwhile trying to prevent Joyce from reaching the detonator. Shears rushes across the river to help Joyce, but Japanese soldiers shoot both of them. It is in these ending moments, as he faces death to complete what he has now accepted as his mission, not just the mission he went along with, that we realize his loyalty has shifted completely.

Rabe was released after the war, but — unbelievably — his request for “de-Nazification” was initially denied by the British authorities.

Nicholson, recognizing Shears (“You!” he gasps) — and being thus implicitly rebuked by the sight of an egoist now committed to doing the right thing and fighting for the correct cause — at last also recognizes his duty as a British soldier. He cries out “What have I done?” as he tries to reach the detonator. On the cliff above, Warden fires his mortar, killing the two commandos and mortally wounding Nicholson, who manages to stagger over to and collapse upon the detonator. The bridge blows, taking with it the train.

The final scenes are equally compelling. Warden, who has to escape with the only remaining help he has, the Thai women, shouts at them that he had to do what he did and kill the young commandos — presumably, so that they wouldn’t be captured and forced to divulge information. The British doctor Clipton rushes out to see what has happened. As he surveys the carnage, he shakes his head and exclaims, in a voice choking with emotion, "Madness . . . Madness!” Madness, indeed — countless men were killed to build a “monument,” and more were killed to destroy it.

Now, there was some controversy about the film concerning its historical accuracy. The movie follows the book (The Bridge over the River Kwai, by French novelist Pierre Boulle, who is probably best known for his script for The Planet of the Apes) rather closely, though with one important difference that I will explore shortly. Yet the book itself was only loosely based on the real story of the Japanese Imperial Army’s construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway (also grimly named the Railway of Death) in 1942-43. The project — 260 miles of railway line connecting Bangkok and Rangoon, crossing the Mae Klong river — used primarily forced labor (called “Romusha” in Japanese). It cost the lives of upwards of 16,000 Allied POWs and 100,000 conscripted Indonesian and Malaysian laborers. The real bridge over the main river was first built out of wood, then out of steel, and was not destroyed until 1945, and then by Allied bombers, not commandos.

Moreover, there was a real British officer who worked to save the British POWs — Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Toosey. Toosey was a leader in the defense of Singapore, where he won the DSO for heroism. He refused an order to evacuate in order to remain with his men in captivity. By complaining against their mistreatment even at the cost of being beaten, and by negotiating cleverly, he was able to improve their living conditions. After the war he was a devoted exponent for helping the veteran far-eastern POWs.

Toosey was apparently little like the fictional Colonel Nicholson, and was certainly not a collaborator. In fact, he encouraged secret sabotage, such as deliberately mixing the cement improperly and infesting the wooden trestles with termites. The novelist Pierre Boulle, who had actually been a POW in Thailand, said that he based the character of Nicholson on his memories of a number of French officers who had collaborated with the Japanese.

Again, there really was a Saito. But the real Saito — Risaburo Saito — was a Sergeant-Major who was only second in command of a POW camp. More importantly, the real Saito was viewed by the POWs as relatively reasonable and humane. In a war crimes trial, Toosey spoke in Saito’s defense, and the two formed a friendship.

However, while the film is not faithful to reality, I would contend that it is better off for not being that way. It is, after all, a fictional feature film, not a documentary. Specifically, the film departs from reality in a way that highlights the conflicts in the protagonist, helping us think about the source and nature of collaboration.

Normally, a person who collaborates in war does so out of simple egoism. By cooperating with the enemy, he typically furthers his self-interest: he gets better food, easier work, a place in the new power structure, or merely money (thirty pieces of silver, perhaps). But Nicholson clearly is not initially acting out of self-interest. His willingness to endure being boxed in “the oven” shows that.

No, Nicholson’s loyalty to his troops and his military code of conduct are what make him want to build a “proper” bridge as a way to keep discipline and morale up, which would help the men survive in a harsh environment. Although some of his officers wonder whether this is collaboration, Nicholson’s decision is reasonable.

Nevertheless, as the work progresses Nicholson loses his moral focus, as his loyalty shifts to the project itself, and his growing — what? friendship? mutual admiration? or simply partnership? — with Saito. The tip-off scene is when he and Saito are inspecting the completed project, and Nicholson starts musing about how one day the war will be over, and this project will be left as a kind of monument.

At this point, Nicholson's loyalty is shifting from his men to the man with whom he is collaborating, and possibly to himself — to concern for his later reputation, i.e., self-aggrandizement. The viewer sees this in the scene where Nicholson suddenly requires that his officers start working alongside the enlisted men — the very thing that, earlier, he had opposed so strongly that he was willing to be put in “the oven.” This morally indefensible shift in perspective leads him to help, at first, to expose the plan to destroy the bridge. Only towards the end, when the sight of the egoist Shears fighting for the right military objective shakes him to his senses, does Nicholson recover the proper moral perspective.

This scene was not in the book, which ends with the commandos trying to blow up the bridge but only succeeding in derailing the train; Nicholson has no hand in any of it. Boulle was not in favor of the change in plot — though he liked the movie on the whole — but I am convinced that Lean’s instinct was right. It creates two characters who are internally complex, with loyalties that shift subtly through the film, forcing us to try to understand their motives.

The critical acclaim for this film was unprecedented. It won Oscars for Best Picture (Sam Spiegel), Best Director (Lean), Best Actor (Guinness), Best Cinematography (Jack Hilyard), Best Music Score (Malcolm Arnold), Best Film Editing (Peter Taylor), and Best Writing/Screenplay (Pierre Boulle, with blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson added in 1984). Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Madness, indeed — countless men were killed to build a “monument,” and more were killed to destroy it.

Additionally, the film won BAFTA awards for Best British Film, Best British Actor (Guinness), Best British Screenplay (Boulle), and Best Film from Any Source. The film won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture (Drama), Best Motion Picture Director, and Best Motion Picture Actor (Drama) (Guinness). Again, Hayakawa was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. Lean won the Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. And the film score copped a Grammy.

All this critical acclaim was well deserved, in my view. The movie was one of only a comparative handful of movies — several of which are works by David Lean — that I would point to as working on all three levels on which a film can work: the philosophic, the literary, and the aesthetic. (I discussed this terminology in my review of The Lost City, in the December 2006 Liberty.) At the philosophic level, the level of ideas, the film is an interesting exploration of codes of military honor and the nature of collaboration with the enemy. At the literary level, the level of plot and character, the movie gives us some unforgettable images of characters, such as an inwardly weak Japanese martinet, an egoist out for survival in a brutal environment, and a morally flawed though strong officer. And at the aesthetic level, the level of the sight and sound of the work, you have really masterful cinematography and an unforgettable score.

Moreover, the acting just couldn’t get any better. Alec Guinness — always a favorite actor of Lean’s and appearing in most of his flicks — is just perfect as the hidebound Nicholson. Although Guinness was troubled by the project — he thought that the movie had an anti-British flavor — he gave a fine performance. In fact, he thought that the scene in which his character is released from the oven and staggers forward was the best acting in his career (he had modeled the movements on those of his son who was afflicted by polio).

And William Holden, who could play the egoist and reluctant warrior well (as shown in his other fine war pictures, Stalag 17 and The Bridges at Toko-Ri) was perfect in this flick.

Also noteworthy is the performance of Jack Hawkins as Major Warden, the commando squad leader. Warden portrays a martinet, but bereft of any inner conflicts. When he is wounded, he doesn’t want to be carried by the Thai women, because it endangers the mission. Ironically, it is the egoist Shears who forces him to accept help. At the end, he has no compunction about blowing up both Shears and Joyce, as the Thai women — who function in the scene as a kind of Greek chorus — stare at him in horror. He is totally focused on the mission, and feels no conflicts about anything he has to do to accomplish it.

But especially noteworthy in support is the performance by Sessue Hayakawa as the conflicted Saito, a character at once militaristic and vulnerable, even brittle.

A few comments about this historically fascinating actor are in order. Hayakawa was born Kintaro Hayakawa in Japan in 1889. He was the scion of a military man, and was groomed to become an officer in the Japanese Navy. But he ruptured his eardrum in a swimming dare as a teenager. This led his father to feel bitterly disappointed in him. He himself was led to feel a profound sense of shame before his father, and he attempted seppuku, stabbing himself in the abdomen 30 times. Had his father not broken down the door to the room in which he was attempting suicide and taken him to a hospital, he would have died. I suspect that this aspect of his personal background is what lends such credibility to Saito’s contemplation of the act in the movie.

Hayakawa, as a young adult, made his way to America in 1911, studying economics at the University of Chicago, but then getting into acting. He rapidly became a silent screen star. His pictures between the mid-1910s and the late 1920s were hugely popular, both in the U.S. and Europe, putting him in the same class as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolf Valentino. (In fact, Hayakawa often played the exotic lover, a role he explored before Valentino arrived on the scene.) At his peak in the 1920s, Hayakawa was clearing $2 million a year from his film work (helped by the fact that he was one of the first actors who formed his own production company). This stellar background in silent cinema made him a fine visual actor, though a restrained one (he attributed his restraint to his Zen training), which talent he used to great effect in this movie.

Hayakawa’s personal and professional life was full of conflict. After moving to America in disgrace, he made a brilliant early career in Hollywood, but with the rise of talkies (along with anti-Japanese sentiment in America) in the 1930s, he went abroad to work in theatre and film. Ironically, he was never really popular in Japan. His early performances as the exotic Asian lover didn’t suit the Japanese audiences, which were very eager to embrace everything American. Later in his career, these audiences — at that point rejecting America — rejected him as too Americanized.

He was in France in the late 1930s, filming a movie, and when the Germans occupied the country in 1940, he was essentially trapped there. Hayakawa didn’t just sit around and dream of past glories: he lived as a professional artist, selling his watercolor paintings, while also working with the Resistance, helping to save downed Allied airman. He proved his loyalty by his actions.

In the late 1940s, he was offered work again in Hollywood, starting with Humphrey Bogart’s production Tokyo Joe, and then Three Came Home, a film based on the true story of a woman held in a Japanese POW camp (with Hayakawa playing the camp commander).

His performance in Bridge on the River Kwai well deserved an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and he considered it his best acting in a career spanning 80 movies.

Let’s close by returning a comment I made earlier, when I said that the famous All About Eve was of a genre that Hollywood studios called “women’s movies.” But it was a great film — one that transcended a particular genre of entertainment to say things of great interest to people generally. War movies were (and are), like detective and action flicks, generally considered “Men’s Movies.” They are normally just a genre of entertaining movies aimed at a target audience. But when they work at their best, they too can transcend the genre to arrive at universal interest.

I contend that the four movies I have discussed are great and transcendent in this way. And at the core of them, what makes them fascinating is the way their protagonists sort through conflicting duties, of the kind that W.D. Ross well understood and analyzed. But in identifying these four films, I know I have only scratched the surface. The conflicts I have discussed are central to the storylines of many great films, and many great works of literature as well. This is, indeed, a very broad and deep subject.

Editor's Note: Films discussed: “The Enemy Below.” 20th Century Fox, 1957, 98 minutes. “Decision Before Dawn.” 20th Century Fox, 1951, 119 minutes. “John Rabe.” Hofmann & Voges Entertainment, Majestic Filmproduktion, 2009, 134 mins. “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Columbia Pictures, 1957, 161 mins.

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Beyond the Textbooks


One of the curious things about business ethics texts is that they tend to focus on puzzling moral issues, such as whether monitoring emails on the job is wrong, or when is it morally permissible to blow the whistle on an employer. They usually spend little time on the notion of character and the problem of giving in to temptation.

This is curious to me. Most cases of unethical behavior in business — or in family life, religious life, government, or any other institution built with the crooked timber of humanity — are not cases in which the evil-doer acted wrongly because he couldn’t figure out what was right. Much more often, they are cases in which someone put the morally right aside because the wrong just feels so good.

Does anyone seriously believe that Bernie Ebbers defrauded investors in WorldCom because he didn’t understand that fraud is morally and legally unacceptable? Or that when Ken Lay and the smart guys at Enron defrauded their investors, they were somehow unaware that hiding debt in offshore, off-the-books entities was actually fraud? No, these perps did what they did because it gave them what they wanted (wealth, power and prestige), and they thought they could get away with it.

This phenomenon of succumbing to temptation despite your moral understanding is at the heart of an excellent movie now available on DVD.

Good is based on a 1981 stage play of the same name by C.P. Taylor. It tells the story of John Halder, a modest, mild-mannered literature professor in a German university in the 1930s, when the Nazis were consolidating their power. Halder writes a novel that portrays euthanasia in a romantic, favorable way. The subtheme of euthanasia plays out in a personal way for Halder as he struggles to care for his mother, who suffers from dementia. The novel is seized upon by the Nazis, for whom “compassionate euthanasia” of such people is a step toward finding a “final solution of the Jewish problem.” Propaganda minister Josef Goebbels first flatters and then bribes Halder into letting the Nazis make a film from his book. They enable Halder to move ahead in his career.

As this proceeds, we see how Halder is corrupted step by step. He leaves his wife and children for a beautiful young student. He joins the Party and is even given a token position in the SS (which liked to have a few academics on its roster for the sake of appearances). He is rewarded with the chairmanship of his department.

Halder’s systematic seduction and corruption are pointed out to him by his Jewish friend Maurice Gluckstein, who explains to him what the Nazis are doing to their country and to his own character. But Halder is able to maintain his self-image as a Good Man, even as his corruption evolves. He watches while Gluckstein is harassed and menaced more and more by the Nazi regime.

When Halder finally tries to help Gluckstein leave Germany, Halder’s new wife betrays his friend.  Halder discovers this, and by using his SS rank and his wiles, discovers and manages to get into the concentration camp to which Gluckstein has been condemned, hoping to free his friend. Here he is finally forced to recognize both the moral reality of the regime of which he has been a willingly blind supporter, and the degraded nature of his own character.

The acting in this insightful movie is uniformly good. Especially notable in support are Adrian Schiller as the cynical Josef Goebbels, and Jason Isaacs as the morally clear-eyed Maurice Gluckstein. The exchanges between Halder and Isaacs’ Gluckstein are among the best scenes in the movie. Viggo Mortensen is simply superb as the morally blind John Halder. The handsome Mortensen could have made a career playing nothing but roles such as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, yet he has gone out of his way to take on edgier roles, such as the gangster Nikolai in Eastern Promises and the unnamed father in The Road. Mortensen plays Halder perfectly.

Vicente Amorim’s direction is outstanding as well, getting just the right balance of passion and restraint from the cast. And the cinematography is beautifully done.

This is a thought-provoking film, one well worth renting or purchasing as a holiday gift for your most thoughtful friends.

Editor's Note: Review of "Good," directed by Vicente Amorim. Miromar Entertainment, 2008, 96 minutes.

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