Why should we act morally? Why should we ‘do the right thing’ if we could do the wrong thing and get away with it? Imagine a situation where you find yourself able to get something that you desperately desire, provided you lie, steal, or perhaps even murder. Would you do it? Why? Why not? Is the only reason we ever act in accordance with justice due to our fear of being caught and punished? These are some of the questions addressed in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Plato, in the second book of the Republic, has Glaucon put forward a particular view of justice and morality:
They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice.
Now that those who practice justice do so involuntarily and because they have not the power to be unjust will best appear if we imagine something of this kind: having given both to the just and the unjust power to do what they will, let us watch and see whither desire will lead them; then we shall discover in the very act the just and unjust man to be proceeding along the same road, following their interest, which all natures deem to be their good, and are only diverted into the path of justice by the force of law. The liberty which we are supposing may be most completely given to them in the form of such a power as is said to have been possessed by Gyges the ancestor of Croesus the Lydian. According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and re ascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet [decorative front of the ring] outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom. Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”
Here then, we find Plato’s famous ‘Ring of Gyges’ thought experiment. Some may see the similarities between Plato’s tale and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings – a magical ring of invisibility which draws the wearer towards evil. The film that I would like to consider though, in the light of the above excerpt, is Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Crimes and Misdemeanors involves two narrative strands. The first involves Judah (Martin Landau), a wealthy ophthalmologist and family man, who has been engaged in an affair for several years with Dolores. When Dolores threatens to reveal the affair, along with Judah’s financial indiscretions, unless he leaves his wife, Judah is faced with a choice – to accept responsibility for his actions or to accept his brother Jack’s offer to have Dolores killed. The second strand involves Cliff (Allen), an unhappily married unsuccessful filmmaker. Cliff falls in love with another woman, Halley, but she rejects him because he is married. Both characters finally meet at the end of the film and Judah presents his story to Cliff as an imaginary film plot.
There are, in the film, many references to eyes and seeing. Judah himself is an ophthalmologist who, early in the film, relays how his father told him that “the eyes of God are on us always”. In addition to these references to seeing and being seen, the basic argument put forward by Glaucon – that our self-interest may be best served by our acting unjustly – is considered through the film’s plot treatment.
In the film, there are a number of crucial relationships: in particular, Judah’s relationships with Ben, the Rabbi, and his brother, Jack. Ben and Jack may be considered as the two sides of Judah, which Judah is attempting to reconcile. He himself, prior to Dolores’ ultimatum, falls somewhere between the just and unjust man, guilty of ‘misdemeanours’ perhaps, but in no way as immoral as his brother Jack. Ben may also be considered as representative of Judah’s conscience (here, Ben’s gradual loss of sight throughout the course of the film is revealing). In an imagined conversation with Ben, Judah says that “God is a luxury I can’t afford”. Ben replies, “Now you’re talking like your brother Jack.” “Jack lives in the real world,” Judah continues. “You live in the kingdom of heaven. I manage to keep free of that real world, but suddenly it’s found me.” It is worth considering what this ‘real world’ that Judah speaks of is? Why does his brother, Jack, inhabit the real world and how has Judah managed to avoid it for so long?
The relationship between Judah and Jack is, in my view, particularly fascinating. We see both brothers as young men when Judah visits his childhood home and remembers/ imagines a conversation at the dinner table. Here we witness, as do the younger Judah and Jack, an argument between an aunt and their father, Saul. The aunt’s position is that put forward by Glaucon, that ‘might makes right’. She states that if you can do something, and get away with it, and choose not to be bothered by the ethics, then so be it. In contrast, Saul’s position is that ‘murder will out’, whether you are caught or not, “that which originates from a foul deed, will blossom in a foul manner”. It is interesting to consider what effect this conversation may have had on young Judah and his brother Jack. Towards the end of this important scene, an uncle asks Judah’s father, “And if all your faith is wrong, Saul, I mean just what if?” The father answers, “Then I’ll still have a better life than all those that doubt.” The aunt asks, “Do you mean that you prefer God to the truth?” The father responds, “If necessary I will always choose God over truth.” Why would someone knowingly choose religious faith over truth?
In relation to the second (minor) narrative strand, what are we to make of the relationships between Cliff, Halley, and Lester, and how does this second strand relate to the first? We can also think about the particular philosophy of Louis Levy, and what bearing this might have on the story. Finally, does Crimes and Misdemeanors validate or refute Glaucon’s argument that our self-interest is best served by our acting unjustly? What are your views on the topic? Is justice worth following for its own sake or might we sometimes profit by acting unjustly?