Law and Morality in Breaking Bad: The Aesthetics of Justice

David Koepsell Walt Fought the Law

Walter White is an average, middle-class American who has apparently no history of breaking the law, much less any norms or conventions of civil society at the beginning of Breaking Bad. In a short time, through pressures both external and internal, Walter becomes a lawbreaker, and slips well into the abyss of both criminal and moral degradation. Walt’s journey affords us an opportunity to investigate the relations, if any, between what we refer to as “morality” (the pursuit of the good) and the law. Of course, the law is the secular, civil institution that is often considered to be properly used to enforce shared moral principles. The project is aided by the fact that built into its narrative are characters and situations in which tensions between what is right and what is legal are made explicit, notably including the relationship between Walt and his brother-in-law, Hank, who happens to be a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent, and who is also unwittingly searching “Heisenberg,” his brother-in-law Walt’s notorious alter-ego. Later in the series, we gain additional insight into distinctions and vagueness between the good and the legal through the character of attorney Saul Goodman, whose evolution into a shady lawyer is now the subject of its own series. Indeed, as I argue in this essay, literary or dramatic figures like Walt and Hank may offer us some insight into the tricky problem of understanding the notion of justice, perhaps even better than do various theories of justice.

One of the philosophical questions at the heart of Breaking Bad is, “Do the moral justifications for Walt’s actions outweigh the illegality of what he has chosen to do?” Wrapped up with this question are dozens of related practical

D. Koepsell (H)

UAM-Xochimilco, Mexico City, Mexico © The Author(s) 2017

K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_7

and philosophical problems that complicate the answer to the fundamental question of Walt’s ethics, just as in the real-world the discussions of the relations of law to morality are dynamic and complex. Fiction and life are filled with questions about the contrasts or intersections of law and morality, such as Victor Hugo’s epic treatise in the form of Les Miserables, in which we are forced to confront the injustice of blind obedience to law against the backdrop of eventual, violent revolution.

Breaking Bad’s backdrop is more mundane: recessionary Middle America, pre-Obamacare and in the midst of a mid- and south-western meth epidemic. Walter White is no Jean Valjean, a character who, following an unjust and long jailing for a minor theft, attempts to walk the straight and narrow and succeeds for years. Rather, the legal and social climate that Walt inhabits, as well as various cultural baggage, leads him from a nebbishy family life to drug kingpin. We might well ask whether the circumstances Walt was faced with, both personal and cultural, suggest some ambiguity about Walt’s ethical choices in light of the legal climate and its various problems. In order to put this into the context of the age-old philosophical debate, let’s first examine some theories about the relationship between law and morality in the context of the central dilemma posed by the series.

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