(Im)Morality in Action
Travis Dyk and Adam Barkman
Marcus Aurelius once said, “Injustice is not always associated with action. Usually it is an inaction.”1 This statement raises the question: “do we have a moral obligation to help those who are suffering?” Conversely, it may seem straightforwardly correct to say that it is morally wrong to actively harm others, but Breaking Bad asks its viewers to consider whether is it wrong to know of suffering and do nothing. Is it possible that allowing someone to die could be morally equivalent to the act of killing? Breaking Bad's characters are often put into unique situations in which they are forced to choose between helping someone or leaving them to deal with the consequences alone. The most prominent depiction of this conflict within Breaking Bad is whether Walt's decision to allow Jane to die (“Phoenix”) is just as immoral as his killing Mike (“Say My Name”). The way in which obligations seem to be measured throughout Breaking Bad is through civil law, results of actions, the intentions of an action, and the ability of the person to act in light of their choices.
Before jumping into moral obligations, it has to be established whether or not people, in this case the characters in Breaking Bad, live in a deterministic or libertarian world in regards to free will.2
In a deterministic world, a person has no ultimate control over what they may do. Determinists believe that the events of the past have built up so that whatever action a person commits, it is the only action they were ultimately able to commit. In contrast, a libertarian world is a world in which a person is
Redeemer University, Hamilton Ontario, CA A. Barkman (H)
Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada © The Author(s) 2017
K.S. Decker et al. (eds.), Philosophy and Breaking Bad, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40343-4_11
able to will against compelling causes. Libertarians believe that a person can genuinely choose between two or more options.
Aurelius certainly sounds like a libertarian since he believes that without the ability to choose one’s actions, morality is meaningless. He believed if people were only able to do one thing in every choice situation—the one thing that the causal structure of the universe set up for them—their actions could not be moral or immoral, they would simply be. Breaking Bad toys constantly with the concept of free will, going back and forth about whether or not it exists in a robust or meaningful sense.
The first instance in support of a compatibilist world in the Breaking Bad universe comes when Walt and Jesse flip a coin. The coin is tossed to decide who has to deal with Krazy-8 and who has to dissolve his cousin Emilio’s body in sulphuric acid (“Cat’s in the Bag...”). Whoever loses the flip is in charge of getting rid of Krazy-8, a task which neither party particularly wants. If a coin decides what they do, neither Jesse nor Walt has control over what happens; they just have to act on what probability has decided from the result of the flip. To further this point, Jesse calls the toss “sacred,” and despite Walt’s struggle to decide if killing Krazy-8 is right, Jesse constantly asks him if he’s done it yet, never asking if he intends to go through with it. This lack of options Jesse presents means he believes Walt does not have an option in the matter. Walt then proceeds to make a list of options to determine if killing Krazy-8 is the moral thing to do. The only objection Walt has to killing him at this point is that there is a probability that Krazy-8 will come after his family for revenge. Some of the principles that Walt has against killing Krazy-8 are for the “sanctity of life” and that “murder is wrong” (“.And the Bag’s in the River”). It becomes clear that Walt thinks he has made the moral decision to let Krazy-8 go. As fate would have it, he ends up having to kill Krazy-8 in self-defense, nullifying all of his planning and his decision. This suggests that no matter how much Walt took morality into the equation, he had no choice but to follow a certain path toward killing Krazy-8.
The concept of a “sacred” coin toss is raised on two more occasions throughout the series. The next time it is mentioned is when Walt and Jesse are first planning to meet Saul, and they are deciding who should go (“Better Call Saul”). Walt loses the flip and once again is forced to do things that he has no desire to do. Again this shows that he has to follow the path set out before him. The final instance of the sacred coin flip is much different than the first two, and will be discussed later.
Breaking Bad again suggests that its characters live in a world in which they have to follow the single path that lies ahead; when a fly gets into the meth lab under Gus’s industrial laundry, Walt spends an excruciating amount of time trying to kill the fly so that it doesn’t “contaminate” their cook. When he can’t kill it, he breaks down and tries to explain to Jesse how the world is just a bunch of subatomic particles moving around, completely at random, and he has no way to control it (“Fly”). While this is a good reference to why he chose his nickname, Heisenberg,3 it also shows two important things about Walt’s worldview.
First, Walt believes everything about life is out of his control, and in fact is determined by material causation on a grand scale. This is demonstrated in a flashback conversation between him and Gretchen Schwartz (“...And the Bag’s in the River”). The two are trying to determine the full chemical makeup of a human being. After determining all the elements and the percentage of the body they make up, they realize that despite it all being there, they only ended up with 99.888042 percent of the total body mass. While trying to figure out what they are missing, Gretchen asks about the soul. Walt laughs and tells her that they are working on chemistry, and there is no such thing as a soul. This, we should note, is in stark contrast to Marcus Aurelius, who identifies the soul as the human; for him, the human soul is that which is most perfectly connected with higher Nature .4 According to Aurelius, at least, Nature intended for human souls—those who are capable of higher knowledge and acting on this higher knowledge—to live morally pure lives.
A second scene in which the characters appear to have no control over their lives is when Walt finds out his tumor has shrunk by 80 percent. To most people this news would be more than they could have hoped for. For Walt though, this news is devastating. Ever since Walt received his diagnosis of lung cancer, everything he did was about trying to control his own life. He had everything planned out, including passing away in a few months. When he finds out that even his plan to die would be thwarted, he was livid, as shown by him furiously punching a hand drier in the bathroom (“4 Days Out”). Walt’s frustration shows that he feels that he has never really had the opportunity to control his own decisions. He, at this point, believes in the deterministic worldview, that he has absolutely no control over what happens in his life.
This idea of lack of control comes up again when Huell Babineaux and Patrick Kuby, Saul’s bodyguards, go to Ted Beneke’s house to try and force him to pay the taxes he owes (“Live Free or Die”). While they are there, Ted tries to make a run for it, but ends up tripping, hitting his head on a desk, and receiving serious injuries. Saul calls up Skyler and tells her what happened, and says they were not responsible because “it was an act of God.” This implication that things were completely out of their control and God orchestrated events to be how he wanted also adds to the show’s deterministic argument. Adding acts of God to the show’s premise enhances the shows deterministic view because if God controls people’s actions, Huell and Patrick could not be held morally responsible for harming Ted. Since God determined what would happen, no matter how Huell and Patrick acted, Ted would have been injured.
Despite the characters’ lack of control of their lives that Breaking Bad occasionally presents, it also displays instances in which they have complete control over their own lives. This begins when we get the final “sacred” coin toss. Unlike the first two that were discussed previously, where the characters follow what the coin determines, this time the character decides to go against the results. This occurs when Skyler becomes afraid of who Walt is becoming, grabs their daughter Holly, and flees town. She arrives at the corner of where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, where she then flips a coin to decide which state to run to (“Cornered”). The first flip lands in Colorado, and unhappy with this, Skyler flips the coin again. Once again it lands in Colorado. Skyler takes her foot and nudges the coin into New Mexico, and she turns around and drives back home. Skyler makes her own choices. The “sacred” coin toss told her she had to go one way, but she decided not to follow it. This begins to suggest a more libertarian view of the Breaking Bad universe: one where the characters are free to make their own decisions.
However, the two differing ideas about freedom represented by determinism and libertarianism clash when Walt encounters a man who is also waiting at the cancer treatment center (“Hermanos”). Both of these men have cancer, but they view the fact in very different terms. The man Walt sees there not only believes that he has no control over the events of his life, he also seems to find comfort in it. He tells Walt that “Man makes plans, and God laughs.” What he is implying is that no matter how much we try and control our lives, in the end our plans don’t matter. After the incident with Krazy-8, it would make sense for Walt to believe this to be true. Walt had spent days figuring out if he should let Krazy-8 go, but after all his planning, he had to reverse his original decision. However, Walt immediately challenges the man on this concept, and tells the man that only he has control over his life. According to Walt, every life ends in death, but until he hears the news that that time has come, he will control every aspect of his life. Walt summarizes it with “Who’s in charge? Me.” Walt is saying that no matter what happens in his life, he is fully in charge, and nothing really matters besides that. Life can throw anything his way, but it does not matter, because he will have a hand in the outcome. It is at this point that Walt has rejected determinism.
Ironically, Walt contradicts himself by saying that every life ends in death. Walt can believe that he has full control over his own life, but with the possibility of death at any moment, he loses full control. This idea of full control also lends itself to a kind of moral subjectivity. For someone to have full control of their own life, they would have to also be able to control what morality is to them. To the extent to which a person’s morality can be decided by outside factors like social mores or fear of the law, this would mean that they had less than full control. If these outside forces began to shape a person’s moral compass, that would mean that social mores and a fear of the law are aspects of that person’s life.
The idea of controlling your own morality is brought up once more when Jesse is at his recovery meeting (“Problem Dog”). The counselor of the group tells people that to recover from their addictions they simply need to accept who they are and stop hating themselves. The implication of this way of life is that the things you have done are only weighing you down because you feel they are wrong. If you could just accept that you have done them, they would not seem so bad. After being told this theory several times, Jesse begins to question this way of thinking. He finally asks the counselor, “If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point?” If you can just act terribly, Jesse thinks, and think there is nothing wrong with that, and if there are no consequences to actions, does anything one does really matter? If there are no consequences to our actions, then what we do would have no bearing on anyone else because despite our best efforts, other people could simply negate our actions. They would then be able to carry on without your actions influencing them. For a person to have full control over their own life would mean that other people’s actions would not influence them. This is where Breaking Bad begins to steer away from the libertarian idea of having complete control over one’s life.
Toward the finale of the show, Walt ends up rejecting this concept of complete control as well. After everything he has done, all the work he’s put into covering up his actions, the Drug Enforcement Administration still finds out he is cooking meth. Walt still ends up, by himself, in a lonely cabin in the middle of a forest (“Granite State”). He has only a portion of the money that he had, and his family despises him. He calls the DEA from a bar, to turn himself in, but while he’s waiting for the police to arrive, he hatches a plan on how to get the money to his family. He hides in a snow covered car and waits for the police officers to go inside the bar. While waiting, Walt utters a quick prayer “Just get me home, just get me home, and I will do the rest.” Whether Walt is praying to God, or just asking fortune for a favor, he has finally realized that he’s not entirely in control of his own life. Some of life is left up to chance, or a divine plan. There is a combination of control and chance. Yet, Walt is still in control of what happens, in this instance, after he gets home.
This view of the world, where life is controlled both by people and fortune, is the sort espoused by Machiavelli, who writes, “Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”5 This line of thinking goes along perfectly with how Walt’s life is portrayed. Walt’s life spirals out of his control when he is diagnosed with cancer and realizes he’s going to pass away, leaving his family nothing. He takes things into his own hands to make money for his family, and plans to go out with a bang. He makes the most of the opportunity to make money and keep his family safe, but again his plans are ruined by the remission of his cancer. The entire series is a struggle between what fortune throws at him and how Walt ends up responding to what appears to be fate. While fate has such a heavy influence, the characters still have the free will to attempt to control their circumstances. Therefore, in the Breaking Bad universe, people can still control some of their own actions, and so according to Marcus Aurelius’ thinking about moral responsibility, morality does play a factor in the lives of these characters.6
Now that we know that moral standards apply to action in the Breaking Bad universe, it needs to be determined whether a failure to act can be immoral. If inaction in some circumstances is immoral, then according to Aurelius, the just thing, and therefore what we should do, is respond with the correct action.
This supports the idea of there being moral obligations toward action. We see a strong depiction of this when Walt is teaching his chemistry class about “chirality” to his students (from the Greek word chiral, meaning “hands”). The hands are mirror images of each other, and so, chirality in chemistry refers to mirror molecules. Walt gives the chemical example of flutamide, which when ingested prevents pregnant women from getting morning sickness. He then mentions that the chiral compound of flutamide (dimethylamine) had been used for the same purpose until people realized that it was causing babies to be born with birth defects (“Cat’s in the Bag...”).
While the mention of dimethylamine is a nice foreshadowing of Walt’s future plans, this concept of mirrors can be paralleled to action versus inaction. Walt goes so far as to say that the mirror chiral compounds can be seen as “active, inactive; good, bad.” This suggests that being active is good, and being inactive is bad. If you come across someone you know needs help, you are obliged to help them because being inactive in that situation would be, as Walt hints, bad.
Is this always the case though? Is allowing someone to die, someone who you could have saved, always wrong? Walt faces this question when he breaks into Jesse’s apartment (“Phoenix”). He is trying to help him get over his drug addiction, and in turn, get him back into cooking meth. When Walt gets into the apartment, he finds Jesse and his girlfriend, Jane, unconscious, and high on heroin. Walt tries to wake Jesse up, to talk to him, but with no avail. He is about to give up and leave, when Jane starts to choke on her own vomit. Walt moves in to try and save her, but then hesitates, leaving her to die. According to our application of his own idea of chirality, his inactivity would be considered wrong.
To counter this argument that Walt’s inaction is immoral, one could claim that according to our civil law, it is not clearly wrong for Walt to leave her to die. While murdering someone is clearly in defiance of the laws in place, many countries have nothing in their laws about not trying to save a life. Breaking Bad makes it clear that “positive” or politically enacted laws do not demand the same thing as moral laws.
In fact, one of the themes that gets brought up repeatedly throughout the series, most notably in the first season, is how arbitrary positive law can be at times. In “A-No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” Walt and his DEA brother-in-law, Hank, are sitting in Walt’s backyard. Hank offers Walt a Cuban cigar, which at this time is illegal in the United States. Walt points out that it’s odd where lawmakers draw the line. He notes that, if they had been drinking the alcohol they had with them in the 1930s, they would be breaking the law. He then begins to ponder what will be legal next year, and Hank mentions that meth used to be an over-the-counter drug commonly sold in drug stores. What this scene is pointing out is that laws can be based almost entirely on how people of a particular time period think. Moral theorists point out that this constant change and fluctuation means that one can’t base a consistent moral standard of right and wrong on a country’s laws. If one did, then what is morally right in one country could be considered wrong in another country. This goes back to Jesse’s argument with his rehab counselor, but on a larger scale.
At a Parent-Teacher Organization meeting with DEA agents at Walt’s school, the viewer is again asked to consider the differences between social injustice and moral injustice. At the front of the meeting is a white board with the words “Meth=Death” (“A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”). What this message is suggesting is that these two things are somehow equal, but are they? They do get equated in some situations in the show, with the morality of each being judged seemingly by the consequences that come about. Two situations in particular involve Gale Boetticher and Todd Alquist’s Uncle Jack. Both of these men find themselves in situations in which the results will be the same whether or not they commit the crimes they are asked to do. Gale, who is Walt’s new cooking partner in Season Three, is a brilliant chemist (“Sunset”). He received his B.S. and M.S. in chemistry, and could likely have gotten a job anywhere in the chemistry field. So why did he choose the life of crime? Walt wonders the same thing and asks Gale why he started cooking meth. Gale’s response is that he believes “consenting adults” should be able to get what they want, including, presumably, drugs. In fact, Gale believes he is helping society because the meth that he and Walt create is purer, and therefore less harmful than other products. By making meth in the proper way, less damage is done to human health in the long run. If meth is going to be on the street whether they cook it or not, why not cook it right and make it the best meth possible?
Uncle Jack is put into a similar situation. No matter how he acts, the outcome will be exactly the same. This occurs when Walt is looking for someone who can simultaneously murder all of Mike’s men in prison. Walt goes to Jack and tells him his plan, to which Jack replies how difficult a job it is going to be. Walt tells Jack, “It can be done, the question is, are you the one to do it?” (“Gliding Over All”). Jack gets put into a position in which Walt implies Mike’s men will be killed whether or not he is the one to do the deed. Jack executes the plan, and does it quite successfully.
In both these cases, whether Gale or Jack chooses to act, the end results would very likely have been the same. So from this perspective, it does appear that “Meth=Death.” However, there is a major difference between these characters and their situations. Throughout the show, Gale is portrayed as a largely innocent character. His death is portrayed to the viewer as tragic and unnecessary. Even Jesse wished he did not have to kill him because he believed that Gale had done nothing wrong. On the other hand, Jack is one of the show’s most heinous characters. One of the reasons that Gale is portrayed as a more sympathetic character is because he was merely involved in political injustice. While Gale just broke a law of the land, Jack, by contrast, clearly broke moral laws by murdering multiple people. The contrast of these two characters shows that “meth” does not equal “death.” The series suggests that the person cooking the meth is less heinous than the other character. It also shows that results of being active or inactive are not a firm basis to ground moral obligations. While Gale and Jack both took the path of action in their respective scenarios, if they had chosen the path of inaction, the outcome would have been the same.
A similar argument could be used to say that Walt did not have an obligation to help Jane while she was overdosing. Had Walt never been in Jesse’s apartment, Jane still would have died. Walt’s inaction can be seen as inconsequential, as the aftermath would have been the same, had he not been present. Like Gale and Jack, it did not matter whether Walt chose action or inaction.
One of the other reasons that Gale is perceived as less heinous than Jack is because of his intention. While Gale seems to be trying to help, Jack is killing people solely to make himself wealthy. Typically, we think that intention matters in morality—at least Aurelius seems to think so when he says, “In talk, mark carefully what is being said, and when action is afoot, what is being done. In the latter case, look at once to see what is purposed; and in the other, make certain what is meant.”7 He claims that when someone acts, we should try and understand why the person really did it, and when someone says something, we should figure out what they truly meant. Aurelius believed that the best way for humans to flourish was to help each other. This implies some obligation to provide assistance when one is able to.
Breaking Bad flirts with this concept as one of the main premises of the show, mostly in posing the question, “Why is Walt cooking meth?” Throughout the show he constantly tries to convince everyone, including himself, that he is doing it for his family. He does not want them to be left in crippling debt after he passes away. The viewer even hears from Walt that intentions play a huge role in what makes an action right or wrong, especially when the intentions are for the well-being of family. Walt says, “When we do what we do for good reasons, we have nothing to worry about. There’s no better reason than family” (“Hazard Pay”). This is a noble intention, and near the beginning of the show, Walt is in fact portrayed as a man of morally outstanding character, even as he breaks the law for his family. We are told that Walt “wouldn’t know a criminal if he was close enough to check [him] for a hernia” (“Crazy Handful of Nothing”). The show drives this point home, as Walt Jr. (Flynn) tells the news agency that his dad “always does the right thing” (“ABQ”). However, when it starts to become more apparent that Walt might be cooking for other reasons, his depiction shifts to a morally corrupt character, while Jesse begins to take the forefront in moral correctness. Eventually, Walt admits to Skyler that he did it because he “liked doing it, [he] was good at it, it made [him] feel alive” (“Felina”). This is where it becomes clear that Walt was no longer doing it solely for his family, but more out of selfish desire. The same can be said when Walt allows Jane to die. Walt intentionally allows Jane to die, as he hopes it will bring Jesse back under his control. Jesse had stopped cooking meth with him so that he could spend more time with Jane, and Walt believed that with her gone, Jesse would come back to him. Because of Walt’s selfish motives, we are prodded to hold him morally accountable for Jane’s death.
The idea that consequences matter less than intentions can be seen when Jesse disposes of his brother’s drugs. As Jesse is crashing at his parent’s place for a few days, their housekeeper finds a joint, and Jesse’s parents kick him out, presuming the joint belongs to him. While Jesse is waiting for a cab to leave, his brother, Jake, comes out and admits that the joint was his. Jake thanks him for taking the fall, and asks for his drugs back. Jesse proceeds to throw it on the pavement, and crushes it with his foot, telling his brother that it was “skunk weed anyway” (“Cancer Man”). Despite the fact that he plays this action off, Jesse is trying to steer Jake down the right path. Yet, despite Jesse’s efforts to keep his brother clean, Jake’s initial ability to obtain drugs in the beginning meant that he would likely be able to get them again. This implies that even with Jesse’s single effort to stop him, the results could have been exactly the same, with Jake getting more drugs down the road. The viewers never find out if Jake does get more drugs, because he is never shown or talked about in the series again. So despite our not knowing how effective Jesse was in stopping his brother from using drugs, Jesse’s action is still portrayed as the right thing to do, because his intentions were morally correct. This once again displays the show’s inclination toward portraying intentions as the moral guide over consequences.
Another factor Breaking Bad uses to determine moral obligation is the emotional impact actions have on others. If characters become emotionally distraught because of an action that could have been avoided, the show suggests that acting and preventing that action from occurring would be the just course of action. When Walt lets Jane die, only two people seem to be emotionally affected by her passing: Jesse and Jane’s father, Donald Margolis.
Jesse is clearly upset about what happened to Jane. He believes that it is his fault, and that he should have done something to save her. Jesse is so distraught that he stays in a crack house until Walt is able to convince him to check into rehab (“ABQ”). Even while at the rehab center, Jesse’s suffering continues, and he believes that he deserves everything that’s happened to him.
Donald is also afflicted by the death of Jane. After seven weeks of mourning, Donald finally goes back to work as an air traffic controller. His co-workers ask him if he is ready to be back at work, and he tells them that there is only so much he can take of just sitting at home by himself. While directing some planes, Donald accidentally calls one of the planes “Jane” instead of “Julia” (“ABQ”). He then loses focus for a moment, and two planes collide in midair. The viewer learns this crash killed 167 people (“No Mas”). This grander scale of emotional suffering—with the families and friends of the crash victims now involved—convinces the viewer that Walt should have acted to save Jane. While Jesse’s state of mind provides very little evidence of the emotional consequences of Walt’s action, the airplane crash presents the evidence clearly. The consequences of Walt’s inaction affect not only Jesse and Donald, but also hundreds more, both directly and indirectly down the line. At a nearby school, students are asked to share how they are feeling. Many students can’t sleep because of the crash, and we hear from one girl who is even questioning her faith in God. Walt might not admit it, or even realize, but the plane crash negatively affects him too. This is because “what is no good for the hive, is no good for the bee.”8
Up to this point, Breaking Bad suggests that moral obligation is not based on political laws or upon consequences of actions. It places high value on the intentions behind actions, as well as accounting for the emotional repercussions on a small and large scale. However, according to Aristotle there is more to morality than this. In fact, according to Aristotle there are situations in which trying to save someone’s life would be unjust. One of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues is courage. He believed that courage was important because it would allow a philosopher to stand up for what he deemed to be right, even in difficult situations. As with all of the Aristotelian virtues that are understood as expressing a “mean,” courage has a deficient form, as well as an excessive one. Courage’s deficiency is cowardice, while its excess is rashness. Cowardice is failure to stand up to do the just thing in the right situation. However, rashness complicates things in the moral obligation argument. According to Aristotle, acting in a “courageous” manner becomes rash when it puts oneself or others in unnecessary peril.9 This would apply in cases where there is little chance of saving a person, or in cases where action would put one’s own, or others’ lives in danger. For example, imagine you saw someone fall into a river, and begin to head toward a waterfall. If you do not know how to swim, it would be considered extremely rash if you tried to swim out and save them. Even if you were able to swim, it would be smart to weigh the options: How close are they to the falls? Do I have enough time to reach them, and if so, will I be strong enough to swim back? Therefore, trying to save a life in a rash manner is typically seen as a non-virtuous way to live, no matter how good your intentions may be.
The next thing to contemplate is whether or not someone has a moral obligation to help when they have no control or knowledge of a situation. This concept comes up in Breaking Bad when Marie blames Steve Gomez and George Merkert (head of the DEA) when Hank gets shot by the Mexican cartel. She blames Merkert for suspending Hank and taking his gun away when he needed it, and she blames Steve for not being there to support his partner. She eventually also blames Walt, because without him, Hank would have never heard of Jesse, assaulted him, and gotten his gun taken away. Little does Marie know that the cartel members were originally there to kill Walt out of revenge for Tuco’s death. All three men, Steve, Merkert, and Walt, feel extremely guilty for what they feel is their part in Hank’s injuries. However, these three also had something in common that made it impossible for them to help Hank, and that was lack of knowledge. Aurelius would argue that due to this lack of knowledge, none of them should feel guilty. When discussing why people feel guilty about different circumstances, Aurelius says, “‘Because there is an insuperable obstacle in the way.’ In that case, do not worry; the responsibility for inaction is not yours.”10 The “insuperable obstacle” in this case was not knowing an attack was coming. Since such a thing did not seem plausible for Walt, Merkert, and Steve, the men had no obligation to investigate whether or not an attack would take place. In fact, when Walt anonymously calls in that there is going to be another attack on Hank, the DEA is more than willing to do its part to keep their people safe. They send multiple units to guard Hank, for as long as they deem necessary. This shows that both parties, had they been armed with the proper knowledge, would have acted to the best of their ability to protect Hank. Therefore, since they had no ability to prevent the first attack due to an “insuperable obstacle,” they are not morally responsible for Hank’s injuries.
The final argument for morality that’s raised in Breaking Bad is that doing something to help others should be done to the best of your ability. This coincides with the old saying that “anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” This idea is portrayed in a conversation between Mike and Walt, when Mike tells Walt to take “no half measures” (“Half Measures”). But this view of morality is tainted by its uses in the show. Mike uses it to refer to a time where he should have killed a man, and Walt uses it to justify killing two people. Despite the seemingly immoral examples, the moral intention that it conveys still stands. When helping people, it is not enough to only put in a partial effort. If someone were hanging by a rope over a cliff, it is not just to pull them up halfway when you are able to pull them up all the way. Someone cannot claim that what they did was right simply because they helped a little. Of course, there may be people who only had the strength and endurance to pull the person up halfway, and those people could be seen as having done the right thing, because they put forth their best effort, despite not fully getting the victim out of their predicament. Breaking Bad tells the viewers through Mike and Walt, that if they perform an action, they must perform it to the best of their abilities.
Breaking Bad presents a variety of approaches to determining a person’s moral obligation to act. The show strongly encourages the viewer to consider if a character has the right intentions. They also need to determine if that character has the ability to act, and also if that action puts themselves or others in harm’s way. Finally, he must consider if they are causing or stopping other’s emotional suffering, and if they are acting to the best of their abilities. Aurelius would want to present one final criterion as well. How does an action or inaction impact the person who is performing it?
Of any action, ask yourself, ‘What will its consequences be to me? Shall I repent?
Before long I shall be dead and all will be forgotten; but in the meantime, if this
undertaking is fit for a rational and social being, who is under the same law as
God himself, why look for more?’11
The “consequences to self” Aurelius is referring to are similar to the emotional consequences discussed previously. They do not entail any form of personal gain that the agent might receive, but rather look at whether the action is good for the soul. As people living according to how God/nature intended us to live, we should strive to do right by them. If a person is inactive, they should ask themselves if such a life is morally right in accordance with the needs of the soul. As humans with souls, this means we do have a moral obligation to help ease others’ sufferings.
Since Breaking Bad and Aurelius both express the variety of our moral obligations, the question remains: Is allowing someone to die equivalent to killing someone? For this question, the same criteria for moral obligation can be used. In the case of Walt allowing Jane to die compared to actually pulling the trigger on Mike, the answer is, “Yes, they are equivalent.” In both cases, Walt was motivated by selfish concerns. In the scenario with Jane, it was to gain control over Jesse. Walt was fully capable of saving Jane without any chance of putting his own life or the life of anyone else in peril. In Mike’s case, it was so Walt could kill Mike’s men in prison without having to worry that Mike would come after him. Here, Walt had the choice to act in a way that would not put anyone in peril. Yet, in both cases, he chose the course that caused the most damage, both physically and emotionally.
The emotional suffering that stems from both Walt’s actions and inactions is visibly present throughout the show, as well as implied. Following Jane’s death, the emotional suffering that people went through was extremely apparent, displayed by Jesse, Jane’s father, and the mourning town. With Mike’s death, the emotional suffering is less measurable and more implied. He had a very close relationship with his granddaughter, and they both loved each other deeply. While his granddaughter is never shown after his death, it can be assumed that she went through emotional suffering caused by the disappearance of her grandfather. Since all of the criteria for judging moral obligations are equally fulfilled in both cases, allowing someone to die can be morally equivalent to murdering someone. Of course, the equivalence in this situation does not mean that all choices to let someone die or allow someone to experience suffering are equal to every action of murdering someone, or causing them suffering. One scenario in which action and inaction are not equivalent is when it would be rash to attempt to prevent suffering. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”12 Breaking Bad and Marcus Aurelius would argue that in times where you have the ability to prevent the suffering of others and you choose not to act, you are still held morally accountable for that decision.
- 1. Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983), 217.
- 2. Since Breaking Bad is a TV show and the characters have no mental life outside the script, this is merely an argument as to whether they are portrayed as having free will and to what degree.
- 3. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, coined for its theorist, Werner Heisenberg, essentially proves how subatomic particles can move, but also says that their speed and position can’t be determined during the same moment of observation.
- 4. Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, 100.
- 5. Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince (London: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1988), 35.
- 6. It could be the case, though we will not argue it, that fortune or God merely allowed Skyler the belief that she was making her own choices. The same could be said for Walt.
- 7. Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, 105.
- 8. Ibid., 104.
- 9. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925), 35.
- 10. Aurelius goes on to explain that if you make a mistake that is unfixable, and life is just not worth living anymore, you should just simply end your life. While he is filled with many great insights into the world, we would not follow him here. Walt seems to agree with us in this scenario. When he is diagnosed with cancer, it seems that he has hit an “insuperable object” that is impossible to overcome. However, we find out later the cancer was in fact treatable. Even when the cancer comes back again, Walt is still able to make the most out of it and leave his family several million dollars.
- 11. Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, 121.
- 12. Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1984), 19.