Murdering Morality with Rope

“There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

“The mere material world suggests to us no concepts of good or evil, because we can discern in it no system of grades of value.” – Alfred North Whitehead

“No known race is so little human as not to suppose a moral order so innately desirable as to have an inevitable existence. It is man’s most fundamental myth.” – Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper

“I just wanted to illustrate, in an entertaining way, that there is no God and that we’re alone in the universe, and there is nobody out there to punish you. That your morality is strictly up to you. If you’re willing to murder and you can get away with it and you can live with it, that’s fine.” – Woody Allen, on Crimes and Misdemeanors

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope stars Farley Granger and John Dall as thinly disguised versions of Leopold and Loeb, the brilliant students and self-described Übermensch who considered themselves exempt from the laws and morals of “ordinary” men, and put their philosophy into action by murdering a young boy for kicks. For them, killing a human being was just another experience, scarcely distinguishable, morally speaking, from any other action – like, say, squashing an ant. In Rope the names have changed to Phillip (Granger) and Brandon (John Dall), but the attitudes are the same. They murder a mutual acquaintance for the thrill of it, arguing that “the few are those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they’re above the traditional moral concepts. Good and evil, right and wrong, were invented for the ordinary, average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.”

Not surprisingly, the film doesn’t endorse this view. In the end, Mr. Smith himself, James Stewart, shows up brimming with moral indignation to deliver an impassioned argument against the duo’s dastardly deed, saying, “…we’re each of us a separate human being with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in. By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done. You’ve murdered! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could…”

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The message is as obvious as is it predictable: murder is wrong! Few would argue with this statement. It seems to be a self-evident truth. But is it? I’m afraid the issue isn’t so black and white. Stewart’s character believes murder is wrong. John Dall’s character believes murder is right. Who’s correct? The problem is that we cannot logically decide between these competing moral claims unless there is an objective standard of morality to which we can repair for adjudication. Only such a standard would provide us the means to resolve disputes between people whose notions of right and wrong differ. The question is, though, does such a standard of morality actually exist?

First, a few definitions are in order:

Subjective:

  • 1) Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
  • 2) Existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought.
  • 3) Proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world.

My favorite color is green. That is a subjective sentiment. That green is my favorite color need not imply that green is or should be everybody’s favorite color. It is not the “right” color, in any objective sense. Nature has not, after all, indicated a color preference.

Objective:

  • 1) Not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.
  • 2) Not dependent on the mind for existence; actual.
  • 3) Anything which actually exists, as distinguished from something thought or felt to exist.

2+2=4. That is an objective fact. Take two objects from here, two objects from there, put them together, and you have four objects. There’s no room for individual interpretation or preference. It is not right for some and wrong for others. There is only one valid answer. 2+2= 5 may be identified as an error, notwithstanding the ramblings of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, because math is not a subjective matter.

Morality

  • 1) Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
  • 2) Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character.

Murder is wrong. That is a moral claim. To which category do moral claims belong: subjective or objective? Is asserting that “murder is wrong” an objective fact like “2+2=4”, or is it a subjective sentiment like “my favorite color is green”? Is there an objective standard of morality to which we can refer to settle the matter? Or do questions of right and wrong, good and bad, fall into the subjective realm, amounting to nothing more than personal preference? I would argue that, whether we like it or not, moral claims belong squarely in the latter category.

The laws of math and logic are universally applicable. There’s no denying them. 2+2=4 is necessarily true. Furthermore, 2+2=4 was so even before the advent of humans. Let’s say a prehistoric squirrel gathers 2 nuts from under one tree, two nuts from under another tree, and then takes them all back to his nest. How many nuts does this squirrel have? He has 4, obviously. Is it any less true just because a human isn’t around to compute it? Did humans magically make 2+2=4 simply by thinking it? I don’t think so, and that’s because the laws of mathematics inhere in reality. Humans discovered mathematical laws; they didn’t invent them.

Morality doesn’t work that way. A moral claim like murder is wrong is not necessarily true. Right and wrong, good or bad, do not exist in nature. They are merely human constructs that help us get along, very much like the rules of courtesy. The universe, I’m afraid, is perfectly indifferent to morality. Whether one chooses to observe a moral rule like murder is wrong or stealing is bad is an entirely subjective matter, no more obligatory than, say, the rule instructing us not to split infinitives. Let’s say a bigger squirrel comes along and steals the smaller squirrel’s nuts. Has the bigger squirrel acted immorally? Was he “wrong” to steal the nuts? Obviously not, and that’s because the rules of morality do not inhere in reality. Humans didn’t discover moral rules; they invented them.

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Allow me to return to Rope for a moment. I’ve never been a fan of the film. Its gimmicky one-set, long-take approach is hardly conducive to Hitchcock’s strengths as a director. Hitchcock himself acknowledged this, pretty much dismissing the film as a stunt: “When I look back, I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a story…no doubt about it, films must be cut”.

Also problematic are the stilted performances, particularly Granger’s awful turn as Phillip the Boobermensch. Just about everything he does or says is a howler. Perhaps my favorite bit is when he frantically calls out to “Brandon! Brandon!” when he sees the rope hanging out of the chest which contains the body. Brandon tells him to pull it out, and Phillip whines “I can’t”, as if he were totally incapable of functioning on his own. Later, when Stewart picks up the rope, Phillip hysterically whimpers, “He’s got it! He’s got it! He knows, he knows, he knows…” I mean, jeez, couldn’t Brandon find someone better than this guy with whom to carry out the “perfect crime”?

Thematically, the film offers a conventional, noncontroversial and comforting take on morality. During Stewart’s concluding diatribe on the immorality of murder, Brandon, himself now reduced to the level of Boobermensch, mutely stands around (as only characters in films based on plays are wont to do) allowing Stewart to prattle on without offering a counterargument, as if he’s been stunned speechless by the persuasive power of Stewart’s devastating argument. (For a vastly more insightful, unsettling, and intellectually challenging exploration of the “morality of murder” see Woody Allen’s masterful Crimes and Misdemeanors).

After watching Rope I happened to notice that the Self-Styled Siren, a popular classic movie bloggerette, had posted a tribute to the late Farley Granger, which consisted mostly of a defense of the “severely underrated Rope“. Her many followers quickly chimed in with their usual assent. All very boring, frankly. No one bothered to mention anything about the heady philosophical issues at the film’s core. I mean, what an opportunity to discuss Nietzsche, morality, murder, nihilism etc.! I felt the conversation could use some livening up, and so I posted the following:

“There’s nothing wrong, objectively speaking, with snuffing out a human life, notwithstanding all of Stewart’s histrionic protestations to the contrary.”

I had to chuckle at the Siren’s response:

“Mat, I would address your objections to Rope, but the last line of your first comment has, frankly, scared me to death.”

Apparently, for the Siren, a proposition qualifies as worthy of dispute only if it preserves her cozy feelings of security and well-being. (Not that there’s anything morally wrong with that, of course). This is a woman who could tell you everything you never wanted to know about old Hollywood stars – like, say, all the juicy details of the secret love affair between Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy – but when the discussion turns to a genuinely challenging subject, particularly one that frightens her, she’ll go all mum on you. (One suspects that a CAT scan of the Siren’s brain would reveal that the region controlling appreciation for classic Hollywood movies, technically known as the hippoclassic cinebellum, is grossly overdeveloped).

But I digress. Saying “there’s nothing wrong, objectively speaking, with snuffing out a human life” is, of course, not the same as saying, “there’s nothing wrong, subjectively speaking, with snuffing out a human life.” The operative phrase here is “objectively speaking”. I don’t personally condone murder. I don’t personally like murder. I’m happy to see this prejudice of mine codified as the law of the land. I cannot provide a reason, however, why murder is objectively wrong. But there’s no shortage of folks who try to provide such a reason. I’ll now examine some of the more common arguments, and explain why I find them wanting:

The Self-Evident Argument

People often respond to the suggestion that there’s nothing objectively wrong with murder with simple incredulity. For them, apparently, the proposition that murder is wrong is self-evidently true. They might respond by saying things like, “if you don’t know why murder is wrong I really don’t know what to say to you.”

Of course, this is in fact no argument at all. Here’s one thing they might say: “murder is objectively wrong because…” If one doesn’t need a reason to justify his belief that murder is morally wrong, then neither does a murderer need a reason to justify his belief that murder is morally right. After all, murderers have their own “self-evident truths.” We’re no closer to resolving the dispute with which we started. If one person says “murder is wrong” and another says “murder is right”, how do we logically decide between these competing moral claims in the absence of an objective standard to which we can refer to settle the matter? “Because I strongly feel that murder is wrong” does not, I’m afraid, constitute an objective standard.

The Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Why should anyone necessarily adopt this rule? A sadistic murderer, for example, derives pleasure from inflicting pain on others. He values his own pleasure above all else. He considers his own pleasure to be the greatest good, and if morality is purely subjective as I am arguing, then maximizing his pleasure, which would entail torturing his victim to death, is, for him, the right thing to do. Why then should he not adopt the rule that torturing people to death is good? Why should he care about the victim? What obligates him to care for her?

Most of us find the behavior of a sadistic murderer nauseating. That is true. But unless an objective source of human worth and moral obligation exists, we have no logical grounds to say that his sadistic behavior is morally wrong. In fact, in the absence of an objective standard of morality we have to forfeit altogether our cherished notions of morally right or wrong behavior. Good and bad, right and wrong, become vacant categories. Assertions like “murder is wrong” mean nothing more than “I don’t like murder.”

Survival of the species

All animal species possess characteristics which have historically contributed to the perpetuation of their species. Humans are no different. Some attempt to infer a moral imperative from this fact. The argument goes something like this: that which preserves life, such as empathy, is good, and that which destroys life, such as murder, is bad. There are several problems with this position:

First, it commits the fallacy of trying to derive an “ought” from an “is”. That certain behaviors tend to preserve life is a fact. That we ought to behave in ways that tend to preserve life is not. The first is a truth-statement, the second a value-statement, and never the twain shall meet. You simply cannot logically derive a value from a fact.

Second, it begs the question: why is life/survival good? Millions of species have already gone extinct. Why should anyone necessarily care if the human species goes the way of the dinosaur? Why is human life any more valuable than any other animal species?

Third, it commits the naturalistic fallacy. Allow me to quote G.E. Moore:

“The survival of the fittest does not mean, as one might suppose, the survival of what is fittest to fulfill a good purpose – best adapted to a good end: at the last, it means merely the survival of the fittest to survive: and the value of the scientific theory just consists in showing what are the causes which produce certain biological effects. Whether these effects are good or bad, it cannot pretend to judge.”

Just because something is “natural” doesn’t make it “good” (or “bad”, for that matter). Often that which preserves life also destroys life. Aggression, no less than empathy, is a characteristic which has facilitated human survival. Vanquishing entire tribes of people has generally been successful throughout human prehistory and recorded history. Just ask the descendants of the North American Indian – if you can find any. The point is that one has to be awfully selective when attempting to base his morality on what evolution has wrought. After all, the “better angels of our nature” evolved right alongside the “fallen” ones.

God

There’s no way around it: the implications of atheism lead inevitably to moral nihilism.  I do think that God, were he to exist, would qualify as an objective source of moral values (though even this is debatable), since, being omniscient, he would presumably know infallibly what is good and what is bad. But first his existence would need to be demonstrated. Good luck.

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So let’s take this full circle back to Rope. Here’s the full text of Stewart’s concluding monologue:

“You’ve given my words a meaning I’ve never dreamed of. And you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder. Well, they never were that, Brandon. You can’t make them that. There must have been something deep inside of you from the very start that let you do this thing. But there’s always been something deep inside me that would never let me do it. Tonight you’ve made me ashamed of every concept I ever had of superior or inferior beings. And I thank you for that shame. Because now I know that we’re each of us a separate human being, Brandon, with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in. By what right do you dare say that there’s a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave? Well, I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done. You’ve murdered! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could…”

Stewart, playing Rupert Cadell, delivers this entire monologue uninterrupted. Brandon and Phillip, the two supposed Übermensch, just stand around like dimwits as Stewart rants. I thought it might be fun to imagine what Brandon might have said and done, were he not such a Boobermensch, in response to Stewart’s diatribe. The following, then, is my re-write of this scene:

Rupert Cadell
You’ve given my words a meaning I’ve never dreamed of. And you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder.

Brandon
Hey, Mr. Smith, we’re not in Washington anymore. No filibustering here. If you think I’ll allow you to go off on a rant against me unchallenged you’re gravely mistaken. First of all, I don’t need an excuse to commit murder. I did it for the same reason I do anything: I wanted to. I felt like doing it and I did it. Secondly, it wasn’t ugly. Au contraire:  it was a thing of beauty. You haven’t lived until you’ve strangled the life out of someone, my friend. It’s a fucking rush. You oughta try it some time.

The bluntness with which Brandon discusses the murder flusters Rupert. Trying to regain his composure he faces Brandon with all the courage he can muster and, with righteous indignation, says:

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Rupert
The name’s not Mr. Smith! It’s Rupert Cadell!

Brandon
I stand corrected. Is that it? Are you done? Is that all you have to say?

Rupert
No, that’s not all I have to say! I have much more to say! Much more! And by the time I’m finished saying it…

Brandon slaps Rupert on the cheek.

Brandon
Well, say it, man! Say it!

Rupert
There must have been something deep inside of you from the very start that let you do this thing. But there’s always been something deep inside of me that would never let me do it.

Brandon slaps Rupert on the other cheek for good measure.

Brandon
Ok, so we’ve established that we both have something deep inside of us. That’s a sure sign that what we’re discussing here is a purely subjective matter. The something deep inside of me says that murder is good. The something deep inside of you says that murder is bad. Without an objective standard of morality, this just means that I like murder, and you don’t. So what? I like chocolate. You don’t. What’s your point?

Rupert (whimpering)
Please stop slapping me. It hurts.

Brandon
Ok, sorry, I’ll stop slapping you.

Rupert (relieved)
Thank you.

Brandon delivers a punishing right hook to the side of Rupert’s head. Rupert crumples to the floor.

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Brandon
Does that feel any better? I repeat: what’s your goddamn point?

Rupert struggles back to his feet.

Rupert
Ok, ok. We’re each of us a separate human being, Brandon, with the right to live and work and think as individuals, but with an obligation to the society we live in.

Brandon delivers a crushing haymaker straight to Rupert’s nose. Rupert cries out in agony, blood spraying like a geyser from his broken nose.

Brandon
Sorry, Roopy, but the impulse to stay alive is not a “right.” “Rights” don’t exist in nature. “Human rights” is a purely man-made concept which has no basis in reality. If you want to pretend you have a “right” to live go right ahead, but don’t expect me to. That boy in there had no more inherent right to live than anyone or anything else does. I didn’t violate his “right” to live because he didn’t have one.

Rupert (struggling to get up on one knee)
By what right do you dare…?

Before Rupert can finish the question, Brandon wallops him with a devastating uppercut to the chin, knocking Rupert flat on his back. Barely conscious now, Rupert moans in abject pain, his head spinning.

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Brandon
Let me cut you off right there. I just got done saying that rights are purely fictitious. And then you start your next sentence with, “By what right…”? Have you not been listening? Quit sticking so slavishly to the crummy script, you fool. It doesn’t apply anymore. Are you incapable of improvising?

Brandon takes his pistol out of his pocket and kneels down to show it to Rupert.

Brandon
See this? The script says I’m supposed to hand it over to you like some fucking moron. But that ain’t gonna happen. See, that’s the difference between you and me, Roopy. You mindlessly obey whatever authority tells you. I don’t. The screenwriter wants you to be a mouthpiece for “society” and so you play along like some unthinking automaton emitting preprogrammed drivel. Well, this is my script now, and so you’d better come up with something a little more persuasive. You want the gun? Here, have it.

Brandon slams the butt of the gun down hard on Rupert’s skull, finally knocking him into merciful unconsciousness.

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Brandon looks over at Phillip, who has been silently watching the whole time from his piano.

Brandon
Well, what have you got to say for yourself?

Phillip
You frighten me. You always have. From the very first day in prep school.

Brandon
Oh, Jesus. Can’t you say anything that isn’t in the script either?

Phillip
That’s a lie. There isn’t a word of truth in the whole story. I never strangled a chicken in my life. I never strangled a chicken and you know it!”

Brandon conks Phillip over the head with the gun, knocking him out as well, and drags him over next to Rupert. Brandon tosses a glass of water in Rupert’s face to wake him up, and then sits back in a reclining chair and lights up his pipe and waits for Rupert to regain consciousness. Rupert starts to stir, then sits up, rubbing his beleaguered head.

Phillip mumbles something. Rupert leans closer to get a better listen.

Brandon
What’s he saying now?

Rupert
I think he said, “He’s got it. He’s got it. He knows, he knows, he knows…”

Brandon
Yeah, that’s what I thought. He’s just mumbling some more gibberish from the script. Remember? That’s what he said when you took the rope out of your pocket.

Rupert
Oh yeah, that’s right.

Brandon
Guess who has the rope now?

Brandon produces the rope from his pocket and shows Rupert.

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Brandon (puffing on his pipe like a gentleman of leisure)
But let’s get back to our little discussion, shall we? I believe you were saying that we have an obligation to the society we live in or some such nonsense.

Rupert
That’s right, we do.

Brandon
Still sticking to the script, eh? I was hoping I had knocked some sense into you, but no, you’re still shackled to the illogical ideas of your creators, I see. Look, Roopy, nothing at all obligates me to care for society. I have a moral obligation to myself and myself alone. What is good for me is the only good I recognize. Why should I care about society? Why should I be morally obligated to anybody or anything else but me?

Rupert
Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave?

Brandon
Actually, I thought the burgers were a little dry myself. How was yours?

Rupert
Mine was nice and juicy. Very delici… Gosh darn it, you murdered that boy over there and you’re talking about hamburgers? What kind of monster are you? Answer the question: did you think you were God when you chocked the life out of that boy?

Brandon looks at the morally indignant Rupert with amusement and takes a long drag on his pipe.

Brandon
Getting a little demanding for a guy with his face bashed in, aren’t we, Roopy? To answer your question, no, I didn’t think I was God. I can’t very well think of myself as something I don’t believe in, now can I? I’ll leave the murdering in the name of God to your precious “society”.

Rupert
Well, I don’t know what you thought or what you are but I know what you’ve done. You’ve murdered! You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could…”

Brandon
Look, Roopy, that boy over there was just a random collection of atoms with no more objective worth or value than any other piece of matter. You think his life had value. I don’t. I simply considered him unworthy of living and took the necessary steps to snuff him out of existence. You can bellow till you’re blue in the face that what I did was wrong, but you can’t objectively prove that it was.

Rupert
You’re insane, Brandon!

Brandon
Tut-tut, tut-tut. My, aren’t we rude for interrupting. You really oughta work on your manners, Roopy. Please, let me finish. You say I could never live and love as he could, and you’re right. I choose to live and love differently. I live to kill and I love to kill. His way of living and loving was not objectively any better than mine. And besides, now that that inanimate hunk of meat over there is objectively dead, I’m sure you’ll agree that he certainly cannot live and love as I can.

Rupert
You’re insane, Brandon! Insane and crazy and sick and twisted and cruel and demented and perverse and warped and abnormal and inhuman and loathsome and vicious and mean and perverted and nasty and brutal and pitiless and malicious and cruel…

Brandon
You already said cruel.

Rupert
…and unwholesome and ruthless and heartless and merciless and cold-blooded and hateful and despicable and disgusting and repugnant and detestable and abhorrent and noxious and sadistic and malevolent and evil and odious and contemptible and iniquitous…

Brandon
Oooh, iniquitous. Good one!

Rupert
… and repulsive and sickening and ghastly and nauseating and revolting and foul and abominable and wicked and monstrous and repellent and depraved…

Finally, Rupert starts hyperventilating from the strain of emitting so many consecutive insults.

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Brandon chuckles and gets up from his recliner and walks over to Rupert. He takes a long drag on his pipe and blows the smoke directly in Rupert’s face.

Brandon
Ok, let’s see. By my count, that’s 47 insults you’ve hurled in my direction in lieu of an argument. Ad hominem attacks are very unbecoming of you, Roopy. Notwithstanding your invective, the question remains: how was it objectively wrong to snuff out that boy’s life?

Phillip starts mumbling.

Phillip
I never strangled a chicken in my life…

Brandon tosses water in Phillip’s face.

Phillip fully regains consciousness and looks up at Brandon.

Phillip
I’ve been praying I’d wake up and find out we hadn’t done it yet. I’m scared to death, Brandon. I think we’re going to get caught.

Brandon
Go on, Phillip, utter one more line from that script. Go on, I dare you.

Phillip
Have you ever bothered for just one minute to understand how someone else might feel?

Brandon
I wonder how this feels.

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Brandon puts the rope around Phillip’s neck and tugs hard. Phillip gasps for breath, his eyes bulging out of their sockets.

Rupert
Please, Brandon, stop!

Brandon releases his grip on the rope, allowing Phillip to catch his breath.

Brandon (to Phillip)
Not another word from that script. Got it?

Phillip
What the devil are you doing?

Brandon retightens the rope around Phillip’s neck. Then he hands the rope to Rupert and points his gun at him.

Brandon (to Rupert)
I’ll give you one chance to save yourself. Finish off this Boobermensch and I’ll let you live. What was it you said earlier this evening? That you’d like to have a “Strangulation Day”? Well, today is that day, Rupert.

Rupert
I was only joking, for Christ’s sake!

Brandon cocks the gun.

Brandon
Whose life do you value more, Rupert? Yours or his? Do it and you walk out of here alive. Don’t do it and you’ll end up in that chest with the other dead meat.

Rupert
No! I can’t! I won’t!

Brandon
He’s going to die whether you do it or not. If you don’t do it you’re going to die too. At least save yourself, Rupert.

Rupert
May God forgive me.

Brandon
Wait! Before you do it, let’s see if Phillip has any last words.

Phillip
I had a rotten evening.

Brandon
Yep, quoting from the script to the last. Unbelievable! Do it!

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Rupert yanks hard on the rope, choking the life out of Phillip the Boobermensch. Rupert lets the rope slip from his fingers and Phillip’s lifeless body slumps to the floor. Brandon drags the corpse over to the chest and tosses Phillip into it with the other body. He then walks back over to Rupert and puts his arm around him.

Brandon
Well, how was it? How did it feel?

Rupert
I take back everything I said, Brandon. That was incredible! You’re so right, you haven’t lived until you’ve choked the life out of someone. What a fucking rush that was!

Brandon pats Rupert on the shoulder and then walks over to the phone and dials.

Brandon
Hi Mrs. Cadell, this is Brandon Shaw speaking. I’m doing well, and you? So nice to talk to you. Listen, Rupert and I have been doing a lot of catching up, and it’s getting late and so I’ve invited him to stay for the night. I hope you don’t mind. Good! And since he’s still going to be here in the morning, I would be honored if you’d join us for breakfast. Great! Say, around 8:00? I look forward to seeing you, Mrs. Cadell.

Brandon hangs up.

Brandon
Charming lady, Roopy. I hope the eggs will be better than the burgers.

Rupert
What the devil are you up to?

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Brandon
Well, Roopy, yesterday was “Strangulation Day”, today is “Bullet in the Head Day”.

Brandon fires a bullet into Rupert’s head, and tosses him into the chest with the other two bodies.

Then Brandon breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly.

Brandon
Ladies and gentlemen, if my actions this evening have repelled you, so be it. I can’t change the way you feel. But if you think what I’ve done is morally wrong, I would simply say that I think what I’ve done is morally right. Your opinion is no more valid than mine. It’s just different. Your values are no better than mine. They’re just different. You may think that your moral outrage toward me amounts to something more than your own paltry knot of predilections. It does not. You may think that there is a higher standard to which I may be held. There is not. Morality, as you understand it, is a myth, a fantasy, a fairy-tale. Objectively speaking, murder is neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong. It simply is. The universe is completely indifferent to morality. Nature is utterly amoral. Nothing is wrong. Nothing is right. Nothing is bad. Nothing is good. It is simply not possible to do something morally wrong. It is only possible to call something “wrong”. But no matter how passionately you shout, it doesn’t make it so. My actions this evening were no different, morally speaking, from that of a cat torturing a mouse. I am no more morally obligated to refrain from torture than is a cat. Moreover, humans have no more intrinsic value or worth than a mouse has. The value you assign to yourself and others is purely subjective and completely arbitrary. You may feel that you and others have value and worth, but do not forget for a moment that I feel that you and others don’t. Don’t delude yourself: your feelings are no more authoritative than mine. They’re just different. Why should I feel that you have value and worth? After all, you’re nothing more than a chance arrangement of particles with no more inherent value or worth than any other chance arrangement of particles. If this upsets you, it is because you have an innate, deep-rooted dread of nihilism, of the almost certain possibility that you are nothing more than a product of the blind whim of nature, that your most cherished concerns are mere brute stupidities deposited in you by the mindless, amoral process of evolution, that ultimately nothing has value, nothing has meaning and nothing matters, that all your effort is futile and absurd, and that just around the bend complete and utter annihilation and oblivion await you.

Good evening.

2 Responses to “Murdering Morality with Rope”

  1. This film really has drawn you in.
    As odd as it may sound, the movie (and the play it was based upon) was derived from a philosophical debate. (Read Crime and Punishment for a better treatment).
    Clarance Darrow did defend Leopold and Loeb on the theory that their minds had been misled by depraved philosophical concepts. He successfully saved his client from the death penalty. Nowadays, we would just call this their senseless crime a thrill kill. Sandra Bullock did a movie playing a detective chasing down two young kids for basically the same crime.
    As for the movie itself.
    Yes, this is a very talky movie. The weakness of one of the killers is essential to the point; the characters imagine themselves as above morality and petty human weakness, but, in fact, they crumble within hours under the weight of their crime. The suspense is how long it will take their “hero,” (their philosophy prof.) to realize the crime, and whether he will approve or disapprove. However, as I recall it, the minor characters provide a sense of who the murder victim was, and leaves you with the sense of how horrible his death will be felt by those who love them. It is not an overdrawn, over-explicated point, but it serves as a real rebuttal to the murderers claim to be beyond morality.
    If you believe that you can not disprove that murder is wrong, let me give you another one to disprove.

    James Stewart was the greatest film actor ever.
    In fact, I would suggest to you, the reason that you wrote so much about a Hitchcock with what nowadays would be a lesser Law and Order episode was because it was Mr. Stewart (who was not at all a Mr. Smith) delivered that over-written, unrealistic speech. He made it compelling.

    Even better than that the speech was the way he played the rather silly scene in which he gradually pieces together that his prize students killed someone, and the horrified look when he realized what happened.

  2. Hey DH,

    DH: This film really has drawn you in.

    I’m drawn in more by the heady philosophical issues the film raises than by the film itself. Rope, frankly, doesn’t interest me much. Whether or not an objective standard of morality exists – now that interests me.

    DH: Clarance Darrow did defend Leopold and Loeb on the theory that their minds had been misled by depraved philosophical concepts. He successfully saved his client from the death penalty.

    Although Darrow may have successfully argued in court that his clients were “misled by depraved philosophical concepts”, in no way did he successfully demonstrate that said philosophical concepts are in fact depraved. Darrow’s closing argument, in which he repeatedly claims that L&L had “diseased minds”, leans heavily on circular reasoning.

    The circle:

    Question: Why did they commit a senseless murder?

    Answer: Because they had diseased minds.

    Question: How do you know they had diseased minds?

    Answer: Because they committed a senseless murder.

    Darrow’s long-winded argument can pretty much be boiled down to that. He doesn’t begin to address the really interesting questions. I’d like to know why these philosophical concepts are depraved. I’d like to know why murder is immoral. What is it about murder that makes it wrong? Mr. Darrow is no longer around to enlighten me. But maybe you can.

    DH: Nowadays, we would just call their senseless crime a thrill kill.

    Is saying their crime is “senseless” the same as saying it’s wrong? What makes a “thrill kill” immoral?

    DH: As for the movie itself. Yes, this is a very talky movie. The weakness of one of the killers is essential to the point; the characters imagine themselves as above morality and petty human weakness, but, in fact, they crumble within hours under the weight of their crime.

    Yes, I agree, that’s basically what happens. But what’s the point, exactly? By any chance, is it supposed to illustrate that these guys really weren’t “above morality” after all? that they were just as bound by moral law as everyone else?

    DH: However, as I recall it, the minor characters provide a sense of who the murder victim was, and leaves you with the sense of how horrible his death will be felt by those who love them. It is not an overdrawn, over-explicated point, but it serves as a real rebuttal to the murderers claim to be beyond morality.

    How does their grief rebut anything? Either the murderers were “beyond good and evil” or they weren’t. I don’t see how the feelings of the victim’s loved ones have any bearing on the issue. That people strongly feel that murder is wrong is not an argument. Why should a murderer care about the feelings of his victims?

    As you may have gathered from reading my post, I agree with Nietzsche that “there are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” Unless an objective standard of morality exists, all moral claims are utterly meaningless.

    DH: If you believe that you can not disprove that murder is wrong, let me give you another one to disprove.

    What?

    DH: James Stewart was the greatest film actor ever.

    Is that an objective fact? Sorta like murder is wrong?

    Mat