Judah Rosenthal: And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background, which he’d rejected, are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse, an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person — a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.
Woody Allen, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
In Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, arguably his most philosophical film, morality and nihilism is explored reflecting of the film’s namesake Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. The key theme asks if a man can live with the guilt of committing murder, are there moral repercussions, and does man inevitably take responsibility for his action.
In the thought experiment put forth by Glaucon, he argues if one had the ring of Gyges that allows one to be invisible and fully indulge desires without repercussions, man would do so and give no thought to justice. This brings up the question if living a just life is worth it for its own sake, or do individuals only acknowledge justice for fear of society without it. Without going into the whole dialogue, Socrates certainly argues that justice is worth it for its own sake, to live justly is better than living unjustly, even if the latter results in prosperity and well-being. At first glance this appeals to what we are taught from the earliest age and religions have echoed. Fairness is good simply because. A simple fiction repeated throughout ethics and preschool teachings. We want to believe this. We do our best to convince ourselves of it. And we expect punishment to those who live unjustly. We intrinsically expect the universe to be just on some level, if not in the physical, then in a cosmic sense or afterlife. This is by no means strictly the religious, as there are plenty of secular perspectives that crusade a caricature of ‘justice’ with zeal. These are illusions, though entirely necessary illusions man could not live without.
In the quote at the top of this entry we see an all too chilling and honest acceptance of what truly occurs. Dostoevsky is brilliant without doubt, but he too wants to believe dearly in the illusion of justice and redemption. The reality is rarely as romantic and existential as he portrays it. The reality is indeed banal. We tell ourselves that people who commit horrible acts will suffer internally or eternally in an afterlife. We tell ourselves that the greedy and affluent are actually suffering inside as they live a vain existence. These rationalizations comfort us, necessarily so. Truthfully speaking though, as the quote conveys, there are individuals whom do ‘get away with murder’, face no consequences, prosper, and live life all the same. One can then bring up the afterlife, karma, reincarnation, and so forth but is this not just a consoling thought of justice? Not now, but soon! I do not dismiss the possibility of these metaphysical events after death. Indeed I find it very probable, but it does us no good to take it as fact when it cannot be confirmed as fact. We must work with what we know and have.
Arguably most individuals will have a ‘conscience’ of sorts, at least at first and temporarily. Conscience is highly dependent on conditioning, though we are empathetic creatures. The candle will inevitably burn out, the conditioning run its course, and as stated ‘he wakes up one morning’ and ‘crisis is lifted’. Perhaps Max Stirner would call it a ‘spook’. We expect people to feel guilt. We teach that rightful guilt is good. Catholicism has it firmly built into their doctrine. Indeed we are empathetic and social creatures, some far more than others. We also know with the right conditioning or un-conditioning this ‘conscience’ can be expelled. This is seen in extreme situations like cults, violent ideological movements, and in military scenarios. Perhaps the rhetoric will tell ourselves about justice and the guilty is a ‘spook’. Be that a necessary ‘spook’ or not is questionable, though it does seem to comfort and provide order.
There is absolutely nothing that guarantees or assures that a person who has committed evil and ‘gotten away with murder’ will face moral repercussions internally or externally. If he is found out, he will face consequences. If not, he could go on all the same without a thought of it. That is the chilling indifference that humans detest, and rightfully so. Although I must ask is it more comforting to repeat a fiction of redemption or retribution to oneself or accept what is as it is. Putting aside concepts, or ‘spooks’, ultimately there are many who not only get away with committing evil acts, but go on to live well and face no exceptional internal strife or guilt regarding it. Do ‘evil doers’ go to their grave without facing retribution? Yes. Do they face retribution in the afterlife for what they have done? Possibly, but we shouldn’t and cannot assume it. One immediately cries out about self-accountability, to be responsible for ones actions, which is all well and good theoretically, but in practice this self-accountability does not always occur, nor do the consequences.
One must ask themselves the question, “What can I sleep with at night knowing?” The answer is the furthest one can act without conscience or strife, If a man can commit murder and sleep soundly at night knowing it, there is ones answer to what is permissible for him personally. Doubtless one will decry such a person as being a monster or sociopath. That could very well be true, but does it not simply reflect the indifference of existence to our conceptual morality? I am not arguing for moral nihilism nor materialist nihilism. I am only looking at what occurs in its barest bones, without romantic notions of suffering, redemption, or retribution.
What does this leave us with? Dostoyevsky could be correct in stating “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Or is Socrates correct that a man who desires what is Good will also desire what is Just? If the universe is indifferent, the unjust are no more likely to face scorn and suffering than the just, then why do we behave fairly and do ‘the right thing’? Of course we are a far cry from utopia, but overall in day to day routine people do behave civilly and are decent. The nature/nurture argument is a false dichotomy as it is an interconnected ongoing process. Genetic predisposition, childhood conditioning, environment, culture, and a number of other factors could be the deciding factors as to why we ‘are good’ or ‘behave decently’. It is neither strictly nature nor nurture. It is only an added plus that we are taught ‘good and bad’ in the general use of the words, the vague universal do’s and don’ts that doubly reinforces our civil development. This is all well and adequate, it allows us to form a functioning society, pursue interests and prosper, form relationships and so forth. Whether acting justly is good in itself or in accordance with true morality is of secondary detail. Whether it be a fictional narrative or objectively true, it provides a vital functioning role in our subjective personal world as well as civilization. One may question if it being ultimately true or not even matters. It is better for society to accept this ‘spook’ than to wallow in moral despair and injustice.
Nonetheless, that being said, we must not make assumptions about the ‘goodness of humans’ or that the unjust inevitably face retribution or inner suffering. Humans can become violent savages as quickly as they could be civil denizens. It is likely that an ‘evil doer’ will ‘get away with murder’ without facing an inkling of inner suffering or external punishment than it is for an ‘evil doer’ to face both. This is not a happy conclusion, but such is how it is.