Moral Vacuity Regarding Sex, Violence, and the State

What seems mind-bogglingly clear to me, looking at what I dislike about shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, is that they suffer chiefly in their denial of morality. Not Christian morality, particularly (I've never seen anything that set out to portray that, and succeeded--unless Pulp Fiction counts), but any morality. They no more have respect for Changing Woman's Law or the Dharma or the Tao than they do for the Decalogue.

Rather, they live in a world where no meaningful statements can be made about morality, where indeed no meaningful statements can be made about anything (they even doubt science, in an almost horrifying version of the Mahayana upsetting of the Theravada apple-cart). But they don't believe in salvation, either that of Christ or Buddha (real Buddha, I mean, not the pretend kind), and so they are simply trapped in an absurd nightmare universe. They are in the angst and trembling of the Existentialists, but they are unaware of the concept of Existence.

All of their morality is just a coping with the meaninglessness, a "whatever gets you through the day." It's usually coupled with, to their credit, the bourgeois niceties that allow society to function ("whatever," in other words, "gets us all through the day"), and is for some reason frequently as outraged as any mid-Victorian greengrocer when those niceties (civil peace, politeness, tolerance) are offended against--far more than if you, say, coat a bunch of partly-dissected cadavers in clear resin and call it art.

The only difficulty (other than the existential ones) with this attitude is, it is impossible to have any real drama. Real drama involves conflict, and it's hard to have conflict when you can't see the battlefield. The only coherent work one can do when all of morality is a compromise between sanity and the Void, is comedy--comedy being, as Chesterton said in The Sword of Wood, "the only poetry of compromise." Is it any wonder, then, that while we can still do good comedy, or dramedy, like House, Monk, and Psych, our "pure" dramas are, by and large, intellectually and artistically barren? Even in those shows, the drama is dependent entirely on there being an assumed morality--House's rule-breaking, or Monk's selfishness and loyalty to Trudy, only make sense considered morally.

BSG refuses to have any of the characters pause for even a moment and consider, say, "Why is democracy good? Ought one ever to surrender liberty for the sake of survival?" or any of the other half-million moral issues that are left sitting, unquestioned, while Captain Bladerunner and President Teacher lucubrate endlessly (and quite well, since such fine actors as Olmos and McDonnell can even make these scripts sound okay) on the American political issues of the hour.

It utterly fails to consider, even implicitly, the meaning or purpose of government. It is made debatable whether the humans are any better than the Cylons--when the humans never massacred all but 30,000 members of another sapient race! It is never debatable whether civil rights might perhaps be suspendible in an emergency.

What is the good of a government? Well...humanity is naturally social, since we cannot acquire all the necessities of life on our own. A government exists to benefit its members, that is to provide for the common good--it is the organization of that society natural to humans. Government is a means to an end. Anything political--civil rights, police powers, a Constitution--is a part of that means. It is therefore only reasonable to consider anything about a government in terms of the end it is meant to serve. If the particular feature--elections, say, or freedom of assembly (on spaceships!)--doesn't serve the common good, in this case the bare minimum of "not getting everyone killed," then it ought to be discarded. Freedom of assembly can never be maintained on a spaceship, anymore than in a nightclub. Not even BSG writers pretend that fire codes' Maximum Safe Occupancy limits are unconstitutional, and the way they pretend that life on a bunch of spaceships should follow the rules of life on the ground is enough to make C.J. Cherryh roll over in her grave--and she's not even dead yet!

This brings us to Firefly's inability to address moral issues of pith and moment. At every turn, questions about truth, reality, and the knowability of right and wrong, are dismissed with, almost always, an appeal to emotion, or the psychological value of having "something to believe in". The only thing we do know is the Alliance government's evil--oh, and judging Inara's evil. Other than that, nothing's evil, 'cept killing people who aren't, by their Archie Bunker-like nastiness, clearly identified as Okay To Kill.

Obviously, any morality that is limited to "don't kill people other than government agents who inexplicably like to liquefy brains, and never mention that prostitution, no matter the euphemism you give it (oiran/companions are still prostitutes), is less than ideal," is nonsense. First off, why is it wrong to kill people? Is it ever right to kill people, and if so, when? Second, are there any wrong uses of sex? Is it possible for any act of consensual sex to be wrong? If not, why? If so, why? Why does the pleasure of sex shut down our moral reasoning in the way that, say, that of heroin doesn't (except to an addict...wait...)?

What is the use of violence? Why, to preserve life, of course. If one cannot live save by committing violence, on a human or on another animal, then one had better commit that violence. Admittedly, the great Socratic adage ("It is better to suffer evil than to do it") comes into play, so one ought not, for instance, become a robber for the sake of survival, but if one does one's guilt is partly mitigated (the question of whether those one robs have a right to their property is another question--the morality of, say, mugging a drug dealer, is complex to say the least). So one's violence against other humans (who have a right to live that animals lack) can only be used when they are a direct threat to one's own life. It may be, also, that they have killed innocents, and then there comes in the questions of justice and of defending the community--and if one does not live in a community, there is still the question of justice.

Similarly, there is the use of sex; leaving to one side the aspects of reproduction and homosexuality (on which you will find my hands soaked in the blood of your Buddhas), it cannot be maintained that, apart from reproduction, sex has any purpose other than the unitive--the pleasure is simply that which derives from satisfying a desire that deals with sensible matter, much like the pleasures of eating and drinking. Can one have true unity with a "companion" whose ducky-shaped clunker of a ship will fly off in a day or two, never to be seen again? How exactly does this one-night stand delivery service constitute a "companion," anyway?

Can even Joss Whedon, whose show is otherwise so morally squeaky-clean, expect us to accept his portrayal of prostitution as a high and holy calling, marred only by people's hangups? Apart from the frankly conventional portrayal of robberies (never accompanied by murder or even accidental killing of innocents, of course), Firefly is like one long aria by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, except for this one grating Scandinavian black-metal riff. The ex-freedom fighters, the never hurting innocents, the utter cartoonish super-villainy of the Alliance--all of that is rather after-school fare. But then, the prostitution--never portrayed as the source of human misery (save when people judge whores as, well, whores) that it is, but rather as a profession peopled entirely with women of superhuman wisdom, beauty, and spiritual grandeur. Or, well, what Whedon tries to portray as spiritual grandeur. This is "the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today"? Right. I'd have thought our problems today included that it sucks to be a prostitute.