The Ethics of The Impossible (the movie, that is)

Photo: IMDb

Photo: The Impossible (2012)–IMDb

I did not expect much out of The Impossible. Seeing the trailer, I figured that I had seen 2/3 of the plot arc: a massive tsunami leads to excruciating human suffering. The only surprise left for me was whether the ending was going to be happy or sad. Approximately seven minutes into the movie, even that small, hopeful bit of ignorance was taken from me. My mother-in-law looked up the plot of the movie online, and then triumphantly announced to the room, without warning, that . . . (stop reading if you don’t want to know) . . . the family in peril survives. You couldn’t stop in time, could you?

(On a more serious note, if my mother-in-law is reading this, please know that I am still mad at you.)

I almost quit watching at that point, but because the alternatives were to study French or work on my dissertation, I stuck it out. And I’m glad I did, because there was more to the movie than I thought. Don’t get me wrong, The Impossible is uncomplicated in its essentials: big waves, suffering, can’t find each other, find each other. But buried within all the wet, muddy mess are some interesting ethical dilemmas and applications of ethical principles. Here are four of them that I noticed.

The Categorical Imperative

As the mother Maria and her son Lucas stagger painfully through the wasteland left in the tsunami’s wake, they hear the distant crying of a child. Maria’s suggestion that they investigate this is met with a harsh rebuke from her son. Lucas points out that Maria is badly wounded, that they are in terrible danger until they reach higher ground, and that they need to take care of themselves. Maria does not relent. She questions Lucas: What if it were one of your brothers crying for help? Lucas, of course, knows the voices of his brothers, so he initially tries to respond with the simple factual claim that “it isn’t.” But Maria knows that is irrelevant to the moral logic of the situation: “But what if it were?” They rescue the child, a golden-haired boy named Daniel.

This is, I submit, a good example of one of the most famous ethical principles in the Western philosophical canon, Immanuel Kant’s categorial imperative. One version of it runs thus: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

Lucas could certainly have acted on his maxim of self-preservation, of ignoring the cry for help. But Maria’s questioning showed that he could not really have willed it as a universal law. Why? That would mean willing that someone else refuse help to his own brothers, something Lucas would not have wanted.

Spouse vs. Children

While Maria and her eldest son Lucas manage to stay together after the tsunami, the father Henry winds up with the two younger sons in the family. However, he continues searching for his wife and eldest son. Finally, not meeting with any success, Henry makes the decision–bizarre, in my opinion–to separate from his two younger sons, sending them ahead with the humanitarian aid workers and other refugees so that he can begin searching hospitals for Maria and Lucas. Of course, being the movie that it is, this leads to even more heartbreak, when the two little boys get put on a truck to be taken to yet another location unknown to the father. At which point, I began yelling “I told you so” at the screen.

However, that is not to say that Henry’s decision is completely unwarranted. His younger sons seem relatively safe, while he worries that his wife and elder sons are languishing somewhere desperately in need of his aid. And, as cruel as it sounds, does not the spousal relationship have primacy over the parent-child relationship? A failure to realize this does a good deal of harm to many marriages.

Yet I stand by my assertion that this was a flawed moral decision on the character’s part. This is a situation similar to what John Locke describes in his Second Treatise as the “state of war.” In such a state, when it just is not possible to save all lives, correct moral reasoning dictates that preference by given to “innocent” lives. That would, in this case, be the two little boys with their lives ahead of them, not the grown woman that was his wife. His young teenage son is a tougher case, but still not as positionally innocent. Henry should have stayed with the two boys. That it all worked out in the end has no bearing on the morality of the situation–what if it had not?

Actual Needs vs. Possible Needs

After having begun the search for his wife, Henry rather quickly hits rock bottom, and we are brought to strange scene of a half dozen middle aged men sitting around in an impromptu “support group.” Each man tells his tale of woe. One man named Karl shows off a cell phone that he has been careful not to use so that the battery would keep its charge, just in case his missing loved ones should somehow find a way to call him. However, Karl does grudgingly allow Henry to make a brief call back home on it, a call that goes terribly wrong, leaving Henry sobbing.

After a brief pause, however, Karl hands the phone back to Henry, telling Henry that “you can’t leave it like that.” What does this action mean morally? It means that Karl gives precedence to the actual, current needs of a stranger over the merely possible needs of his own family.

This is not so much Kant or Locke as it is the parable of the Good Samaritan from the New Testament. The point of the parable is that actual needs trump merely hypothetical needs: one’s “neighbor” is anyone actually encountered who is in need of help.  The Samaritan could certainly have come up with good reasons to bypass the injured man–it could have been a trap, his family needed him at home, he had an obligation to his business, and so on. But those are all merely possible needs, and for the good human being, those must pale in comparison to a requirements of another human being suffering in the here and now.

Happiness vs. Duty

Finally, at the end, against all odds (i.e. “impossibly”), the family manages to reunite. But Maria is very sick, having sustained internal injuries in the flood waters of the tsunami. Upon seeing her husband and all her children, she makes a cryptic comment to her husband implying that she can now die in peace, knowing that he will be there to care for the children. And this should be seen, it seems to me, as evidence of the character’s goodness. It lifts the curtain, as it were, on her inner disposition during her suffering in the overwhelmed hospital. She has not been feeling sorry for herself, but rather focusing on surviving for the sake of her children. We might call this the Kantian understanding of ethics: we are to do our duty. This is the essence of moral goodness.

But Henry’s response to her is also important: “I did not come here for that.” In other words, I did not come this far to see you die. I came through all of this so that we might live together again and be happy. This is the older, and probably more humanly accurate ethical understanding of Aristotle. We desire happiness, not in the shallow sense of “pleasure,” but in the more profound sense of a life that turns out well. This is the goal of human life, the goal in light of which all human actions can be evaluated as good or bad.

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4 Responses to The Ethics of The Impossible (the movie, that is)

  1. Greg Ward says:

    What would be the philosophical response to Sophie’s choice? When the choices are both actual?

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      I think the philosophical response in that case would be to refuse to make such an immoral “choice,” since each child has, as you said, an actual claim on life. I realize this would mean that both children are likely to be killed, but that is not Sophie’s fault, but the fault of the Nazis who attempt to make of her an accomplice in their evil.

      Limit situations like that actually just bring home to me the necessity of an ultimate, just judge to save ethics, because reality is such that sometimes every choice results in tragedy. But I would like to think that sorrow will not have the final word.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Good review. A bit of a corny movie, but at least it ended with a happy message that you should always be there for and with your family, no matter what.

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