The Ethics of True Detective
Resignation or Compassion?
By Professor Sandra Shapshay (Indiana University Bloomington)
July 15, 2015 Picture: Pedro Goncalves/Behance.
This article is part of The Critique exclusive No Exit From Hell: The Philosophy Of True Detective.
The profundity of “True Detective”, in my view, is to be found in the series’ handling of the theme of pessimism and possible responses to this doctrine. By pessimism I mean the view adumbrated by Schopenhauer that life (that is, conscious life whether it be non-human animal or human life) involves a tremendous amount of suffering that is pretty much built into the structure of the world and is, further, unredeemed. By focusing on the character arc of Rust, one may empathetically appreciate the challenge posed by Schopenhauerian pessimism , and possible ethical responses to it.
Before we are introduced to the character, Rust had already experienced a terrible loss of his 4-year old daughter and the painful dissolution of his marriage. Further, his employment confronts him daily with the horrors of human conduct, where the “law of the stronger” reigns and the strong and sadistic exploit the weak. Throughout Season One, we see Rust struggling to find the best, truest response to all this seemingly endemic and unredeemed suffering. When we meet him, he declares to Marty, upon the latter’s insistent questioning, that he is “in philosophical terms, a pessimist,” and holds that human consciousness is a “tragic misstep in nature.” For Rust, it is our “programming” (in Schopenhauer’s terms, the will-to-life) that “gets us out of bed in the morning”, but that it would be better, all things considered to “deny our programming” and “walk ourselves hand in hand into extinction.” The only reason he has not committed suicide, he claims, is that he “lacks the constitution” to complete the act.
Despite his stated embrace of pessimism and his resignationist tendencies as evidenced by his rather ascetic lifestyle and in principle embrace of suicide, Rust does not actually resign himself from life. He is, after all, the eponymous “true detective” and throws himself assiduously into the task of solving the ritualistic rape/murders and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
So what really motivates Rust to spend most of his waking life (and he doesn’t seem to sleep all that much) attempting to solve these crimes? Is it the intellectual puzzle? Is it compassion for the victims and potential new victims? Is it a thirst for justice?
At times it seems that it is merely the intellectual challenge that motivates him. This recalls Schopenhauer’s expressed reason to devote himself to philosophy: “Life is an unpleasant business; I have resolved to spend it reflecting upon it.” . Yet, what preoccupies Rust’s mind and takes up a good bit of wall space in his barely-furnished apartment is reflection with a specific practical aim, namely, to solve the crimes in order to prevent future victims and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Thus, Rust seems not just motivated by the intellectual puzzle but also by a morality of compassion and justice. After all, his aim is not merely to solve the crimes, but also to apprehend or otherwise stop the perpetrators. Further, these moral motives get to the heart of Rust’s espousal of pessimism in the first place, for he is—unlike Marty–acutely sensitive to the sufferings of others, and–again, unlike Marty—rejects any theological story of redemption for all of this suffering.
What I want to suggest, then, is that Rust’s own practice belies his stated, pessimistic views. It is not just “programming”—the will-to-life, egoistic striving– that gets Rust out of bed in the morning, rather, it is the sense that if there is to be any kind of redemption it has to be earthly, in the form of prevention and/or alleviation of suffering, and in bringing criminals to justice.
“Rust seems not just motivated by the intellectual puzzle but also by a morality of compassion and justice. These moral motives get to the heart of Rust’s espousal of pessimism in the first place, for he is—unlike Marty–acutely sensitive to the sufferings of others, and–again, unlike Marty—rejects any theological story of redemption for all of this suffering”
But the task of preventing and alleviating suffering as well as bringing a measure of justice into the world is onerous, one that threatens to seem futile given the large number of murders and disappearances, and the rampant cruelty and degradation inflicted especially upon children, teenage girls and women throughout the series. This sense of futility, it seems, overtakes Rust in the interim between “solving” the first crime introduced in the show and the second spate of similar murders. During this hiatus, Rust has indeed opted for resignation as a response to pessimism. Although he does not have the constitution for outright suicide—as he said to Marty –he is nonetheless doing a pretty good job of drinking himself to death. He has essentially retreated from the world into a dark bar where he can engage in almost 24/7 anesthetization through the bottle until… the spate of new, similar murders awakens Rust from his resignationist slumber, re-sparking the intellectual curiosity as well as his compassion and sense of justice. But it will take the final, spooky, and nauseating confrontation with evil incarnate, in the form of the “Yellow King” to show Rust alegitimate path to the affirmation of life, as opposed to what he sees as an intellectually dishonest, optimistic, theological route.
“It is not just “programming”—the will-to-life, egoistic striving– that gets Rust out of bed in the morning, rather, it is the sense that if there is to be any kind of redemption it has to be earthly, in the form of prevention and/or alleviation of suffering, and in bringing criminals to justice”
After surviving the bizarre melee, and shutting down the activities of this serial killer, Rust gains a sense that perhaps his thoroughgoing pessimism is unwarranted. Despite the fact of tremendous suffering and injustice in the world, there are, nonetheless, non-trivial victories for compassion and justice. Additionally, Marty’s quasi-reconciliation with his family shows Rust that a measure of forgiveness and understanding can be attained even after a long history of strained relationships. Rust also finds that he can take some comfort in knowing that his daughter did not suffer at the end of her short life. There are intimations of an after-life in the final scene, and some sublime meditations on the starry night sky, to be sure, but in the end it does not seem that Rust’s conversion is theological. Rather, I interpret his final turn as resulting from the realization that some degree of affirmation is warranted by the evidence. In other words, he realizes that thoroughgoing pessimism and resignation from life is not the only intellectually honest stance to take. In light of his epistemic shift, he might even come to the view that his former resignation might be positively immoral, but Rust’s character arc, with the series, ends only with the former, more ecumenical realization.
In sum, Rust’s character throughout the series goes from (1) self-described, jaded, wannabe suicidal pessimist who belies his own self-understanding by energetically fighting crime, to (2) one who really embraces that self-description, resigns from life and aims to drink himself to death, to (3) the cautious affirmer of life through compassionate engagement with the world.
Emily Nussbaum (New Yorker 3/3/14 & 3/10/14) is right that “True Detective” contains several plot twists that offer no payoff (for just one example, the mysterious murder/suicide of the prisoner in jail) and that the series has a big gender problem (decrying the victimization of females while treating all female characters as one-dimensional plot devices and eye-candy). However, I disagree with her criticism that the philosophical reflections enunciated by Rust Cohle amount in the end to little more than “hot air.” As she recognizes in her second essay on the series, the philosophical ruminations of Rust in conversation with Marty do constitute the heart and the most original part of the series, but she holds firm to the conclusion that these ruminations go nowhere.
As I hope to have shown, notwithstanding its aesthetic and moral flaws, “True Detective” offers a nuanced, and thought-provoking treatment of the theme of pessimism and of several ethical responses to a recognition of tremendous, unredeemed suffering in the world.