We Are All Dr. Johnny Wilcox: A Character Analysis from Okja

We Are All Dr. Johnny Wilcox: A Character Analysis from Okja

Dr. Johnny Wilcox is an absurd and repulsive character. His voice is grating, his wardrobe is a nightmare, his behavior is borderline cartoonish, and his constant whining is almost unbearable. And yet, despite all these qualities, he’s probably the most intriguing character of the film.

But why? I mean, what does this whiny, selfish, over-the-top-man-child-scientist-meets-Jeff Corwin offer us that the other characters don’t?

Well, for one, he’s the only character who isn’t completely one-dimensional or predictable. Lucy and Nancy Mirando are clearly cut-throat capitalists with no consciences, The ALF members behave exactly how you’d expect them to, and Mija is the innocent girl who just wants her giant animal friend back.

So where does Dr. Johnny Wilcox fit in among the list of cookie-cutter corporate bad guys versus honorable vigilante good guys? The answer is that he really doesn’t.

Unlike other characters, we think we know who Johnny Wilcox is until we realize we don’t. We are immediately thrown off by his odd behavior and voice. We cringe at his child-like temper tantrums and his pathetic impotence. We are annoyed by his entitled attitude and the shameless artificiality of his media personality. And yet we are still left with one giant question: Who the hell is Johnny Wilcox?

Is he a respected doctor or a complete loser? Is he a famous media figure or a laughing stock? Is he a lackey for the Mirando Corporation or a hapless victim of it? Does he really love animals or does he only love himself?

If the answers to these questions seem unclear, it’s probably due to the seemingly psychotic nature of the character himself. Indeed, throughout the entire movie Wilcox seems to be engaged in a deep internal struggle as he oscillates between exploited scientist and confident showman, bungling buffoon and sympathetic drunk, caring human and callous monster.

The first example of this psychotic nature can be seen in the character’s first reveal roughly twenty minutes into the film as he arrives on the top of the mountain where Mija lives, accompanied by his media crew and another scientist. Upon arriving, Wilcox Immediately shows his selfish, entitled attitude as he starts to complain about how far he had to hike, even accusing his crew of trying to “rile” him.

This is soon followed by an unsuccessful and unpermitted foray into Mija’s grandfather’s refrigerator before he gags at the smell and asks for water, but instead grabs one of her grandfather’s beers (again without asking) and unthinkingly guzzles it down. In this way, Wilcox makes it clear that he is the center of attention, whereas everything and everybody around him his simply background – a means to achieving his own selfish ends.

However, a second later within the very same scene, Wilcox immediately stops what he is doing and approaches Okja with a real sense of wonder and awe, placing his hand gently on her nose. For a brief moment, Wilcox snaps out of his self-obsession as he gently strokes Okja’s body and rests his face against her side, appearing to have a deep and meaningful connection with her that nearly brings him to tears. However, this connection is short-lived as it is immediately interrupted by Wilcox’s demand for his crew to “fucking film” him, remarking that, “You can’t fake these emotions.”

The second and perhaps the most memorable Jekyl-and-Hyde-esque moment in the film takes place in the laboratory. Here Wilcox is can first be seen sauntering drunkenly down the hallway and crawling beneath a large metal door as what can only be described as creepy carnival music plays in the background.

In the first few moments of this scene, Wilcox’s actions are more reminiscent of Jack Nicolson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance than anything else. Here he cackles madly and playfully waves his hands at Okja, goading her out of her secure cell so that she can meet her “boyfriend” – a horny male superpig that he essentially allows to rape her.

But strangely, in the scene just after the horrible act is complete, it’s abundantly clear that Wilcox is deeply remorseful and sympathetic to Okja’s plight, as he lies down beside her and offers her alcohol to numb the pain, just as he tries to numb his own. Here again, Wilcox’s humanity is revealed in an important but fleeting moment as he pathetically rolls over on the laboratory floor crying loudly and exclaiming to Okja, “This is an unspeakable place!…I know! I know!”

Of course, after this display of sympathy and kinship (much like their first encounter), Wilcox abruptly goes back to being self-absorbed, complaining that he won’t get to taste any of Okja’s meat right before switching back to his knowing, compassionate side: “I shouldn’t be here…I’m an animal lover…everybody knows that about me!”

So, what are we to make of all this strange behavior? What exactly is the point?

My own take is that Wilcox’s tormented character is meant to externalize the internal psychological and emotional struggle that many of us have regarding animals, and to thus make visible the very real cognitive dissonance (as well as the ugliness and cruelty) that most of us unknowingly or knowingly take part in when we sit down at the dinner table.

In other words, although we may be repulsed by Wilcox’s actions and behavior in the film, the hard truth is that most of us are Johnny Wilcox when it comes to our relationship with animals.

Like Wilcox, most of us have been raised to be self-centered by viewing other living creatures around us as objects rather than subjects – a means to fulfill our own ends. We have also been taught that it is perfectly acceptable to kill and eat other living beings (even highly intelligent ones like Okja) for taste rather than necessity, all the while lying to ourselves (or being lied to) about where our meat comes from and how it is procured.

Also like Wilcox, it is only through our brief interactions with our fellow-sentient beings in the form of pets, zoos, and wildlife excursions that feelings of compassion, kinship, sympathy, and guilt can rise up within us, only to be later discarded from our minds when we unthinkingly stuff a burger into our face.

Many of us also like to think highly of our ourselves and our own self-image. We publicly claim to be animal lovers – some of us even going so far as to buy bumper stickers proclaiming our love – while privately engaging in their destruction on our dinner plate. Perhaps the only meaningful difference between Wilcox and most people in the real world when it comes to animals is that Wilcox is forced to confront the full extent of his moral inconsistency, whereas most people cannot or will not.

Wilcox knows full well that he is putting on a charade when he plays his TV persona of the “animal lover” because he is deeply familiar with the ugliness and cruelty that lies beneath the surface. He is a man that genuinely seems to love animals, yet he still can’t seem to escape his complicity in their suffering and death or conquer his craving for their flesh. In the end, his ego always seems to win out over his morals.

Unlike the other villains in the film who appear sociopathic,  Dr. Johnny Wilcox is somehow different – appearing more human than monster. In the best possible light, he is a pathetic fallen hero who once had a moral backbone and a successful career, and at the very worst he is a cowardly, buffoonish, and reluctant villain who has not quite lost his humanity. At any rate, it’s clear that he has a conscience of some kind, even if that conscience is engaged in a losing battle with his job, his taste, and perhaps most of all – his desire to be liked by others.

But again, isn’t this all of us? Don’t we often prioritize our pleasure and ego over another animal’s well-being? Don’t we opt for being liked by others over being viewed as an outcast for doing the right thing? Don’t we all dissociate the meat we consume from the reality of factory farming? Haven’t we all, to some degree, been forced by large corporations to be complicit in animal suffering? Haven’t we all felt powerless against these large corporations and against our desire to consume the very creatures we love?

At the end of the day, if we are truly repulsed by Dr. Johnny Wilcox, we must first admit that he is merely a reflection of ourselves and our relationship with animals. If we dare admit to this disturbing reality and are willing to fully acknowledge the person in the mirror, then we are ultimately left with a two choices: we can either get angry and smash the mirror, or we can change our eating habits so that the mirror better reflects who we want to see.

The Happy Camp: A Brief Dialogue

The Happy Camp: A Brief Dialogue

A German officer sits alone in an office outside a large concentration camp. He is tired from a long day of looking after Jews and ensuring all the Fuhrer’s orders are followed to the letter. Suddenly the phone rings. Half asleep and bothered, he picks up the receiver. To his astonishment, he hears the Fuhrer’s voice on the other end.

FUHRER: I hear the others are beginning to worry about our camps. There is a lot of talk about possible inhumane treatment. Are you sure there’s nothing like that going on?

OFFICER: My dear Fuhrer! These are terrible, ugly lies concocted by anti-exterminators! We treat our Jews quite humanely here; everyone knows that.

FUHRER: I thought so. I just needed to hear it from you, captain.

OFFICER: Of course, my dear Fuhrer. I would follow your orders even if it meant walking into oblivion and back.

FUHRER: Your obedience and courage are admired. You display the heart of a true Aryan.

OFFICER: Thank you dear Fuhrer!

FUHRER: However, you must know that lies have a way of persisting in spite of the truth.

OFFICER: Indeed they do.

FUHRER: And that is why you will find a way to stop them.

OFFICER: Of course I…well, I mean…I would very much like to stop them.

FUHRER: Do I hear a hint of disloyalty in your voice, captain?

OFFICER: Of course not! I will do what my dear Fuhrer commands.


The connection is broken. The officer hangs up the phone and immediately calls for one of his subordinates. A soldier rushes into his office with a firm salute.

OFFICER: Soldier! Have you made sure the Jews have all the proper accommodations?

SOLDIER: Yes, sir.

OFFICER: Do they have ample food and water?

SOLDIER: Yes, sir.

OFFICER: What about living space? Time for leisure?

SOLDIER: Yes, sir.

OFFICER: And do all of the Jews in our camp seem happy and loved?

SOLDIER: Exceedingly so, sir.

OFFICER: And what of the manner of execution?


OFFICER: Are their deaths slow and painful or quick and painless?

SOLDIER: Quick and painless, sir. We’ve decommissioned the gas chambers and replaced them with showers.

OFFICER: Good. We need to make sure they are clean before extermination.

SOLDIER: Anything else, sir?

OFFICER: I need you to find out who is spreading rumors of inhumane treatment.

SOLDIER: If I may sir, I’d like to suggest the rumors are coming from the outside.

OFFICER: I thought as much.

SOLDIER: What should I do about it, sir?

OFFICER: Isn’t it simple?

SOLDIER: You want us to…stop killing Jews, sir?

OFFICER: What? No, you idiot! We invite the outside agitators to see how clean and humane our camps are. Once they are convinced how much we care for our Jews, they can stop writing this nonsense.

SOLDIER: Of course…I see.

The soldier remains upright but his features soften and his stance wavers. His eyes wander the office in search of an invisible something.

OFFICER: Yes, soldier?

SOLDIER: With all due respect, sir, might I ask why we are exterminating them?

OFFICER: What a silly question! Because they are Jews! Because our God and our Fuhrer command it you simpleton!

SOLDIER: Yes, of course…I was just thinking how beautiful they are.

OFFICER: They are a rather beautiful species, but we mustn’t give into our base instincts, soldier. We must exterminate them because we love them, and because it is our God-given duty. If we let them go free they would likely be miserable, poor, and die of starvation. The higher races would be inclined to prey on them because of their stupidity, and their cunning ways would get them into trouble with the law. We are doing them a favor by keeping them here. You must realize this.

SOLDIER: Yes, sir. As stupid and beautiful as they are, it is a pity we have to kill them all the same.

OFFICER: Yes, if only they were not Jews things would be different. But the fact of the matter is they are Jews and we are Aryans. Now go attend to your duties at once!

The soldier salutes and exits the office. The officer looks out of his window to check the status of the camp. Instead of a collection of crude hovels, he sees an open field peppered by trees and several picturesque cottages. Masses of seemingly-happy Jews move about while some recline under trees or relax in the warmth of the midday sun. Children can be seen laughing and playing. The barbed-wire fences have been removed in favor of a more pastoral look, although the sentry towers are still watchful, their bullets replaced with tranquilizers should anyone try to make an escape. 

The officer sighs with satisfaction at the sight. It makes him feel good to know that these Jews will live long and happy lives before their eventual extermination. Long gone are the barbaric days of gas chambers, torture, and starvation; for every new camp will be as humane and dignified as his own. As the officer reclines in his chair and reminds himself of this fact, a smile erupts across his face. He knows the Fuhrer will be proud.

Time for Work: A Very Short Story

Time for Work: A Very Short Story

She didn’t think it would hurt at first, and after awhile it didn’t. In fact, once she numbed herself to it, it became normal. Some nights were harder than others. Sometimes she had a lot of business, and other times she didn’t. It depended on the day. Holidays and weekends would usually draw more customers. It was something she always dreaded, but she needed the money.

Late at night she would come home tired and weary, her body and mind spent. Angry and disgusting faces played through her mind as she reached for the alcohol in an attempt to drown them out. The relief was temporary, but it did the job. TV was also a nice distraction. She could think about other people’s lives for a change.

Before bed she had a ritual. She would sit on the porch of her apartment and smoke a cigarette while she watched the sun set. Sometimes she would play a game and count how many drags she took before she started to see the hazy orange glow disappear, drawing her moment of serenity to a close.

Sometimes she liked to pretend the sun was and old friend waving goodbye that cared about her, though deep down she knew it wasn’t true. She knew the sun was warm but indifferent, just like her boss – at least when he was in a good mood.

One night after her usual ritual she walked into the living room of her small apartment and stopped at the TV before making her way to the bedroom. There was some show on about migrant day-laborers. She noticed their hunched-over bodies and the contorted look on their faces as they toiled in the sun. Their hands moved with impeccable speed as they filled large bushels with one crop or another. She thought they looked like little machines, and she began to feel sorry for them. She flipped the channel to the news.

There was a headline flashing about an illegal prostitution ring in a wealthy suburban community. Girls as young as 15 were made to be sex slaves for cash. The anchor was doing her best to look somber while images of faceless women walking down dark street corners played in the background. People were interviewed with looks of shock and disbelief on their faces. A few voiced angry condemnations of the men involved. She flipped the channel again.

Two political pundits were discussing how government regulation was killing the economy. She noticed the loudest one was also the largest, richest-looking of the bunch. His face and tone of voice filled the room, his finger wagging at the host as his expensive watch shook on his flabby wrist. He seemed to be more interested in controlling the conversation than debating. Annoyed, she turned off TV. There was something too familiar about all of it.

As she made her way to her bedroom and fell into a slumber, she dreamed that she was a day-laborer, her brown face contorting under the hot sun. Her hands were moving incredibly fast, but the bushels seemed to empty as soon as she’d filled them. Suddenly she felt a presence behind her and a pain on her back.

She was being whipped by the fat rich man on the political talk show, only he had her boss’s face. He was screaming at her. “Faster! Faster! FASTER!” But when she looked down at her hands she noticed they were tied together and she was being raped. The pain was unimaginable and caused her to scream out, but her voice was muffled by the wad of money being stuffed down her throat. She couldn’t breathe. She was suffocating.

The woman awoke with a start, her alarm clock sounding loudly in her ears. She turned off the alarm and wiped the cold sweat from her face. For a time she lay motionless in her bed as she tried to clear her head of the nightmare. After a few minutes had passed, she rose from her bed walked mechanically to the shower. It was time for work.

Human Nature: A Brief Dialogue

FASCIST: It’s human nature to conquer others. War is a biological necessity.

STATIST: It’s human nature to have rulers. Social hierarchy is necessary to prevent chaos.

CAPITALIST: It’s human nature to be self-interested. The hierarchy of capitalism is the best tool we’ve got to accumulate wealth.

ANARCHIST: It’s also human nature to freely associate and cooperate with one another in order to work for the individual and common good. No hierarchies or wars are needed.

FASCIST: Impossible! If we didn’t conquer other countries, there would be no peace!

STATIST: Ridiculous! If there were no rulers to control the people, there would be chaos!

CAPITALIST: Absurd! If humans weren’t motivated by greed and starvation, nobody would work!

ANARCHIST: But aren’t all of those predicated on the idea that people are too violent, selfish, ignorant, and lazy to rule themselves and determine how their society is run?


ANARCHIST: But why are people violent, selfish, and ignorant?

FASCIST: It’s the way it’s always been. History is filled with people conquering other people.

ANARCHIST: But isn’t history also filled with cooperation among peoples? If human beings are inherently violent, selfish, and stupid, how could civil society possibly have emerged?

FASCIST: Because the stronger people destroyed the weaker, inferior ones. Look at the Romans.

STATIST: Because societies had the State to keep people in line. Machiavelli said as much.

CAPITALIST: Because people realized they needed to protect their property. Read Locke.

ANARCHIST: What about the Iroquis of North America? The Siriono and Nambikuara of South America? The Kenyan Turkana? The Philippine Kalinga? The Star Mountain peoples of New Guinea? The Commune of Paris? The syndicalist cooperatives of Spain, Russia, and Germany, and Northern Europe? The Quakers, Shakers, Mennonites, and Amish of the United States? Syrian Rojava?

FASCIST: Those societies don’t count because they are small and either wouldn’t or couldn’t compete with the armies of more powerful societies.

STATIST: It could never work on a national scale. At some point a ruler would be needed to control everyone.

CAPITALIST: Those societies could never produce as much wealth as capitalist economies. Quality of life would decrease.

ANARCHIST: Appealing to the ability of a society to be easily conquered by stronger ones isn’t an argument for why a society can’t exist; it’s a merely description of how States function. Decentralized authority can work on a national scale between cooperatives and federations that consent to rules and regulations through direct democracy and informed consent. Socialization of the means of production also combats the widespread poverty and wealth inequality under capitalism by removing concentrated wealth and the exploitation of workers by bosses.

CAPITALIST: If your version of society is so great, why has it never been successful? The fact is that free market capitalism works and socialism gave us Stalin and Mao. Is this what you want? Another bloodbath?

ANARCHIST: This model of society hasn’t been able to flourish because the State and the economic arrangement protecting State interests (capitalism) have violently worked to suppressed it. There is no free market because the hierarchal nature of corporations produces an unequal and coercive exchange of labor for goods and services. The fact that capitalism has “worked” is not an argument for capitalism any more than the fact that slavery worked is an argument for slavery. Stalinist Russia and Maoist China were socialist dictatorships. The economic model changed, but power was concentrated in the hands of the State.

CAPITALIST: What about the great innovations that happened under capitalism?

STATIST: Who will authorize the building of the roads and the police?

FASCIST: What about all the land and resources that must be obtained through war?

ANARCHIST: Research suggests that people tend to be more innovative when they aren’t incentivized by money. The people that like to build roads will build them. War will no longer be a necessity to increase State power and profit, as resources will be readily available to all.

FASCIST, CAPITALIST, and STATIST walk away from ANARCHIST and talk quietly among themselves.

STATIST: This type of thing cannot stand.

CAPITALIST: We stand to lose a lot of money.

FASCIST: I say we kill him. He’s pretty weak.

STATIST: It’s for the greater good. Authority must be established.

CAPITALIST: We need to protect our interests.

FACIST to STATIST: Do I have permission?


CAPITALIST: Let me get my camera so I can film it. This sort of thing is always good for business.

FASCIST walks over to ANARCHIST and pulls out a gun, pointing it straight at his head.

FASCIST: By the power of might, by the authority of the State, and in the interest of capital, you are hereby condemned to death for treason.

ANARCHIST: Liberty cannot die. It can only remain hidden.

A shot rings out.

The Trial: A Brief Dialogue

The Trial: A Brief Dialogue

A group of highly intelligent alien beings are congregated in an alien courtroom. A human is seated across from the judge’s bench with another alien beside him. Across from them sits an alien prosecutor. The atmosphere of the courtroom is tense as everyone whispers quietly. Suddenly a loud voice is heard.

OFFICER: Will the people of the court please rise?

Everyone rises from their seats as the alien judge comes in and takes his seat. The clerk hands him a piece of paper.

JUDGE: This court is now in session. The people will be seated.

Everyone sits as the judge looks over the piece of paper. He then looks down at the desk where the human and alien are both seated.

JUDGE: Will the defense please rise?

The alien rises but the human remains seated. The man looks bewildered, almost as if he didn’t hear.

JUDGE: Will the defendant please rise?

The man looks around confused, but the fiery look in the judge’s eyes compels him to stand.

JUDGE: Mr. Hominis, you stand accused of the crimes of kidnapping, assault, mental, physical, and sexual abuse, slavery, torture, and wanton murder. How do you plead?

HOMINIS: I…I don’t understand.

JUDGE: Did you or did you not commit these crimes against your fellow-creatures?

HOMINIS: I’m not a murderer! I didn’t kill anybody!

JUDGE: Then you plead not guilty?


JUDGE: Very well, then. Mr. Hominus, you may approach the stand.

The man walks to the box beside the judge’s desk.

JUDGE: Will the prosecution please rise?

An alien lawyer rises.

JUDGE: You may proceed.

PROSECUTOR: Mr. Hominis, did you kidnap, assault, enslave, torture, and kill any of your fellow-creatures?

HOMINIS: Of course not.

PROSECUTOR: You didn’t pay someone else to commit these crimes for you?

HOMINIS: I did not.

JUDGE: Didn’t you own a restaurant, Mr. Hominis?


PROSECUTOR: And what did you serve in that restaurant?

HOMINIS: What restaurants usually serve. Steak, burgers, mutton, pork, veal. Is this relevant?

PROSECUTOR: And do you know where your food comes from, Mr. Hominis?

HOMINIS: From farms?

PROSECUTOR: And do you know what happens to the creatures on these farms?

HOMINIS: I think so…why does this matter?

PROSECUTOR: They kill them, Mr. Hominus. They confine, torture, and murder them so they can be delivered to your restaurant, isn’t that so?

HOMINiS: I wouldn’t call it that…

PROSECUTOR: And did you or did you not directly pay for these atrocities to be done on your behalf?

HOMINIS: I wouldn’t call them atrocities…

PROSECUTOR: Yes or no, Mr. Hominis!

A brief silence.

JUDGE: Answer the question.


PROSECUTOR: Nothing further.

The prosecutor returns to his seat while the defense attorney rises to take the floor. He looks at the defendant, then looks over at the jury.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Do we hold our children legally accountable for their actions?



HOMINIS: They don’t know any better.


DEFENSE ATTORNEY to the jury: You see? Like children, Mr. Hominis simply didn’t know what he was doing. He was simply a victim of his time and his culture, and what are clearly crimes to us seemed so normal to him that he didn’t bother question the consequences of his actions. Can we really blame this human for not realizing what he was doing any more than we could blame one of our own children?

The attorney walks back to the desk as the prosecutor rises and approaches the man again.

PROSECUTOR: Are you a child, Mr. Hominis?


PROSECUTOR: Nothing further.

The prosecutor retreats back to his desk as the defense attorney approaches.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I understand you have a family, Mr. Hominis?

HOMINIS: Yes. Two boys and a girl.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: And would you say that you love your family?

HOMINIS: More than anything.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: So, could you say that these alleged crimes that you unknowingly committed were for done the good of your family?


DEFENSE ATTORNEY: So, you wouldn’t need your restaurant if you didn’t need to support your family, would you?


DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, there you have it. Mr. Hominis was doing what he felt was right for his family. His intentions good, even if the consequences were not. Clearly, Mr. Hominis is a good man that was merely mislead by culture and circumstance into making the wrong decision. He can therefore not be held accountable for his crimes any more than a child misled by their parents.

The prosecutor marches to the front of the courtroom before the defense attorney is seated.

PROSECUTOR: Are there other ways to make a living, Mr. Hominis?

HOMINIS: I suppose.

PROSECUTOR: Yes or no.


PROSECUTOR: And are there other ways of making a living available to you which don’t involve the torture, abuse, and deaths of your fellow-creatures?

HOMINIS: Sure, but I –

PROSECUTOR: Nothing further.

The prosecutor walks away as the defense lawyer approaches.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Mr. Hominis, would you say you are a religious man?

HOMINIS: Yes, I would.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: And would you say your religion prescribes that you value certain things more than others?

HOMINIS: Yeah, I’d say so.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: And what are some of those values?

HOMINIS: Faith, hope, and love.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: And do you believe you are living according to those values?


DEFENSE ATTORNEY: And does your religious text place the value of human beings above other creatures?

HOMINIS: Yes. Human beings have souls. Animals don’t.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: And could you say that you are living the best life you can according to your religion and your values?

HOMINIS: Yes, I believe I am. Genesis tells us to be stewards of the land and rule over nature.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Nothing further.

The defense attorney walks away as the prosecutor approaches.

PROSECUTOR: Mr. Hominis, you said that your faith prescribes love, correct?

HOMINIS: Correct.

PROSECUTOR: So where was the love for the animals you had enslaved, tortured, and killed?


JUDGE: Sustained. Rephrase the question.

A brief pause.

PROSECUTOR: Mr. Hominus, is all of God’s creation good?

HOMINIS: Yes, it is.

PROSECUTOR: And do you consider yourself as part of God’s creation?


PROSECUTOR: And do you believe that animals are also a part of God’s creation?


PROSECUTOR: And do you believe that God loves animals as well as humans?


PROSECUTOR: And do you believe you should also show love for God’s creation?

HOMINIS: Of course.

PROSECUTOR: Then what reason, Mr. Hominis, could you possibly have for destroying it? What possible reason could you have for destroying other beings? You’re not a child, so you knew full well what you were doing. You could have found another job at any time which didn’t involve torture and killing, but you chose not to of your own free will. Even your own religion which you profess to believe in compels you to love and care for all of God’s creation – especially the weak and the vulnerable.

This leaves us with one possible explanation: you did it because you could! You did it because it gave you pleasure! Did it make you feel like more of a man to strip another being of its life, its liberty, and its happiness? Tell me, Mr. Hominis, would you do the same to your wife and children?


JUDGE: Watch it.

PROSECUTOR continuing: Religion is not a weapon you can use to justify your behavior, Mr. Hominis. You know perfectly well what you did, and no amount of spiritual invocation can save your soul from the consequences or bring back the innocent lives you stole from others. I hereby rest my case.

The defense attorney rises and gives his closing remarks. The jury deliberates for a half hour and returns to the court. A member of the jury then hold up a piece of paper.

JUDGE: How do you find the defendant? Guilty or not guilty?

JURY MEMBER: Your honor, we the jury find the defendant guilty on all counts.

JUDGE: Mr. Hominis, for your crimes, I hereby sentence you to life in prison without parole.

As the man hears the guilty verdict, he begins to feel the room swirl around him. Suddenly he is mute. He feels his body go numb and sees the courtroom dissolve before him in a haze. “What have I done?” the man says aloud to himself. “What have we done? God help us all…”

As the officer comes to take him away, the man cries as he exits the courtroom, powerless, voiceless, and soon to be nameless – marked with a number and confined to a cell to live out a tortured existence: a life he unwittingly gave so many powerless, voiceless, and nameless others.

“The (Un)Righteous Mind:” Why Moral Prescriptions Based on Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Moral Foundations are Incoherent, & Why Reason, Consensus, and Emotion Should Form the Basis of Moral Judgments

“The (Un)Righteous Mind:” Why Moral Prescriptions Based on Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Moral Foundations are Incoherent, & Why Reason, Consensus, and Emotion Should Form the Basis of Moral Judgments

dBefore I get into my disagreement with Jonathan Haidt and his is-ought problem concerning moral foundationalism, I would like to put forth my own comprehensive argument about what morality is, why we should value what we value, and what makes a moral judgment legitimate as opposed to incomplete or illegitimate.

Premise 1: Morality is a product of evolution involving the criteria of pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles as they relate the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of sentient life.

  • Morality originally arose as a survival mechanism for human beings – not in trees or rocks.
  • Morality is tied to sentience and the brain, and is therefore tied to ideas of pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles.
  • We recognize and understand the usefulness of morality as a tool for the self-preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of our species and others.

Conclusion from Premise 1: The goal of morality should be to aid in the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of sentient beings, and by extension, the best possible morality is one which maximizes these things for all sentient beings.

Premise 2: Morality is tied to instinct. Since morality is a product of evolution and arose as a survival mechanism, it follows that morality has a connection to human instinct.

  • One feel’s an instinctual urge to help another when one sees a child being beating or an animal being tortured.
  • One feel’s an instinctual urge to preserve human life, regardless of circumstance. For example, when one sees another jumping off a bridge, one instinctually rushes to save them.
  • Our instinctual urge to protect human life regardless of pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, flourishing, and well-being, can lead us to make the wrong decisions regarding abortion, assisted suicide, and can lead us to ignore the pain and pleasure of other species.

Conclusion from Premise 2: Instinct alone cannot be the foundation for morality because it can guide us to make choices which ignore the pain, pleasure, preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and the well-being of conscious creatures.

Premise 2: Morality is tied to the feelings and emotions of people and is rooted in convictions of right and wrong.

  • The feeling that black people were inferior served as a justification for racism, slavery, and segregation.
  • The feeling that loving others is a good thing serves as a moral justification for the family unit, acts of charity, and peaceful coexistence within society.

Conclusion from Premise 2: Since feelings about what is moral vary across time and qualitatively differ to the degree they promote preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being, and to the degree they consider pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles relating to these things, feelings alone cannot be the foundation for morality.

Premise 3: Morality is tied to consensus. Since ethical systems are a product of social negotiation – not a product of individuals in isolation – consensus plays a role in determining the prevailing ethical systems and moral behaviors of the time.

  • Morality does not exist in a vacuum, only with respect to groups of people. A human being on a desert island with no other lifeforms has no moral obligations to anyone, including themselves.
  • Historically, individual ethics are only seen as valid to the degree to which others recognize and reaffirm an individual standards and behaviors, and to the degree to which an individual’s standards and behaviors can be understood and accepted by others.
  • In-group ideas about what morality should be and what roles it should play are confined to ideas about pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles, even if those ideas are mistaken.

Conclusion: Since prevailing ethical systems differ across time periods and cultures, and because the degree to which each ethical system or moral behavior promotes the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of the species is qualitatively different, this suggests that consensus alone is not a stable foundation for determining the best possible ethical system.

Premise 4: Morality is tied to knowledge and reason. The influx of knowledge and the exercise of reason fundamentally affects the way human beings understand and negotiate ethics and moral behaviors.

  • We can use knowledge and reason to discredit the feeling and general consensus about the supposed inferiority of black people.
  • We can also use knowledge and reason to wipe out large swaths of the population in the pursuit of building a more sustainable planet.

Conclusion from Premise 4: Knowledge and reason alone cannot be the sole foundation for morality because reason alone ignores emotion and consensus and results in ethical systems and moral behaviors which are contrary to promoting preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being as they relate to pain, pleasure, intentions, consequences, and principles.

Premise 5: The use of knowledge and reason have historically resulted in a greater positive impact on societies in terms of providing qualitatively better ethical systems than those which only relied on the use of instinct, emotion, and consensus.

  • In the past our instinct, feelings, and consensus enabled us to burn other human beings which were seen as “witches,” and allowed us to perceive physical diseases as a sign of evil which resulted in a culture of victim-blaming.
  • Through the influx of knowledge, we learned that what we assumed to be malevolent forces were actually due to mental illness.
  • In light of new knowledge, human beings began to incorporate reason into ethical decision-making by treating mentally ill people as victims instead of viewing them as a threat.

Premise 6: The exercise of reason in moral-decision making is necessary because it allows us to understand, explain, and argue why something should be valued, whereas emotions and consensus only give us a general a sense of what standards and behaviors are potentially good or bad.

  • If the racist that feels that black people are inferior cannot rationally explain the origin of his disgust, but solely relies to emotion and consensus, then their opinion should be regarded as uniformed, since the exercise of reason would allow them to realize their opinion is not legitimate.
  • Similarly, if the non-racist fails to articulate in rational terms why they should treat all people regardless of race as they themselves would like to be treated, but instead relies on emotion and consensus, then their opinion is also uninformed, as the exercise of reason would allow them to realize its legitimacy.

Premise 7: The use of emotion and consensus in moral-decision making is necessary because gives us a general sense of whether ethical standards and behaviors might be good or bad, whereas reason cannot give us this sense; it can only help us understand, explain and justify it.

  • The sociopath’s reasons as to why they are killing people might be very rational, but this ignores the pain and well-being of the victim as well as the consensus and feelings of most people regarding killing.
  • Similarly, the dictator might have a good reason for quashing dissent and exterminating entire swaths of the population, but this betrays the moral sense given to us by our emotions and ignores the well-being of others.

Final Conclusion from Premises 1-7: Moral decision-making should therefore necessarily involve the use of reason, emotion, and consensus, and the ethical systems which incorporate these things are qualitatively better – that is better for the preservation, cooperation, flourishing, and well-being of sentient life –  than ethical systems which do not incorporate all three.

In psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind,” he outlines his theory of moral foundationalism, explaining that most people make moral judgments across cultures and countries according to 5 distinct criteria:

  • Harm
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Purity

In pointing to these criteria – a description of how most people make moral decisions across cultures, national boundaries, and political affiliations – he therefore concludes that the way most human beings tend to make moral judgments should be the way human beings make moral judgments.

From a philosophical standpoint, this is problematic for several reasons:

  • It commits Hume’s is-ought fallacy by transforming the descriptive data about moral foundations into a prescription that most people should make value judgments based on these categories.
  • It assumes that all 5 criteria in question are static, meaningful, equal, and applicable to all moral situations.

Regarding Haidt’s first implicit claim, it’s clear to see why the fact that people happen to make moral decisions a certain way has no bearing on whether those decisions are morally justified. In a world where killing others because they believe in the wrong God is the norm, and in which the moral criteria of in-group loyalty, authority, and purity reign supreme, this does not mean we should advocate for such an ethical system because doing so would result a net increase in pain and loss of life, which is contrary to one of the purposes and goals of morality – i.e. to maximize pleasure and well-being of all sentient beings.

Secondly, one of the problems inherent to Haidt’s 5 criteria of moral foundationalism as a prescriptive moral claim is one of coherence and inflexibility. In order for Haidt’s 5 criteria to be useful – not merely in terms of describing how people make moral choices, but in terms of prescribing how people should make those choices – one would have to do the following:

  • Demonstrate that these 5 criteria are morally valid.
  • Demonstrate how these 5 criteria are more necessary and more useful than other criteria.
  • Disallow for the revision, negation, and addition of criteria among individuals and collective societies with the influx of new knowledge and the passage of time.

Furthermore, even accepting that these 5 criteria should be used to make moral decisions, this coherency problem also extends to the use of the 5 criteria themselves because it implies a moral equivalency between them which has yet to be demonstrated.

To suggest that all criteria are equal is to imply that one criteria is no better than another when making moral judgments in the same way I argue that consensus, emotion, and reason are no better, only Haidt never bothers to explain why this must be the case.

However, even if we accept that these criteria are equivalent without qualification, we still run into problems because morality itself is context-bound – that is, something which is bound to specific circumstances and contexts. It could very well be the case that all 5 criteria should be employed when making moral judgments, but it could also be the case that only some or none of them should be employed when making moral judgments because they may simply not be relevant or necessary to answering the same moral question.

For example, when it comes to deciding whether to cheat on my wife, the criteria of harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, all seem to apply (though it’s clear to me that some matter more than others), while purity seems completely irrelevant. Similarly, when it comes to a married woman deciding to abort a non-sentient fetus, the criteria of loyalty, purity, and authority are seemingly irrelevant to the moral equation, while the regard for the pain of the mother and father involved and the criteria of fairness with respect to the wishes of each should obviously be considered.

Moreover, Haidt’s moral prescriptions based on moral foundationalism faces a historical problem since it presumes that the 5 criteria procured from the time in which we currently live should automatically form the basis for our actions, thereby making them static, universal, and unchanging standards of morality which should be taken at face value rather than scrutinized, criticized, and refined over time as the discovery of new knowledge helps us understand our world and our place within it.

For example, I could just as easily do a study charting the moral foundations of Mesopotamia in 2,000 B.C. and walk away with a very different data set regarding how human beings make moral decisions, and therefore conclude how those decisions should be made based on false premises. Additionally, the fact that morality is a constantly evolving, expanding sphere of knowledge and about how people should relate to each other, confining morality to 5 specific criteria for all time works against the evolution of morality itself and runs the risk of becoming just as dogmatic and harmful as the as the morally abhorrent cultures of the past and instinctual ethical systems which arose from them.

Furthermore, the adoption of Haidt’s moral foundations as a moral prescription is also problematic as the criteria individuals and societies use to make moral judgments change with the influx of new knowledge and experience which contradicts and replaces the previous moral criteria being used. For example, in my transition from Catholicism to atheism, and from my transition from omnivore to vegan over the course of my life, the criteria I used to make moral judgments significantly changed along with my individual understanding of what it meant to be moral and immoral. Similarly, in our Western, liberal democracy, gay marriage was seen as evil in the past few decades by the majority of the population whereas it is seen as normal today.

To Haidt’s credit, his work does show us why different people tend to value different things, providing valuable insights into human nature. However, it’s important to recognize that Haidt’s scientific findings are concerned with descriptions of raw data whereas his moral argument relies on a specific interpretation of that data.

By using a different interpretative framework or paradigm, for example, one can come to a completely different conclusion. While Haidt’s understanding and interpretation of the data about morality stems from what appears to be a kind of moral structural functionalism in which competing moral frameworks are necessary for society to survive (yin and yang), my own interpretation of the data about morality stems from a kind of moral conflict theory which argues that morality works dialectically toward a synthesis of competing moral frameworks, and which necessitates the discarding of bad ideas about morality while embracing ones that have proven to be more useful.

Similarly, while Haidt sees the fact that morality is understood differently and that different ethical systems and moral behaviors are adopted and prescribed throughout the world as a reliable basis for justifying the use of his 5 criteria, this merely suggests to me that not everyone has an equal understanding of what morality is or what it entails in the same way that not everyone has an equal understanding of religion or science, or in the same way that not everyone has an equal share of wealth or innate abilities.

Therefore, where Haidt sees the existence of irreconcilable differences among the way human beings perceive and behave in the world, I see these differences as a problem of competing moralities due to the passage of time, the influx of new knowledge in societies, and the rift between outdated definitions and understandings of morality based on instinct, consensus, and emotion versus more enlightened systems based on consensus, emotion, and reason.

In conclusion, I think Haidt’s choice to interpret the data in a way which makes his 5 criteria absolute and yet allows for moral relativity by suggesting all decisions made upon these chosen criteria are morally indistinguishable from each other is intellectually lazy and morally toxic. In my opinion, it is anti-knowledge, anti-reason, anti-progress, and if adopted, will ultimately fall apart as time goes on as its absurd and incoherent nature is realized in the wake of better and more useful ideas about morality.

The Heist: A Brief Dialogue

The Heist: A Brief Dialogue

It is night. Two people are standing in a vault. The safe is open. They gaze at the pile of crisp dollar bills. They are neatly stacked and wrapped. The two begin to salivate.

Reggie: “I want all of it.”

Adira: “But you can’t.”

Reggie: “Just watch me.”

Reggie walks over to the mountain of money starts stuffing his bag.

Reggie: “It won’t fit!”

Adira: “I told you.”

Reggie: “Is there another way?”

Adira pulls out another empty bag.

Reggie: “I don’t like it.”

Adira: “Too bad.”

Reggie: “Too bad you’re not strong enough.”

Adira: “I’m strong enough.”

Reggie laughs.

Reggie: “If you say so.”

Adira: “Watch me.”

Adira fills her bag halfway and zips it shut.

Reggie: “You sure I couldn’t –

Adira: “No, you couldn’t.”

Reggie: “Fine. What should we do with the rest of it?”

Adira: “Give it to the others.”

Reggie: “No way!”

Adira: “Others like us.”

Reggie: “You mean others like you. Not happening.”

Adira: “If you don’t they’ll come after you.”

Reggie: “No they won’t. Besides, I’ll stop them if they do.”

Adira: “You sure about that?”


Reggie: “If they want it, they can go after them; not me.”

Adira: “Alright, but you’ll regret it later.”

Reggie: “How’s that?”

Adira: “The past has a way of catching up to a man.”

Reggie: “Is that a threat?”

Adira: “Just stating a fact.”

Reggie: “Yeah, well my bag’s bigger. How do you like that fact?”

Adira rolls her eyes

Reggie: “Jealous.”

Adira: “We should probably get out of here before they notice.”

Reggie: “The cops or the others?”

Adira: “We own the cops, remember? We paid them off.”

Reggie: “Oh, yeah…I forgot.”

Adira: “Figures.”

Reggie: “Don’t be a bitch.”

Adira: “If I’m a bitch it’s because you’ve made me one. Cause and effect.”

Reggie: “I wish I didn’t need you.”

Adira: “The feeling’s mutual.”

Reggie: “You know if you spent less time arguing –

Adira covers his mouth: “Sshh! I think I heard something.”

They are both silent. They listen for a moment but don’t hear anything. Reggie takes Adira’s hand away from his mouth.

Reggie: “Get off me!”

Adira: “Like I said, you made me do it. Hope that didn’t emasculate you.”

Reggie: “Shut up.”

Adira: “I think I know the best route out of here.”

Reggie: “Oh yeah?”

Adira: “Yeah, so the others won’t know.”

Reggie: “What if we run into them?”

Adira: “We them we couldn’t find it.”

Reggie: “What about the bags?”

Adira: “We’ll hide them.”

Reggie: “Genius. I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”

Adira rolls her eyes

Adira: “Let’s get moving. Follow my lead.”

Reggie: “Bullshit. I’ve got more to carry. I’ll do the leading.”

Adira: “That doesn’t make sense.”

Reggie: “It doesn’t have to, I’m stronger than you.”

Adira: “Fine. Do it your way.”

Reggie leads them out into one of the halls. They manage to skirt by a few of the others without being spotted.

Reggie: “Phew! That was close!”

Adira: “Don’t count your money just yet.”

They have passed out of the hallway leading to the vault and approach the lobby. There are a few people leaning against the teller’s counter. Another one watches the front door.

Reggie, whispering to Adira: “Shit! What do we do now?”

Adira whispers back: “Follow my lead.”

Reggie nods in silent agreement. They both hide their bags in a dark corner of the lobby then walk into plain sight.

Reggie: “Sorry guys. No luck with the safe.”

Gideon: “What?! Seriously?! Then why are you here?”

Adira: “We tried everything. You can give it a go if you want.”

Gideon: “Shit…this is not good. Boss isn’t going to like it.”

Reggie: “Like I said, there’s nothing doing.”

Gideon becomes angry, slamming his fist down on the counter. He begins to swear loudly. The others look over at him, silent but anxious. After a moment, he calms down.

Gideon: “Alright. Alright…I’ll let him know, but it’s you two that are taking the fall.”

Adira: “We know that.”

Gideon: “Do you?!”

Reggie: “Yeah, we do.”

Gideon laughs

Gideon: “Your funeral.”

As he walks away to break the news to the others, Reggie and Adira silently collect their bags and head for the door. On the way, Reggie begins to feel he can no longer carry the heavy weight of his bag. Suddenly it slips from his hands and lands with a thud on the floor. The others turn around at the sound. Gideon rushes over.

Gideon: “What the?”

Reggie: “Shit!”

Adira: “We’re dead.”

Gideon: “You trying to screw us?!”

Gideon pulls his gun and points it at Reggie’s head.

Reggie: “No, we were just –

Gideon: “Seeing how stupid we were?!”

He pushes the barrel against Reggie’s skull.

Adira: “Gideon, don’t do it.”

Gideon: “Why not?”

Adira: “It was my idea.”

Gideon: “Don’t’ worry, you’ll get one too.”

As Reggie braces himself for death, suddenly the others grab Gideon from behind, stripping him of his gun and bringing him down hard on the marble floor.

Nico: “The boss said nobody gets killed.”

Gideon squirms on the ground as the others hold him.

Gideon: “You idiot! They tried to get away with the money!”

Nico, turning to Reggie and Adira: “That true?”

Adira: “Yeah…”

Reggie silently nods.

Nico eyes them both with an indignant expression.

Nico: “Why?”

Reggie: “I don’t know. I just saw it and…couldn’t help myself.”

Nico: “I’ve known you guys for a while now. You’re better than this.”

Adira: “I know…it was a moment of weakness.”

Nico: “Family comes first. Always. You don’t sell out your family.”

Reggie: “Nico –

Nico: “What, you think you’re better than us ‘cause you’ve got more?! The money doesn’t make the man; the man makes the money.”

He takes hold of both bags.

Adira: “Nico, wait!”

Nico: “You want the money?! Go get it!”

He unzips the bags and throws them into the middle of the lobby. The dollar bills topple out, scattering onto the polished marble floor. The others look on in shock. Reggie and Adira don’t move a muscle.

Nico: “How much did you guys take?”

Reggie responds anxiously: “Not sure.”

Nico: “Count it. Both of you.”

Reggie and Adira walk over to the pile of money and begin to count it. A few minutes pass.

Nico: “How much?”

Adira: “A few hundred thousand.”

Nico: “Now divide it up evenly.”

Reggie and Adira comply, separating the money into chunks on the floor. Nico points to the floor after they are done.

Nico: “What are these two piles for?”

Reggie: “I just thought…you know…”

Nico: “Think again. You don’t get what you don’t earn.”

They split the two remaining piles into the others. Nico gathers up one of the piles and puts the money in his bag.

Nico: “Gentleman, help yourselves.”

They all proceed to take their equal shares of the money.

Reggie: “Promise you won’t tell the boss.”

Nico laughs while Reggie and Adira both give him a concerned and puzzled look.

Nico: “What, you two don’t know?”

Adira: “Know what?”

Nico: “There is no boss.”

They both stare at him blankly.

Nico: “We’re the boss. All of us. I’m surprised you didn’t figure it out by now.”

As they all quietly exit the building with their shares of the money, the full moon shines down on them, illuminating the letters of the building written in large, gold font: “Universal Bank of Humanity. Give what you can, take only what you need.”