Director Woody Allen reminds secularists that just because God might not be watching, it doesn’t mean it’s time for a chanting of Olly Olly oxen free in the 1991 film Crimes and Misdemeanors. The film explores the validity of the Judeo-Christian God by analyzing the syllogism most often proposed by theist apologetics, such as William Lane Craig does in his essay “There Are Good Reasons to Believe that God exists.” He argues: “1) If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist, 2) Objective moral values do exist, 3) Therefore, God exists” (Craig 8). Woody Allen’s film mainly concerns itself with the minor premise “Objective moral values do exist.” Through careful scrutiny of spectatorial reaction to characters’ behavior in the film, the commonsense approach often taken with morality is disrupted, creating a chasm to be permeated by ethical debate. Though the movie is a comedy, it manages to thrust together the themes of humanity, theology, and reason, prompting a questioning of morality and the existence of God within the audience.
Much can be learned just through the audience’s attitudes regarding the minor character Delores, alone. Though Delores is not a major player in the film, her specter kindles in every scene involving Juah–prior to and following her death. Initially, most audience members feel quite a bit of sympathy for her: she’s devoted, she’s on the brink or past the point of insanity, and she has been mislead by Judah. Strangely, though Judah is by default villainized when we pity Delores, we begin to share his frustration with her as he tries to rationalize with her. In Nietzschean terms, we regard her as contemptible at times because because she exhibits a completely selfless slave morality; completely devoted to Judah, she becomes disgusting at moments. This relationship, even without murder, highlights the complicated status of morality within our own social structures. How can we both pity and despise her? I find it hard to believe that human emotion, essentially automatic bioelectrical impulses, can constitute violations of moral code. How can we simultaneously sympathize with Delores but condemn adultery?
We seem to exhibit, as individuals and as societies, two separate moral codes that can be switched on and off depending on circumstance. Though we don’t, I hope, overwhelmingly wish to “eliminate” Delores, why do we still feel disdain for her when she threatens to blackmail Judah, ruining everything he has worked so hard for? This is because morality is not as staid as it must be under strict Western theology. Morality lies in sentiment, not within static conviction. The inconsistent feelings we experience as an audience reveal the macrocosmic reaction of our society to any moral dilemma; we consider circumstance, not concrete code. As evidence of this, we do have laws against murder, but why do we partition this act into the two separate offenses of first degree or second degree? The justice system considers premeditated murder to be drastically worse than an act out of “passion.” What exactly is an act of “passion,” or “temporary insanity”? How could an objective moral code be applied to such subjective questions? Simply put, it cannot be. This attempt at demarkation is the direct result of nuanced morality; it is the incisive synthesis of approximate morality into an idealized morality of precision .
Circumstance controls the moral tango that Judah and the audience engage in throughout the film. Adultery is certainly not a character-affirming quality in Judah, but we do not abhor him for it; instead there is a period of forgiveness, and a hope that he does not commit murder. As he rationalizes aloud to multiple characters throughout the film his sexual trysts, we even come to understand. Though boredom in a long marriage is quite the cliché, there is still a socially ordained element of acceptability to affairs. With this sympathy for Judah in mind, there are hopes that he can, indeed, convince Delores to let the relationship die. This attitude of understanding certainly changes after Judah has Delores “eliminated” through his brother’s mafia ties. Why is it that the palate of society can handle an affair, at time savor the erotic forbidden nature of it, but cannot cope with the macabre tang of murder? Perhaps the answer is psychological. It is possible that there is a acquittal from so-called fornication because it is in our evolutionary nature to procreate and perpetuate the species, and maybe it is that murder is unsettling because it is ant-evolutionary. It is anti-human. It seems unacceptable that, though both offenses are carved in the same stone, one outweighs in moral liability.
Following the murder, Judah temporarily creates another emotional alliance with the audience as the reality of his acts set in. One of the most potent scenes in the film follows the murder of Delores, in which he stands in the bathroom, gazing at himself in the mirror, confronting the man in the glass that is newly a murderer. For part of the film there is the belief that he will redeem himself both in the eyes of “God” and society through confession, but it is soon clear that he abandons remorse. As he says at the end of the film, “We rationalize; we deny, or we couldn’t go on living.” Again, the relationship between Judah and the audience change. He is a cold-blooded killer, a crooked élite, and hated. Because at various moments Judah’s actions are considered mere misdemeanors, and at others they are crimes, we know there is not an objective morality, but a set of evolving exceptions, circumstance, and pity. There is a flexible system subjectively created by our own societal institutions.
Craig, William L. Ed. Bruce N. Waller. You Decide! Current Debates in Introductory Philosophy. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.