Has a film ever made you question your own moral precepts?
For me, cinema—and art in general—has always provided a space for intellectual and emotional discourse. I find art to be the most effective medium at exposing psychological truths and posing philosophical queries. As an artist with a keen interest in the interconnected sciences of the mind, concepts of psychology permeate my own film portfolio, and I find myself returning to a philosophical lens in most things I do.
An Interdisciplinary Education
I chose the joint degree of Psychology and Philosophy, in no small part, due to its interdisciplinary potential. As an empath, emotions have always held a high status in my psychological inquiry, and with it, a desire to understand and interrogate ethics and morality. Lucky for me, my first university course for my philosophy degree was Morality & Value. In this course, we critically examined the moral theories and ethical frameworks of prominent philosophers such as Kant, Aristotle, and Hobbes. We also explored more modern and niche areas of morality such as sexual consent, immigration, and the moral limits of markets.
As I consider the many perspectives and theories I learned last semester, I keep coming back to a film which I feel embodies elements of most of the curriculum. In sharing with you the inextricable link between philosophy, psychology, and cinema, I decided an appropriate demonstration would be a review of Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk, neo-noir film Blade Runner (1982), an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). The film provides a wonderful space for debate and a culmination of this semester’s learnings for me.
The following discussion will focus on applying moral lenses to the situations presented in the film. Because of this, there will be some spoilers. If you haven’t already, I recommend pausing here and watching this film. Seriously, it’s phenomenal!
The Industrial Smog & Moral Fog of Capitalism
The premise of Blade Runner is centered on a hypothetical, dystopian future in which the fictional Tyrell Corporation has designed and manufactured Replicants (anthropomorphic machines identical to humans in almost every way) to do labor and other jobs unfit for the natural population on off-world colonies. These Replicants have been deemed too dangerous to integrate into the human population on Earth and so they are kept sheltered away, and denied any access to the planet’s surface. Already, we have here a question of the moral right to immigration, which I would delve into if I was sure I had your attention for that long (maybe I’ll write a follow-up post if people express interest).
When the Replicants manage to infiltrate the general population on Earth, special police squads—called Blade Runner units—are hired to track down and eliminate them. This process of assassination is called ‘retiring’. The protagonist of the film, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked to track down and ‘retire’ four rogue Replicants who have escaped from a colony onto Earth. The film tackles the ethical dilemma involved in this process, and calls into question the distinction between humans and Replicants.
Two Moral Frameworks & the Essence of Being Human
Both Kant and Aristotle ground their ethical frameworks in a characterisation of the unique quality of being human. What distinguishes humans from other animals? What value lays central to our moral compass and the way we should lead our lives?
Well, Kant would argue it is our rational agency, more so than our well-being (which is postulated by Utilitarianism), that gives our lives meaning and should therefore drive our moral decisions. One of the main versions of Kant’s Categorical Imperative is the Formula of Humanity as an End in Itself, which prohibits the use of humanity as a means to some other end. Here, Kant defines humanity as our uniquely human capacity for rational agency. As we can see from the basic premise of Blade Runner, rational agency in the Replicants is utilized by humanity as a means for another end: slave labor and profit. We could argue that the Replicants’ rational agency is fundamentally different and more limited than that of humans; one wouldn’t assume a computer has the same rights as you or me, right? However, as is explained in one of the opening scenes of the film by Police Chief Bryant to Deckard:
“They were designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. The designers reckoned that after a few years, they might develop their own emotional responses. Oh, hate, love, fear, anger, envy. So they built in a fail-safe device… four year life span.”Blade Runner (1982)
If we aren’t assessing human nature and value on the presence of emotions but rather rational agency, then the Replicants are morally equal to Humans from the get-go. Similarly, Aristotle identifies the primary function of humans, distinguishable from all other life, as our capacity for thought and reflection, or in other words, rationality. However, he went a bit further, putting emphasis on our ability to use our rationality to moderate our emotional state. Our unique ability to find balance, or what Aristotle calls the Golden Mean, in our emotions between two polars is the epitome of virtue. We should look up to and respect virtuous individuals. If Replicants don’t experience emotion, they cannot be virtuous, and so in the eyes of Aristotle, they are not of equal moral standing with humans. All we have to do here, however, is return to the quote above, which explains how Replicants do in fact develop emotions; given enough time, they have the capacity for emotional thought and expression and so they can ascend Aristotle’s moral ladder as well.
Memories, Romance, and Power Dynamics
Deckard is tasked by Eldon Tyrell with performing the Voight-Kampff test (a form of Turing test which focuses on provoking an emotional response) on Rachael. Deckard discovers with the audience that Rachael is a Replicant but unaware of this fact. When Deckard confronts Tyrell about her ignorance, Tyrell explains that “Rachael is an experiment… If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, then consequently we can control them better.” Deckard later reveals to Rachael that her memories were in fact extracted from Tyrell’s niece. This premise of implanting memories in the Replicants is expanded on in Blade Runner 2049.
One thing we discussed in Psychology 1A is how memories are the building blocks that make us who we are as individuals. Psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett demonstrated that memories are reconstructions of past events, not copies, and so the fabricated memories in the mind of a Replicant like Rachael are effectively no different than a real memory in the mind of you or me, which presents a confusing dilemma for both Rachael and Deckard. The two end up in a romantic relationship and run off together as fugitives from the law when Deckard is ordered to “retire” Rachael. This relationship creates a level playing field where the two are positioned as equals to each other, erasing the moral high ground Deckard assumed over Rachael in the beginning. Rachael’s romantic sentiment towards Deckard also demonstrates her human nature and capacity for emotional experience and expression.
“Like tears in rain” — Empathy & Free Will
As for the other rogue Replicants, Ridley Scott depicts them developing more nuanced and emotionally-informed relationships with the world. Minutes from the end of the film, the alpha of the group, Roy, is seen crying when he finds the dead body of Pris, a fellow Nexus-6 model Replicant and his apparent love interest. Roy, enraged, chases Deckard through an eerie warehouse, flipping the roles of cat and mouse. After cornering Deckard on the roof and holding his life in his hands, Roy experiences a transformative change of heart. As Roy feels his own life draining from him, he realizes how valuable life is, even the life of his enemy. He spares Deckard and delivers a monologue that culminates this moral debate of how human the Replicants really are.
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”Blade Runner (1982)
Being a combat model, Roy’s ‘programmed’ instincts are to kill whoever he deems an enemy. His decision to spare the life of Deckard demonstrates free will, and the power to overcome his base instincts. Roy realizes the oneness of all life, including the life of the Replicant, and his final monologue about tears in rain shows a deep, conscious, and distinctly human understanding of his own mortality. The conclusion we reach is that even though one was created by the other, and one is biologically artificial, humans and Replicants end as equals in intellectual, emotional, and moral capacity.
I hope I’ve inspired you to try to apply philosophical and psychological lenses to the next film you watch for a more engaging and provocative viewing experience. Please reach out with things I missed from Blade Runner and other course-related films you would like to read my take on.