We hold people responsible for things every day, be it our personal judgments, our legal verdicts, or our societal standards of decency. But at what point is someone truly responsible? Specifically, I want to talk about moral responsibility as it applies to the difference between desires and will. To start with, I should offer some basic definitions so we are on the same page moving forwards. Actions are the external things that we do, desires are the things that we want to do, and will is the ability to either restrain or feed our desires. When asked what people can be held morally culpable for, most people I’ve met will respond that an individual is morally responsible for the actions they take (aka - how their will controls their desires). To illustrate this, let’s look at a real world desire. Let’s say that we have an individual who has lived a difficult life and has a strong desire to use Heroin (for the first time), but he is able to will himself to not act upon that strong desire for Heroin. In our society, most people would say that this individual is morally in the right, in fact many would agree with the Kantian perspective, which states that it is more virtuous to have had to struggle to overcome desire than to have no desire at all. So in that basic example, we can see that our society claims to draw the line of moral responsibility at the point where an individual chooses to act upon his/her desires.
However, in my experience, this isn’t always the case. Fair warning, this essay could become slightly uncomfortable from this point on as it will touch on some more sensitive areas of human depravity. Let me first start by providing a more personal example of mine. I am an avid film buff; I enjoy a wide variety films, and recently foreign films have been my principle area of interest. As you may have gathered from my earlier essay, “The Value of Ugly Art”, I have a predilection for dark, gritty, and pessimistic films that reflect on issues of human darkness. In the film buff community, there is one particularly infamous film that is simultaneously considered perhaps the single most depraved film ever made as well as an intelligent work of art and social criticism. That movie is “A Serbian Film”. Now, I have not seen this movie myself, and I do not recommend that any of my readers watch it either (check the Wikipedia plot synopsis if your curiosity must be satisfied). I am not at all a squeamish or sensitive person, but it goes a bit too far even for me. I mention it, because despite the praise of its artistry, most of society views it as the most morally reprehensible film ever made. None of the actions depicted really happened, but the suggestion that such images could ever inhabit a human mind morally revolts people. This seems like a significant double standard to me. To put this in more relatable and mild terms, let me give you another example from my own life. Aside from writing for this blog, I am a short story writer as well, and I recently wrote a story that was in part the inspiration for this essay. This story, while mild in comparison to “A Serbian Film” involved some graphic violence, disturbing existential monologues, and a character defined by his perversions. While many people read and could appreciate the literary value of my story, some were either unable to finish it or accused me of immorality on the basis of the taboo content involved. Now, I as the author, never desired to do any of the acts that my character participated in, but even the suggestion that I was able to think of such things elicited harsh moral judgment from some of my peers. Are the creators of “A Serbian Film” morally culpable for simply being able to reflect on human depravity? Am I as a writer morally responsible for commenting upon the moral depravity that inhabits the subconscious of all people?
I think I can best tie my point together by giving another example that parallels the Heroin example I gave at the beginning. Let’s say that now, instead of a desire for Heroin, this individual is a pedophile who is strongly attracted to children but is able to repress his sexual urges. Most people, if they found out this man’s desires would view him as immoral and unacceptable in the eyes of society. Nothing has changed; all I did was change out one social taboo for another, but in doing so I have fundamentally changed how society (and probably you) views this individual. No longer is he viewed as a Kantian moral hero, instead he is a degenerate. Why is he morally responsible for desires that he manages to reign in? I contend that he isn’t. Desires, especially sexual desires are not willingly determined by an individual, but they can be controlled by the will. Society has established a double standard of moral responsibility. It claims that one is only responsible for actions, but whenever desires become taboo, suddenly even the thought of such an action is grounds for moral judgment. I will not stand and defend violence, pedophilia, and other such acts, but I will say that no one should be held accountable for merely having desires that are frowned upon by society. I think the reason that society has such a hard time with remaining consistent is that depravity resides somewhere deep inside all of us, but people don’t like to be reminded of their darker selves, so they cast out those who have faced and conquered their dark desires. Desires haunt us all, the true test is acknowledging those desires for what they are and then rising above them.
In referencing his movie "A Serbian Film"