Do you always know what the right thing is? Are you always sure that your acts are moral? Do you need them to be moral? Is your morality universal? These are the questions that the characters in the film Gone Baby Gone, directedby Ben Affleck, face. In it, two private detectives, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, investigate a missing girl’s case. In the course of the investigation, they find out that the police detective Remy Bressant and Captain Jack Doyle, who are allegedly making a formal investigation while assisting the main characters, are immediately relevant to the girl’s abduction. Though the motive was to save the girl from her mother’s harmful influence, the topical question is: Does the end justify the means? Patrick Kenzie does not think so and returns the girl to her mother. In order to make a judgment about whether the main action of the film is moral or not, we will further analyze it in terms of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy.
If philosopher Kant judged this case, the first aspect he would challenge would be the nature of one’s purpose: Was the act committed with a certain aim, or was it intrinsically valid that is committed a priori, regardless of any internal and external reasons? According to Kant, the act is moral only if the agent does not seek to achieve any goal and is guided by unconditional obligation (Johnson). In the film, Patrick Kenzie realizes the possible negative effects of returning the girl to her mother. However, he bases his action on the view that morality does not recognize any exceptions, “because all the snacks and the outfits and the family trips don't matter. They stole [the girl]” (Affleck, “Gone Baby Gone”). The abductors could not guarantee that their actions for the girl’s sake would prove to be saving in the future; the means were utterly questionable; finally, the concept of happiness is relative. That is why no person should force other people to be happy the way this person wants it. This is also the reason, for which a moral obligation should be universal. Otherwise, what is the point in acting morally? Hereby, we have come to one of the formulations of Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (qtd. in Johnson).
Another formulation of the Categorical Imperative says, “we should never act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself” (qtd. in Johnson). Kidnapping little Amanda was immoral, because, apart from her wellbeing as an end, she served as a means at the same time: other people controlled over her life at their discretion. Moreover, detective Bressant decided that he had the power of life and death, when it came to obviating people who abused children or acted hindrance in secrecy: “Where I come from, you die with your secrets” (Affleck, “Gone Baby Gone”). However, he truly believed that degenerates who molest and beat children deserve the worst: “Kids don't judge. Kids turn the other cheek. What do they get for it? So I went back out there, I put an ounce of heroin on the living room floor, and I sent the father on a ride, seven to life.” (Affleck, “Gone Baby Gone”), which caused mixed feelings for this character. Patrick Kenzie’s feelings that induced him to shoot the serial molester in the head, even though the latter was begging for mercy on his knees, can be understood either. However, in contrast to Bressant, Kenzie took this hard: “…shame is god telling you what you did was wrong” (Affleck, “Gone Baby Gone”). Since the act of killing the man served as a means of inner satisfaction, Kant’s position is uncompromising: no empirical reason can justify the action. Specifically, human beings cannot serve as a means of reaching one’s goal.
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Finally, Kant relates a moral obligation to the idea of freedom by saying that the idea of the free will is the key to understanding the autonomy of the rational will, for to be a rational being means to be free, therefore, freedom is the nature of human beings (qtd. in Johnson). Furthermore, freedom is the property of the will that allows it to be the law for itself; and only because the moral duty can proceed from any rational will, it is, thus, universally valid (qtd. in Johnson). Hence, the human ability to act morally implies fulfilling one’s duty in compliance with the universal law that is subject to itself rather than any other causality, which is the same as the Categorical imperative. In this respect, Patrick Kenzie’s decision to return Amanda to her mother can be regarded as free and, thereby, moral, for he did not act out of personal motives, but out of pure will to abide by the moral law which is universal for everyone.
Following the analysis provided above, we can rightfully assert that the main action, performed by Patrick Kenzie, was moral, because he acted from a position of impartiality, respect for human rights, and universality, which corresponds to the main principles of Kant’s moral philosophy.
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