Meet Dexter: a serial killer who kills killers. By taking out the trash of society, he ensures that these murderers will never hurt anyone else. In the eyes of the law, however, Dexter is one of the most notorious serial killers in all of history.
Beyond the incredible storyline and great characters, what makes this show so great to me is that it brings to mind questions about morality, value, and virtue. Put simply: This show makes you think.
If you have never seen the show and aren’t afraid of blood, violence, or adult themes (it’s about a serial killer after all), I would highly suggest watching it.
Is Dexter Moral?
In order to even begin to answer this question, we must start off with a definition of morality that is generally agreeable. Although this sounds simple, it’s actually something that can be surprisingly difficult! After all, philosophers have been talking about this topic for thousands of years. Some have argued towards an absolute notion, while others have maintained that morality is subjective, culturally relative, or even non-existent.
To try to avoid all of this debate, I’d like to present a definition of morality that I think most people will agree upon and work from there. This definition is objective in the sense that it can work for all circumstances, but also relative in the sense that certain actions may be moral depending on the circumstances.
In its most basic form, I believe that morality can be defined as such:
Morality: A way to describe the overall well-being of conscious entities.
In other words: To be moral (a good person) is to perform actions that benefit the overall well-being of those around you. To not be moral (a bad person) is to perform actions that impede on that well-being of others. Although an action like murder brings about an effect, there is another requirement that I believe must be present in order to judge an action as morally right or wrong: intention.
Actions, Intentions, and Moral Worth
An action in and of itself does not necessarily carry moral worth. Consider two examples:
- A man driving a car hits and kills a pedestrian who was jaywalking through a busy intersection.
- A man murders his colleague after he finds out that his wife had been cheating on him with his coworker.
Although the outcomes of each example were the same (a person was killed), the big difference between them was the intention behind the actions that caused the death. In example #1, the driver had no intentions of killing anyone, and shouldn’t be held morally responsible for causing the death of the pedestrian. In #2, however, the man wanted his coworker dead, and made that desire a reality through actions of his own. This man is morally responsible for his actions and would be considered a bad person (arguably) because the overall well-being of the people affected by the murder has been lessened.
If #2 is an example of an action that carries bad moral worth, then what would an action have to be to be considered good? An answer to that is easy: Perform an action that leads to a better overall well-being, and have the intention of doing so. Someone shouldn’t be praiseworthy for saving someone’s life by complete accident. A firefighter who runs into a flaming building to save children trapped inside, however, should be held to a high regard of moral praise.
So, how does this relate to Dexter? After being “born in blood”, Dexter grew up with an urge to kill. His adoptive father taught him how to funnel this urge into doing something more worthwhile: Killing those who deserve to die. But, you might ask, how can murder ever be considered morally praiseworthy?
The Dark Defender
The question now changes from “Is Dexter moral?” to “Do Dexter’s actions cause an increase in the overall well-being of others?” To keep this as straightforward as possible, I’ll stick with the premise that Dexter only kills murderers who have killed innocent people, and in most cases have done it several times. These “victims” of Dexter are the scum of society, and have caused immense suffering and loss of well-being to many people.
By killing murderers, Dexter obviously isn’t increasing the well-being of victims who were killed in the first place. However, Dexter ensures that these murderers never kill again. In the world of Dexter, who knows how many people are still alive thanks to Dexter’s interventions. Also, while the killers might not experience well-being for themselves thanks to Dexter, their removal from existence should, statistically speaking, increase the overall well-being of everyone else, even if it’s by just a tiny fraction in the grand scheme of things. In some cases, there are people in imminent danger that Dexter saves by intervening. Clearly, at least the well-being of these people has been greatly increased thanks to Dexter’s actions. Thanks to Dexter’s adoptive father, he has learned a code that not only allows him to focus his desire to kill towards something good, but it also teaches him how to not get caught so that he can continue being a vigilante that kills other killers.
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that: a) Given morality to be a way of describing the overall well-being of conscious entities, and b) Applying that definition to Dexter’s actions against murderers: Yes, Dexter is moral.
Keep in mind that I am not advocating murder as something that is always, or even rarely good. All I am suggesting is that given morality as I described it is reasonable to assume that we are better off without murderers on the loose. Instead of going through years of legal complications, spending millions of tax payer dollars, and so on to get a serial killer executed, Dexter deals with the dirty work personally. After all, what’s the difference between Dexter and the legal system condemning a guilty serial killer?
Another interesting thing to consider is that this definition of morality isn’t limited to human beings. For example, many other animals exhibit signs of intelligence. Consciousness isn’t like a light switch where you either have it or you don’t. Instead, consciousness can be thought of as more like a spectrum, with us towards the more complex side of things, and other animals at varying spaces between us and no level of consciousness at all. After thinking about this for a while, I have grown to understand that animals deserve as much respect when it comes to actions and intentions as we humans do. With our degree of intellect, I think we even have a duty to treat the animals around us as humanely as possible.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead) Lastly, although Dexter claims to have a code for who to kill, as the series progresses he tends to become less and less strict in adhering to the rules passed down to him by his adoptive father. In fact, there are specific times when he specifically breaks the code to bring about his own interests. His sloppiness in some episodes (due to not following the code) causes him to nearly get caught. As I have watched the show into Season 6, I have noticed more and more clues that Dexter is falling into a pit of self-destruction that I believe will lead to his downfall. While it would be nice to say that Dexter has maintained a moral character throughout the series, that is simply not the case.