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Monday, April 16, 2012


[Updated April 30, 2013]

With the emphasis I’ve given to the importance of choice in existentialist thought, you should expect that I think an episode with the title Choices will have something significant to say. You’d be right. Faith’s made her choices, Buffy makes choices, Willow makes choices, and all those choices have (or will have) consequences for which they need to take responsibility.

I’ll start with Buffy’s choices because I usually start with Buffy. Buffy made a choice which I think reveals a lot about her values. In the book over to the right of the blog, The Philosophy of Joss Whedon, Joseph Foy and Dean Kowalski argue that while Joss is consistently existentialist on the principle of authenticity, he’s not when it comes to values. I don’t want to get into an overall discussion about values because that’s biting off too much, but I do want to talk about Buffy’s values in one specific situation, namely when she has to choose between a particular individual and a “greater good”. That’s the situation we see in Choices, but it will recur in later episodes so I want to begin the discussion now.
Buffy chose Willow over destroying the Box of Gavrock. Let’s consider the argument on both sides. Wesley gave the argument against the trade: “This box must be destroyed. … This box is the key to the Mayor's Ascension. Thousands of lives depend on our getting rid of it. … This is the town's best hope of survival. … You'd sacrifice thousands of lives? Your families, your friends?”
Wesley’s argument – sacrifice Willow’s life in order to save the rest of Sunnydale – is an example of what’s called “consequentialist” ethics. As the name implies, it judges the morality of any action by its consequences. In this case, Wesley is saying that the greatest good will come from protecting the citizens of Sunnydale generally, even if Willow has to be sacrificed. While this reasoning is very popular, it also has many critics who condemn it, which we see from the reaction of the SG to his suggestion. Quoting from the link:
“[C]onsequentialism is also criticized for what it seemingly permits — or, more accurately, requires. It seemingly may demand (and thus, of course, permit) that innocents be killed, beaten, lied to, or deprived of material goods to produce greater benefits for others. Consequences — and only consequences — can conceivably justify any kind of act, no matter how harmful it is to some.”

Buffy rejected Wesley’s consequentialist reasoning here. As Buffy will say in a later season, “You can’t fight evil by doing evil.” When the proposed solution is wrong in itself or when it would cause her to act in such a way as to undermine her own character, Buffy will try to find another way even at great personal cost. I should add that she obviously distinguishes between property rights and the rights of human beings. Buffy doesn’t pay much attention to property rights, particularly when the property is owned by the government. The government, of course, doesn’t have “rights” in the “endowed by their Creator” sense of the Declaration of Independence, but it does have property. Buffy and the SG see no problem with hacking the government’s computer system or putting on something more break-and-enterish.
The rights of people, though, are treated very much more respectfully. Buffy’s personal morality – and for an existentialist, that’s the only kind there is – in this particular situation is a form of another major category of ethics called “deontological” ethics (there’s a third category, “virtue ethics”, which I’m not discussing). Roughly speaking, this can be summarized in an old saying: “let justice be done though the world perish” (it sounds better in Latin: Fiat justitia et pereat mundus.). In short, do the right thing and let the consequences take care of themselves; don’t kill one person even to save many.
While existentialists don’t, strictly speaking, need to be either consequentialists or deontologists (and the distinction isn’t always clear), most existentialists adopt a form of deontology:
“Deontological theories are also of different kinds, depending on the role they give to general rules. Act- deontological theories maintain that the basic judgments of obligation are all purely particular ones like "In this situation I should do so and so," and that general ones like "We ought always to keep our promises" are unavailable, useless, or at best derivative from particular judgments. Extreme act-deontologists maintain that we can and must see or somehow decide separately in each particular situation what is the right or obligatory thing to do, without appealing to any rules and also without looking to see what will promote the greatest balance of good over evil for oneself or the world. Such a view was … at least suggested by Aristotle when he said that in determining what the golden mean is "the decision rests with perception," and by [Bishop Joseph] Butler when he wrote that if:
‘. . . any plain honest man, before he engages in any course of action, ask himself, “Is this I am going about right, or is it wrong?” . . . I do not in the least doubt but that this question would be answered agreeably to truth and virtue, by almost any fair man in almost any circumstance [without the need to refer to any general rule].’
Today, with an emphasis on ‘decision’ rather than intuition and with an admission of difficulty and anxiety, this is the view of most existentialists.” Cite.

In essence (no pun intended), this form of ethics says “consider the particular case and you’ll know [instinctively?] what the right thing to do is”. The “decisive” and perhaps intuitive nature of this form of ethics comes across when Oz stands up and destroys the pot. He needs no words to convey the point.
If you think back on it, this has been Buffy’s rule before now, and it is certainly the rule she applied here. Consistent with the rule of responsibility, of course, Buffy now owns her decision to trade the Box for Willow. She will be responsible for the consequences.
Buffy’s making another choice as well. She embarked on her journey to adulthood 2 years ago, though she’s hesitated at times along the way. In the scene under the tree she tells Willow, “I'm never getting out of here. I kept thinking if I stopped the Mayor or ... but I was kidding myself. I mean, there is always going to be something. I'm a Sunnydale girl, no other choice.” But Willow sees through this: “I mean, you've been fighting evil here for three years, and I've helped some, and now we're supposed to decide what we want to do with our lives. And I just realized that that's what I want to do. Fight evil, help people. I mean, I-I think it's worth doing. And I don't think you do it because you have to.”
Willow made choices, both in captivity and in deciding to stay in Sunnydale. Her choice to snoop in the Mayor’s office and read the Books of Ascension was certainly the bravest thing Willow has ever done. If she had used her chance to escape, nobody could have criticized her. Of course, while she did gain information by staying, she also gave Faith the opportunity to capture her and for the Mayor to make the trade.
Willow also made the choice to stay in Sunnydale. Not for Buffy, but for the fight against evil. Note what Buffy says in response: “You look at something and you think you know exactly what you're seeing, and then you find out it's something else entirely.” That, folks, is a perfect definition of a metaphor (h/t manwitch). Buffy’s spirit has enlisted for the duration.
As Willow told her – and I think we need to see Willow speaking as Buffy’s spirit here – Faith made her choice as well. When she cast her lot with the Mayor, she gave up her freedom of choice from that point on. She has allowed outside forces to choose for her, which, to existentialists, makes her an object (something in the control of others) rather than a subject (someone who acts on her own). She’s no longer an authentic individual as a result (like the Operative in Firefly/Serenity if you’ve seen that series). That’s what Willow means when she says “now you’re nothing”. Faith isn’t a Slayer, she’s let herself become just a killer, as we see with the courier, including the gruesome use she makes of her knife. I think the look she has in the cafeteria when the Mayor orders her to leave suggests that she actually recognizes this at some level. Sadly, she lacks the courage to back out.
In Willow’s confrontation with Faith, Willow specifically rejected any of Faith’s possible excuses: “You know, it didn't have to be this way. But you made your choice. I know you had a tough life. I know that some people think you had a lot of bad breaks. Well, boo hoo! Poor you. You know, you had a lot more in your life than some people.  I mean, you had friends in your life like Buffy. Now you have no one. You were a Slayer and now you're nothing.” In existentialist philosophy you must accept the consequences of all your choices. In fact The Teaching Company, which puts out lectures by college professors on a wide variety of topics, titles the lectures on existentialism “No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life”.
I’m not really sure what to make of Xander in this episode. He seems to be making a choice to go on the road rather than attend college, though in fact he doesn’t seem to have any real choice to attend college. His reading material, however, perhaps belies the notion of choice. As I see it, the book he’s reading, On The Road, tells the story of someone who simply drifts while searching for something he never finds. One way to say it is that “The search for "IT" becomes the unending quest that both Kerouac in his writing, and Paradise [the Kerouac persona in the novel] in his spiritual hunger strive for without ever fully attaining….” Maybe a more sympathetic reader can offer a different suggestion, though Buffy’s sardonic comment about Xander “making the open dumpster your cafeteria” suggests that perhaps Joss is as unimpressed with the book as I am.
Finally, it’s clear that Buffy and Angel have reached the point where they need to make a choice. The Mayor may be evil, but if you’re like me you were nodding along while he was talking in the cafeteria. The scene at the end demonstrates that they knew it too.
Trivia notes: (1) The Mayor’s phrase “faster than you can say Jack Robinson” was dated when I was a kid; if you really want to see the explanation, follow the link. (2) Nancy Drew was the eponymous heroine of a series of detective novels. (3) There is a University of California campus in Santa Barbara, the real world Sunnydale.


  1. Hi Mark, long-time lurker here from back in the AV Club comment days.

    Anyway, the reason I'm breaking my usual silence is that almost literally immediately after reading your (excellent as usual) analysis of "Choices" I caught an afternoon screening of "The Cabin in the Woods" -- which I'm sure most readers of this blog would know was co-written by Whedon.

    And I don't want to say too much about the movie, because it really is one of those flicks which the less you know about it going in, the better, but ... wow. Your post today perfectly complements the movie -- in fact practically serves as a thematic review of it. Thanks for the serendipity!

    (Er, maybe I should clarify: "Cabin" doesn't share any plot or character points with "Choices" -- but there is a thematic connection.)

  2. Hi Mark, long-time lurker here from back in the AV Club comment days. (Incidentally, I seem to have problems getting my comment published, so my apologies if it ends up showin multiple time.)

    Anyway, the reason I'm breaking my usual silence is that almost literally immediately after reading your (excellent as usual) analysis of "Choices" I caught an afternoon screening of "The Cabin in the Woods" -- which I'm sure most readers of this blog would know was co-written by Whedon.

    And I don't want to say too much about the movie, because it really is one of those flicks which the less you know about it going in, the better, but ... wow. Your post today perfectly complements the movie -- in fact practically serves as a thematic review of it. Thanks for the serendipity!

    (Er, maybe I should clarify: "Cabin" doesn't share any plot or character points with "Choices" -- but there is a thematic connection.)

    1. Your first try didn't publish for some reason, though I got notification of it. Weird. Anyway, this one did.

      First off, thanks. And now you have me really intrigued to see Cabin. I would have done that anyway, but now I'm even more interested.

  3. Maybe I'm just dense, but I am very confused by this. Buffy didn't make a choice between *killing* Willow and saving others. The Mayor/Faith would have been responsible for any harm that came to Willow, not Buffy. Willow knew what she was risking by taking part in the raid in the first place. The Scoobies didn't even consider trying to find a solution that would allow them to destroy the box and save Willow.

    Also, I don't understand how this squares with Buffy's decision to "kill" Angel in Becoming. It would seem to fly in the face of this logic. How was that the right thing to do under these values? Angel with a soul was, to Buffy if not to others, not responsible for his actions while soulless. She sacrificed one person for the "greater good" there, and pretty much everyone agrees it was the right thing to do. I'm confused!

    1. I don't think Buffy chose between killing Willow and the Box. She chose between the *risk* that the Mayor would kill Willow and the potential harm of returning the Box. As you say, the direct responsibility for Willow's death would have been on the Mayor (or Faith). She chose not to run that risk.

      Maybe there was a solution that would have allowed for both, perhaps a raid on the Mayor's office. That seems unlikely to me, but I can't rule it out. Still, that itself posed a risk that others would die even if they saved Willow. Given the circumstances as presented, it's hard to see much beyond the binary choice.

      As for Angel, I see that as a harder choice. The risk of Acathla was the end of the world. The risk of the Box was unknown at the time, but didn't seem to be quite that consequential. Also, Angel's blood was the *only* way to stop Acathla. It wasn't clear that the Box was the only way to stop the Mayor. SPOILERS

      It's plausible to then blame Buffy for the deaths at Graduation. But there are lots of twists and turns between the return of the Box and the Battle, so the causal chain isn't quite so clear.

    2. Thanks for the answer! I see what you mean. I guess I just wouldn't see destroying the box as "doing evil," so I got a little confused with that.

      I don't necessarily think there *was* another option that would have saved Willow, but Buffy went immediately to giving up the box without considering other choices (like, trying to magic up a dummy box to trade or something). Given that the rules of the Buffyverse are infinitely flexible, it's hard for me to limit it to the binary choice. :)

      I think Buffy's decision can be justified, but looking at the show to this point, it all seems situational to me. Sometimes one person is more important than the "greater good"; sometimes they're not. Or, I guess, maybe it's more accurate to say that there's a point at which one person's life stops mattering?

    3. Dummying the box wouldn't be nearly as hard as dummying the spiders. :) Plus, no Willow.

      Yeah, the ethics here are a bit situational. Not that I reject that out of hand, and in any case that would be consistent with the intuitive nature of existentialist ethics anyway. But Joss did stack the deck here.


      The end of LMPTM provides a contrast to Choices (and The Gift): would Buffy really be willing to sacrifice Dawn? I have my doubts, as I say in discussing that episode, but the show never gave us an answer.