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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Spiral

[Updated May 2, 2013]

Spiral makes explicit the full implications of The Replacement. We’ve known since Blood Ties that Ben and Glory share the same body, but the consequences weren’t spelled out until now. Since Glory and Ben share the same body, they can’t exist apart from each other: “Kill the man and the god dies”. In case it’s not obvious, I’ll state unequivocally the choices Gregor presents to Buffy: kill Ben to destroy Glory (though when he says this the characters themselves don’t know that Ben is Glory); or kill Dawn to save the world from Glory. You should be thinking about these choices and the moral issues they raise as we move towards the finale.


As long as we’re at it, there’s no reason to limit the moral issues to Buffy. What’s Ben’s ethical obligation? If you were in his shoes, would you feel obligated to commit suicide to prevent Glory from going back home? And if you think Ben has the obligation to save the world by destroying himself, what then would you say of Dawn? If either or both have the obligation to destroy themselves, is it therefore Buffy’s obligation to help them?
I’m deliberately stalling on Buffy’s choices and on the issues raised by Ben and Dawn because I’ll get to them in the next two episodes. The beliefs of the Knights raise a related point, though, which I do want to explore here.
The Knights offer essentially two reasons for attempting to kill Dawn: the Key is too dangerous; and “such is the will of God”. It’s the latter justification which raises a deep philosophical problem.
Any system of morality based on belief in a divine being has two possible ways to explain moral actions:
  1. The act is good in itself and can be justified by moral reasoning such as deontological ethics (as discussed in previous posts on Choices and Listening to Fear). Systems of morality which don’t rely on belief in divinity are limited to moral reasoning in order to explain “good” and “bad”.
  2. The act is good because God told me to do it. What God tells me to do is by definition good. 

Here’s the problem: if an action is good because it can be shown to be good by standard moral reasoning, then there’s no need for God. If an action is good because God ordered it done, then we need to know if God ordered it because the act was good in itself – in which case the fact that God gave the order is irrelevant – or if God ordered it arbitrarily. Arbitrary orders from God can seem quite evil. A classic example appears in the Biblical story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. And a God who orders evil done in his name is perhaps not a God who should be worshipped.
Thus, commands from God create two possible moral answers, but both paths seem to call into question the need for God. There’s a formal term for this problem: it’s called the Euthyphro Dilemma:
“Socrates in one of the early dialogues debates the nature of the holy with Euthyphro, who is a religious professional. Euthyphro is taking his own father to court for murder, and though ordinary Greek morality would condemn such an action as impiety, Euthyphro defends it on the basis that the gods behave in the same sort of way, according to the traditional stories. … Socrates's problem with the traditional stories about the gods gives rise to what is sometimes called ‘the Euthyphro dilemma’. If we try to define the holy as what is loved by the gods (and goddesses), we will be faced with the question ‘Is the holy holy because it is loved by the gods, or do they love it because it is holy?’”

If the gods only love something which is already holy, then we don’t need the gods. If someone argues that something is holy simply because the gods do it, like Euthyphro did, then we’re going to see that person as committing a wrong.
Bringing this back to Buffy, in her conversations with Gregor he gives some lip service to the idea of the dangers involved if Glory were to obtain the Key. He also makes a consequentialist argument to Ben when he urges Ben to kill Dawn: “You can save all their lives by ending one.” Gregor obviously expects this argument to persuade Ben, and it’s a form of argument we’ve seen several times before, notably in Choices with Wesley arguing against trading the Box of Gavrok in order to ransom Willow. We’ll see it again very soon.
However, Gregor’s own motivation seems to be that destroying the Key is “the will of God”. I say this is his real motivation because the danger posed by the Key might be addressed in ways other than destroying it (e.g., hiding it). Gregor rejects the alternatives, indicating that his fundamental motivation rests on divine command. Buffy then gets right to the heart of the Euthyphro Dilemma: “What kind of god would demand her life for something that she has no control over?”
Buffy’s question suggests her own answer, but we’ll see more of her reasoning in the finale.
Spiral also raises another moral issue. I’ve seen it argued that Buffy violated her code by killing humans. I think this is wrong for two reasons. First, the Knights aren’t the first humans to die because of Buffy. In order we have (1) Amy’s mother in Witch; (2) the zookeeper in The Pack; (3) Coach Marin fell into the sewer with the fish monsters after Buffy tripped him (Go Fish); (4) the Tarakan assassin whom Buffy killed on the ice rink in Surprise What’s My Line (h/t local-max) was seemingly human; (5) the terrorist Gruenstahler brothers who shot each other to death after Buffy threw her corsage onto one of them (Homecoming); and (6) Gwendolyn Post, whose hand she chopped off in Revelations.
In Coach Marin’s case, she did try to save him but failed. In cases 1, 2, and 6, there’s a good argument that the humans tried to access mystical powers and therefore brought themselves within Buffy’s jurisdiction. This applies to the Knights as well – human they were, but the Knights were intruding themselves into the mystical and that’s Buffy’s jurisdiction.
The other 2 cases involve humans whose deaths Buffy caused, one directly and one indirectly (but intentionally). One was self-defense and the other a combination of self-defense and defense of Angel, which leads us to the next point. I think we have to distinguish self-defense situations from Buffy’s ordinary Slayer duties. Buffy doesn’t track down human criminals, but if one attacked her I have no doubt she’d defend herself. She has yet more justification for defending the helpless and innocent Dawn and the others with her like Tara.
Local-max suggested in comments that the Knights pose a harder question than the other examples I gave: “While Buffy's killing the Knights is justifiable, I think we should be more uncomfortable with it than the other examples listed, because, well, all the other examples were people who were clearly being evil by most measures. … The Knights' goal is to protect and save the world. They are not wrong that Dawn endangers the world. Killing people in self-defense when those people are working from a flawed but well-meaning moral system is trickier than killing people in self-defense when they are acting clearly immorally, I think. I still support Buffy's choice ultimately and think it is in character though.”

Here’s my response:
“Your point about the Knights being a tougher call is well-taken. I'd still say Buffy was correct, but the reasoning is more complicated. Suppose there's a train coming and it's out of control. It will kill 5 people unless something is thrown onto the track to stop it or divert it. You, seeing the emergency, try to throw me onto the track. Do I have the right to claim self-defense in order to stop you? I think I do, but that's not entirely clear. If, for example, I need to kill you to defend myself, there will be 6 deaths (yours and the other 5). If you throw me on the track, there will be one (mine). From a social POV, one death seems preferable. To a strict deontologist, my right supersedes and the 5 deaths are just an unfortunate accident.

Dawn's situation, and Ben's, raise this issue to the ultimate because the fate of the whole universe is at stake.”

Some additional points:
Buffy’s plan to run away fits perfectly into the metaphor of growing up which I see as the main theme of the series. I’ll explain this in more detail in the finale when I discuss Glory’s metaphorical role.
What we see of the Knights in Spiral reinforces the suggestion I made in my post on Blood Ties about their metaphorical role as religious and patriarchal. The General’s name, Gregor, was the name of a number of Popes (Gregory). Dante’s name association is fairly obvious, as are the clerics, the attire, and the weaponry. Xander’s reference to the Crusades adds another link.
I think one could argue that the confrontation with the Knights takes place in the desert to show both the barrenness of the world if Dawn were to be destroyed and to represent Buffy’s mental state from the stress she was under.
Note the parallel between Dawn and Buffy. Dawn has it within her to destroy the universe. Buffy has struggled all season with the destructive force the Slayer within her represents.
Trivia notes: (1) Spiral is an homage to the movie Stagecoach, or at least the chase scene from that movie. Stagecoach was the first “talkie” Western by Joss’s favorite director, John Ford. Ford later made the movie The Searchers, which I discussed in my post on Buffy v. Dracula. For Stagecoach Ford plucked from obscurity an actor named John Wayne and the rest was history. (2) Gotta love Dawn’s use of the phrase “bring it on” in describing Buffy’s confrontation with Glory in the street – Clare Kramer (Glory) was in that movie. In the same narrative Dawn also used the phrase “she’s all that”. SMG was in that movie. (3) The rocket launcher Xander mentioned was, of course, used by Buffy in Innocence. (4) Anya mentioned the “creepy cartoon rabbit”, meaning Bugs Bunny, and the “nice man with the speech impediment”, meaning Elmer Fudd. Giles’s sarcastic suggestion of painting a tunnel on the side of a mountain refers to a stock cartoon event. (5) Buffy pulled out Adam’s uranium power core in Primeval. The obvious reason for mentioning the rocket launcher and the joining spell was to emphasize just how powerful Glory was. (6) Xander twice mentioned Sergeant Rock, a famous comic book character. (7) Spike’s phrase “put the hammer down” is American slang meaning to push the accelerator pedal to the floor. (8) Spike’s phrase “toss your cookies” is American slang meaning to vomit. (9) Xander referred to Spike as “undead man walking”, which is a reference to the movie Dead Man Walking. (10) When Anya held up a can of food (I use the term lightly), it was a can of SPAM. (11) The scene where Buffy throws the axe into the chest of the Knight very much resembles the scene in Checkpoint where she threw an axe into the dummy. (12) Florence Nightingale, mentioned by Spike, was a famous nurse. She would have been very well known to William as a result of her work for the British Army during the Crimean War. (13) Note that Willow’s eyes turned black both when she created the barrier and when she brought it down. (14) Willow mentioned Heckle and Jeckle, also cartoon characters. (15) One of the mental patients in the hospital was the man who confronted Dawn in Real Me. (16) Buffy’s mention of The Outer Limits was to the 1960s TV show of that name. (17) Ben promised not to leave until he’d worn out his welcome. That was prophetic, in a way. (18) Spike’s description of the Knights as “the Renaissance Faire” refers to the American theme fairs of that name. (19) Spike’s description of Gregor as “General Armour-All” refers to the auto care product Armour All.

12 comments:

  1. Really good stuff.

    While Buffy's killing the Knights is justifiable, I think we should be more uncomfortable with it than the other examples listed, because, well, all the other examples were people who were clearly being evil by most measures. The goal of Amy's mother and the zookeeper and Post was personal power with which to do evil and kill, the goal of the assassins in What's My Line (I think it was What's My Line, not Surprise btw) and Homecoming was money or personal assassin code via killing, and the coach's goal was to continue transforming students into fish monsters. The Knights' goal is to protect and save the world. They are not wrong that Dawn endangers the world. Killing people in self-defense when those people are working from a flawed but well-meaning moral system is trickier than killing people in self-defense when they are acting clearly immorally, I think. I still support Buffy's choice ultimately and think it is in character though.

    You might talk about this more, but the parallel between Buffy killing the Knights and Glory killing the Knights is there, I think, to increase this discomfort. It's not quite analogous because Glory is in less proximate danger, but since those Knights are certainly attempting to kill Glory and would kill Ben if possible, she has some standing of opting for self-defense. If Glory massacring them is wrong, which I think it is, we should be concerned about Buffy stepping too close to this. Lostboy has a post about one of the Knights who doesn't seem to be a direct threat to Buffy et al. whom Buffy kills, which is worth reading (spoilers for future eps): http://lostboy-lj.livejournal.com/31364.html. Which also raises an interesting point about Glory, whose moral status is also different from, say, the Mayor's or Adam's, in that while she is totally indifferent to human life, she is still acting

    One quick thought to add: in addition to Stagecoach, I think the chase might be inspired by The Road Warrior / Mad Max 2. In both Stagecoach and The Road Warrior, though, the attackers are symbols of chaos: Native Americans (from a 1939 perspective), and crazy punk criminal guys. In this case, it's the forces of order who are being oppressive, which suggests something about the way BtVS

    The desert fits in well with the First Slayer material in Restless and Intervention.
    (SPOILER FOR S6) The desert plays a major role in Villains, too; it's in the desert where Willow abandons Buffy and Xander and commits fully to her chosen path and states "I'm not coming back"; its general symbolic meaning seems to be the breakdown of civilization within the show. However, that is obviously not all bad, since the connecting to the First Slayer, and escaping from Sunnydale altogether (in Chosen) take place in the desert.

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    1. Sorry, forgot to finish the Glory sentence.

      Glory is acting in a form of self-preservation as well, feeding brains to maintain her sanity, killing people when they get in her way. Which is still evil in that she is willing to hurt people directly in order to continue existing, and has no qualms about that, whereas Ben at least worries about that, as do Buffy and Dawn worry about people dying because of them.

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    2. Thanks for catching the WML error. I'll fix it.

      I've never seen the suggestion that the chase scene resembles The Road Warrior, but it surely does. I'd guess that Joss & Co. have seen so many movie chases they can't separate them any more.

      I wonder about any claim by Glory of "self-defense" in justification of killing someone. She is, after all, invulnerable. As we've seen, she doesn't need to kill anyone to win the fight -- nobody can touch her. Of course, trying to apply human standards to a god is problematic anyway....

      Your point about the Knights being a tougher call is well-taken. I'd still say Buffy was correct, but the reasoning is more complicated. Suppose there's a train coming and it's out of control. It will kill 5 people unless something is thrown onto the track to stop it or divert it. You, seeing the emergency, try to throw me onto the track. Do I have the right to claim self-defense in order to stop you? I think I do, but that's not entirely clear. If, for example, I need to kill you to defend myself, there will be 6 deaths (yours and the other 5). If you throw me on the track, there will be one (mine). From a social POV, one death seems preferable. To a strict deontologist, my right supersedes and the 5 deaths are just an unfortunate accident.

      Dawn's situation, and Ben's, raise this issue to the ultimate because the fate of the whole universe is at stake.

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    3. The Road Warrior chase is based on the Stagecoach one, I think, so it all connects back anyway. FWIW, season eight issue 35 of the comics ends with a Road Warrior reference. (SPOILER) Spike says "You come to me" in a pose very much like Max's when he has the same line.

      I agree with the example. I guess making it stronger is that the train might in principle be stopped some other way -- by hitting the conductor with a (spoiler) hammer or something. But yeah, it's -- very tricky. I would say that a deontologist would agree that you have the right to save yourself and rack up a body count in doing so.

      The reason "self-defense" sort of works with the Knights for Glory is that they could still go kill Ben, and fully intend to. This isn't a big problem right now because of the (WOTW spoilers) magic that prevents people from recognizing that Ben and Glory are the same person, but that magic will soon fade. The question of whether Glory can/should get away with brainsucking is more complicated. I would say no, for the same reason that vampires shouldn't feed on humans -- you shouldn't take the lives of others who are not trying to hurt you just to sustain yourself. But it is interesting, because while vampires can in principle switch to pig's blood, there's no indication that Glory can suck animal brains (and it would make sense that she couldn't, since presumably she feeds on consciousness). Given that the agony she goes through when she needs a brain is unsustainable, it's still wrong to steal others' brains. But what other options does she have? I'd say that if the brainsucked situation is truly unbearable, she could kill herself -- but doing so would kill Ben! So, it's actually an interesting situation where Glory doesn't really have many moral options that don't lead to extreme suffering. Of course, she's ultimately not interested in those but that is a mirror for Buffy's predicament, where Buffy has limited options and does want to behave morally.

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    4. Interesting point about the brain sucking. I'm not sure that Glory could kill herself even if she wanted to. I suppose she could order her minions to kill Ben, and maybe they'd do it. So Glory doesn't have any moral "out".

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    5. I always read her stealing brains to be the way she keeps Ben at bay. By stealing other people's consciousness, she holds onto her own instead of allowing Ben to come forward.

      Yes it may cause her some pain when she is dominant, but if she gave up and let Ben remain dominant, she would not suffer at all. So I don't think that her brain sucking should/could be read that she has a moral imperative to suck brains to ensure her own survival. She sucks brains so her consiousness can remain dominant over Ben.

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    6. I'd never thought of it this way, but it's a nice point.

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  2. Giles’s sarcastic suggestion of painting a tunnel on the side of a mountain refers to a stock cartoon event.

    And is eerily prescient of a moment in a Whedon film that isn't The Avengers....

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  3. I know a lot of people don't like this episode so much, and in many ways it is a bit of a rushed (but necessary) infodump so we can get to the finale, but I do appreciate your bringing a lot of the interesting moral questions to the surface. Watching this episode this time around one quote stood out as solidifying the moral connection between Ben and Dawn: Ben says to one of Glory's minions, "It doesn't matter how I came by it. It's mine. And I plan on keeping it." It may be difficult at times to wonder why the Buffy, the SG, and the audience are supposed to care about a character who hasn't technically been alive long and whose memories were manufactured by an unknown group of monks. But no matter how she came to be, she's a human, a young girl, a sister, etc., and she deserves to live just like any other person, in the same way Ben deserves to live. That's probably why they made Ben an aspiring doctor & the friendly face at the hospital; we don't get as much screen time with him as we do Dawn so we have to know he's a helpful, supposedly good person in order to sympathize with him and not just want him to be killed for the greater good (at least not at this point).

    Nevertheless, Ben's character is inconsistent and bothers me in a few ways, mainly because he's fit conveniently to drive the plot several times. Why would he be so hesitant to kill Dawn if he's willing to summon the Queller demon in order to 'clean up Glory's mess,' which involves murdering innocent mental patients? I get that he is more personally connected to Dawn but as a future doctor I don't understand how he seems to have so few qualms with that decision. Also, **SPOILERS** in Weight of the World he's suddenly willing to sacrifice Dawn - and the fate of humanity - in an act of self-preservation? I haven't rewatched that episode yet but I just remember that whole argument as they switch bodies bothered me. Perhaps they did that so we support Giles' ultimate decision to kill Ben, but it still feels like a messy way to tie up the complex moral issues you brought up. Or maybe I'm just being too harsh about a character that I felt was written - and sometimes played - a bit weaker. **End of Spoilers** This all might be nit-picky of me, but the other thing is - why would Buffy call Ben, bring him into an EXTREMELY dangerous setting, and not find it at all suspicious that he agrees to it and hardly questions the very strange situation he encounters? She's desperate, tensions are running high, but I don't know, I found that whole part so far-fetched.

    **Some light spoilers from the next two episodes**
    One last quick point - I never really thought much about the morality of killing the Knights since I always viewed them as just another obstacle out for Dawn but looking at it the way you explained I think it can be seen as a way to show how grave the situation is. By The Gift Buffy is willing to risk everything to save Dawn,she even threatens Giles: "You try and hurt her, and you know I'll stop you." In the same way Buffy's willingness to kill Faith in order to save Angel shows that when times get extremely serious she takes some morally ambiguous actions.

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    1. SPOILERS.
      Whoops, totally missed that she didn't just threaten Giles in the Gift but actually said she'd kill anyone that comes near Dawn. That quote works better with my point obviously...

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    2. I think your explanation is as good as any for why Buffy called Ben. She knows he wants to date her, and in that sense she's using him a bit. But the situation is desperate, she's not thinking all that clearly, and the other doctors aren't really candidates.

      Ben's character is kind of interesting. On the surface, he's a nice guy, a good guy. But underneath that is the pretty dubious fact that he summoned the Quellar demon. That ambiguity is central, I think, to how we interpret Giles's actions in The Gift.

      SPOILERS THROUGH THE GIFT

      There is an explanation given in the show for your spoiler point, namely that Glory and Ben are beginning to merge into each other. That may seem kind of arbitrary in the plot, but as metaphor it's consistent with the "barriers between worlds coming down" theme which we see in The Gift and which is essential for Buffy to integrate Dawn as part of herself.

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