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Monday, May 13, 2013

Why Do We Love Dexter Morgan?: The Morality of Dexter Through the Lenses of Utilitarianism

Thanks to Gracie for sending us her article about the reasons we love Dexter Morgan:

"Before you read, or decide to comment, or whatever - PLEASE take note: this is a philosophy paper. It in no way reflects my opinion on the law or my beliefs about the death penalty. This is simply me taking two very classic and often applied ethical theories and applying it to Dexter. I attempt to explain how he might be perceived as moral from a variety of viewpoints, and how it may be the stem of why he is so relatable and sympathetic, and how he has so many diehard fans that love him despite the fact that he is a serial murderer. (Let me clarify - people love the character Hannibal, but they love him in a different way than people love the character Dexter.)

Last but not least, please keep in mind that when I talk about Dexter’s actions, I’m simply referring to “a killer killing killers.” This is independent of the mistakes he makes and the innocents he’s hurt, though that is touched on briefly at the end.

Imagine you are told that there is a man freely moving about society who has killed over 100 people in the past 20 years. One’s gut reaction would likely be a mix of shock and horror – something along the lines of, “He’s a serial killer on the loose, and he needs to be locked up!” Indeed, the thought that someone could end your life just because they want to, at any moment, is an indisputably terrifying idea. Moreover, murder of another human being is generally considered to be the worst crime one could possibly commit, by both common and legal ethical standards. And thus, serial murderers are regarded as the lowest of the low, and as the most inexcusably, morally reprehensible members of society to exist.

Skip the jump to read the whole article.


I bring you the case of television’s Dexter. Its main character, Dexter Morgan, is a fictional serial killer, who (as in the case described above) freely moves about society and has killed over 100 people in 20 years. But here’s the curious part: Dexter has millions of fans that are more than just ‘morbidly curious’ – they go so far as to love and relate to him, despite his serial killing. Clearly there is something different about him – and it is that Dexter Morgan, unlike any other serial killer, real or fictional, only kills killers. Is this really enough that millions of people should turn a blind eye to murder and genuinely care about a serial killer? Upon examining Dexter in light of ethical theories supported by two prominent and respected philosophers, John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism and Immanuel Kant’s Kantian ethics and retributive theory of punishment draw us to the surprising conclusion that Dexter Morgan is conceptually a morally decent individual. This deduction, in addition to his ever-growing emotional capacities and ascension into humanity, would explain why so many love him although some may not be able to initially articulate why.


Before discussing the philosophical theories and morality behind Dexter, it is necessary to understand the basics of his story. It began when Dexter Moser was 3 years old and his mother was murdered in front of him in an extremely bloody fashion. This child was left sitting alone in his mother’s blood for 3 days before he was found by a cop named Harry Morgan, who adopted the boy and raised him as his own. As Dexter grew older, Harry noticed that Dexter liked to kill animals. Harry realized that watching his mother die had traumatized the boy and spawned a bloodlust in him, and that he would eventually start hurting actual human beings. But he loved his son and didn’t want him to lose him, so he taught Dexter to channel his “desire to kill” by telling him that he must only kill those who deserve it… or rather, the criminally guilty who escape the law. He was raised not to torture, nor to relish in the pain of his victims; he ends their lives swiftly. Dexter called these rules he lives by “Harry’s Code,” and has aimed to abide by it ever since. As a last note, keep in mind that when I refer to “Dexter’s actions,” I am solely referring to the concept of a killer that kills killers.

First, Dexter is held up to utilitarianism. This theory operates on the “greatest happiness principle,” which is a moral law that claims an action is good when it tends to promote happiness, bad if it promotes unhappiness, and should produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people (Brink). From this, it follows that whichever action creates the most happiness is the morally correct action, and therefore places an emphasis on the consequences of an action, as opposed to motive.

It is difficult, however, to define the word happiness. We say that it is something that brings pleasure, whether it is physical or intellectual. John Stuart Mill believed in a hierarchy of pleasures – such that intellectual pleasure is superior (Driver) – but for our purposes, the type of pleasure is irrelevant as it is the same across the board in all cases I discuss. Here, I will define happiness as one’s opportunity for a good future and as one’s freedom from malicious influences. Unhappiness is subsequently defined as when one is killed and therefore robbed of their life and future.

One could say that Dexter violates the greatest happiness principle because, by killing his victims, he is causing them unhappiness. By taking their lives, he is erasing their chance at a future altogether, which is a scary and undesirable thing to happen to anyone. The unhappiness of his victims is worth something – but it is important that we remember what is different about Dexter, and what is different about his victims. The people whose unhappiness he is causing are killers themselves. We are forced to consider that, as awful as it may sound, the death of this person could actually create happiness in a cascading chain of events. That is not to say that the victim’s happiness is worth less than anyone else’s happiness – but that the happiness created by their death may summate and far outweigh the unhappiness of an individual victim.


Take, for instance, the case of Jorge Castillo, one of Dexter’s early victims. He was a scamming and wealthy coyote that transported illegal immigrants from Cuba and, upon arrival, raised the price of transport. If the family was unable to pay, Castillo imprisoned or murdered the individual or family. It is horrific to imagine how many more innocent people would have been murdered or had their wealth stolen if Dexter allowed him to continue. Think of it this way: killing Castillo spared dozens of innocent lives, such that entire families never had their money stolen, and had a chance at starting a happy life instead of being killed or robbed blind. It is undeniable that the saved lives, futures, and happiness of all of these innocent individuals that Castillo would have abused or killed far outweighs the happiness that a single bad man lost in his death. Legality of murder aside, Dexter ridding the world of Castillo is largely in line with the “greatest happiness principle,” as it does in fact lead to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. Therefore, the murder of Castillo was a morally good thing to do. If all of Dexter’s other victims are of the same breed – killers – then it follows that their murders, like Castillo’s, are also morally permissible under this idea.

No matter our conclusion, the ‘rule’ that one should not kill has been ingrained into our society for hundreds of generations. Therefore some may argue that even if Dexter’s actions are ‘permissible,’ they are still immoral because they are in violation of this rule. Mill, however, seems to accept act utilitarianism, which stipulates that breaking a rule is not immoral when following the rule would be suboptimal (Brink). Essentially, this means that generalized rule-following cannot be wholly equated to morality; even if an action is against the rules, it is okay to break the rule if the most morally sound course of action requires doing so. This is exactly what Dexter is about. He frequently breaks rules, because the morally correct course of action, killing murderers, requires that he do so. On the other hand, rule utilitarianism lays down rules (such as “you should not steal”) that almost always promote general happiness, and to break them is considered immoral (Brink). Having rules, especially in the context of society, definitely has its merits – it allows us to describe what is right and what is wrong without taking everything on a case-by-case basis, and it allows us to write law. But there are cases in which it seems completely illogical and even foolish to follow the rules. It is as if rule utilitarianism is assuming the world can be seen in black and white, rather than shades of gray, which is a big misconception – as is evidenced by the very nature of this topic. To believe there are never blurs in the lines between right and wrong is to misunderstand the way life works. And so, all things considered, act utilitarianism appears as a much sounder theory. Therefore, Dexter may not quite live up to rule utilitarianism – but in light of act utilitarianism, which is arguably superior, his actions are morally permissible.

Finally, utilitarianism’s focus on the greatest good for the greatest amount of people implies that the collective population and the common good are the most important end of all. Therefore, a punishment is justified to the extent that it does the most for the common good (Kelly). The punishments that Dexter doles out do just this – as elaborated on earlier, he saves dozens of lives at the cost of one. His contribution to the general welfare of the population is undeniably positive, and fits the utilitarian theory of punishment nicely.

On the other end of the spectrum is Immanuel Kant. If utilitarianism can be boiled down to the good of the collective, then Kant is for the good of the individual. At the center of his theory is the idea that human beings have an “intrinsic worth” and “dignity” that makes them superior to other creatures (Rachels 136). This is not a novel idea – we have thought ourselves to be most important for centuries. If we are so important, it follows logically that there is something different about us. Kant believes this “something” is our rationality. To him, rationality is the source of our value, and it is the reason all people should be respected and treated the way they deserve (Rachels 137).


On the surface, Dexter’s “only kills killers” shtick seems to lose traction quickly. This is because to murder an individual is to disrespect their intrinsic worth; it is to treat them in a way that they do not deserve, and therefore to kill them would be immoral. But remember – Dexter only kills those who have themselves infringed upon the dignity of another (presumably innocent) human being. He does it because he thinks they deserve it, and because he can.

Is “they deserve it” enough to override the assertion that one should, without exception, never infringe upon the dignity of another? Retributive punishment theory, which Kant supports, suggests that it is enough. The principle behind this theory is that the guilt of a criminal is enough to justify punishment (Rauscher). The goal of the punishment should be to deliver “just deserts” (essentially, the deserved punishment) to the guilty party, though it is not a bad thing if the punishment aids the greater good. Additionally, Kant supports the belief that the crime committed dictates the appropriate type and amount of punishment such that the appropriate punishment is equal to the crime (Rauscher). In other words, deserved punishment follows the “an eye for an eye” rule – if you kill another human being, the only just and equal punishment that you deserve is death itself.

So yes, it seems that Dexter is infringing upon the dignity and intrinsic worth of an individual when he kills them. However, these individuals happen to be killers whose guilt is justification enough for punishment. Therefore, they deserve death. This consequently nullifies the idea that Dexter is disrespecting his victims by killing them, as one’s dignity is respected by treating them with what they deserve; if they deserve death, then Dexter is respecting them (and thus behaving in a morally acceptable way) by killing them. It turns out that he is not besmirching his victim’s dignity at all – he is merely delivering their “just deserts” that the law was not able to deliver itself.

It may be that the punishment Dexter delivers is acceptable in and of itself, but this is not the whole story. Motives are greatly important to Kant, who feels that the motive of the actor must be a moral motive; otherwise, it is immoral to act, no matter the other circumstances. He explains that the only truly moral motive is ‘duty’ – and therefore, the only time it is morally acceptable to act is if, when removed from all other motivations, you would still do so solely because it is your duty. Kant believes that all good duties can be derived from one ultimate principle he called the categorical imperative, stating: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end and never as a means only” (Rachels 137). The idea here is that one should never act in a way where they merely use another human being (i.e. treat someone as a means), because people are not objects – we are more than such and should be treated “as an end,” or rather, treated well and respected.

Once again, on the surface, Dexter’s actions don’t seem to hold with this idea. He clearly uses killing these people as a means of curbing his bloodlust. But unlike a “normal” serial killer, his motives are far more convoluted than satisfaction of a desire or satiation of a compulsion. Yes, it is a part of why he does what he does. But the keyword in Kant’s categorical imperative is that people not be used as a mere means – so essentially, Dexter may satisfy his bloodlust, as long as it is not the only motive, and as long as he also has a moral motive. And it just so happens that is not the only reason Dexter kills, in the slightest; anger, guilt, and duty are part of the mix too.

Some may question whether or not Dexter even possesses duty as a motive, but upon inspection, it is clear he does. Recall that as he was growing up, his foster father taught him his impulses were bad. Harry instilled in him that he should use his affliction for good. He made it Dexter’s purpose that he punish those who escape the system, and that he punish the bad people who will only hurt more good people. Therefore, I believe this concept of duty has been imbedded in Dexter’s character in such a way that it underlies everything he does.

The idea that Dexter kills the guilty partly because he feels it is his duty is highly significant. This is because, as mentioned, duty is at the heart of Kant’s categorical imperative. To Kant, it is all that matters – yet the duty must adhere to the categorical imperative to qualify as moral. It must treat people as ends (Rachels 138). And indeed Dexter’s does, as it has been explained that his duty is to treat someone in a way that they deserve. To treat someone in the way they deserve is to respect them, and to respect them is to treat them as an end; so, his duty is sound. If his duty is sound, the question becomes: would Dexter still kill the guilty if stripped of emotional involvement and bloodlust? Would Dexter do it solely out of duty?

The answer is: of course! Even if you took everything else away, duty would still be there beneath it all, because his father founded him on the very principle that he is responsible for using his affliction for good. Therefore, bloodlust aside, Dexter fundamentally feels that killers deserve to be punished, and that when they are not, it is his place to deliver the punishment. That motivation is and will always be with Dexter, integrated into everything that he does.


Now, we bring all the strings together. We have determined that killing a killer is not a disrespectful action, as they are deserving of it. We know that duty is the most important motive, and we have determined that, although he may kill bad people for many reasons, he in part acts out of duty. We have determined that his duty adheres to the categorical imperative, and is thus a morally sound duty, and consequently a morally acceptable motive. Therefore, we may conclude that, as analyzed through Kant’s Kantian ethics and retributive theory, it is not immoral for Dexter to kill a killer.

So finally, we address: why is this serial killer so sympathetic, and how does the morality of his actions tie in? I believe that from the very start, a surprising majority of people respected him for who he was – the killer who kills killers – because, as we have just concluded, it is not actually immoral for him to do so. From the moment he looked a child murderer in the eye and quipped, “But children? I would never do that … I have standards,” people knew he was different. They understood: he’s not like the rest of them. We respected that he took it upon himself to manage his compulsion in such a way that he protected the innocent, and perhaps it was satisfying for some people to watch this character do the things they wish they could.

But he is loved for other reasons, too – Dexter differs from typical serial killers in far more than just who his victims are. He truly learns to feel things, and he cares beyond mere bloodlust and duty. Throughout the seasons, he makes his way through a wide emotional spectrum, experiencing love, happiness, fatherhood, fear, loss, and tragedy. He progressively becomes more human, and more like “us.” He is the man in love, he is the man who lives for his child, he is the man who fears losing his loved ones and fights to protect them, he is the man who tragically lost his wife, and he is the man who would do anything for his son and sister. He is much more than just a killer, and people recognize this. Dexter has a heart; much of what he does is driven by the same emotional motivations an average person possesses, and so we relate to him and empathize with him. This is not to say that everything Dexter ever does is morally good. He makes mistakes (big ones, too), and he does things he shouldn’t and accidentally brings pain upon people who don’t deserve it, but so do the rest of us. Forgive him for his mistakes and care about him despite them, or don’t, but in any case – it is part of what it means to be human.

Condoning the actions of a serial killer is a weighty conclusion to draw, and saying you care for the wellbeing of one (albeit a fictional one) may seem strange to those who don’t know much about him. But it boils down to a few simple points. First, Dexter killing killers both promotes the greater good of society, while safeguarding the innocent and delivering punishments that the deserving have avoided. We understand this because the peculiar stipulations of Dexter’s personal code uniquely align with both utilitarian and Kantian/retributive theories. Second, he has emotional capacities far beyond other serial killers, and is gradually learning what it means to be human, much in the way that we all are. Thus, we are presented with a serial killer that is far more relatable and sympathetic than any other that came before him. It is why there are people who take their interest in the character far beyond fascination. It is why he is loved, it is why he has millions of fans, and it is what duly earned him the title, “America’s Favorite Serial Killer"."

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