Dexter, know thyself: Ethics and the Dexter finale
Briony explores the ethics in play in the Dexter finale, Remember The Monsters. Philosophy and spoilers ahoy...
Warning: this feature contains Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and spoilers for the Dexter finale.
Dexter did have an epiphany in the series finale; he understood that having relationships with others might help him in various ways, but for those others, the relationship with him is necessarily toxic and destructive. We definitely know that Dexter has eschewed personal relationships in his new, more limited life, what is less clear is if Dexter has kicked his dark passenger out of the car for good.
Inscribed on the walls at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was the maxim ‘Know Thyself’. In my article ‘How will Dexter End?’ I said that the character of Dexter is a reflection of a kind of pervasive selfishness that we can see in the world around us. I think that one of the reasons for this selfishness is a deep and profound misunderstanding of this maxim.
In his books about ethics, Aristotle wrote that the goal of human life is eudaimonia, a word that was often translated from ancient Greek as happiness, but is now more likely to be translated as well-being or flourishing. Happiness is a word which might bring to mind a rather hedonistic picture of doing what is pleasurable. It might have broader connotations with leading a happy life, spending time with family, doing something interesting and fulfilling, being mentally and physically healthy. The notion that this kind of happiness is what we should be pursuing to lead a good life has taken root in western cultures. We are now at a point where the self-help industry in the USA alone is worth billions of dollars. Terms like self-actualisation, personal development, and well-being, are now part of the common lexicon and the public consciousness.
Bernard Williams objected to Aristotle’s idea that eudaimonia is a basis for ethics, saying that there is "the figure, rarer perhaps than Callicles supposed, but real, who is horrible enough and not miserable at all but, by any ethological standard of the bright eye and the gleaming coat, dangerously flourishing. For those who want to ground the ethical life in psychological health, it is something of a problem that there can be such people at all". Dexter seemed to be flourishing, in this sense. He was successful in his work, both in the lab and in his ‘extra-curricular’ activities. He seemed to have successful relationships. But this appearance was deceptive - literally in that some of those relationships which were based on a huge lie, and figuratively with relationships like the ones with Deb and Hannah, where the truth was known, but where there were still fundamental problems.
It was never Aristotle’s intention for his account of ethics to be grounded in psychological well-being. Aristotle gave an account of eudaimonia as based on the function of human beings. He thought that if we could find out what type of creature we are - the unique characteristics of human kind - then we would know the function of human life, and the good life would consist of fulfilling this function. And this is really what was meant by ‘Know Thyself’ on the wall of the Temple of Apollo. Know yourself is a psychological imperative, but also a moral imperative; know what kind of thing you are, and that will be a guide to what kind of life one should live. Aristotle identified our rational capacity as the unique feature of human life, and therefore the good life should be centred around exercising this capacity. And he thought that being thoughtful creatures, we should turn that thought to working out how to be excellent, or virtuous, and how to treat each other.
Dexter has achieved certain psychological growth throughout the show; in beginning to make genuine attachments to others - a journey that was stymied by Harry and Evelyn’s approach to raising him - he has the beginnings of empathy. After a few years of loving Hannah and Harrison, who knows, Dexter might even achieve the emotional insight that they would be devastated if he were to disappear without a trace, like his victim’s families probably were. He may even turn himself in. He also questioned the code, and Harry’s approach to shaping him as a child, definitely a rational and emotional exploration that Aristotle views as essential to the good life. In Dexter’s new life, he seems to have opted for a very simple one; a menial job, and a Spartan set-up at home. This could indicate a period of very real soul searching and reflection. Vogel’s seductive lies, that he was perfect as he is, could be really explored and fundamentally rejected in the new intellectual and emotional space that Dexter has created for himself.
We can learn something from the 12 step programme utilised by organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, to see that this ethical dimension is an integral part of recovering a good life. Step 4 is "making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves", step 5 is "admitting (to God, to ourselves, and to another human being) the exact nature of our wrongs". Step 8 is to "make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all". Step 9 is to "make amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others". Maybe in Dexter’s new life he can take such an inventory, even if it is not possible to take action to put right his wrongs.
Kantian Ethics and Dexter’s relationships with women
Although Dexter has revealed his dark passenger to many people over the course of the series, such as Lila, Miguel, and Zach, it has been Dexter’s relationships with central women in his life that are the most revealing.
Kant, like Aristotle, identified rationality as the crux of ethical thought. He thought that it was our capacity for rationality is the basis of how to behave and how to treat each other. There are a few major planks to Kant’s ethical theory. There is the first ‘formulation’ of the categorical imperative; act as though your maxims should become universal law. This means that if there is a fundamental incompatibility with the maxim (or rule) that you act on becoming universalised, then you cannot act on it. In other words, if I act on a maxim such as ‘I will lie when it benefits me’ this is logically incompatible with everyone acting on such a maxim, because in a world where everyone acted on a similar maxim, the very edifice of truth and trust would be undermined, and I wouldn’t actually be able to lie. To act on this maxim would involve a logical inconsistency, so we know as rational beings that we should not act on it.
The other plank to Kant’s theory is the second ‘formulation’; treat all rational beings as an ‘end in themselves’ rather than a means to an end. In other words, we have to fundamentally recognise the rationality and autonomy of others in the way that we treat them. It’s this second formulation that is relevant to Dexter’s relationships with women. It’s clear that Rita was a means to an end for Dexter. If she knew the truth about him, there’s no way she would have continued the relationship. Rita had experienced enough violence, lies and abuse for one lifetime. But Dexter did not want her to have all of the information that she needed to make that decision for herself, because the relationship suited him.
As for Debra, I was so excited that Deb was standing up to Dexter in the season opener, and cheering when Deb said to Dex "I am not lost. I know exactly where I am, I am in some shitty fucking hell, which is exactly what I deserve. But you… you are lost. All my life I thought that I needed you, that I couldn’t survive without you, fuck! Fuck! It was the other fucking way around. It was the other way around." Best. Speech. Ever. Dexter, with the help of Evelyn Vogel, then proceeds to brainwash Deb into re-entering a relationship with him. Although things looked promising when Dexter appeared to sacrifice himself for Debra in the season opener, telling her "It’s okay", and that she should shoot him instead of LaGuerta, it appears that he changes his mind with Vogel’s encouragement, and that Debra’s sanity and integrity are not worth his sacrifice. Instead of leaving Debra alone, to allow her to come to her own conclusions, including deciding not to have a relationship with him, Dexter allows Vogel to convince him that he is perfect just the way he is, and that in order to cure Debra’s emotional turmoil they had to convince her to accept Dexter the way he is. Dexter tells himself that he is concerned for Debra’s well-being, but it seems to the audience that he needs Debs’ acceptance for his own reasons. If this is the right interpretation, then Dexter is treating his sister as a means to an end, not as an end in herself, as a free, rational and autonomous human being.
The notion that we should love unconditionally has evolved in pop psychology to the idea that we should accept people ‘for who they are’ and not try to change them. This is an insidious idea; if we love someone, we should be challenging them to be the best they can be; morally, psychologically and spiritually. Debs was right to reject Dexter. It was unfortunate for Dexter that Vogel was around to convince him otherwise, and tragic that it took Debra’s death to make him realise it.
Whilst Dexter’s self-imposed exile was a better (and more ethically sound) ending than him swanning off to Argentina with Hannah and Harrison, in my opinion in most respects it would have been better for Dexter to answer for his crimes and face society’s judgement. Although Dexter seems to be in the process of realising and confronting the harm he had done to those closest to him, there is not any indication that he has confronted his other moral transgressions… from framing Doakes as the Bay Harbor Butcher, to all the victims who ended up on his table.
Dexter of all people should understand that even those who have committed horrific crimes deserve a fair trial by their peers. Dexter’s arrogance, to think that he could be judge, jury and executioner, with no checks and balances, was one of his biggest ethical blindspots. Although the show did explore the question of who deserved to die, and whether the Butcher’s crimes were somehow justified, in the ‘Dark Defender’ storyline, further exploration was warranted from a show which featured a serial killer as its protagonist. Obviously, Dexter (and Harry before him) had an inside perspective on the failings of the criminal justice system. But the principles that exist to protect the innocent can’t be ignored, even if there are some unpleasant consequences.
Dexter the series was an interesting premise, and its execution (ahem) often lived up to that premise, and sometimes disappointed. My biggest disappointment was that the fact that Dexter was an unreliable narrator wasn’t explored deftly enough, and the ethical implications of his own biases, assumptions and motivations weren’t given the in-depth attention they deserved. But it was a show that had a go at looking at mental disorder, violence and justice, and there some really good performances during its run, so I for one am glad I went along for the ride with Dexter and his dark passenger. I just wish we’d learned what happens if you bring a fork to a gun fight.
Read our spoiler-filled review of the Dexter's season eight finale, Remember The Monsters, here.
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