The Problem of Good and Evil - Critical Perspectives in Philosophy, Film, and Music

Robert Russell By Robert Russell, 2nd Apr 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Film & TV>Drama

This article critically looks at the problem of good and evil from three perspectives; philosophy, film, and music. The particular focus is on the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, and the American blues artist Willie King.


It is unfortunate but true that the first part of the 21st century will always be associated with the "terrorism." According to "The Foreign Policy Association" the "war on terrorism" raises a number of troubling issues. While the murder of innocent civilians is obviously wrong, the ways in which terror is responded too is full of ambiguities and uncertainties both at a moral and legal level. One of the reasons for the moral and legal ambiguity is that the relationship between good and evil is not as clear cut as many would like it to be. Terrorism has ancient roots but the modern idea of terrorism is directly linked to "Reign of Terror" associated with the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror is summarized nicely at " " The Reign of Terror was justified and orchestrated by the Jacobins as a necessary means to ensure the success of the Revolution. In this article I focus on three critical points of view that deal with the problem of good and evil; (1) the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, (2) The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, and (3) the American blues singer Willie King.

Theodor Adorno - Critical Theorist and Philosopher

One of the essential points emphasized by the 20th German philosopher and social theorist Theodor Adorno in his work was the problem of evil. The primary task of philosophy, according to Adorno, is to "make sense" of the world but the phenomenon of evil defies sense making. Adorno was a secularized German Jew that fled Germany after Hitler came to power. Auschwitz, in Adorno's view, was the ultimate manifestation of evil. The tragedy of the Holocaust raised a number of issues for Adorno. How could Germany - one of the most cultured countries in terms of music, the arts, philosophy and the sciences - become one of history's most barbaric nations? The need to rebuild culture - post war Germany - is an example that culture has failed. Our contemporary intellectual and cultural climate has been named with a variety of terms such as "postindustrial," "postmodern," "postcolonial," and so forth. In his primary philosophical work, Negative Dialectics , Adorno suggested a more chilling term, "post-Auschwitz." One of the essential themes in Adorno is that good and evil cannot definitively compartmentalized. Progress and civilization comes with a price and the ones who enjoy the fruits of progress are generally not the ones who pay the price for progress. One of the other phrases that Adorno uses in Negative Dialectics was "the guilt of society." The standard of living enjoyed by most people in the industrialized world comes at the expense of many of the people in the non-industrialized parts of the world. One of the conclusions that Adorno draws is that the goal of living an ethical life or acting ethically is always tainted.

Dogville - A Film Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier is a controversial Danish filmmaker who has made a number of celebrated films. See "" for details about his biography and film chronology. He gained recognition in the United States for his film "Dancer in the Dark" that appeared in 2000. The film is a dark tale starring the Icelandic singer Bjork. Bjork plays an innocent woman wrongly put to death for a crime she didn't commit. At the time, the film was criticized as anti-American and this criticism inspired von Trier to make a trilogy of films about America. According to IMDb, von Trier's goal was to expose the "sins and hypocrisy" that he, as an outside, sees as representative of American culture. Dogville (2003) is the first film in of the trilogy. Dogville is a dark film on a number of levels. The general storyline is that a young woman named Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) is fleeing a group of mobsters who are trying to kill her. She finds refuge in a small Rocky Mountain town called Dogville. At first the town is wary because she is an unknown entity and it is not clear if she his friend or for. Tom, a young philosopher in the town, intercedes for her and convinces the townspeople to offer refuge. Tom's motives are mixed. Grace provides an opportunity to put his philosophical ideas - about community values - into practice and he falls in love with her. However, a bargain has to be struck. The town agrees to accept her on the condition that she provides labor for the people in the town. The labor quickly becomes more and more exploitative and the plot becomes darker and more sinister. She is raped twice, her workload is doubled, she is chained to a metal object that makes walking difficult, and the town eventually turn her in to the mobsters because they think that she is too dangerous.

It is the ending of the film that raises the most troubling questions. When the mobsters arrive we learn that Grace is the daughter of the mobster's boss (James Caan). She had fled because she rejected her father's values and didn't want to participate in his life style. At the end of the film she and her father sit in a Cadillac and heatedly debate their moral points of view. She is willing to forgive her treatment at the hands of the townspeople - her name "Grace" is important - because they weren't responsible for what they did. They were following instinct like a "dog," Her father argues that people have to be held accountable for their actions. Eventually Grace agrees with her father, agrees to return with him and then concludes, as a logical consequence, that everyone in Dogville should be killed for how they treated her.

Willie King - American Bluesman

Willie King was born in Prairie Point, Mississippi in 1943. He died in 2009 at his home in Aliceville, Alabama. King was juke joint blues player who used the blues to raise social consciousness and awareness. He grew up working on plantations as a sharecropper with his family. As a young man he was involved in the civil rights struggles in the Mississippi and Alabama. He worked as a traveling salesman roving around Alabama and this helped to raise his awareness about the oppressive living conditions that African Americans faced in the South. At the same time, he was inspired by folk singers such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez to write blues songs with lyrical content that brought attention to social issues. He didn't record until 2000 "Freedom" Creek" and "I Am The Blues." He recorded several more albums in the next nine years, toured extensively, and won numerous awards.

In one of his strongest songs, "Terror," King sang; "You talk about terror, People I've been terrorized all my days."

In an interview with the "Chicago Tribune," King went into more detail his experience as a young African American growing up in the south.

"When I was coming up on the plantations around here," he says in his gravelly voice, "we were terrorized. We were hung for nothing, whipped for nothing, worked hard for nothing, and we still wound up at the end of the year with no money. But back then the people were so oppressed that they couldn't come out and say it was the bossman who created all these problems. . . .

"As my granddaddy used to say, `If you don't call no names, you won't get the blame.' So instead of calling the bossman's name, the blues singers called the woman's name. But the time has come to be straightforward and come right out and say it. After the Civil Rights movement, they stopped lynching and whipping us, so you can say whatever's on your mind. They might not like it, but they can't hang you for it."


Films, Good And Evil, Lars Von Trier, Theodor Adorno, Willie King

Meet the author

author avatar Robert Russell
I play guitar professionally in a Cajun/zydeco band named Creole Stomp. We are a nationally touring band that have been together ten years. I also have a PhD in philosophy.

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