Breaking Bad – the immorality of moralising

Breaking bad has been excellent – few will deny this. But there are a billion reviews, I’m more interested in how it ended. I think it made an extraordinarily poignant point.

Throughout the whole season, Walter continually justified every action he took with the mantra “I did it for the family” and he kept playing this record over and over to try and convince himself with this affirmation; even in the face of huge suffering to his family. As if causing suffering to his family was somehow moral, as long as he was doing it “for the family”. He wanted that 80 million dollars, and would kill for it “for the family”, as if his family needs 80 million dollars. In the first season he calculated he would need to leave them around 400 000 dollars, but this kept going up – even after he was left 11 million by the men who robbed him of the other 70, he still had to get that 70 million back, no matter what, “for the family”. Moralising ultimately led him to immorality, and the inevitable consequence: limitless hypocrisy. With this “moral” rationalisation, he could kill “for the family”, he was greedy “for the family” and selfish “for the family”. With an external rationalisation for his actions, no action was off limits. It’s this kind of mentality that drives extremists to perform immoral acts “in the name of God” or “for king and country.” External, unchangeable moral systems which attempt to deny reality: the inherant transience of reality and fluid evolution of morality. Morality, like the gene pool is not fixed, and if you attempt to fix it, things start to get ugly.

The series quite rightly only ended when Walt gave up moralising to himself and finally admitted that all he did, he did for himself – not for his family. He – and only he – was responsible, and he did it because he liked it, it made him feel alive. In the end it took losing everything he had ostensibly been fighting for – his money, his freedom, his dignity, his family – to finally wake up, be honest, and finally just be. Ironically (or perhaps not, which is the point) only when he gave up moralising was he in any sense moral. This is shown when he has a gun pointing at Jack’s head, and Jack thinks he’ll stop him from pulling the trigger by offering him his money back.

But Jack doesn’t know that Walt has finally seen himself for what he is, and doesn’t care about the money, because he has seen the moral system he has been placing on himself and he sees the bullshit self-image of the “family man” for what it is, a smokescreen he invented to justify his actions in the face of his imagined moral system. He can do immoral things, and remain moral, as long as it’s done “for the family”. Only after he admits this to himself and his wife is he in any sense at peace, and you can see the same in Skyler’s eyes when he tells her. This is the singularly most powerful scene in the whole series.

This spoke to me particularly because it relates to recent realisations in my life. I have clung to moral systems and judged others for actions that I have taken myself. Moralising allows you to break the externally-imposed moral code you so dearly cling to – why? Because you believe that having a moral code makes you moral, even if you don’t follow it: “yes I did that [you say to yourself] but I know it’s wrong, because I have a moral code – see, I am moral!” This was the same for Walt – anything action goes “for the family”. Only honesty can break the cycle, only honesty can Break Bad – honesty with others, but first and foremost, honesty with ourselves.

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Author: Phil

Film composer, concert composer, sound designer, choral composer, arranger, song writer, musician.

8 thoughts on “Breaking Bad – the immorality of moralising”

  1. It is the most important scene. Walt was a beaten down man just struggling to get by, and then he gets cancer! He played by the moral and social rules of a society which made him negate his essence. What gave him life was being true to himself, finding his authenticity, even if that made him a gangster. Even then, it took him a long time to resolve the conflict in himself. The hangover of the role he had played for 50 years. Only when it was resolved could he tell Skyler the truth, at the same time that he told himself the truth. Honesty with yourself and honesty with others is one and the same. You can’t pick pears from an apple tree.

  2. I definitely see the negative side of what you’re terming ‘moralising’. It is possible that one can be so obsessed with not being a bad person that one will invoke ostensibly good things as the reason for doing bad things. But in the end are you not just saying that one kind of morality is better than another?

    I don’t mean to say that I think you are moralising in this post, I don’t. We all need morality of some kind. In fact, we all need morality of a good kind, and while we can definitely exclude certain kinds of actions as too destructive to ever be justified within any coherent moral system, it is a much more complex tast to say exactly what kind of morality will be for the good of everyone.

    1. I suppose it all depends on what we mean by moralising, morality, and moral system! For my part, I sort of mean judging by moralising (sort of, it’s not quite that simple) based on a framework that has been dictated by other humans, who may or may not have claimed to have received it from a greater authority. So by morality I suppose I mean an external (external to you) set of values which “must” be followed by the self-image we learn to project. I’m simplifying. In answer to if I’m just replacing one kind of morality with another? Then no. Because I’m not suggesting a framework to replace “it” – just pointing out that adhering to a framework that runs contrary to one’s essence will probably result in breaking that framework in any case. I suppose one could say that I’m suggesting replacing morality with amorality (i.e in the sense of not rigidly and exclusively following an externally imposed framework, n.b. not “immorality”, which still relates to a framework), but I’m not. At least, I don’t think I am….

      I guess an analogy can be made with atheism / theism. Theism says “I believe” atheism says “I don’t believe you.” It doesn’t suggest any alternative, it doesn’t claim no God, it just doesn’t accept the God claim. Another analogy might be in the courtroom, where “not guilty” doesn’t mean “innocent”, and the term “innocent” isn’t used for that very reason. In the same way, rejecting moral systems isn’t in itself a moral system. I think that’s what I’m getting at. “Don’t accept moral systems.” Is that statement a moral system? I suppose it is from the point of view that it implies an external system of not accepting systems “You shouldn’t accept moral systems.” That may well be a moral system, but for the contradiction. But I’m not suggesting anyone should or shouldn’t do anything, so I’m not suggesting a moral system.

      I’m starting to waffle.

      If I point out that your car has broken down, I’m not suggesting you should get another car. I’m just pointing it out.

      Or you could walk.

    1. Hey sorry I think I thought this was Piers x 2!

      I’ve pretty much answered that in my reply to him (above) …

      But to add to it, I’ll be doing some blog posts and videos about morality shortly, where I describe how “moral authority” is a contradiction in terms and how and why I’ve reversed my view from “morality” being mostly learned to being mostly innate. That’s a very long discussion though… watch this space!

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