Breaking Bad and Morality

by Benjamin Studebaker

Once in a while, I like to indulge my interest in fiction and apply political and moral concepts to the world that isn’t. Today, I’d like to have a look at Breaking Bad. Why Breaking Bad? As a fan, I from time to time enjoy perusing the vast amount that is written about the show online. What sticks out to me is that the very same characters can be considered sympathetic, even heroic, by some viewers, while simultaneously receiving scorn and vilification from others–an unusual phenomenon in television. I also find that the justifications reviewers and viewers use for the various sympathies they hold are muddled. So today I’d like to dissect the show and its characters a little, to come to clearer conclusions about which moral principles are in play. Of course, this will entail extensive plot spoilers, so neophyte viewers should steer clear of this piece.

What are the moral principles that drive Walter White, if there are any? Walt is our science teacher who learns he has cancer and proceeds to use his chemistry skills to cook and sell unusually high-quality crystal meth in order to pay for his treatments and leave his family with something after he dies. Initially, it is conceivable that this entire behavior is the result of the American health care system, which requires that Walt, who appears not to have insurance (despite being a school teacher?) come up with the necessary funds to pay for his own medical care. It has often been noted that if Breaking Bad were set in just about any other developed country aside from the United States, the premise of the show would have been a non-starter:

It would have been plausible to let Walt off the moral hook entirely and to blame the American health care system, which left him with no other plausible financial choice, but the show quickly makes it clear that Walt had access to help from others that would have allowed him to avoid cooking meth–Walt receives an opportunity to take a high-paying job from an old business associate, which he declines. It is at this point in the initial plot line that viewers first become suspicious of Walt’s moral position.

Why does Walt refuse to take the job? Walt considers the job an act of charity, and Walt subscribes to a strong personal responsibility ethic that precludes him from accepting help from others. Why does Walt prioritize his commitment to personal responsibility over the harm he will inflict on others in the course of making crystal meth? I see two primary reasons for this:

  1. Demand Creates Supply–people who want to use crystal meth are going to find a supplier one way or another. By making the crystal meth himself, Walt can ensure that he receives the benefit of an activity that will go on regardless of whether or not Walt participates. He can also ensure that the crystal meth is of a very high quality, with fewer impurities, and is consequently slightly less awful than it otherwise would be.
  2. Family First–Walt has very restricted beliefs about who is part of his moral community, the group of people about whose interests he has a moral responsibility to care. For Walt, the interests of family members have lexical priority over the interests of other people . Harms inflicted on non-family members do not enter Walt’s moral calculus provided that Walt can see some way in which harming those non-family members benefits Walt and/or the members of his family.

Initially, “Demand Creates Supply” seems to account for much of Walt does, but as Walt becomes increasingly violent in order to increase his cash flow and eliminate competitors and employers, it becomes clear that he also needs “Family First”.

Detractors of Walt often claim that Walt is a purely self-centered survivalist or psychopath, but this is not so. In the most recent season, we have seen Walt constrained quite severely in his actions by his moral principles, taking dangerous and unnecessary risks in order to uphold them. He initially classifies his partner turned foe, Jesse Pinkman, as family and attempts to avoid killing him, allowing Jesse to become an informant for the DEA and very nearly spilling incriminating information to him in an attempt to patch up relations. Only Jesse’s fear that Walt does not consider him family and plans to kill him prevent Walt from making the error, as Jesse declines to attend the meeting.

Walt also blunders mightily with respect to his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader. Hank discovers that Walt is the meth cook he’s been looking for, but Walt nonetheless continually declines to kill Hank or to have Hank killed, because of Walt’s fixation on the moral value of members of his family. In the most recent episode, Walt goes so far as to allow himself to be arrested rather than kill Hank–though it appears Walt will be bailed out by some less scrupulous neo-Nazis who appear in the closing moments.

That said, while Walt certainly has moral principles that he adheres to rather strictly, I would argue that he is manifestly mistaken about many of those principles. Walt’s commitment to personal responsibility is foolhardy. He is not to blame for the fact that he has cancer, and he does not have a standing moral duty to refuse financial assistance. His unwillingness to accept help also puts him at odds with the long-term interest of his family. Walt’s family is much better off receiving additional income through a high-paying job given to Walt than it is being in the constant dangers which the families of meth-manufacturers are exposed to. Walt perhaps imagines that he will get away with cooking crystal meth, and that consequently his family will be left with much more money than it otherwise would be, but this is poorly reasoned. The risks of the approach Walt has chosen are too high to justify the potential pay-off. These two principles have contradictory conclusions.

Walt is also wrong to believe that he only has moral duties to members of his family. While Walt arguably has stronger moral duties to family members than he does to the general population, there are a great many people throughout society who contribute to Walt’s well-being, both directly and indirectly. Taken together with Walt’s focus on personal responsibility, and we have a rather libertarian moral profile for Walt–he believes he should do what is in the interest of him and his, and he believes that he is entitled to as much as he can procure personally, no more, no less. Walt will not accept charity, but Walt also won’t decline to cook meth.

That said, this does not make Walter White an malevolent person, merely a tragic one–Walt operates under faulty moral principles, which not only cause him to cause a lot of unnecessary serious harm to others, but also lead him to harm those he believes are most valuable. He is not knowingly evil. We should also acknowledge that while Walt is ultimately the right sort of person morally to end up cooking crystal meth (despite his meek science teacher persona at the show’s start), Walt’s deeds are themselves the result of a series of social pressures, chief among them the war on drugs itself.

Why is cooking crystal meth so appealing to Walt? Because it rewards his skill set handsomely, and it does so because of the state’s prohibition on it. As a result of that prohibition, meth is cooked primarily by poorly qualified individuals who make unnecessarily low-purity meth for users. A skilled cook is consequently very highly prized, given that most people with the relevant qualifications take well-paying legal jobs. Just as cooking meth rewards Walt’s skills, his current job as a teacher seems to devalue them–Walt is in this position to begin with because teachers are poorly paid (and, in this show apparently, denied health insurance). So the state has both created a disincentive for Walt to remain a teacher while simultaneously creating an incentive for Walt to pursue an artificially inflated income by cooking meth.

Walt’s mistaken moral views are also, ultimately, a social product–somewhere along the way, Walt was influenced to embrace the broadly libertarian worldview he uses to justify his behavior to himself, principles that cause Walt ultimately to harm those he cares most about. Mistakes were made in the moral education of Walter White.

Our society generates people like Walter White all the time–smart, intelligent people who feel underpaid and under-appreciated in a macho-culture that traditionally favors the brawny hero. To varying degrees, intelligent, educated people can all identify with Walt, even at this late point in the show. Because our culture has a tendency to make villains of its clever characters, clever people end up identifying with the villains. Those of us still inclined to root for Walt do so because, despite his extensive faults, he is still more like us than Hank or Jesse. We are drawn to his competence, and we forgive the harms his character inflicts.

So while I cannot agree with Walt’s moral principles, I find it hard to cheer for those who hunt him, because the demise of Walt fits the story archetype with which we are all familiar–the villainous genius is brought down by the brawny, heroic everyman due to some small mistake, obvious to the viewer, but somehow not obvious to the genius. We want to see characters that are like us prevail. So long as fiction writers continue to make the smart characters the villainous characters, smart people will continue to cheer on the villains, no matter how mistaken their moral views might be. It makes me wonder if the smart men of Wall Street have been led to justify similarly libertarian-minded moral behavior by having seen themselves in the self-centered villains of myriad movies, books, and television shows they’ve read and watched since the day they were born.

As for myself, I can’t help it. I will continue to root for Walt, even though I know he does terrible things with inadequate moral justification. Fortunately, it’s only fiction, isn’t it?