Seven Pounds - Moral or Immoral?

Is there such a thing as an immoral work of art?

I attended a panel on this topic last weekend at Diversicon and have been thinking about the question since then. Opinion among the panelists and the audiences was divided, some clearly thought that a movie or a story could be immoral, others were less sure. There is not an obvious intuitive response to this question.

The major example on the panel was the film Seven Pounds, starring Will Smith. The moderator and a few others objected to the main character, an aeronautical engineer from MIT, deliberately killing himself in order to donate his organs to other people. They argued that Tim/Smith could have done more good by keeping his job and potentially saving hundreds or thousands of lives instead of killing himself and helping only the few who received transplants.

From the perspective of utilitarian ethics I don’t think this objection makes a whole lot of sense. From the description it appears that Tim, the main character, has saved or at least improved the lives of seven people. But we don’t know anything about his past behavior, whether his work in engineering has helped to save lives or not. Nor can we predict the impact of any potential work he might do in the future. The idea that Tim might help the world more by staying alive is a supposition. From a utilitarian perspective it seems clear that Tim made the correct choice, his actions provide more happiness for more people.

There are a lot of different threads behind the reaction of some people to this movie. There is a strain of technological optimism that someone like an aeronautical engineer from MIT has more to give to the world than just his body parts. What if the main character had not been an engineer? How about a lawyer or a homeless person? There is also a strong belief in the efficacy of the individual, and a parallel feeling that no depression at the loss of a love one is so bad that one can’t persevere. It is the traditional American message to just buck up and get on with life despite whatever tragedies we encounter. When someone fails to return to the ring after being knocked-out it shows the weakness of their character instead of any corruption with the system.

More to come on the evaluation of art in moral and other terms.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.