Friday, June 5, 2015

Maleficent vs. Maleficent: Who's More Kantian?

Molly's note: I originally wrote this as an essay assignment for Business Ethics last semester (Fall 2014). It was graded an A, with notes from the professor: "NICE job explaining -- this is unusually well-done" and "your analysis of Kant is so unusually good." So, I figured it worth sharing here. All Immanuel Kant quotations are taken from his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals.

Disney released a retelling of its classic Sleeping Beauty over the summer, delving into the backstory of their villain Maleficent. In Maleficent, the villain has been recreated with a new backstory. However, Kant would wonder who is more Kantian: traditional Maleficent or the recreated Maleficent?

As much as I hate the re-imagined Maleficent, I would argue she is much more Kantian than the traditional Maleficent. And it's all because of her maxim, compared to the original character's maxim.

Kant introduces the maxim when he says "the will can be subjectively determined by the maxim that I should follow such a law" (13). We defined, in class, the maxim as what you say to yourself about why you're willing or doing something. Kant believes the principle of morality (or universal morality) is based on a universal maxim, or a maxim everyone should follow, not just for ourselves. "For I should never act except in such a way that I can also will my maxim should become universal law" (14). With this in mind, we can now analyze each Maleficent's maxim and her actions to determine who has the maxim which can be willed universally.

Original Maleficent cursed baby Aurora because she wasn't invited to the christening party. But there's more to it than that. Maleficent's maxim is "I want to make everyone's lives miserable, just for my own enjoyment." It's a great maxim for a villain to have, but is it universal? Not at all.

First, to back up her maxim, let us examine Original Maleficent's actions. She kidnaps Prince Philip so as to make his life miserable in missing his true love and being frustrated in his inability to escape and kiss Aurora. She curses Aurora so as to make King Stefan and the Queen's lives miserable in that they now fear and dread for their daughter. She also taunts Philip about not letting him leave until he's practically decayed, to make him miserable in that he won't save Aurora until it's practically too late (he will be an old man, but the princess eternally young). Maleficent scolds the three good fairies and laughs in their faces to make them miserable in their guilt for leaving Aurora alone to her fate. Therefore, we can see Maleficent's maxim is to make others miserable, because as a villain, she enjoys it.

However, this is not a good universal maxim. If everyone made each other miserable, the world would be a terrible place. Also, no one would enjoy it, as Maleficent intends to, because if everyone's maxim is to make others miserable, then one person is both making others miserable and being made miserable. And that's not enjoyable. So there is no personal enjoyment in an universal maxim based off Original Maleficent's. Therefore, she is not Kantian.

Let us now examine Re-imagined Maleficent. The interesting thing about her is that her maxim actually changes. At first, it is similar to Original Maleficent's: new Maleficent's first maxim is "have my revenge by making other's lives miserable." This is seen in how she gets revenge on King Stefen (for breaking her heart and "raping" her of her wings) by cursing Aurora.

But as Re-imagined Maleficent begins to develop a relationship with Aurora, her maxim changes. Maleficent becomes an anti-hero, regretting the curse she placed on Aurora. She tries to take it back and, when she cannot, tries to fix it by bringing Aurora's true love to her to wake her. Finally, she also (SPOILER) kisses Aurora's forehead and breaks her own spell. This is all reflected in her second maxim: "Make someone else's life better than my own."

Re-imagined Maleficent was hurt by the "lie" of true love, but she realized the only way to help Aurora was to bring in the princess' true love (which ends up being Maleficent). Maleficent is heartbroken over true love, but she does not want Aurora to be, and so her second maxim is true.

It is also an universal maxim. If everyone tried hard to make others' lives better than his or her own, the world would be a less selfish world. It would be moving closer to Kant's kingdom of ends: "a systematic union of different rational beings through common laws" (39). This is Kant's ideal world, and if everyone followed Re-imagined Maleficent's second maim to put others' lives before our own, we would be closer to this ideal kingdom.

Also, her second maxim closely reflects what Kant writes about dignity. Kant writes: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity...always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means" (36). This means persons should not be treated as objects, or things, to get what one wants. But with Re-imagined Maleficent's second maxim, persons/others are treated as ends, and not selfishly, but unselfishly, for that other person. No one is using another, but is simply respecting that person.

Kant sums up his universal maim as the categorical imperative in this way: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (30). Re-imagined Maleficent's maxim can become universal, and therefore is the categorical imperative, whereas Original Maleficent's maxim cannot become universal. So to sum up, Re-imagined Maleficent is the more Kantian in this battle of the two Maleficents.

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