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Friday, June 29, 2018

Ethics and Zootopia, Part 1: Was Nick Wilde Morally Good?



Greetings, ZNN readers. Welcome to the opening entry of my Ethics and Zootopia series. In these posts, I’ll be looking at some of the moral dimensions of the characters and situations in Zootopia. We get things underway by looking a little more closely at whether Nick Wilde was morally good at the end of the film. A lot of people seem to think the answer is yes, but I’m not so sure. Why? Read on to find out.
Let’s start with an obvious observation: it’s hard not to like Nick Wilde. Even when we first meet him and observe the duplicitous nature of his business practices, his charisma and wit compel us to downplay whatever moral reservations we may have about him. Moreover, he appears to have the proper permits for his activities, and his worldview seems more realistic than Judy’s naive optimism. Nick’s circumstances become even more understandable when we get some insight into how he was as a kid and how he was discouraged by others from trying to be an upstanding citizen. It’s easy to think that he’s a decent fox just trying to get by in a city that won’t cut him a break.

One of the most interesting discoveries from teaching Zootopia is that my students almost universally thought that Nick was, at his core, morally good. And to be fair, there’s definitely some evidence that could lead a person to this conclusion. The most obvious is that he plays a vital role in uncovering the conspiracy against predators, but he has some other virtuous moments tucked away in the film as well. In one instance, when he and Judy are fleeing from Manchas, he takes a moment to open the sky tram door and yells to Judy, “Get in.” In other words, he briefly halts his own escape on Judy’s behalf – behavior that seems indicative of a morally good disposition. And presumably, his decision to join the ZPD at the end of the film is at least in part motivated by a desire to make the city a little safer.

Now, most people will acknowledge that Nick isn’t morally perfect. His good deeds have to be weighed against the unethical things he has done in the past. It appears that when most people do this moral arithmetic, they conclude that Nick turns out to be a pretty decent person. But is that really true?

There are some reasons to be skeptical of this understanding of moral character. Aggregating good deeds and bad deeds reduces being a morally good person to a numbers game, and that doesn’t seem like the right move. To illustrate the problem, consider a well-known example from the popular video game Fallout 3. This game employs a karma system where performing a good deed (e.g., helping someone in need, defeating malicious people or creatures) earns you positive karma and where performing a bad deed (e.g., stealing, killing an innocent person) earns you negative karma. Your moral character is determined by how these deeds add up; a positive balance results in good character, and a negative balance results in bad character.

Early in Fallout 3, you can detonate a nuclear bomb located in a large settlement that results in the deaths of (at least) dozens of innocent people. As you might expect, you gain a massive amount of negative karma from engaging in such a heinous act. But here’s the catch: since the amount of negative karma you earn is finite, enough good deeds can totally erase whatever ill effects this has on your moral character. If you make enough donations to a local church or provide enough purified water to ailing settlers, then you can still have very good karma despite being a mass murderer. But this seems like precisely the wrong result: an act so evil doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that can be erased from one’s character – it taints a person’s character forever.

Of course, Nick hasn’t done anything so bad as nuking a town, and we’ve got to acknowledge that most moral mistakes shouldn’t be held against a person indefinitely. But there’s still a pretty strong case that his actions in the film are not by themselves sufficient to support the claim that he is morally good. Nick’s profession (if it can be called that) involves deception and duplicity. We also know that he’s had previous interactions with Mr. Big, one of the major crime bosses in Tundratown. Furthermore, since Nick boasts about knowing everyone in Zootopia, we can infer that he’s probably interacted with lots of other shady figures over the years as well.

By his own report to Judy, Nick has been involved in some brand of scheming since he was 12. This might be an exaggeration; Rich Moore stated that Nick went to high school (where he met Flash), so he may not have gotten too deep into his independent business ventures until graduating or dropping out. But regardless, let’s assume he’s been involved in this underhanded scamming for at least 15 years. That’s a lot of time spent developing character traits that aren’t so desirable, and they manifest pretty clearly in the first half of the film. Because of the role he plays in unveiling the conspiracy at the end of the film, it’s easy to forget that Nick spends roughly half his screen time trying to sabotage Judy’s investigation rather than aiding it. He also makes a point to denigrate her worldviews and break her spirit -- and he even seems to enjoy doing so.

Now, we can readily grant that Nick has gone through some meaningful changes by the end of the film, but he’s spent almost his entire adult life up to that point acting rather unethically. Can one good deed – even a monumentally good one – really transform one’s character so fully?

I don’t think so. Character development is gradual, and it takes a long time to alter one’s habits and dispositions. It’s not like Fallout 3's karma system where your character changes instantaneously with a few good deeds. Becoming a good person in real life is not that easy. At the end of the film, we can conclude that Nick has shifted in the right direction, but concluding that he’s virtuous at that point is too hasty. Maybe after a sequel or two where we get further evidence of how his character has transformed, we can draw that more robust conclusion. But not yet.

Nick follows in the footsteps of characters like Han Solo and Jack Sparrow, who are widely liked by their respective audiences despite being tied to many unethical practices. Because these characters are so eminently likable, we have a tendency to downplay their morally questionable behaviors and overstate the importance of their heroic actions. If we resist this temptation and bracket those biases, we should recognize that these characters should be classified as morally ambiguous – that is, as existing in that gray area between heroes and villains – rather than being labeled as heroes.

Or so I argue, anyway. What do you think?

24 comments:

  1. You are kind or right. His character has not transformed completely to become a good person even though he was in the right direction.

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  2. Having the right to question Other's morality first DEMANDS, that your own house be in order first. Not comparing anything along the lines of a serial parking scoff-law beating a cub molester with a pry-bar or anything. However, with the systematic and conspiratorial oppression leveraged against predators in general and the Vile singling out of specific groups for perceived traits I for one am giving him a pass.

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    1. Whether Nick should be considered blameworthy for the person he became prior to the events of Zootopia is a tricky issue, given the background conditions that you mention. Sometimes, we excuse people for doing things that are wrong because of their particular circumstances, but I don't think we know enough about Nick's background to determine whether he should be excused in that way. But even if we do exempt him from blame, we can still acknowledge the faults in his character. It's certainly possible for someone to have sub-par moral character even if the person shouldn't be held responsible for having turned out that way.

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  3. Nick is a stylish, but unlikable jerk from the scene where Judy discovers his con to him starting to take the case seriously when they claw marks.

    His cons and his treatment of Judy were definitely immoral, but he goes through a major change of heart into a redemption where he regains some of his long lost idealism.

    What he did before was still wrong, but he’s not that person anymore.

    And on some level I think he always wanted to be good but lost faith in it.

    He was willing to risk his life at least twice to keep Judy safe - in the Manchas chase and when he refused to leave her in the museum.

    That’s a very different person than the lying, self-centered jerk we see earlier.

    And at the end of the movie he’s been trained at the police academy for months, which is extra time for him to work on any rough edges.

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    1. Couldn't have said it any better.

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    2. I think the most relevant question is whether a handful of good actions and a few months of training are enough to erase 15 years (possibly more) of bad behavior. I've given my reasons for thinking it isn't enough. I'll also add that we only have a rather limited amount of information about Nick's underlying motivations for joining the police force. Generally, it's assumed to be a rather noble motivation, but it could be the simple desire to work with a close friend or to actually make an honest living for a change. When a sequel is made and we see how Nick acts in his day-to-day life, we might have more evidence that he can be properly classified as one of the good guys, but we don't have that evidence yet.

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    3. I don't see redemption as weighing the good and bad someone does, I think someone can just be redeemed as they change their behavior. Bad habits take more time to quell, but he has had more time in the training as I said.

      We almost always have multiple motives for what we do, so I think all three are probably motivators for him.

      In any case I think the implication is that he wanted to turn his life around and succeeded.

      Sorry for being late with this, I'm not used to checking ZNN comments and I kind of doubted that anyone would reply.

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    4. I agree that morality is not determined simply by a balance of good versus bad, especially since we can't always see the reasons something is done. Someone may, for example, do something which is good on the surface but only for public approval or to further an agenda (see Dawn Bellwether). Alternatively, they may do something wrong because they see no other option, which is still wrong but more tolerable than... well, you get the idea.

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  4. Interesting question. My sister once argued a similar thing, but from a different basis: Nick goes from acting selfishly to acting for Judy's benefit, which is definitely a good progression. But it's /solely/ for Judy's benefit. Helping out someone that close to you isn't very self-sacrificing if their happiness is tied to yours. We don't construe helping our loved ones as anything near as morally noteworthy as helping strangers or even enemies.

    In other words - we need to see Nick help people other than his closest friend in the world. Again, it'll come down to his actions in the sequel. If he works to truly serve and protect the entire community, then yes, that's a clear arc. But if he's just making Judy happy, that's arguably in his own self-interest. He likes her. Her happiness makes him happy.

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    1. That does NOT explain his change of heart on the gondola platform, though. At that point, there was ZERO incentive for him to defend Judy so eloquently; there was no benefit for him in making Judy happy at that point. Rather, it was his own deeply buried motivation to 'right' the world that made him stood up gallantly against a much bigger -- and badge-carrying -- loud-mouthed Water Buffalo Chief of ZPD.

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    2. This is a good point, but it's possible -- perhaps even likely -- that Nick is operating from mixed motives. He probably wants to help Judy both because it is indirectly tied to his own self-interest and because he cares about her welfare independent of his own interests. I suspect that both motives are present in ordinary people in most circumstances where we do favors for our friends. Also, a few of Nick's actions involved such large personal risks to his welfare that I don't think it's plausible that they could be construed just as him acting in his own self-interest (e.g., because he'd feel guilty if he didn't help Judy).

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    3. Seeing Nick help an enemy in a later movie would definitely be good - especially since it would dovetail well with, potentially, having Nick be the one to convince Judy that there's hope as a switch from the first movie. Say there's someone (Bellwether) Judy thinks is beyond redemption, but Nick chooses to believe in second chances.

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  5. The basic question should be: Does Nick's actions that we've seen in the movie is an indication of malicious intent or not? Malicious intent here should be taken as meaning "out to get back at the world that had been mistreating me" (that is, villainous motivation).

    As far as I can tell, there is no such intent from him; he was never in a 'revenge' mode. Rather, he was the quintessential shrewd 'gray' person who knew exactly how to leverage legal loopholes... for his survival. And he was good enough he was no longer surviving but actually prospering.

    As to his conflict-full interaction with Judy, we need to realize two things: (1) He saw the fox repellent spray from the first time they met, and (2) he stood up for Judy when Bogo demanded her badge. These are two defining events in the movie. The first one colored his first impression on Judy, the second was an inkling on what his worldview really was: Someone 'fighting', in his own twisted (but non-malicious) way, against prejudice and discrimination.

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    1. I agree that Nick wasn't acting from malicious intent (or at least that we don't have evidence of that). However, I don't think that answers the question of whether he's morally good. Not being malicious is not sufficient for being a morally good person. You could, for instance, be apathetic about matters of morality or adopt moral conventions purely for your own self-interest. Being a good person requires, at a minimum, having a certain set of morally good dispositions and acting in accordance with them. I didn't put a huge emphasis on these ideas in this post, but I'll be fleshing them out further as the series progresses.

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  6. Wow. This is actually incredibly spot-on about a lot more than just Nick. You're right; Nick may be headed in the right direction, but he's got his work cut out for him dealing with all that bad luggage and those unscrupulous habits. I'll definitely have to recommend this to my readers the next time I post chapters.

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  7. Take a look at the scene where Judy and Nick have their first confrontation with Mr. Big. When Big tells Nick, "I invited you into my home; we broke bread together", the fox actually looks ashamed of himself for a second. That told me that deep down Nick regretted selling the arctic shrew that skunk-butt rug--and not merely because he was afraid of Mr. Big's retribution. In other words, Nick Wilde showed that he had a conscience.

    Which brings me to another point; Judy was no paragon of morality either. When Duke Weaselton refused to give up his contact to her, what method did she use to make him change his mind?

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    1. Judy will be covered in the next part of this series. So don't worry: I'll be covering that point.

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    2. Everyone has some conscience, but a lot of people stamp theirs down or reprogram them by convincing themselves of things that they think make their actions acceptable. For example, someone once told me to lie to a lost and found to get some free ski goggles, and tried to sell me on the idea by pointing out that it wasn't fair some tourist had money to blow on goggles but I didn't. In their view, that fact made something wrong right; they had reprogrammed their conscience. (and by the way, I decided to just make do without goggles)
      In the end, having a conscience doesn't make us good or bad all by itself any more than simply having an immune system makes you healthy. It's an essential part of the picture, of course, but not the whole story.

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  8. I would say Nick always stayed in the grey area. Though i never actually understood why he needed to do that prank with 15 dolars, when he obviously had money for it (yea, angry cop is a great idea when i am a known scammer). After she find out, he kinda red pills her about the true life. From Bogos first reaction "you think i will believe a fox?", we can see that he probably faced this his whole life. Thats what made him to built that wall around himself, dont let ppl close and they cant hurt you.

    Until the Judy came and tear it down in "seconds". Judy herself, also really interesting, extortion is probably her most favorite thing ever. On her defense, she had one chance only and didnt really have a choice. The "never give up" theme is strong in her, while Nick gave up long time ago.

    Mind you i dont think its morally bad though. In the end, we all try to live are life so in the evening, we can look at the mirror. Thanks to my work, i am meeting with 100+ ppl everyday, it gives one amazing insight on motivations that drives us. In the end though, we all are masters of our own life.

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  9. Oh great. Now The Good Place has infected Zootopia.

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  10. I post one comment and now this post is one of the most popular posts on this site. wow.....

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  11. In reading the responses you've made to various comments to this essay and "On Foxes and Forgiveness", I find myself curious.

    I'm fully acknowledging that Nick is not a saint and there is still grey on his moral ledger, but it is feeling that most replies here are leaning toward a light grey with some strong areas of white. Whereas it feels that you still see him as a solid neutral grey with just a few, small splashes of white due to his actions in the movie.

    By the end of the film, we see that after knowing each other for a year, Nick and Judy are still good friends, they are now work partners, Nick passed the ZPD academy, and he passed whatever vetting and background checks the ZPD performed on him to approve his application.

    So, what exactly would you have needed to see in Nick's actions or hear in his dialogue at the end of Zootopia for you to feel that Nick's moral transformation was more toward the good as intended by the creators giving him an redemption character arc?

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