Welcome to the second entry in my Ethics and Zootopia series. In the first entry, I considered whether or not we could conclude that Nick Wilde was morally good at the end of the film, and I argued that we couldn’t make that judgment just yet. So now let’s think about the film’s other main character: Judy Hopps. Could we say that Judy was morally good at the end of the film? Does she fare better in this respect then her vulpine colleague? Keep reading to find out.
In Zootopia’s opening, Judy professes her intentions to become a police officer and her desire to “make the world a better place.” There’s no denying the noble nature of these intentions, but whether Judy lives up to them over the course of the film is another matter. The obvious shortcoming of Judy’s moral character for most of the film is her latent bias against predators, as I’ve written about elsewhere. As the film unfolds, Judy gains greater awareness of these biases and the ways in which they threaten her integrity. Her words indicate that she wants to regard all species as equal, but her attitudes – and the behaviors that stem from them – run counter to this ideal. This inconsistency between what she claims to value and how she acts in other contexts makes her believe that she has failed to uphold the integrity required by officers in the ZPD, which is the main reason that she resigns from the force at the end of the film’s second act.
But here’s the catch: most people give Judy a pass on these latent biases. Overwhelmingly, they believe that Judy can still be morally good even though she harbors these biases for most of the film and even though she probably hasn’t purged them completely at the film’s conclusion (because it’s quite difficult to alter one’s subconscious associations). Is it really legitimate to give Judy’s character a positive evaluation despite her hidden prejudices? Actually, yes. For three reasons.
First, we usually excuse people for traits and actions that are beyond their control. This is why we don’t typically hold people responsible for what they do when they are coerced, under duress, or suffering from mental illness. Latent biases are the result of automatic associations made by a person’s brain. So, they aren’t really within your control. You can decide to raise your arm, but you can’t just decide to alter your subconscious attitudes. Since they can’t be changed very easily, there’s a case to be made that people shouldn’t be held responsible for them – at least not in the same way that they are held responsible for their voluntary actions.
Second, we often excuse people for things they do that are wrong when those things are done out of ignorance. Latent biases, since they originate in subconscious thought, are difficult to discern, and Judy has no clear evidence – prior to Nick pointing it out to her – that she holds these biases. She criticizes her parents for what they say about predators right before she boards the train for Zootopia and persistently reiterates the message that “anyone can be anything” in this special city. Such remarks suggest that Judy views herself as an advocate for species equality rather than an opponent of it.
Third, when Judy becomes aware that she had these hidden biases, she wants to change them and takes action to make that happen. Beyond resuming her quest to solve the mystery concerning predators going savage, she goes so far as to allow a predator to clamp his jaws around her neck at the film’s climax. That’s pretty conclusive evidence of an effort to become more trusting of predators and not regard them as prone to violent behavior.
All this considered, it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that Judy’s biases are a forgivable aspect of her personality. We shouldn’t condemn her moral character on these grounds alone. But that doesn’t mean she’s off the hook just yet. The film gives us a lot of other information about her moral character, and it’s not all positive. Let’s start with her claim that she wants to make the world a better place.
Judy voices a desire to improve the world around her on many occasions in the film. That’s a worthy aspiration, but is that really what motivates her behavior? On many occasions, she seems motivated primarily by a desire to prove herself to others. Think about how she handles being assigned to parking duty by Chief Bogo. When he mentions that she shouldn’t have trouble writing 100 tickets a day, she responds by trying to write 200 tickets before noon. However, she doesn’t seem to do this because she thinks it will help improve the city in some way; it’s just to demonstrate that the chief was wrong to doubt her abilities. When she takes off after Weaselton to prevent his thievery, she seems compelled to do so by a desire to prove that she’s a “real cop” moreso than a deeply held desire to keep the city safe. (If you doubt this, you might consider refreshing yourself on the dialogue at the start of that scene and note the joyful “woo woo” when she tells Officer McHorn that she is in pursuit.)
This aspect of Judy’s personality is so pronounced that Chief Bogo exploits it later in the film. He uses Judy’s penchant for trying to silence her skeptics to entice her into a deal that clearly works to her disadvantage. She agrees to wager her career as a police officer on the chance to crack a missing mammal case with few resources, virtually no leads, and a two-day time limit. While wanting to prove one’s critics wrong is an understandable motivation, it isn’t a selfless one, and it often causes Judy to make questionable decisions. As Bogo points out, for instance, Judy’s confronting Weasleton prompted a scurry that seriously endangered the residents of Little Rodentia.
There is also another source of Judy’s questionable decision-making: her foolhardiness. We would all acknowledge that Judy has a lot of courage: she’s willing to risk life and limb to help others and apprehend wrongdoers. But she actually has too much courage. Normally, of course, courage is a good thing to have: if you lack it, then it’s going to be pretty tough to stand up for your convictions, overcome adversity, or take risks that could benefit you in the long run. That’s why courage is almost always regarded as a virtue – a desirable character trait that typically embodies a type of human excellence. (Some other examples of virtues include honesty, loyalty, temperance, generosity, and integrity.)
Most virtues are found in the golden mean between two related vices. Specifically, a virtue will usually be the desirable middle ground between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. Take loyalty as an initial illustration. If you lack it, then you’re a traitor, and it’s not good to be a traitor. But if you have too much loyalty – such that you won’t abandon a particular cause or betray a certain person no matter what – then you’re a zealot. And being a zealot could be just as bad as being a traitor, depending on the details. Bottom line: it’s generally good to be loyal, but it is possible to be too loyal.
When we think about courage, we are most familiar with its associated vice of deficiency: cowardice. We have all had experiences where we struggled to find the courage to do something, so it’s easy to understand the phenomenon and see why it’s an undesirable character trait. Judy’s problem, however, lies at the other end of the spectrum. She is too headstrong and does not accurately appraise the danger that she faces. There are times, of course, where Judy is appropriately courageous. A paradigm example is when she defends her friends from Gideon’s bullying near the start of the film. But too often her bravery crosses the threshold of what’s courageous and enters the realm of foolhardiness. Let’s consider a few examples.
I already mentioned Judy’s decision to chase down Weaselton, which could be attributable to her desire to prove herself. But it may also be reflective of her recklessness, since she didn’t really appraise the situation and may have underestimated how easy it would be to apprehend a single weasel. This almost got a number of Little Rodentia residences harmed or killed, though (so far as we know) there were no casualties. Another instance of foolhardiness is in her antagonizing Mr. Big while surrounded by his polar bear bodyguards. Nick also clearly tries to discourage this behavior, and Judy ignores him. Judy’s brazen remarks would have gotten both of them killed if not for Fru Fru’s conveniently timed entrance into the scene and the fortunate coincidence that Judy had saved her from being crushed during the Weaselton chase sequence.
Perhaps Judy’s most iconic act of reckless behavior occurs when she hijacks the train that contains Doug’s drug lab. Nick warns her many times not to try anything rash and to just take the dart gun with the Night Howler serum in it. Judy has no knowledge of where the tracks lead, and her decision puts Doug’s mobile hideout on a collision course with a freight train. This could have been an utter disaster: beyond our rabbit and fox pair not surviving to expose the conspiracy, it could have surely resulted in a lot of innocent deaths. (The train is on an elevated track where its contents could have easily fallen onto the roadway below if it were derailed.) That outcome was just barely avoided.
Now you might look back at these choices and say, “Well, so what? Nothing bad happened. Our heroes survived, and casualties were ultimately kept to a minimum.” The problem is that in all of these cases, Judy was not justified in thinking that things would turn out for the best. She overestimated her own abilities and underestimated the danger of the situation. The results – actions that endanger the lives of others – are not characteristic of someone who is morally good. A morally virtuous person would be a little more mindful of how their actions could affect others, and moreover, this seems like an especially important skill for a police officer.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the ways that Judy bypasses police protocol or uses otherwise nefarious means to accomplish her goals. (There was already a discussion about this matter on Reddit long ago.) Judy blackmails Nick using information about his tax returns to gain his cooperation, she investigates the Tundra Town limo service without warrant (and a dubious appeal to probable cause), she threatens the life of Weaselton to get him to provide her information, and the list goes on. In some sense, her tactics are successful, but are these really the methods that a morally good person uses to get results? Shouldn’t some other strategies have been attempted before resorting to such drastic measures, at least in some of these cases? I’m not going to belabor this point, but give it a little thought on your own.
At the end of Zootopia, we can reasonably conclude that Judy has made good progress in identifying and correcting her latent biases against predators, but that does not in itself make her morally good because she has plenty of moral flaws in other areas. We don’t have any evidence that she’s improved her decision-making or that she is less prone to foolhardiness. We also don’t have any evidence that she’s abandoned or condemned the morally questionable techniques she used to help her solve the Night Howler case, and we have no idea what’s become of her association with Mr. Big. (If she just lets his mafia continue with business as usual, then that’s gotta be a further strike against her moral character.)
Judy’s vices are offset to some degree by her more admirable qualities, such as her tenacity and compassion, but these flaws nonetheless reveal some areas in which her character and conduct could be improved. Thus, much like her vulpine companion, Judy is far from being evil but still morally flawed in some important ways. If we want to label Judy as morally good, then we’ll have to wait for a sequel and hope that the creators illustrate some further moral improvement on her part.