A flight, a memento, a question

Are people inherently good, bad, or something else? 

I recently (re-)watched Memento and this question – one I have certainly asked myself before – popped into my mind.

The film deals with a man who cannot create new memories after a traumatic incident in his life leaves him with – as he describes it – “a condition.” The events of the film unfold around the people and problems his life intersects with as a result of this condition. And, invariably, the people all try to take advantage of him (the notable exception being the hooker who does exactly what he asks her to do). A guy who won’t remember what you say to him, what you do to him, or what he does? Why not have him kill a drug dealer so that you can make some money? Or charge him for more than one room at your motel? Or kill a crooked cop for revenge? Unless he writes it down, he won’t remember anyways.

That’s the best I can do to describe the film without giving away any of the interesting parts that make an extremely interesting and well put together film (I’m serious, go netflix it and watch it if you haven’t already). But the summary isn’t important other than to give a framework for my question above.

Are people inherently good, bad, or something else?

In Memento, all of the peripheral characters (and there aren’t many – only a handful) are trying to manipulate the protagonist to achieve their own goals. Now, obviously this is just a film, and one in which the goal is to explore the questions of what makes something real or not real, fact or fiction, constructed or concrete. But the fact remains that this man, whose condition leaves him unable to even know how long it’s been since the incident that brought about this change, is surrounded by people who do not try to help him. In fact, what they do makes the viewer feel pretty beaten up over how terrible (and cunning) they are to him.

It’s not the film’s job or intent to answer the question, and it’s not really mine either, with this post. Explorations of the spectrum of good-evil principles is just an interesting topic in general to me (a fantastic read, by the way, to anyone interested in the question of what is absolutely evil is the introduction to the book “Explaining Hitler” – and no, this is not a Holocaust denial book, but one in which the author tries to figure out how to understand such an important historical figure and his journey in this pursuit).

But as the protagonist of Memento seeks to achieve his own goals – misguided but with good intention though they may be – he bounces between these peripheral figures who seek to exploit and coerce him, albeit subtly sometimes, into achieving their goals.

Does this make them bad? The woman who uses him to avenge her boyfriend is technically doing a good thing, in one light. The motel manager who charges him for more than one room to help his boss during a slow season is doing his part for his company, right? Does this make them good?

But everyone, everyone the protagonist interacts with eventually sees him as a tool. And in our interactions with others, we do the same.

Today I bought a flight for my cousin’s wedding – something I did not really have a lot of extra money to cover, but went ahead with anyway. As I did this, I tried to sort out why. While not being distant relatives, my cousin and I have never been extremely close. It’s far away, requires a flight/hotel/feeding myself for a weekend, and is a wedding (never something I enjoy). So why did I buy the flight? Because I’d like her to one day feel compelled to attend my own? A little. Because I’d feel guilty if I expected her to come to my own after not attending hers? Definitely. Because I genuinely wish to share this day with her? Not particularly.

Essentially, in analyzing my reasons – obvious and admissions I wasn’t terribly proud of – I came back to the question Memento had raised – are people inherently good, bad, or something else?

I don’t consider myself a particularly good or bad person. And in looking at buying the flights, I mentally cringed a little, thinking that the reasons weren’t terribly altruistic. But as I looked more broadly, I realized that much of what makes society and interpersonal relationships exist stems from similar thoughts/feelings/interplays of rationales. We do things all the time in order to receive things. Reciprocity is as old as civilization and an important mechanism for continued interconnections.

When we each go out in to the world as part of our daily lives, how do we know the people with whom we interact are any more or less altruistic of decent that those who surround the man in Memento?

Does this make people inherently bad?

I don’t think so. I think it makes us something else. I am not sure what that is, and worse, I don’t know where to draw the line between the actions of the peripheral characters in Memento and my own. Because they’re my own, I like to think that what I do – and buying a flight for the wedding is just one example – is more bent towards good than bad, or at least something else. That, if I knew someone in capable of creating new memories and thus reliant on my own inner decency to help not make his life more difficult, I would differ from those peripheral characters. 

But would I? Would you? And, since he won’t remember anyways, would it matter?


davidrsheehan is a contributing writer for projectgroupthink.wordpress.com. Get instant updates for this blog via Twitter: PGTblog. You can also tweet directly with him: davidrsheehan.



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7 responses to “A flight, a memento, a question

  1. soahki

    I’ve not seen the movie Memento, but your detailed description of the plot was a great read. I also enjoyed the tie- in about your attending a cousin’s wedding because you would otherwise feel guilty in expecting her to attend your own. I think that much of the world is this way. I can think of countless examples in my own life of things I’ve done for others in the interest of reciprocity. There’s a seldom spoken social code, I feel, which must be imprinted on us at an early age. Social relationships seem largely based on ties and obligations when you examine them closely.

    Though I’m hardly an expert on human nature, I don’t think human beings are inherently good or evil. I tend to feel that the terms good and evil are artifically imposed moral constructs defined by the parameters of one’s society. But I’ve decided that I don’t feel people are entirely self serving, because most people do feel bad if they harm another in an obvious way. I’m not especially concerned with the “goodness” of my character, but I’d feel bad if I hurt a person emotionally or physically. I would like to think that this isn’t just the imprint of societal conditioning upon my psyche, and that this tendency to wish to avoid harming one’s own kind is a part of human nature. Yet I suppose I can’t really say for sure.

    • davidrsheehan

      You should definitely see the film. It’s extremely good – acclaimed, even. Same director as the recent two Batman films (Christopher Nolan).

      Yes, reciprocity is societal, but good/bad and the moral concept argument seems to fall short in my mind’s eye.

      For example, murder – we all know it’s bad (and by we I mean rational, sane humans). Is it a moral construct? Societal? In the wild, aniamls murder one another (even within their own species) all the time, without compunction. Is it bad, then?

  2. This is (sort of) what I hope to do my MA thesis on. If you’re really into this sort of thing (verbose types call it “meta-ethics,”) I have to suggest Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil.”

    Without turning this into a rant that will rival said thesis in length, I do believe that good and evil are socially constructed. A primatologist named Frans DeWaal has done some fascinating research on whether or not we can root these social constructs in the empathic relations of chimps, which would almost rap the issue up too nicely.

    I have thought for a long time that people are inherently evil, but I have begun to question this. I will say that seeing people as evil tends to catalyze one’s own capacity for it, and that the happiest times in my life have been when I acted in accordance with some belief in inter-human goodness.

    I also tend to sympathize with the emotivists, who reduce statements such as “charity IS good” and “murder IS evil” to read simply as non-objective decrees of “yay, charity!” and “boo, murder!”

    To wrap this up, I might suggest that we’re missing the mark by judging actions or people as “good/evil.” What we might do is view these things as relational: “this action is good/evil to agent x, in virtue of factors y and z.” This would allow us to preserve the “good/evil” dichotomy in the colloquial sense, without giving undue ontological weight to the concept itself.

  3. Po

    Good article and interesting points by all. It too is my belief that all values are socially constructed. It seems logical however to follow a moral framework for the sake of the species. I’ve chose to incorporate a utilitarian ethic into my own life. I feel that most people only do “good” when motivated by guilt. If the world was predominantly selfless would there still be war and poverty? Would the world run like a finely tuned ant hill – each individual pulling his/her own weight for the benefit of all…

  4. Whenever debates about good and evil and the nature of mankind come up, my mind naturally gravitates to the animal aspect of us. Being a scientist, concepts like altruism come to mind, specifically in an animal-behavior context. Is there any true altruism? In the animal kingdom, for the most part, there doesn’t seem to be. Altruistic behavior comes about either from recognition of kin and survival offspring or family (“your genes”) or it comes about in a community of unrelated animals that practice reciprocity.

    After mentioning all this though, humans have often held themselves in higher regard and at times deny the animal (while others, at times, revere it). I think some similar behavior and subconscious calculation definitely shapes how and why we act. I do not think that is a “good” or “bad” thing. Compassion is there for as much reason as fear is.

  5. I went to the store last week, and I grabbed up a Hot Wheel car for 97 cents for Ethan as I usually do when I go to this particular store. This time I let Ethan hold the car while I grabbed something else.

    When we got to the car I noticed Ethan had the car in his hands still. I looked at my receipt and realized I had not paid for it.

    I realized there were these two women watching Ethan when I checking out, and they were mumbling something. When I left they started giggling. I didn’t think much of it until I realized he had the car in his hands still.

    Then I remembered these two women were talking and giggling while I was checking out. I began to puzzle together that they where laughing and giggling because Ethan had the car, and I did not pay for it because I did not realize it (maybe they thought it was cute or something).

    Once I figured this all out I went back in, and paid. The only reason I went back in and paid the 97 cents was because I did not want someone to notice it was taken. I did not want to be pinned as the guy who gives stuff to his kid and doesn’t pay for it.

    So, as Ryan put it “People only do good when motivated by guilt.”

    That was my case, and I agree with Po on this.

    Any other time I would have saved myself the 97 cents and went on with my day as usual.

    • Po

      Ha, good story. But it doesn’t sound like you were motivated by guilt… more like embarrassment. If it were guilt you would have felt bad about noticing the ‘stolen merchandise’ and not returning it. Either way your point remains clear – the majority of human beings do good only when it either benefits their ego, or when doing wrong harms their ego. Is there any truly altruistic act? Of course I’m not completely sure that this is true, but I think it’s worthy of closer examination.

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