Bryan Caplan  

Dexter: Beyond Good Intentions

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A cliche of literature is the sympathetic character who does bad things. The moral of the story is usually that as long as you mean well, you basically get a pass.

Showtime's got a new series that turns this cliche on its head. It's Dexter, the tale of a vigilante serial killer. The lead character's main motivation is to quench his deep-seated urge to kill, without getting caught. Not a nice guy.

But objectively speaking, Dexter does a great deal of good. All of his targets are guilty of capital crimes. And he thoroughly investigates the question of their guilt before taking action. I'd gladly trust Dexter's verdict over that of twelve people who failed to avoid jury duty. Frankly, I'd feel safer if there were more (any?) Dexters running around.

Artistically, Dexter works because of the flashbacks. I'm skeptical about the ability of parents to mould their children's characters. But I still get choked up every time Dexter's foster father struggles to give his sociopathic child a moral compass. Intellectually, I doubt it would work. But emotionally, it's very moving to see a father accept that his adopted son will never be a nice person - but still demand that he be a righteous person.


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/594
The author at Muck and Mystery in a related article titled He Needed Killin' writes:
    The Hollywood version of the American southwest after the Indian wars and the closing of the frontier - and much earlier in Texas - is of rough, vigilante justice meted out by flawed heroes. The truly bad were tracked down and summarily dispatched wit... [Tracked on November 5, 2006 9:41 PM]
COMMENTS (14 to date)
Frank McGahon writes:
I'm skeptical about the ability of parents to mould their children's characters. But I still get choked up every time Dexter's foster father struggles to give his sociopathic child a moral compass. Intellectually, I doubt it would work.

Perhaps I'm getting this more from the books than the tv shows but my reading was that the father took it as a brute fact of nature that his adopted son was a killer, implicitly accepting that he couldn't mould Dexter's character, seeking instead to channel this "weapon" against those he felt evaded justice on assorted technicalities (cynically absolving himself of any direct responsibilities for such killings) and appealing 90% to Dexter's self-interest and only 10% to his filial devotion to achieve this. I can't see how Dexter's dad would try to give him a moral compass: he "makes" his son for a psychopath fairly early on and anyone so perceptive would know that's an impossible goal for a psychopath. His main interest seemed to me to be able to use Dexter for "good", rather than make Dexter good.

john writes:

Frankly, I'd feel safer if there were more (any?) Dexters running around.

This seems to be a "neocon" philosphy. Use of horrible "means" to achieve "good" ends.

I, of course, question the good of both the means and the ends, really.

Cisco writes:

Since I haven't watched the show yet, maybe my question here is dumb, but how is this different from Marvel Comics's The Punisher?

Seth writes:

"I'd gladly trust Dexter's verdict over that of twelve people who failed to avoid jury duty."

I find it repugnant that you so disparage one of the bedrocks of our judicial system. I know it's fashionable in certain sets to eschew all responsibility, but, really, grow up.

"Frankly, I'd feel safer if there were more (any?) Dexters running around."

This trite apology for vigilante justice betrays an utter lack of reason and maturity.

So let me get this straight: What the good professor suggests is that it would be better to replace our justice system with set of "thoroughly [investigative]" vigilantes.

Frankly, I expect more out of George Mason.

TGGP writes:

I think the Punisher is supposed to have been a normal police officer who became a vigilante after his family was killed by a mobster. So he's basically moral and attempts to act in the right, but uses more extreme methods. I haven't read any of the comics, but I did see the movie. Not the Dolph Lundgren one, the one with John Travolta.

Randy writes:

Seth,

What exactly is the difference between the actions of a jury and the actions of a vigilante with a method? Both determine the facts of the case and then hand down a verdict. The vigilante then executes the verdict in person rather than handing it off to a state sanctioned executioner. So is state sanctioning all that is required to justify a particular means? If so, couldn't we just as easily give state sanction to the vigilante? If the state does it, then it must be right - right?

Seth writes:

Randy,

"What exactly is the difference between the actions of a jury and the actions of a vigilante with a method?"

Due process, independent and collaborative deliberation, majority/unanimous verdict requirements, and judicial review, for starters. Your local library should contain centuries of thought on the question should you require something more substantial.

"So is state sanctioning all that is required to justify a particular means?...If the state does it, then it must be right - right?"

Don't be absurd.

Randy writes:

Seth,

Good point. So let's imagine a group of 12 vigilantes who followed the procedures of a jury. Would this be acceptable?

seth writes:

"So let's imagine a group of 12 vigilantes who followed the procedures of a jury."

People who follow the procedures of the justice system are, by definition, not vigilantes.

I realize the world might seem more exciting if it were just like a comic book, but it's not. No bedustered, gun-toting preachers serving up raw justice, no demonic clowns and reincarnated CIA agents trying to take over the world. Just regular people and all of their flaws.

Mica writes:

Hello Bryan!

I love that Dexter can be a jumping off point for this kind of discourse. Very interesting.
We've recently launched a page which links to online reviews and blogger responses to Dexter and I have included a link to this page.
Hope you don't mind.
If you'd like to see it before it falls out of the cue here is the direct link:

http://www.sho.com/site/dexter/buzz.do?source=dexterbuzz_blogs

Best
Mica

BB writes:

Why does Dex not wear gloves when he touches the plastic bags? Why didn't he wear gloves when he bagged up his tools? Why does he dump the bodies in plastic? Would that help preserve the bodies?

Suz writes:

I figured out who Dexter's special friend is: It is the prosthetics guy who is now seeing the sister!

ible.cn writes:

I just finished watching episode 7 and I know who the ice truck killer is. I had an idea when they found touchii (spelling) but now I know for sure. It's the doctor! There, I said it. Great show, I'm looking forward to being wrong on this one.

osceola writes:

I've thought the ice truck killer is Dexter's sister since about the second or third episode. This show is a great puzzle with extremely interesting dysfunctional characters. The writers expect the audience to be intelligent, and the actors do nuance and eccentricity that challenges and entertains at the same time. It's not like any other show on TV. I'll never miss an episode.

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