‘Crimes’, Ethics, and other Woody Allen taboos

We all do wrong sometimes in our lives. It may not be something that many of us like to admit, but it’s a fact of life. However, what is perhaps most telling about a person is how the immoral act affects him or her and the people in their lives. In a way, this is the subject of Woody Allen’s 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors. The film details the life of Judah Rosenthal and the choices he makes in his life, particularly regarding his decision to murder his mistress, as well as the lives of those around him. The film focuses on the inner torment of Judah as well as the struggle to find greater meaning and a higher power knowing that he has taken action in ending another human’s life. That being said, the film poses some heavy questions to its viewers. It forces its audience to look at outside perspectives in the matter while also, asking them to establish a stance of their own. Furthermore, it calls to mind a variety of codes of ethics that have been discussed throughout the class that are, arguably, applied and/or disregarded throughout the film’s progression. Although there are many ways that the film could be viewed in regards to moral and ethical perspectives, the ideas of moral nihilism, as it relates to moral theory, as well as Bentham’s Hedonistic Calculus in relation to the characters of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors seems most appropriate.
Moral nihilism is the idea that there are no absolutes in our world. There can be no definite right and no definite wrong because it is believed that these universal values do not exist. This attitude is expressed a great deal throughout the movie, mainly because it is a concern of Judah’s. After he sees Dolores dead, he begins to question the old religious teachings he had learned in his childhood. He became concerned with the consequences of his actions. He fears that by doing wrong, according to the word of the Lord, he shall be punished. It was his fear of punishment that served as a motivating force in his downward spiral over the course of the film. By the end of this film, he is no longer concerned. Allen removes the burden from Judah by having him not get caught or even feel remorse anymore. Judah’s final monologue as he talks to Woody Allen’s character, Cliff, about how every crisis will eventually pass over the course of time cements this theory. It illustrates that there is no real right or wrong because if there had been, most people would agree that Judah’s affair and the subsequent murder of his mistress would be described as morally wrong. The idea that wrong should and/or will be punished by bad feeling is a staple of moral theory. The moral nihilists belief that there is no right or wrong is one of the only ways to justify a heinous act, such as murder, not being justified through the emotional experience of guilt or the physical experience of imprisonment.
Although Cliff objects to his viewpoint, very little in Cliff’s own life would suggest that there are absolute moral certainties. To better understand this moral theory must be applied again. For instance, in relation to Cliff’s own professional life, his dedication to his documentary project on the life of Professor Levy would be rewarded. If the idea of right and wrong or good and bad existed in this system, telling the story of a courageous man who survived the Holocaust would undoubtedly be considered good. According to moral theory, good things are rewarded with happiness or good feeling. There is a “reward” for doing good, but what happens to Cliff when he attempts to do good, at least in his professional life, is that Levy kills himself and Cliff is left with all the time spent on this project and an unfinished documentary. While an argument could be made that this is due to his infatuation with Halley even as a married man, by that logic, Cliff’s wife would also suffer as it is discovered towards the end of the movie that she has been seeing someone else as well.
Although there are a variety of examples in the lives of the main characters Judah and Cliff that disregard the idea of moral right and wrong and subsequently endorse the ideas espoused in moral nihilism, there are a variety of examples of supporting characters as well. One of the more underrated characters is Ben. Over the course of the film, while Judah and Cliff are so self-involved, Ben offers compassion and kindness, even as he slowly goes blind. Ben’s standing as one of the only morally righteous characters and as one of the greatest sufferers over the course of the movie is a testament to moral nihilism and the lack of any good or bad values. Aunt May seems to capture the attitude of the movie best when she discusses her take on morality, that it exists only for those who put stock in it.
However, there are other elements that must be taken into account. Although Allen seems to be suggesting that morality is subjective, Bentham might suggest that his action was done to minimize the pain of the majority, with the unfortunate exception of Dolores. The Hedonistic Calculus’s suggestion of pleasure and pain being able to be charted may sound ludicrous to some, but for others it makes perfect sense. While Judah seems to be putting his own needs before those of others, an argument could be made for the Hedonistic Calculus in his situation. In the film, it is fairly well established that Dolores lives alone, whereas when the audience is introduced early on to Judah, he is with his family. This makes it clear already that Judah has more at stake than Dolores does, but Allen goes further by showing how distraught Judah is after seeing Dolores’s letter. When he gets irritated, his wife and daughter show obvious concern for his wellbeing. This shows the audience that there are already more present forces in Judah’s life and people who rely on him than have been illustrated in Dolores’s life.
Obviously, most audiences would still disagree with the statement that “Judah’s life is more important than Dolores’s” but judging by the Hedonistic Calculus it might seem this way. Although there is the question of point value, how much do you assign a human life? While in real life, Bentham and the audience may assign a much higher point value to a human life, Woody Allen shows little to no interest in establishing her as a fully developed, multi-dimensional character. She seems a stock character at best, making her death much less traumatic and almost necessary.
This is one of the issues with the Hedonistic Calculus as well. The director can stack the cards against a character to make the fate that befalls him or her seem necessary. In reality, as obnoxious as Dolores may have been, there would be more to her that people could sympathize with and relate to, but due to what Woody Allen shows his viewers, it’s difficult to tell. Furthermore, the Hedonistic Calculus for the most part, is most applicable in Judah’s storyline. However, since his action is the most drastic, whereas Cliff’s are tame in comparison, it’s understandable why this would be. However, Cliff does use this method to justify his actions in some instances. More frequently than not, it is out of desperation in an effort to rationalize their own actions. Cliff does this, most notably, after news of professor Levy’s death when he goes in to kiss Halley. When she pulls away, her reasoning is that he is married. She is thinking about his wife, but Cliff reasons that she’s as unhappy as he is. It is minor instances such as this that Cliff applies the Hedonistic Calculus in his own life, as a method of justification for his own wants and desires. Clearly not as drastic, but both effectively illustrate the effectiveness of the Hedonistic Calculus in the events of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Crimes and Misdemeanors treads heavy ground in terms of morality and ethics, specifically in relation to moral nihilism, as well as moral theory, and the Hedonistic Calculus. Cases for moral nihilism can be easily made for Judah, especially regarding his actions and his lack of consequences. However, this theory can also be applied to Cliff and the events of his professional life throughout the film. Although this method can be applied to many scenes of the film, the hedonistic Calculus can be applied to some of the main motivations for Judah’s murderous actions and Cliff’s lust. Crimes and Misdemeanors’ use of these ethical and moral theories not only advances the plot, but also seeks to engage the viewer. Allen suggests answers for his characters, but leaves these questions of morality and ethics unanswered for his audience, leaving viewers with not only a movie-going experience, but arguably, a life lesson.


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