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Kant's Categorical Imperative in Gone Baby Gone: Moral Dilemma on Doing Right Thing for Wrong Decision (I)

Updated on July 7, 2012

I can get bored easily without a good movie. Yesterday I got a movie Gone Baby Gone in Apple Store online. My shallow reason to watch this movie is because it is a Oscar-nominated film, yet I have not watched it. A slightly better reason to watch this movie is because of Yahoo! Voices has numbers of good reviews about this movie. But, there is a better reason for me.

In this movie, when Helene misses her daughter, she hires two detectives, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro to investigate the kidnapping.In fact, Helene is a very careless, uncompassionate, and neglecting mother. She leaves her daughter alone while she has been at the bar for 2 hours. At worse, she involves to complicated drug dealers and causes them lost money. It turns out one of the drug dealers, Jack Doyle, kidnapped Helene’s daughter. Although he breaks the law, Jack does not want Helene’s daughter to live with Helene; instead, he wants to give her a real home. While Patrick notices Jack’s reason to take Helene’s daughter, he has to make a tough decision. Does he let Jack keep this girl for the rest of his life? Or, does Patrick turn Jack over to the police, realizing that Helene will never have a good care for her daughter?At the end of the movie, Patrick makes the right decision by reporting Jack to the police. Helene consequently gets her daughter back.

Kant's moral philosophy: Duty and Categorical Imperative

Is Patrick doing a right thing? This question also can be seen in another dimension - is it possible Patrick doing right thing for the wrong reason? Let's take a look how philosopher Immanent Kant would answer it.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant looks at this question in terms of acting from duty. The concept of duty “contains that of a good will, though under certain subjective limitations”. This means that if the action the action is motivated by the individual’s desire to do on the ground of his duty, then the action reflects the good will. Kant thinks that acting out of duty alone is different from merely acting of one’s duty.It is because while individual acts in accordance with his duty, he is doing the right thing for the right reason. For example, Patrick has a duty to report Jack to police because he ought to do so, and such action is morally worth.

Kant argues that merely acting of duty is not enough since it is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. For Kant, acting from duty is the only right reason. If saying that Patrick reports Jack to police because it is because he wants to, his action is out of inclination. Such action is morally worthless. However, Kant believes that “duty is the necessity of an action from respect for the law” Kant takes the word “law” as a moral law, which is rational, absolute, and universal. Regardless, the moral law is independent of individual desires. Kant believes that the moral law is the only most deserving law for us to respect, and the moral action must be the result of the moral law. Moreover, morality consists of categorical imperatives since they are independent of our desires, and they never change with regard to space and time.

"Do not Always Do Y"

If we formulate Kantian’s version of moral law, it will be ” do not always do certain act”, or “you ought to do certain act”. It tells us what we have to do in order to respect the moral law and irrespective to our desires. If we act follow to these formulation, then our action is morally right because the action is based on categorical imperatives. However, if the action is based on “I do x because I want to” or ” if I want x, then I do y”, then Kant believes that the action is morally wrong because the action is dependent upon our desires. This action cannot consist to categorical imperatives.

Under this circumstances, Kant would think that Patrick’s action in Gone Baby Gone is based on the moral law. This leads to say his action is morally correct because Patrick follows the rule that “he ought to report Jack”.

Small Break

Patrick chooses to act according to Kant's categorical imperative while acting in moral dilemma situation. Most viewers realizes that Patrick makes the wrong decision inGone Baby Gone.Some even may think that this movie shows how screenplays are likely written now.

Before you read my second part of the discussion of moral dilemma, please think about the follow questions:

  • Is it all the time that we can do right thing for right reason?
  • Do we only have one duty to follow?


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    • beaddve1800 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Toronto

      Jadesmg, the best way and simple way to look at Kantian moral philosophy is to think one duty. He believes that the moral law has only one duty. He holds absolute view in morality. So, the only way for Patrick is "doing right thing for right reason." No other exception.

    • jadesmg profile image

      Jade Gracie 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      i remember studying Kant at school, usually with examples in war or escaping Nazi's, generally extreme situations. in terms of duty though I wasnever very clear on what Kant would class as a duty, could you not claim that Patrick had the duty to protect the child. I'm ver rusty on Kant though so this may not be the case but im sure there were often conflicting duties like that, where it would be your duty to report something but also to protect someone. I shall look up some of my old work i guess. Anyway, good article, reminding me how much I have forgoten from school

    • beaddve1800 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Toronto

      Teaching kid Kantian moral philosophy is a good idea because it is absolute. While you use the idea to teach them "do not lie", "do not steal", that is a good start.

      (P.S.) Don't teach kids those argument against kids yet because they have not yet good rationality!

    • Meg Moon profile image

      Meg Moon 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      I used to teach Kant‘s Moral Law to 16 year olds - I love the ides of using a movie to explore his ethical theory!


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