Moral Personality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Many examples exist in Joss Whedon’s TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of the ambiguities of moral personality. Characters move between extremes of good and evil which make it difficult to say what moral personality they have, though they are very recognisbaly the same people.

Many examples exist, but here we will concentrate on one example which has been particularly popular with fans and for good reasons. The vampire Spike is the second of two morally ambiguous vampires who appear on the show. Spike, played by James Marsters, appears fro the first time in season 2, episode 3 ‘School Hard’. The character was originally written s a brief appearance, but grew and grew. The fascination of Spike can traced back to his first appearance where we see him as a a swaggering evil bad boy, but then see his vampire face disappear when his then girlfriend, Druscilla, appears. Spike instantly becomes the concerned sensitive boy friend. The first time he sees Buffy produces a similarly striking effect. Though sincerely in love with Driscilla, when he sees Buffy for the first time looking very innocent dancing with her friends at a club it looks like Spike is instantly in love. This confusion about whether he is in lovw with Buffy or Druscilla is typical of the confusions Buffy and other characters deal with in the series. The demonic threats, and the fight against evil, are ways of making sense of inner lives full of contradiction.

Spike’s first appearance is as a vicious killer devoted to merciless destruction. Nevertheless he shows noble qualities. He keeps a deal to turn a human into a vampire, though the deal produces bad consequences for Spike. He always puts Druscilla first in his concerns, though there are growing suggestions that he is obsessed with Buffy. The obsession frefers to killing her, but Druscilla clearly finds the obsession discomforting. In season 5 Spike will realise he is in love with Buffy. In season 2, he just finds it necessary to work with Buffy to undermine his ove rival Angel, who is also trying to destroy the world. In a memorable speech, Spike explains to Buffy how attached he is to the world, referring to love of football, dog racing and humans even if what he wants from humans is to eat them. The alliance with Buffy is recoded at a later point as a brief fling he has to excuse to Druscilla, ‘I told her I was thinking about her all the time’. Druscilla who has precognitive powers is not fooled and realisies that Spike is in live with the Slayer even if he hides from this reality.

In season 4, Spike is captured by government demon hunters and escapes. Before he escapes they give him a behaviour modification chip which gives him great neurological pain he harms, or tries to harm, a human. Spike fights this restriction, but bit by bit he is drawn into humanity and its moral standards. It is Buffy who provides the motivation. At one point Spike is sheltering with Buffy’s watcher Giles. Conflict between Spike and Buffy acquires flirtatious aspects, and the story line draws attention to this when accidental consequences of a magic spell turn them into fiances for few hours. Giles tells Spike he may have been given a new purpose, and Spike rebuffs him. Giles never seems to forgive him for this. Spike does start to find new purpose in season 5, when he does realise after a dream about Buffy that he is in love with her. This does not lead him to be clearly good, it does lead him to try to impress her which includes doing the good things she approves of. Buffy does not notice Spike’s feelings at first and is horrified when she does. Nevertheless, it is clear that she has begun to accept Spike as a friend and ally and that she has her own ambiguous obsession with him. The ambiguity leads her to great and excessive cruelty to Spike even when he has helped her, and raises the question of he rown moral development.

Later in Season 5, a particularly self-sacrificing act leads Buffy to accept Spike as an ally and friend. She dies through mystical means at the end of the season 5. At the beginning of season 6, we see Spike looking after Buffy’s younger sister and helping Buffy’s friends to fight demons. We see that he has progressed from wanting to impress Buffy to wanting to do things he know would please her if she was still alive. However, after Buffy is revived, he reverts back to a more shadowy lifestyle, where though he will do anything for Buffy, he also unconcerned with being morally right except where it directly affects Buffy. The tension between them revives and increases until a fight leads to love making. Buffy feels she has to hide he affair and feels ashamed. She breaks it off when Spike repeals his continuing immoral side. At first she is friendly with Spike but the old ambiguity returns in which she expresses her feelings for Spike by being cruel to him. When he realises that she still has feelings for her, he tries to ‘make her feel’ by starting a sexual assault in her bathroom. She fights him off and he leaves her alone when he realisies that his violence is unacceptable to her. This extreme low point morally, is followed by Spike disappearing from the town. Buffy’s extreme ambiguity continues as she is willing to let her younger sister stay with Spike and seems disappointed when she realises Spike has disappeared. This might seem to contain the disturbing insinuation that Buffy is attracted to someone who started to rape her, though she finds the act unambiguously horrific there is no doubt she still feels drawn to Spike (though commentators who want to make Buffy into a one dimensional feminist icon find this hard to admit). The end of the series shows that Spike disappeared in order to get his soul back after a series of physical and psychological torments. He was feeling torn between the demonic and the human, now he wants to be just human which he thinks will make him good enough for Buffy.

In season 7, Spike turns up again in town maddenned by his conscience, particularly by the memory of his attempt to rape Buffy. Buffy is clearly sorry about his condition, she accpets his help and eventually gives him shelter, first at a friend’s house and then in her own home which is by then very full of friends seeking to fight the big evil of that season. Spike is penitent and accepts that Buffy cannot love him, but this moral renewal is questioned in episode 7, ‘Conversations with Dead People’ when Buffy realisies that Spike is maybe killing and creating new vampires. She is not happy with this realisation, does not want to believe it and shows her depth of feeling for Spike in this way. It turns out that Spike is under the control of a mind trigger mechanism. Various events show Buffy wanting to help Spike and Spike wanting to resist the power of the mind control. The issue reaches a crisis when Buffy arranges for Spike to have an operatoin to remove his now malfunctioning chip. Her friends are concerned but the connection with Spike has become the important thing for her, though they have not resumed intimate relations and are apparently just friends.

Spike justifies Buffy’s trust by overcoming the trigger in a fight which results from 2 of Buffy’s friends wishing to eliminate Spike. However, we have also seen that Spike can be very dangerous and has been hovering between his noble moral intentions and the external demonic influence. Spike is faces with the further ambiguity that he wanted to make himself fully human for Buffy, but she needs him to be a demon when fighting on he side.

All the confusions are resolved in the last episode, ‘End of Days’. Spike sacrifices himself to save the world, and has clearly saved Buffy from a relationship which creates pain and uncertainty. Spike’ s death is sad but necessary to rescue Buffy’s life from the confusion and pain.

Spike becomes the perfect moral hero, but that heroism is premissed on the demonic. Buffy herself finds that her strength has demonic sources. Spike’s heroism rests on his unstable and dangerous personality. As Buffy said when rejecting him’ he is in love with pain. Spike’s moral journal is a redemptive story in which a personality lacking in morality, gains moral guidance from love, and then some grasp of the moral as a good in itself. That up lifting redemption can only rest on Spike’s outside status in which he has never completely trusted and can never be sure that he will remain good. The fight for the good resorts to evil of some kind to win the fight. Spike is an outcome of that reality, and the reality that good can never be passive. The fight for the good takes Spike to the same rage and destruction he has as an evil vampire. Buffy ends her outsider stauts by sharing her slayer powers, Spike can only exist as an anomaly, as what does not deserve to exist. Spike does evil in his violence against himself but turns that into an act of giivng, or pure generosity. He is individuality as pure evil, the danger Hegel warned of and which Kierkegaard tries to overcome.

Self-Love as the Foundation of Kierkegaard’s Ethics

I’ve just got through grading last semester’s courses and submitting grades at the two universities in Istanbul I was giving courses last semester, one full time and one part time. The process of grading overlapped with getting next courses ready, and it’s been an intense time. It’s left with me with a few ideas which I hope to keep developing. Some of this comes from what I feel I did not convince students of last semester. I usually get that when I’m teaching Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and I spent 8 weeks on them in an Ethics course last semester, after working through Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Bentham and Hegel. The other figure I might have that problem with is Machiavelli. I’m teaching him in a Politics course next semester, but I’m teaching the overtly Republican Discourses (pdf download) instead of the merely covertly Republican Prince (pdf download), in the hope that cuts out all the Machiavelli was a life style coach for power junkies kind of stuff. Machiavelli may well feature in future blogs.

My immediate concern is the tendency to see Kierkegaard as a Christian Moralist. This is a misleading way of looking at Kierkegaard, with respect to both words. That is an absurd thing to say in some sense, as Kierkegaard devoted himself to Christianity and to Christ as the supreme moralist. There are strong reasons for rejecting this label for Kierkegaard though. In his philosophical arguments (as opposed to his declarations of faith, and even those are still conditioned by the philosophy), the problem is what it is to be a self.

I chose to illustrate this in my Ethics class with a thorough look at Part I of Works of Love. That seems like a high risk place to start a non-theological and non- Fideist reading of Kierkegaard. The non-Theological reading emphasises Kierkegaard’s Enlightenment attitude to the metaphysical reality of Christianity, which is that there is no objective reality established for Christianity. The non-Fideist reading emphasises that Kierkegaard does not put pure unmotivated faith at the beginning of his thought. The Fideist interpretation of Kierkegaard partly relies on the widespread myth that Kierkegaard advocated a ‘a leap of faith’, a phrase he never used. In general it ignores the structure of argument in which a relation within the self in Kierkegaard is a relation between the empirical self and the absolute self. In genral it ignores Kierkegaard’s use of dialectic. It is ‘dialectic of the absurd’ but it is still a dialectic. Kierkegaard advocated a passion for paradox, which is sill a rational philosophical exercise in finding paradoxes of reason. Philip Quinn’s argument for a Divine Command Ethics does not rest on an irrationalist form of Fideism in its reading of Kierkegaard, but its emphasis on the acceptance of divine command as absolute is still failing to engage with the question of subjectivity in Kierkegaard.

The Christian readings of Kierkegaard cannot deal with Kierkegaard because they cannot deal with his approach to subjectivity, which is at work in all his texts, including both the ‘aesthetic’ texts of literary philosophy and the ‘Christian’ texts of Biblically based faith. We will see how this works in the highly Christian looking Works of Love. This is centrally concerned with a philosophical problem of moral motivation taken from Kant, as interpreted by Hegel. Kierkegaard deals with the question of why we should obey law if it exists in the univeral rational form suggested by Kant. What motivates the individual to follow law? It is Hegel who suggested that an absolute gap opens between subjective inclination in Kant and the abstract universality of law. Kierkegaard has a solution in love.

Christ commands us to love. Kierkegaard looks at that injunction itself, before looking at hiw it applies to ‘God’, ‘the neighbour’ and so on. In the Bible (pdf download), Christ says you shall love, or you ought to love as Kierkegaard says in an echo of Kant’s formulation of moral law as a universal ought. The command to love, however, is not a command to follow abstract duty, it is a command to be what you already are, to become what you are, since love is part of human inclinations and needs.

The command to love your neighbour comes out of the command to love (again echoing Kant on respect for humanity) through self-love. I can only love my neighbour if I can already love myself. The command to love the neighbour is the command to love yourself and then love what you see of yourself in the neighbour. The command to love God continues on this basis since it is the command to love the absolute in myself.

Kierkegaard is not a ‘moralist’ since he puts our capacity for ethical judgement on the grounds of out subjectivity, not of the duty to obey external commands. The subjectivity itself is not Christian in the sense of giving ethical commands from God which are external to us.

Therefore, we do not read Kierkegaard in all his philosophical riches if we assume that his philosophy leads us to an extra-rational faith, or willingness to follow external commands. Truth is already in us and becomes apparent in the subjectivity of life, without reference to the historical truth of the Bible or the external existence of God.

Kierkegaard’s A-Theist Philosophy

Kierkegaard appears to be as Chrisitian and religious as any philosopher? Nevertheless, there are at least two senses in which he was an a-theist.

1. He was no mere Theist. A Theist refers to a God who intervenes in the universe with omnipotent power. For Kierkegaard, that belief in itself was mere paganism. Religion must be Faith, in which the individual is transformed.

2. In light of 1, the claim that Kierkegaard was a-theistic may seem like a mere play with words, which is just a superficially paradoxical way of saying that Kierkegaard was a Fideist, that is he had a theology of faith. But, the rigour with which Kierkegaard pursued 1. leads towards atheism in the normal sense.

What theological commentators like to call Kierkegaard’s ‘fideism’, or possibly his ‘divine commandment ethics’, is Kierkegaard’s definition of faith as subjective experience and as experience of subjectivity. Some would like to relegate such views to Kierkegaard’s ‘aesthetic’ or ‘pseudonymous’ works such as Fear and Trembling and Either/Or, which are considered as merely the way to Kierkegaard’s religious point of view. One response to this, is that there is only the way and there is never more than the way in Kierkegaard, but today I will concentrate on something else.

I spent a lot of time last semester considering Works of Love in an ethics class. I structured an ethics class to contain consideration of virtue and reason in Plato, friendship in Aristotle, sympathy in Hume, universality in Kant, the Utilitarian Maxim in Hegel, the superiority of ethical life to subjective morality in Hegel, all the ethical issues in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality including the relation between master and slave.

In this context, it is particularly clear that Works of Love is a text concerned with defining ethics. The answer seems to be straightforward: Ethics is based on Christian love, inparticular the commands ‘You shall love’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.

But what comes out of Kierkegaard’s exhaustive analysis of these commands? He is finding a response to Kant’s suggestion that ethics derives from the possibility of a universal command. For Kierkegaard, Kant’s kind of command lacks a place for the individual who commands and is commanded. What does a universal command mean to me, or to you, or anyone?

The command to love makes it clear where the individual fits in. The individual must love the self in loving the neighbour. I can only love my neighbour if I love myself. Self-love is already a relational love. I become the subject and object of love. The command to love myself is not an abstract irrelevance since only in the self-relation of self-love can there be an individual. Individuality which is more than the moment to moment of some pure flow of perceptions in experience must be the relation of empirical self with something in itself more than the moment, but which can be contained in the moment.

What is there in Kierkegaard’s discussion of love which takes us beyond subjectivity? All love with the individual outside myself is intertwined with my own self-relation. There can only be love where there is love of self. That applies to God as well. Love of God is a relation with the absolute, and my relation with the absolute must be the relation with the self which exists as more than the moment.

The theological reader of Kierkegaard may assert that Kierkegaard refers to love of, and obedience to a God outside subjectivity, but can the theologian show this in the detail of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, other than those moments when Kierkegaard uses the formulae of Christian theology. His thought is never in the formulae, it is always in the conditions of subjectivity, of an individual who experiences individuality.