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Situational Ethics and Murder: An Analysis of “Monsieur Verdoux”
Understanding good is easy. Contemporary ethics tries to teach us that behaving accordingly is the cornerstone of society. That sole affirmation compels any sensible individual to behave and act as society wants them to. Evil, on the other hand, is harder to understand as it directly defies the notions of what is living a healthy life. Hence, these behaviors that attempt against what is perceived as good are often misunderstood and misrepresented, difficulting a thorough understanding of what lies underneath them. This is of particular importance in the idea of morality one might have as modernity has inherited us the notion of malleable ethics that can be evaluated according to the situation. According to Phyllis Tickle in Greed, morals without religion can be regarded more as a code of conduct than a system with fixed meanings that prescribe certain actions as good or bad without considering the context.
“Thus, when morality adulterates with schemes of action and values other than religion, and especially when it slips its encasement in the history and intertwines itself with them, it becomes something one may more accurately call a code of conduct, or a system of values, rather than of meaning.” (Tickle 6).
For this reason, the secularization of the morals in the twentieth century allow the contemporary men to carry out a system of beliefs according to their conscience and devoided of a religious meaning.

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Consequently, men have replaced those religious notions with political and philosophical tools that serve more their purposes than religion does. From a theological perspective, this can be seen as amoral, yet we are just following the steps modernity left. Also, given some aspects that can influence the human’s tools of choice, morality has bound to change in time, adopting newer concepts.
This can be linked to the Nietzschean notion of moral relativism that considers that all the systems that perform a role on something we relate to morality share a series of characteristics on the level of agency they allow to those who ascribe to them (Leiter 1). Likewise, since according to Nietzsche, these religious values often favor the interests of a group while trumping others’, it is necessary that the humans try to find different sets of morals that allow them to construct their ethos, effectively freeing themselves from religion. Hence, situational ethics is much more useful in circumstances where our life is on the line, and we require to take extreme measures to survive, like in the Donner’s Party, where the members of an expedition to the American West turned into a tragedy due to heavy snow. The situation is a clear example of situational ethics as it describes that although religious values were against the decision of eating their dead companions, they still did, as they waged the benefits and realized it was the best option possible. They resorted to other arguments different than the religious conceptions to find a utilitarian answer that allowed them to continue living despite the terrible conditions they faced.
When thinking in this terms, it is hard to let Chaplin’s words, put in the mouth of Monsieur Verdoux
“As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? Moreover, done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. (Chaplin 1:51)
Therefore, if there was love in Verdoux heart, it is all gone by then, and an intense misanthropy took its place. To the man, murder is a business. A business he only entered due to his extreme duress. Being able to pull off such crimes is almost a work of art, which vouched for the killer’s intelligence. However, regardless the nature of his crimes, Verdoux is also a victim, driven to murder because of the Great Depression, the financial downfall that ended his bourgeois dream. The prosecutor wants to make him look like a monster, but he seems well-composed and in control of his emotions. If his actions strike us as amoral is only because they go against the well-being of others. On the other hand, Verdoux’s actions respond to his context, which although does not make them forgettable, adds a layer to the judgment. Thus, despite he understands that his actions are amoral, recurring to murder seems the best option to recover his life. Likewise, since his actions were done with a strict business transaction, he turned love into something marketable, making use to his soft-spoken manners to purvey for his family.
Consequently, another key point in understanding Monsieur Verdoux’s actions is through his relation to women. He murders women he regards as unproductive. To him, these women are not doing any good to the world, and they do not seem to deserve the space they are occupying. For this reason, if their death can serve him somehow, he would not hesitate in dispatching them if that served them. However, the fact that he does not kill his wife, who lies crippled in her house also presents an interesting dilemma that separates the genuine love he feels for his wife, opposite to the contempt he feels for these widows he marries. Therefore, if inutility were the only criterion used by Verdoux he would have killed his wife, lessening his burden. Conversely, he continues maintaining her in a show of true, albeit deranged affection.
Conversely, unlike his behavior toward the rest of women, the way he treats “The Girl” seems almost sweet. At the beginning of their encounter, he was determined to test his new poison with her, but as soon as he realized she was different than the dull-headed widows he used to kill, he immediately felt a current of sympathy, deciding against the idea of killing her. Verdoux sees in a lost soul, in a street girl some he does not see in the widows he murders, he sees himself. Hence, this self-identification comes from the fact that both characters, Verdoux and the girl, share the same fate. They are both victims of the fate who were driven to behave in a way they would have not in a different set of circumstances. In this fit of generosity Verdoux suffered is possible to see the real dimension of the man as a character, shying away from his previous unidimensional nature as a killer.
For this reason, hiding all his plots from his family becomes something of capital importance to him to keep them pure. He understands the evil behind his actions, but since these actions are for a greater good, he complies, scarifying the integrity he cultivated in thirty-five years of honest work, as he says “… for thirty-five years I used them honestly. After that, nobody wanted them. So I was forced to go into business for myself.” (Chaplin 1:50:00). Hence, to spare their family of their deeds, he suffers through his actions to keep the illusion of normality.
However, it becomes clear ho Verdoux justifies his actions on the grounds of comparing his murders with the mass murders of war. Consequently, when seen only as numbers, his actions are belittled by the sheer number of war casualties. Plus, by contrasting the vision of a murder of one as a villain and the murder of thousands of a hero, he raises awareness regarding the flawed ethics of society, allowing wars but condemning one man for trying to provide for his family, which from an outsider perspective seems flawed because if our principles say that one live matter, thousands should matter even more. Last, he does not regret death, as he knew it was a possible outcome of his actions. He salutes it, welcoming it and remembering the audience they are going to die as well as he did what it took to live in a ruthless world that turned him into a ruthless person. Although his declaration is open to interpretation, he seemed to say that nobody is pure, and most of them would have behaved like he did if the situation comes.
Hence, Monsieur Verdoux is a class about situational ethics and the possibility of taking certain courses of action regarding the situation. Him, like the Donners, behaved in a way society regards as improper and wrong, but from a situational perspective it seems necessary to behave against the ethics of our society. Moreover, it shows how flawed and biased are said ethics, allowing horrible actions to happen while punishing others that although evil, can be perceived as lesser when compared at a global level.
Works Cited
Chaplin, C. “”Monsieur Verdoux”” YouTube. YouTube. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgjZPc7gzpM>.
Leiter, Brian. “Nietzsche’s Moral and Political Philosophy.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 26 Aug. 2004. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche-moral-political/>.
Tickle, Phyllis. “Prologue.” Greed: The Seven Deadly Sins. New York: New York Public Library :, 2004. Print.

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