The Ethics of True Detective: Resignation or Compassion?


Sandra Shapshay in The Critique:

The profundity of “True Detective”, in my view, is to be found in the series’ handling of the theme of pessimism and possible responses to this doctrine. By pessimism I mean the view adumbrated by Schopenhauer that life (that is, conscious life whether it be non-human animal or human life) involves a tremendous amount of suffering that is pretty much built into the structure of the world and is, further, unredeemed. By focusing on the character arc of Rust, one may empathetically appreciate the challenge posed by Schopenhauerian pessimism [1], and possible ethical responses to it.

Before we are introduced to the character, Rust had already experienced a terrible loss of his 4-year old daughter and the painful dissolution of his marriage. Further, his employment confronts him daily with the horrors of human conduct, where the “law of the stronger” reigns and the strong and sadistic exploit the weak. Throughout Season One, we see Rust struggling to find the best, truest response to all this seemingly endemic and unredeemed suffering. When we meet him, he declares to Marty, upon the latter’s insistent questioning, that he is “in philosophical terms, a pessimist,” and holds that human consciousness is a “tragic misstep in nature.” For Rust, it is our “programming” (in Schopenhauer’s terms, the will-to-life) that “gets us out of bed in the morning”, but that it would be better, all things considered to “deny our programming” and “walk ourselves hand in hand into extinction.” The only reason he has not committed suicide, he claims, is that he “lacks the constitution” to complete the act.

Despite his stated embrace of pessimism and his resignationist tendencies as evidenced by his rather ascetic lifestyle and in principle embrace of suicide, Rust does not actually resign himself from life. He is, after all, the eponymous “true detective” and throws himself assiduously into the task of solving the ritualistic rape/murders and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

So what really motivates Rust to spend most of his waking life (and he doesn’t seem to sleep all that much) attempting to solve these crimes? Is it the intellectual puzzle? Is it compassion for the victims and potential new victims? Is it a thirst for justice?

More here.