kortina.nyc / oakland-film-club
21 Dec 2019 | by kortina

#029 // It's a Wonderful Life


To start, a passage from Sarah Perry’s Every Cradle is a Grave:

I consider many people reasonable who do not go full cartoon villain and agree with me that all life is unfortunate and nobody should ever have babies. What makes such people seem reasonable to me is that they recognize the possibility that a given life could go very badly, and that the joys of life might not outweigh the suffering. At the very least, they recognize that the interests of an aware being are very hard to predict before that being is created. What I would like readers of this book to come away with is not the urge to bomb IVF clinics or dismantle suicide barriers on bridges. I would prefer that readers simply and sincerely consider the question of whether existence is a blessing or a burden, and I hope to encourage the understanding that for many people, it is a useless burden. I would like the reader to think of parenthood as a moral decision affecting a new human being, rather than an event that merely happens to oneself. I would like the reader to consider that it may be both more important and more possible to prevent harm than to do active good in the world.

And a short film essay:


Camus said in The Myth of Sisyphus:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—-whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories-—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.

I like the way It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) poses this question, or rather decomposes it, removing the burden of ‘the act’ as Camus calls it and reframing as a slightly different question: “If you had the choice of never being born at all, would you take it, go back, and undo your life ever starting?”

Not only does this remove the terrifying step of pulling the trigger / tying the noose, it also frees you of some of the emotional guilt of the act: one of the key arguments against suicide is the cruelty of abandoning loved ones. But in the It’s a Wonderful Life version of this question, we cannot deploy this argument, for if you’ve never been born at all, there are no loved ones to burden emotionally with suicide.

Although It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t make the emotional appeal to abandonment of loved ones — the same sort of emotional appeals that the Charity Waters and Toms Shoes types of orgs make when they show you adorable but wretched starving children to guilt you into making a donation or a purchase — the film does still ultimately make an argument about social obligation by showing how the whole town would be under the control of the evil Mr Potter, Mary would be an old maid, Harry would be dead, Uncle Billy would be institutionalized — pretty much everyone would be living a life of abject misery, were it not for George Bailey.

I would find this argument far more compelling as an answer to the suicide question — presumably, George Bailey was born into a fortunate position in life and other people invested in making him the man he is and giving him the opportunities he had to do a bunch of good things for the town. Basically, I would frame the argument against suicide in terms of responsibility, obligation, or social debt that must be paid off (and frame suicide as a sort of default on this debt).

While I find the idea of social debt perhaps the only compelling argument against suicide, I don’t think it holds up to against the (much harder) question posed by the film of justifying whether it is worthwhile to have ever been born at all.

I remember watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year on NBC when I was growing up — they had this holiday special on Thanksgiving where they would show the film and have snippets of all of these actors from shows like Friends talking about what it meant to them — and I thought it was kind of odd that such a dark movie about suicide would be part of this mainstream programming.

But if you think about it, the Christmas story — about Christ — is also kind of a suicide story. But in this story — as with other popular stories of self sacrifice in the tradition of the Christian myth — we celebrate the hero who sacrifices their own life for the greater social good. We don’t call it ‘suicide,’ we don’t discourage it, and in fact it seems like we encourage it.

I suppose this comes down, once again, to an econimic framing, a social calculus, where we consider the amount of social good the hero might yet do in their life, weigh it on some sort of scales of justice about the amount of social good their death might do, and depending on which way the scales tip, we label it either suicide or the utlimate selfless act.

I wonder how often we are supposed to be asking this question of ourselves, about whether or not we are a net burden or net aid to greater social good? And as our society becomes more and more productive, as their become fewer and fewer jobs that require human effort, how will the answer to this question change? For the moment, I’m doing a job that (mostly) I don’t think any AI or robot can do. But as technology marches forward, I expect there will be fewer and fewer things that I can do better than a machine. Ultimately, I may be outperformed by machines on every dimension. At this point, I would still require resources to survive, and I suppose I would be a net burden on society (and the few people left who still are capable of performing some task better than machines). At this point, I suppose the moral obligation would be to self-sacrifice?

A less extreme thought experiment about human productivity might have the answer that saves me…. I was talking to my friend EJ a few weeks ago, and I asked:

In a world where labor is no longer valued, increasing the population of the labor pool will no longer translate to increases in GDP, so will we finally see an end to pro-population growth policy?

EJ thought about it for a second, and responded:

More babies results in more consumers and increased consumption will drive growth in GDP, so we’ll still encourage population growth.

Under this line of thinking, I suppose it makes sense that we have appropriated the Christian holiday celebrating the death of Jesus and transformed it into a celebration of consumption — under consumer capitalism, as automtation removes more and more of our social obligations to participate as labor, consumption may be our only salvation and affirmative answer to the fundamental question of suicide.

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