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Dexter the Busy Bee

by David Ramsay Steele

Be brutal. Tell the truth. Would you rather live in Miami with Dexter than without him?

I think we’d all have to agree. Miami with Dexter would be a safer and healthier place than Miami without Dexter. To know that someone is unobtrusively and efficiently disposing of really, really bad guys—especially really, really bad guys whom the official law enforcers can’t or won’t touch—can only be reassuring. The fact that this highly conscientious executioner is somewhat more painstaking than the police in refraining from hurting us good guys is an additional comfort.

It’s part of Dexter’s M.O. that we wouldn’t know this was going on. Dexter’s discreet way of working loses the tremendous social advantage of deterrence: if everyone knew what Dexter was doing, that would cause some of the bad guys to become less bad, or at least to behave less badly. Murders would be prevented by discouraging the murderers, not just by eliminating them before they could murder again. Once you’re on Dexter’s table, you don’t get to call your lawyer, so deterrence wouldn’t be pissed away by the uncertainty of retribution. Unfortunately, that very salutary deterrence has to be given up, for the sake of Dexter’s secrecy (the first rule of Dexter’s Code: Don’t Get Caught).

Despite the absence of deterrence, the elimination of the really, really bad guys can only be judged really, really good. Just think about it. If each of the bad guys dismembered by Dexter would have killed one more person, then Dexter’s actions would save just as many lives as he deleted. And if each of the bad guys would have killed two more persons, then each of Dexter’s disposal operations would save one net life.

Given the quality of Dexter’s targets, that we’ve been able to see, that would be a conservative estimate. Let’s suppose that the average Dexter target, but for Dexter’s timely intervention, would have gone on to kill six more people, which seems about right. Say Dexter kills twenty of these bad guys a year, which also appears to be in line with what we’ve been shown. That means Dexter saves one hundred net lives a year! Can any Miami fireman or heart surgeon say as much?

And that’s counting the lives Dexter terminates as equal with the lives saved. But we all know perfectly well that the lives of Dexter’s targets are not worth the same as the lives of the people Dexter rescues from death. The targets deserve to die, whereas the targets’ prospective victims deserve to live. Can you deny that Dexter’s a public benefactor? If so, just what kind of a twisted monster are you?

Back in the 1930s when Ronald ‘Dutch’ Reagan was a teenager in Dixon, Illinois, and everyone still pronounced his name 'Reegan’, he worked as a lifeguard on the Rock River and was credited with saving seventy-seven lives in seven years eleven lives per year. That’s a suspiciously high figure, and it’s been suggested that local damsels contrived to put themselves in a position to be saved by this dishy hunk, which may have somewhat inflated Dutch’s life-saving, umm, score. But making all due allowances, it was highly creditable. Obviously, that boy would go far. But it couldn’t begin to approach the magnitude of the public benefit conferred by Dexter Morgan. Maybe this boy will go farther.

Without deceiving himself about his motives, Dexter clearly understands his contribution to human welfare. After Special Agent Lundy has commented that there’s but one justification for killing, ‘to save an innocent life’ Dexter observes (not to Lundy, of course, but to us):

How many bodies would there have been if I had not got to those killers? I didn’t want to save lives, but save lives I did. Motivation aside, I think Harry and Lundy would agree on this one. (‘An Inconvenient Lie’ Season 2)

Wait, wait. Is Dexter an unmitigated social benefit? He doesn’t respect habeus corpus or the Miranda rule. We need habeus corpus, the Miranda rule, trial by jury, and a slew of other checks on the powers of the official enforcers because we need to be protected against the official enforcers becoming bad guys themselves. We need the official enforcers to stop bad guys attacking us, and we need the Bill of Rights to stop the official enforcers attacking us. (That’s the theory. Some of us anarchists are not completely sold on the theory, but it does have its points. And, like it or not, it is the theory.)

But don’t we need protection against Dexter? No, no, no! Dexter is driven by an irresistible force, a passion as remorseless and unreasoning as a tornado, to kill the guilty and save (or at least, avoid killing) the innocent. Oh sure, Dexter makes mistakes. Who doesn’t? But he tries as hard as he can, and a lot harder than any government employee on a pension plan ever would, not to screw up. As Dexter tells Doakes:

My Code requires a higher standard of proof than your city’s laws, at zero cost to the taxpayer. If you ask me, I’m a bargain. (‘There’s Something about Harry’ Season 2)

But wouldn’t we need protection against a real-life Dexter? Yes, of course. But Dexter isn’t real-life, silly. He’s all made up. That’s why he’s so marvelous. A real-life Dexter might become a bad guy. A real-life Dexter might start slicing and dicing folks according to their race, their religion, their sexual preferences, their astrological signs, or their musical tastes. (Musical tastes? Hey, wait a minute . . .) A real-life Dexter might go after children or cats, or, like the Unabomber, after exceptionally talented and productive people. Even more ominously and more probably, a real-life Dexter might become a Miguel Prado, classifying as guilty people like defense attorneys who sometimes help to get the guilty off. But we and Dexter understand what the late Miguel didn’t: that occasionally getting the guilty off is the price we pay for not convicting the innocent. And we all know what happened to Miguel. Dexter got to him and administered the coup de grace. ‘This isn’t over’ says Miguel. ‘It is for you’ says Dexter, swiftly garroting him. Did I mention that our Dex is witty?

So, to those people who’re puzzled or distressed by the fact that we want Dexter to keep getting away with it: There’s no contradiction between passionately wanting a fictional character not to get caught and quite decidedly wanting his real-life counterparts to get caught.

If you don’t want Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, to impose the most humiliating misery and death upon those douchebags who conspired to have him falsely imprisoned, then don’t bother to check your pulse. I can tell you there’s nothing there. At the same time, and without contradiction, we don’t want a legal system that would permit rich men with fancy titles to get away with some of the really cool things the fictional Count does. A work of art is not a manual of ethics or self-help. If you find this too tricky to wrap your head around, maybe it’ll be safer for all of us if you stay away from fiction. Oh, and stay away from the Bible and the Quran too.

The Thrill of the Kill

But one thing might still worry us about Dexter Morgan. And this is the element that makes Dexter such an astounding innovation in the history of fiction and drama. Dexter’s fundamental motivation, so we’re repeatedly told, is arbitrary, amoral, inhuman, inherently malign, fearsome, and revolting. It’s an addictive imperative. Dexter has an urge to ritualistically kill warm-blooded creatures. As a child, he begins with non-human animals, but he soon graduates to those opposable-thumbed naked apes who flow so expendably through the streets of Miami.

This urge, this drive, this hunger owes nothing to a sense of justice or any other kind of disinterested intention. Dexter does not kill to fulfill a mission. He kills because of his addiction to the thrill of killing. Usually it has to be killing by sharp steel implements. Shooting, poisoning, strangling, rigged auto accidents, we feel, just don’t (pardon me!) cut it. Miguel Prado is dispatched by garroting— but that’s only because it has to look as if the Skinner (a serial killer without a Code) has done it. But then there’s something else: Harry’s Code, which becomes Dexter’s Code. The Code controls and restricts Dexter’s howling appetite for blood. Dexter’s Code doesn’t modify the primal urge to butcher people for the sheer joyous gratification of butchering them. It doesn’t change that motivation to one of justice or benevolence or concern for public safety. Fundamentally and intrinsically, Dexter doesn’t give a rap about these notions, one way or the other, though as an intelligent observer keeping tabs on that wondrous beast, Homo sapiens non-serial-killerensis, they do mildly interest him as worthy of his urbane and amused comments. What the Code does is to impose a rigid pattern, like a superstition or an obsessive compulsion, on top of the naked urge. The Code takes a terrifying, mindless, brutal force and channels it into a solid benefit for humankind.

The exact relation between Dexter’s hunger to kill and the Code bequeathed by Harry has yet to be (if you’ll excuse the expression) fully fleshed out. Maria Montessori was an educational theorist who believed that there’s a point in time when a child is just ready to learn some particular type of thing. Maybe Harry Morgan, Dexter’s step-father, caught Dexter at just the right Montessori moment where the Code would ’take’ with Dexter. Maybe Dexter would go to pieces without the Code. As Dexter says, ‘I know I’m a monster.

His wistful, secret, impossible dream is to be normal, fully cured, with normal headaches and normal heartaches, just like all those millions of non-serial-killers out there. Although this doesn’t bother him enough to put him off his knife stroke, it does seem possible that complying with the Code makes it easier for Dexter to live with himself. And so the two parts of Dexter’s make-up, the basic instinct to chop up humans and the Code, may support and sustain each other. But maybe not; we don’t really know.

In the novels, Dexter is a sadist who has fun torturing his subjects before he recycles them. In the TV show, Dexter only tortures them mentally, for a minute or two, by reminding them of their horrendous crimes. The physical process is not protracted. Though both Dexters have their engaging side, the TV Dexter is more thoroughly likeable, more charming, and more of a wag than the Dexter of the books. We feel that any gratuitous inflicting of pain would be entirely foreign to the TV Dexter.

Not that he’s a softy. He’s capable of acting with impressive ruthlessness, as when he frames Rita’s husband for breach of parole to get him sent back to jail. Come to think of it though, this may be more a matter of opportunity than motivation: as a highly trained ambusher, abductor, and eraser of forensic clues, at the top of his game, Dexter can easily get away with exploits that just wouldn’t be practicable for those of us who maintain our upper-body strength mainly by pushing the buttons on the remote.

But Dexter lacks even normal spitefulness, just as, we’re repeatedly informed, he lacks much of normal sentimentality and human warmth (though he sincerely if half-heartedly regrets his lack of these). This can lead him to send the wrong signals, as when he responds to Quinn’s overtures with profound indifference, after Quinn knows that Dexter has seen him steal money from a crime scene. Quinn just doesn’t get it: Dexter simply doesn’t care the teeniest bit about Quinn, except that Quinn should leave him alone. (Oh dear, Quinn, me boyo, do I see Hefty bags and duct tape in your future? Just try not to murder anyone, there’s a good police officer, or you’ll become a legitimate target under the provisions of Dexter’s Code.) The vengeful payback motive, among many conventional emotional responses, seems pointless and barely intelligible to Dexter.

The uniqueness of Dexter as a character in drama is that he totally does the right thing for totally the wrong reason. (Shut up, all you ADHD cases. We’ve established it’s the right thing, okay? Just get used to it.) He’s a good guy, a hero, whose primal driving force is dangerous, ugly, monstrous, terrifying—everything that we’ve learned to call evil. So maybe (as Milton Friedman said of Henry Ford) he’s a bad man who does a lot of good. But if he does a lot of good, can he really be so bad?

Bad Motives, Good Actions

Dexter’s unique. He’s a sympathetic character whose fundamental motivation is totally creepy, while the consequences of his actions are predominantly benign and protective.

For thousands of years, the ruling assumption has been that if you want to encourage good actions, you’d better encourage good motives. At first blush, this makes sense. If people feel it’s wrong to kill other people, for instance, they’re less likely to kill other people. But there’s always the possibility of motivation and behavior working in opposite directions. People may do the right thing for wrong reasons, or they may do something appalling for decent and good-hearted reasons.

Christianity gave a new importance to motives as opposed to actions. Jesus angrily denounces the Pharisees, the inventors of what we now call orthodox Judaism, those Jews who were especially concerned to follow every detail of the Jewish law, but no more than that. Jesus came out with such remarks as: You’ve heard that it was said, ‘Don’t commit adultery’. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27:28)

(What the actual? God’s going to bill you for the goodies before you’ve even opened the wrapper? Might as well go the whole hog, then.)

So Christianity makes you responsible for your thoughts, even if unacted upon. The real test of a person’s morality is not their actions nor the results of their actions but what goes on, unseen by their fellow-humans, inside their skulls. By this standard, hypocrisy (outwardly being good while inwardly having bad thoughts) becomes one of the worst of sins.

A moral dilemma is no longer simply 'What ought I to do?’ but more importantly, 'Am I thinking and feeling the right way? Are my intentions pure?’ This opens up a vast new scope for self-examination, guilt, self-flagellation, and self-doubt, especially as thinking is, by its very nature, frolicsome and uncontrollable.

Enter the Man-Devil

In early eighteenth-century England, Dr. Bernard Mandeville was denounced as the most evil person alive. His enemies—almost everyone—branded him “the Man-Devil” (Get it?). Nearly all the most eminent thinkers of his day wrote ferocious denunciations of the Man-Devil. Just as anyone who wants to be recognized today as a stand-up guy has to denounce racism, Islamicism, or sexual abuse of children, so anyone who looked for minimum cred in the eighteenth century had to express their horror and detestation for the Man-Devil.

His bad reputation was only to be matched by Jack the Ripper, nearly two centuries later. Dr. Mandeville was Public Enemy Number One. No, he wasn’t a ritual serial murderer. He was something far more dangerous than that!

The Man-Devil’s great crime was to say something that had never been said before. He proclaimed that wicked behavior by individuals is good for society as a whole, or as he put it, private vices are public virtues. And he made it sound very convincing.

Far less is now known about the life of the mysterious Man-Devil than about anyone else of comparable importance at the time. But we do know that he made his living as a doctor specializing in nervous diseases. He was married and had children. He was at home in four languages and had read a lot in each of them. He died of the flu in 1733. As far as we know, aside from what he wrote, he led a blameless life.

This was an age of new media and information explosion. The thousands of London coffee houses were like today’s Facebook. The thousands of London bookstores, with a printing press in the back, and with a coffee house attached, were like today’s blogosphere. Printers were the IT nerds. The presses turned out a flood of new leaflets, pamphlets, and magazines, soaked up by the denizens of the coffee houses, who debated them endlessly. Mass literacy had arrived, and with a sure instinct the masses turned to the vile and disgusting. The world had seen nothing like it before. Could the human mind possibly withstand the weighty burden of information overload?

Many of the new printed works were irreverent, mildly but persistently erotic, and satirical. Their goal was entertainment, but their authors understood, with the Dexter scriptwriters, that to truly entertain people you have to make them think.

The coffee houses charged one penny admission. ‘Runners' went round the coffee houses, from table to table, reciting the latest news reports. There was a turmoil of new ideas. No one could predict where it was all going. One coffee house, Jonathan’s, started posting stock prices on the walls, and this coffee house eventually became the London Stock Exchange. People of different walks of life and social standing mingled and debated in the coffee houses (which, however, did maintain minimal standards: women were excluded, except for professional ladies who looked after customers in some of those little rooms in the back). A powdered wig and a penny a day 'and you were online!

The new media were effectively unregulated and we all know what that means: something terrible’s bound to happen. As the anarchist Dave Barry says, without government people will start having sex with dogs. Well, that didn’t happen in eighteenth-century London, but something almost as appalling did occur: the coming of the Man-Devil.

A Poem that Will Live in Infamy

Dr. Mandeville came over from Holland at the age of twenty-nine, and fell in love with London. Within a few years, no one who met him would believe he wasn’t a native Englishman. He wrote a number of satirical publications before he penned The Grumbling Hive in 1705. This is not a poem of polished elegance like those of Alexander Pope (who like nearly everyone else stole some of Dr. Mandeville’s ideas while personally attacking the Man-Devil) but conversational and street-wise, in line with coffee-house chatter.

The Grumbling Hive tells of a fabulous beehive in which all the bees do, in miniature, exactly what eighteenth-century English people do. The bees are immoral though hypocritical: they practice all kinds of vice, while paying lip service to virtue. The hive flourishes, and becomes a beacon of prosperity, much like England.

Every part was filled with Vice
But the whole Mass a Paradise.

Then, overnight, the bees all become virtuous; they begin to practice what they preach. The economy of the hive collapses, and the hive is depopulated. A tiny remnant of the original population of bees leaves the hive and flies off into a dead tree-trunk. Since the bees remain completely virtuous, there is no indication that they regret the catastrophic consequences of their reformed behavior.

The Grumbling Hive did not immediately make Dr. Mandeville notorious. In 1714, he republished the poem with an extensive commentary, under the title The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Public Benefits. Still no scandal. In 1723 he brought out a new edition, with even more added material, including ‘A Search into the Nature of Society.' A few months later, the Grand Jury of Middlesex referred this book, as a public nuisance, to the Court of King’s Bench, recommending prosecution of the publisher.

No prosecution went ahead, but the hour of the Man-Devil had struck. The Fable of the Bees was reprinted five times in the next few years. Suddenly, everyone in Europe (and its outposts like the North American colonies) had heard of the Man-Devil, and every respectable person felt obliged to make outraged comments about him. All across Europe, people became aware of the horror perpetrated by the Man-Devil, as printed translations of his work appeared in every civilized language. When a French translation of The Fable of the Bees came out in 1740, a copy was ritually burned by the public executioner.

The leading philosopher of the moment, George Berkeley, living in Rhode Island at the time, wrote a vigorous denunciation of the Man-Devil (this was before Berkeley had been made a bishop and long before the town of Berkeley, California, had been named after him, immortalizing his name in a mispronounced form). Berkeley’s attack unfairly misrepresents Mandeville’s argument, but then, exactly what Mandeville’s argument was is still being debated.

A few things are clear. Dr. Mandeville did not think that morality was a crock, and did not want to encourage people to practice vice. He thought that morality was useful, and that it made its impact by appealing to people’s desire to gain the approval of others. He thought that people would always naturally practice vice (love themselves more than their neighbors and try to satisfy their own appetites before caring about anyone else). People need no special encouragement to practice vice: they are naturally vicious. Mandeville could have said that what was generally thought to be vice was not really vice, but was partly morally neutral, in itself neither good nor bad, and partly good. But that would have ruined the joke.

Only a few of the Man-Devil’s literary contemporaries did not denounce him. One was Sam Johnson, compiler of the first dictionary. Reading Mandeville opened his eyes and changed his life. He reported that every young man believed The Fable of the Bees was a terribly wicked book, and therefore had to have a copy on his shelves. Another was Ben Franklin, on a visit to London, who had a few drinks with Mandeville, and called him “a most facetious, entertaining companion. So in the flesh he seemed just as he does on the printed page. The Man-Devil wrote many satirical pieces. It’s not always clear just where he’s coming from, for two opposite reasons. First, he’s careful to avoid saying anything that would get him executed or imprisoned, so we can’t always be sure when he’s pulling his punches. Second, he’s trying to be entertaining by being shocking, so we can’t be sure when he’s exaggerating his own audacity to keep up the reader’s interest. There’s also the fact that what he wrote was mostly either in verse or in the form of dialogues, and in dialogues we can’t be sure whether he completely agrees with what any one of his characters is saying. Mandeville wrote a fun piece called The Virgin Unmask’d, a long conversation, with a touch of mild pornography, between an elderly woman and an adolescent female, in which the older woman tries to convince the younger to have nothing whatsoever to do with men, ever. Mandeville published this piece without finishing it, and we don’t really know where he’s going with it, except that it would be amusing to get there.

Among his other productions was a hilarious piece arguing for the provision of public stews. (A stew, at this time, was the popular name for a house of prostitution. Brothel—stew, get it? Those witty Londoners.) In this pamphlet ‘by a Lay-Man’ pun intended, Mandeville pointed out that the suppression of prostitution would naturally lead to an increased incidence of rape. So harlots, by doing it for money, are incidentally helping to protect and defend virtuous women. As The Grumbling Hive put it,

The worst of all the multitude
Did something for the common good.

Or as Mandeville explained with mock-earnestness:

I am far from encouraging Vice, and think it would be an unspeakable Felicity to the State, if the Sin of Uncleanness could be utterly Banish’d from it; but I am afraid it is impossible. The Passions of some People are too violent to be curb’d by any Law or Precept; ... If Courtezans and Strumpets were to be prosecuted with as much Rigour as some silly People would have it, what Locks or Bars would be sufficient to preserve the Honour of our Wives and Daughters? ...some Men would grow outrageous, and Ravishing would become a common Crime.

At this time the penalty for rape was death, and neither Mandeville nor anyone else expected that was going to change.

Did Dr. Mandeville really want government-run bordellos? We can’t be sure. His more serious arguments for this policy are phrased as comical parodies of the then-fashionable arguments for economic policies that promote national greatness. But the Man-Devil was nimble enough to make fun of arguments he actually believed in.

Later in the eighteenth century, most of those who could read (eighty percent of males and twenty percent of females) had read Dr. Mandeville, and even as they fumed with righteous anger, many of them pirated his ideas. The Man-Devil invented economics, sociology, social anthropology, sociobiology, utilitarianism, liberalism, evolution, postmodernism, psychiatry, sex education, the social philosophy of Rousseau, the ethical theory of Nietzsche, and the class theory of Marx. In the spirit of the Man-Devil, I’m exaggerating only very, very slightly. He also, sad to say, invented Keynesian economics and the theory of the stimulus package, the dumb notion, refuted many times since in a recurring nightmare, that government spending can get you out of a slump. But here, I like to think, the Man-Devil was just kidding around.

Many of Mandeville’s ideas are developed fifty years later by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, especially the idea that acting out of self-love and self-interest can lead to the public benefit. Smith wrote that:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

Smith finally comes out with what Mandeville had only slyly hinted at: that so-called private vices are not really vices at all. It’s ethically okay to love yourself, to be predominantly self-interested. Smith replayed a riff that had done the rounds of the coffee-house chatter: ‘A man is never more innocently employed than when making money.' And Smith described how an individual could be

led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

In his first book, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, Smith had included an entire chapter devoted to a rebuttal of Mandeville. Smith, unlike Dr. Mandeville, had to make sure he could keep his university teaching post. While sharply criticizing Mandeville, taking the Man-Devil’s provocative over-statements with deadpan seriousness, Smith commented that The Fable of the Bees couldn’t have impressed so many people ‘had it not in some respects bordered upon the truth.'

Mandeville's and Smith’s theory that everyone will benefit if each person acts in his own self-interest can easily be misunderstood. A more complete statement of what Mandeville and Smith believed is that since most people are going to act predominantly in their self-interest anyway, laws ought to be designed so that, as far as possible, everyone will benefit if each person acts in his own self-interest. This is, they believed, the test of good law.

So the point Mandeville and Smith are really making is one about which laws are best. It’s easy to overlook this because both Mandeville and Smith believed that the laws of England and Scotland in the eighteenth century had come quite close to being the best laws, and could easily be brought closer. Whereas Mandeville believes (or pretends to believe 'or pretends to believe—you never quite know with the Man-Devil) that good laws are devised by clever politicians, Smith has a theory that law, especially judge-made common law, evolves and tends to improve as it evolves.

A country’s laws fulfill a function like Dexter’s Code: they direct individual human appetites that are very far from benevolent into actions which benefit other people, without trying to change the appetites themselves. The Man-Devil’s insight now dominates most of the world and is rapidly mopping up the few remaining holdouts. If you want living standards to keep rising, then you have to give up the idea of making people morally better, in their inmost souls, by law. Instead, you design the law so that it takes people as they are, and gives them an incentive to be productive—to serve the good of other people. 

We live in a world the Man-Devil has made. In some ways, the Man-Devil is like Jesus: he draws attention to the difference, and the possible antagonism, between inner thoughts and outward behavior. In other ways, the Man-Devil is just the opposite, a true Anti-Christ: he teaches us something we can never forget: that what really matters for humankind is not the purity of people’s intentions but the actual results of their actions, results which may be, and most often are, no part of their intention.

A Second Look at Dexter’s Motives

So far I’ve been assuming that Dexter is a psychopath reined in by a Code. His motives are foul, though his deeds are salubrious. This is the way Dexter thinks of himself. Dexter continually tells himself this, and as he does so, continually tells us. But could Dexter be misled himself and then misleading us?

The show’s appeal hinges on the fact that we both accept this story and simultaneously feel it to be false. We know that Dex is no soulless psychopath. How do we know it?

Here’s one example. Dexter kills both Jorge Castillo and his wife Valerie. The chopped up Jorge goes into the regulation six Hefty bags, but Dex doesn’t chop up the wife because she’s a bit of an afterthought and he can’t afford the precious minutes. This dreadfully impolite and inconsiderate couple certainly deserve to be disassembled (though my inner economist can’t help wondering whether it could possibly be profit-maximizing for them to murder so many of their clients), and there’s the hilarious bit where Dexter asks them for the secret of their successful relationship, and then murmurs, ‘Thank you, that’s very helpful’ just before slaughtering them both.

Then what does Dexter do? He walks up to the door of the shed where the Cuban immigrants are imprisoned without food, water, or sanitation, and unlocks it. A brief pause. As we watch, we automatically think, 'Thank God those poor people will now be able to get out, but maybe they won’t notice the door’s unlocked and will still spend hours of torment in there.’ Dexter obviously has just the same thought, and opens the door wider, before driving off to dump the Castillo corpses in the ocean. We see one immigrant come to the door and peer out, fearfully and wonderingly.

Dexter has nothing to gain by this spontaneous action. He’s very pressed for time, and the quicker the disappearance of the Castillos is reported, the more danger he’ll be in. As it turns out, there were actually two eye witnesses to Dexter’s capturing the Castillos and loading their bodies into his car. Admittedly, Dexter couldn’t be expected to know that one of them would dive down to the ocean bed, recover Valerie’s corpse, and replace it just where Dexter had killed her, but still, he has informed us that his motto is 'Be Prepared’. Someone with no empathy, a psychopath, or even someone who over-rides his empathy in pursuit of pure self-interest, would have left the door locked and let the Cubans perish miserably, without giving it a thought.

Dexter keeps telling us he has no feelings, but we keep seeing that he does have feelings. It’s true that his feelings are not entirely typical, and he’s not fully in touch with them. Dexter, in fact, belongs to that procession of characters which includes Pechorin (in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time), the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and Meursault (in Camus’s The Stranger). These characters are all very different, but in their different ways they have problems with their feelings. Meursault gets his head chopped off because he doesn’t make a conventional display of the feelings he’s expected to show in conventional settings, while Dexter, more intelligent and more controlling than Meursault, chops off other people’s heads while working hard to simulate the appropriate feelings, to blend in and appear normal.

Dexter’s interpersonal mis-steps are at worst only a slight exaggeration of hackneyed stereotypical situations: the male who doesn’t understand what women are feeling, the non-macho male who doesn’t quite know how to make macho talk, the person at the funeral whose mind is on matters other than grief. Often he is socially awkward because he doesn’t know what feelings it is conventionally appropriate to display in certain situations.

One of the first things Dexter tells us in the first episode of Season 1 is: ‘It has to happen.' He has to kill, he has no self-control, his Dark Passenger must seize the reins. And in that first episode we see Dexter and Harry’s conversation, in which Harry explains why Dexter must follow the Code. One of the remarkable things about this conversation is that Harry doesn’t merely deliver the Code: he assures Dexter that his urge to kill cannot be cured, that he’s fated to be a killer. Dexter is puzzled and wonders if possibly he might be able to change, but Harry nixes that one. And it’s little Dexter, not Harry, who comes up with some semblance of an ethical rationale for Harry’s Code: ‘They deserve it.'

Why is Harry so certain that Dexter can’t recover? Remember that at this point Dexter has not yet physically harmed any human person. He kills a dog because it is keeping his seriously ill stepmother awake at night. Harry’s an intelligent cop but he doesn’t look like the type who would spend his spare time keeping up with the latest research into childhood development, and if he did, he would have come to a different conclusion anyway. As an infant, Dexter saw his mother cut to pieces in front of his eyes, and we’re expected to suppose that this is what turned him into a serial killer governed by an involuntary compulsion. The plain fact, of course, is that most serial killers did not have extreme childhood traumas and most people who do suffer such traumas don’t go on to become serial killers. At the age of three, seeing your mother horribly slain and then sitting for a couple of days in the pool of her blood is going to be upsetting, and your school grades will probably suffer, but it simply will not make you a serial killer.

And when Dexter does begin killing humans, it’s on the direct orders of Harry. Dexter has done nothing to commence a career killing humans, and is horrified when Harry instructs him to kill Nurse Mary, who makes a practice of killing her patients with drugs and is now trying to kill Harry. Dexter is appalled and resistant, but Harry firmly insists (‘Popping Cherry’ Season 1). Harry makes it seem that killing Nurse Mary is necessary to save his life, but instead the police could have been informed of what she was up to, and she would have been suspended pending an investigation. Or Harry could simply have moved to another hospital (surely Miami police health benefits would run to that). However Harry has determined that Dexter must take the step of killing his first human. Harry quite deliberately sets Dexter on his path as a serial killer, while without Harry’s pro-active intervention, there’s no guarantee that Dexter would ever have slain or physically hurt a human.

So while we keep being fed the line that Dexter is a predetermined killer and that Harry gives him the Code which guides and constrains his killing, the facts of the narrative tell us that Harry both gives Dexter the Code and deliberately turns him into a killer. What’s Harry’s motive? We know that Harry the cop was breaking departmental rules by having sex with Dexter’s mother, the CI (confidential informant) up to the time when she was brutally slain. Further dot-connecting is scarcely necessary. There’s something poisonous about Harry.

Like many people, Dexter has bought the theory that he’s subject to an irresistible compulsion. Since he firmly believes that, he doesn’t seriously try to fight it. When he lays off killing for a few weeks, he gets irritable and concludes that he can’t do without it. But of course he can. He just has to persist for a few more weeks or months—if he really wants to kick the habit. Then the urge will die down and become easier to control. Addiction is always a choice.

But maybe he doesn’t want to kick the habit just yet. Maybe he’s having too much fun. We certainly are.


This article is reprinted from Dexter and Philosophy: Mind over Spatter, edited by Richard Greene, George A. Reisch, and Rachel Robison-Greene (Chicago: Open Court, 2011) and is reproduced here by permission of the author and of Open Court Publishing Company.


Libertarian Alliance  2014

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