"Gone Baby Gone" vs. Kant's Categorical Imperative

SPOILER ALERT: THIS ARTICLE DEALS IN DETAIL WITH THE ENDING OF THE MOVIE GONE BABY GONE.

The Oscar-nominated film Gone Baby Gone presents an interesting and eternally arguable proposition. The crux of the film ultimately rests upon a decision made by the main character, played by Casey Affleck, which reflects back upon the notions of ethics and duty outlined in the writings of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant. Trying to boil down Kantian ethics into a concise paragraph so as to better apply it to this particular question is practically impossible. It is enough for the purpose of this article to remember Kant’s categorical imperative that one’s decision should always be made with the implicit understanding that you would will it to be a universal law if you could.

At the climax of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s is confronted with a decision that requires that he base his moral imperative on the idea of universality. In many cases, of course, this is the easiest thing in the world to do. For instance, few would have much trouble advocating a universal law of morals that prohibit the killing of a child. And yet even this apparently simple decision can be affected by specific circumstances that come into conflict with a moral imperative. For instance, what if by killing one child you could save a thousand? The story of Gone Baby Gone centers on the search by Affleck’s character for a kidnapper and, ultimately, child killer. Only at the end do viewers realize that the missing girl was not actually killed at all. In fact, she is living with the admirable police chief character that is intent on raising her as his own. The choice that confronts Affleck’s character is not easy: does he allow the child to be raised by a good man who provide her with all the creature comforts, as well as the love and attention she’s never had, or does he return the little girl to her mother, a drug-abusing slut who has on several occasions put her child’s very life in jeopardy. At first glance, there seems little reason for argument. Nobody would deny that the best thing for the child is to be raised by the Morgan Freeman character. He can provide a life for her that would never be possible otherwise. Freeman clearly makes that argument, in fact. But Affleck remains unconvinced.

The other side of the argument is less easy to justify. The fact is that returning the little girl to her mother will almost certainly result in, if not tragedy, then certainly a less happy life. Freeman offers a hypothetical scenario: The grown woman confronts him and demands to know why he stole a happy life from her. Affleck counters with another scenario: a now-grown woman confronts him with the question why he was hired to find a kidnapped little girl and why did he break his promise and leave her with a strange family instead of taking her home. Why does Affleck’s character defy all logic and reason and willingly return the girl home to a family situation that is undeniably worse than the alternative?

Affleck’s character chooses to act according to Kant’s categorical imperative. The conflict is in the details, but there will be always be details. The one inescapable truth is that if Affleck were to turn around and pretend he’d never found the girl, he would in effect be willing a universal law that makes it acceptable to steal children from their family simply because we don’t approve of the way they are being raised. Admittedly, there is the danger element here and that tosses in another monkey wrench, but how can anyone know the future course of events. In this specific case, the Morgan Freeman character is older than the biological mother; who is to say that he won’t suffer a heart attack while driving his nice vehicle and kill both himself and the little girl in a week? There are always dangers that are unforeseen and to base such a moral action upon the unknown violates the very foundation of the categorical imperative.

Ultimately, every viewer knows deep down that the Affleck character made the wrong decision in Gone Baby Bone. But to have done otherwise would have been even worse from the perspective of a universal code of ethics.