Inside Out as Aristotleian Critique

Yesterday afternoon, I saw Inside Out with my boyfriend, as we had heard that it was one of the best Pixar films that has been released over the last while. The film is very entertaining and I certainly recommend it, but one thing that struck me about it is that the film presents an Aristotleian critique of a certain contemporary mode of thought. In contrast to the contemporary mode of thought stresses that our ultimate goal should be to be happy, with happiness understood as a subjective state of joy or satisfaction, “Inside Out” teaches the audience that it is a sign of a disordered spirit to try to always feel joy or satisfaction. Instead we have to recognize that in response to certain situations feeling sadness or anger is appropriate and the sign of a properly developed character. Furthermore, given that Inside Out is a film targeted at children it serves as a form of ethical education directed at helping the young to better understand how they ought to relate to the world and their emotions. There will be spoilers from Inside Out in the remainder of this post, so if you want to avoid these read on at your own risk.

The premise of Inside Out is that within each person’s mind (or soul to the more spiritually inclined) there are five different beings who embody and constitute different sorts of emotional responses. These five beings are Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. These beings control the emotional response of the agent they reside within, and these responses then create memories which are coloured by the being that generates them. For example if something frustrating occurs Anger will take the reins in the control panel and give rise to an emotional response of anger and then the memory of this even will be one that is coloured by anger. Furthermore, there are a select set of core memories that are coloured by the emotional response related to the memory that constitute the personality of the agent. While the world that Inside Out builds has additional complexity for the sake of brevity I think this should give the reader sufficient detail to understand my point.

Most of the film takes place in the mind of Riley, a young girl from Minnesota, whose family has just moved to a dingy home in San Francisco. During her first day at school in San Francisco, Riley is asked to tell her new class a little about herself and where she is from. While initially she seems quite happy and tells the class about her previous life in Minnesota eventually she becomes very sad as she realizes that she has lost that previous life. Internally we see the cause of this is that Sadness is touching a core memory and so colouring the memory as a sad one, when it was initially a joyous one. This upsets Joy as she sees Sadness as a being who is detracting from her mission of ensuring that Riley is happy.

Consequently, a quarrel breaks out between Sadness and Joy and as a result of the collateral damage of this quarrel does to the physical infrastructure of the headquarters of the mind, Sadness and Joy are sucked out of headquarters and find themselves in other areas of the mind such as `long term memory.` Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the headquarters of the mind however, because without them the only things that Riley can feel are fear, disgust, and anger.

Over the course of this journey back to headquarters Joy ends up separated from Sadness, and in a pit in which all of Riley`s forgotten memories lie. At one point Joy realizes that she will likely never get out of this pit, and consequently Riley will never feel happiness again. At this point Joy begins to cry as she looks at a core memory; this memory is of the day on which Riley`s hockey team lost in the final and Riley missed the shot for the game winning goal. This memory had been coloured by happiness as Riley`s parents and team had supported her through her distress but it was nonetheless imbued with sadness. At this point Joy realizes that she misunderstood her role in Riley`s mind. She had striven to dominate Riley`s mind so that she was always happy, but to strive to always make Riley happy would be to respond inappropriately to many situations that present themselves. If were one to respond to losing a final game in a sport that you care about and missing an opportunity to win the game with joy this would be perverse; someone who reacted in this way could be said to have an improperly developed character. So, in essence, at this moment Joy learns that one emotion should not dominate the mind of an agent, but instead our emotional responses should be appropriate to the event that has been encountered.

Through a miraculous feat Joy and Sadness are both able to get back to the headquarters of the mind, and at the end of the film we see that Joy now understands that Sadness can be an appropriate reaction to events and that her role is not to try to make Riley as happy as possible, but to ensure Riley reacts joyfully in appropriate situations. This is made evident as memories, including core memories, are now revealed to be imbued with numerous emotional responses, whereas in the past Joy had been hell bent on ensuring that as many as memories as possible were purely happy.

Interestingly, in The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes a similar, if not the same, point in his discussion of the doctrine of the mean. Aristotle notes that the mean, which is the proper path, take places between an excess and a deficiency; in the case of pride, the excess is vanity, and the deficiency is undue humility, and likewise with anger the excess is irascibility and the deficiency is unirascibility. (32-34, 1107b-1108b) Consequently for Aristotle the point is not to avoid negative emotions like pride, and anger, but to feel them in the appropriate way and to the appropriate degree. The person who becomes extremely angry because someone does not turn on their signal light in traffic experiences anger excessively and is dominated by anger, while the person who does not feel angry when his friend is insulted or harmed has a deficiency of anger, and is disordered as they fail to feel anger where it is due. Similarly, someone who believes in the equal dignity of human beings, but does not feel indignation towards practises of human trafficking is in some sense improperly developed as they do not feel indignant about practises that stand in opposition to their beliefs about the dignity of human beings. As a result, it seems that the point made in “Inside Out“ echoes the Aristotleian doctrine of the mean.

Furthermore, as much as the point that both Inside Out and Aristotle makes seem like common sense, there are certain contemporary modes of thought that stand in stark opposition to it. For example, we are often told to whatever it takes to be happy, with happiness understood as a subjective state of joy or satisfaction, and that the best kind of life is one which is filled with as much happiness as possible. But if we are convinced by the doctrine of the mean and the teaching of Inside Out this does not seem to be an adequate conception of how to live well. For example, imagine a person who is able to feel joy in every situation they encounter and avoid all negative emotions, such as sadness, fear, anger and disgust. This person might have a life with the largest quantity of happiness, but yet their life and character seems impoverished. A person who is able to avoid negative emotions and only feel joy in every circumstance is necessarily narcissistic as they fail to feel sadness, anger at injustice and suffering.

Furthermore, at a more general level this type of person is enslaved to a particular emotional response, and while slavery to the emotional response of joy may be more pleasant than slavery to the emotion of sadness, neither is constitutive of the best mode of being. Based on the doctrine of the mean we may say that the best mode of being for a human is to have the capacity to react appropriately with a wide range of emotions to the multiplicity of situations that one encounters. In this situation no one emotion, or the whole range of emotions, dominates you, but yet you are still able to participate in emotionally reacting appropriately to the events that you encounter. To be fully human requires that we not only find a way to create joy in our lives, but also that we know how to properly react with sadness to lost, and indignation to injustice. Thus, in conclusion, it seems that Inside Out presents a critique of the hedonistic conception of what it means to live well that argues that the best life is the one with the greatest volume of happiness. Furthermore, in presenting this critique to children Inside Out serves as a form of ethical education that helps children to better understand how they ought to relate to their emotions and the world as a whole.

Works Cited

Inside Out. Director Pete Docter, Ronald Del Carmen. Perf.Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black. Pixar, 2015. Film.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. David Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

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3 thoughts on “Inside Out as Aristotleian Critique

  1. That’s funny, I saw Inside Out with my partner yesterday as well. She noted that it might help children to conceptualize such abstract things as feelings and thereby be better able to articulate them for resolving conflicts, getting to your point about ethical education.

    While the lesson you draw (that we shouldn’t try to be happy all the time) is without doubt the one the writers intended, I couldn’t help but see the whole movie as an exercise in showing our lack of free will. The emotions controlled Riley more than they were reactions to her thoughts and we saw drastic changes to her personality occur due to freak events in her brain.

    • You are most certainly right about the way that the movie negates the idea of free will. This was something that I also thought about. There is no core “Riley” that is making decision freely. Instead in the movie the mind is understood psychodynamically, as the interplay of a set of sometimes conflicting forces (emotions) and processes (the train of thought).

  2. I’m glad to hear that there are such thoughtful movies out there targeted for children. This idea that one must always be happy is a misguided way of dealing with our emotions. Sometimes they are there for a reason, even if they do seem negative. So-called negative emotions can be an impetus for change, self-realization or action, which can be a positive thing.

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