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.


The Handmaid’s Tale: Despotism, Totalitarianism and Freedom of Choice

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale reveals one particular evil of totalitarianism that is too often overlooked within liberal democratic societies. Members of post-industrial liberal democracies too often associate the evil of totalitarianism with the state inhibiting people’s choices, and while the aforementioned inhibition of choice is problematic, the particular evil of totalitarianism that The Handmaid’s Tale reveals is the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ability of subjects to trust others and consequently prevents subjects from forming and sustaining deep relationships with others. This evil is deeply related to the inherent structure of despotism and its modern relative, totalitarianism. Similarly, for the same reasons that totalitarianism prevents people from forming deep relationships, totalitarianism gives rise to another evil as it destroys the capacity of agents to engage in cooperative action as equals. Furthermore, once we understand these evils of totalitarianism, we will begin to see the ways in which this second evil can assert itself in a liberal democratic society that does not seem to inhibit people’s choices and seems to champion freedom of the individual.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in Gilead, a fictional totalitarian regime within the North East United States. This regime arose violently as birth rates decreased due to environmental pollution. Offred, the protagonist, of this work is a handmaid; prior to the rise of Gilead she was an educated married woman. She is coerced into becoming a handmaid after Gilead is formed through a violent coup. The role of the handmaid in Gileadean society is to copulate with married commanders (the social elite) so that children can be produced. Each handmaid is assigned to a household of a given commander, and there is a scheduled ceremony in which sexual intercourse takes place with the wife of the commander sitting behind the handmaid.

One thing that seems most prominent in Offred’s reflections on her situation is her desire for intimacy and deep human relationships. She has no friendships in her life and while there may be others in her household who are friendlier to her than most, they are not friends and there is no significant bond between them. She is completely isolated and strongly desires any semblance of normal human relationships. The difficulty that the totalitarianism of Gilead poses is that in order to form a deep relationship with another one must feel comfortable revealing intimate details about oneself to another, but revealing these intimate details can often poses a danger for Offred, because the secret police everywhere within Gileadean society and the details that Offred might reveal could include disapproval of the regime. So Offred cannot really feel safe is she reveals details about herself to anyone because anyone could be a member of the secret police and if she reveals certain details about herself to a member of the secret police,or an informant for the secret police, her own life would be in danger, as those who disapprove of the regime, or fail to conform to the rules of the regime are dealt with harshly. It is true we always face dangers if we reveal details about ourselves as others may disapprove, but the dangers are not ones that endanger our survival, whereas within Gilead the dangers that Offred faces threaten her continued existence. Therefore, while the evil of the Gileadean regime partially lies in its limitation of freedom of choice, a large element of its evil is distinct from this and lies in the way that it makes people incapable of bonding with one another and forming deep relationships.

Before going on to an analysis of the evil I have been discussing in relation to totalitarianism I would like to give a basic explanation of totalitarianism and its relationship to despotism. According to Montesquieu each form of government has a principle. The principle of a government is not its particular structure, but what “sets it in motion.” For Montesquieu the principle of despotism is fear. What Montesquieu means by this is that despotism is sustained through using fear to combat people’s ambitions, goals, and attachments. The ideal subject for a despot, is not a reflective human being or an ambitious glory seeking warrior for that matter, but someone who will simply do what they are told because they fear punishment at the hands of despot himself, or someone he has entrusted with power. While despotism is distinct from totalitarianism, as totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon while despotism is not, the two are both exemplified by a situation in which the social fabric and the medium of rule are dominated by fear. Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union were dominated by the fact that everyone was afraid of the regime, and doing something that might lead to punishment by the regime, and likewise afraid that their neighbour, friends or family members might be spies for the regime. The difference between despotism and totalitarianism is at least partially constituted by the fact that technological advances have allowed fear to become an even more dominant part of the social fabric. Consequently, it seems that the principle, in the Montesquieuian sense of the word, of totalitarianism is fear.

The consequence of living under a totalitarianism regime in which fear is the dominant mode of social control is a situation like Offred’s in which one is incapable of forming deep human relationships. This results because trust is essential to forming deep relationships with others, and fear destroys trust. If people are fearful that others may be connected to the secret police they will begin to distrust all others and become isolated from all others, and consequently not pursue the development of deep relationships. Consequently, it seems that The Handmaid’s Tale perceptively reveals one often overlooked evil of totalitarian regimes, and that is the way in which totalitarianism prevents people from forming deep relationships. Also, once we understand the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ability of people to form and sustain deep relationships we will be able to better understand what is so horrifying about this form of government. Certainly, any member of a liberal democracy abhors authoritarianism for its inhibition on individual freedom, but totalitarianism is even more disturbing in that it not only destroys our autonomy, it also destroys our even more basic capacity for friendship and long-lasting romantic love.

Similarly, one other evil which is peripheral to The Handmaid’s Tale yet is essential to totalitarianism is the inability for people to engage in collective action as equals. The regime’s use of fear isolates people such that they are paralyzed and feel disconnected from all others, and this means that people will no longer come together to pursue common purposes as equals. The human ability to come together as equals to pursue common purposes, whether through creating an organization, creating a book club or protesting the state are valuable forms of activity that are destroyed when fear is used as a dominant mode of social control, and people become isolated from one another, and distrustful of one another.

These two aforementioned evils may seem very distant from post-industrial liberal democratic regimes, but nonetheless the second evil can assert itself within regimes that avowedly stand for freedom of the individual. Tocqueville notes that American democracy in the 19th century had a tendency towards individualism, and what he meant by individualism was very different from the way we use the term. What Tocqueville meant was that people would become isolated from the broader society and withdraw to a small circle of friends and family. The reason why people would feel so disconnected and isolated and withdraw from the broader society, is that the equality of democracy makes us feel powerless, as no one individual seems to be able to do great things on his own. When we feel powerless in this way, we tend to stop worrying about doing great things, and focus on merely leading quietly pleasant lives. Clearly, individualism in this sense can lead to an assertion of the second evil I spoke of as people withdraw from the public sphere and become so disconnected from the broader society as to see themselves as unable to act in concert with others to do great things. There is a difference in this case as certain kinds of common action among equals are still possible where individualism dominates, but common action among equals regarding broad societal issues, rather than private issues is disabled by Tocquevillian individualism. Furthermore, Tocquevillian individualism is not a particular problem of American democracy; it is a problem for all liberal democracies, as the focus on commerce that is essential to liberal democracy tends to focus people on their own jobs, their own families and friends, as against the broader society, which would only exacerbate the problem of Tocquevillian individualism. So despite the fact that liberal democracies do not inhibit the freedom of the individual they seem to be prey to one of the same evils that defines totalitarianism.