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May 31, 2004

The Sopranos and philosophy

A nice post from H.E. Barber on the ethics of the Sopranos. Some critics argue that there is something surprising about the fact that Tony Soprano compartmentalizes his life. Barber argues that Tony's moral code is utterly conventional.

We asked students once, in our Women and Work class, whether there was a difference between "morality" and "ethics" and, if there was, to explain what it was. After about half an hour of discussion eliciting student's linguistic intuitions, we came up with the following picture:

Morality is essentially sentimentality, an "ethic of care." It's not rational and can't be argued about: it's a matter of feelings--not either utility calculations or duty. You should be moral with your family and friends. But morality is impractical and out of place in work situtions--after all, you can't hire someone just because they need the work. In the real world you have to follow "professional ethics," the particular codes of conduct for various occupations. Morality is also not realistic in public life--you can't just give away money, it has to come from somewhere. Liberals just don't realize that businesses can't afford to give away products to people who need them or keep incompetent employees on because they need work; they don' t realize that if you tax the rich to provide handouts so that everyone will be exactly equal there will be no incentives. More generally, they don't realize that you have to be rational in work and politics so you can't afford morality.

Tony is just following the standard program: morality at home; professional ethics on the job. It just happens that the code of conduct for his particular line of work licenses extortion, drug-dealing, whoring and murder. All his troubles come about when the wall of seperation between the domestic sphere and his professional life thin--when, e.g. his gumuhs make contact with Carmella.


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