Philosophies Represented on BtVS and AtS

Warning: this page contains info about episodes up through season season 7 BtVS/season 5 AtS. If you're in danger of being spoiled, proceed with caution.

| Relativism | Theories of justice | Issues of Free Will | Issues of Personal Identity | Utilitarianism | Kantian Ethics | Thomas Aquinas | Cordelia and Plato |


"There's nothing either bad or good, but thinking makes it so." --vampMarcus, In the Dark (ganked from Shakespeare)

The slayer is the chosen one--chosen to fight demons. A girl with such incredible power must operate in a world of black and white, of good guys and bad guys. She has to know who to love, who to hate, and who to trust. But she can't always know that. Humans aren't always the good guys, and demons aren't always the bad guys.

Clearly, things are not so black and white in Sunnydale. But how far can you take this? Even when the two camps are clearly established on the show, one could still argue that who is "good" and who is "evil" is actually a matter of perspective. From the demons' point of view, humans are the invaders; the demons are simply trying to reclaim what was once theirs. The fact that they strike first while humans attack in self-defense is simply their attempt to reclaim the Earth and humans resisting it. True enough, humans haven't tried to take over Hell, but this is simply a matter of practicality. If we humans were strong enough to subdue demons and/or the demon dimensions, we wouldn't hesitate to do it (see The Initiative, The Ring).

The slayer's in college now, where one person's morality becomes "just as good" as another's, where "Good" and "Evil" get replaced by "kinda nice" and "pretty cool", and "who am I to judge," and "there is no truth about which morality is correct."

In high school it was "so easy" to believe in the absolute black and white rule that vampires are evil and hence they must die. Now that the gang's in college, however, every absolute is open to scrutiny; they are going to have to confront those relativists who would have them understand, rather than condemn, the "other"! Are vampires necessarily "evil" just because they prey on humanity? Can they quit their blood-sucking ways? Shouldn't we try to rehabilitate them? ...Of course, our heroine understands "the other" pretty well, having boinked the undead and all; yet she has no problems dusting vampires. (Of course, we can also understand why cultures practice female genital mutilation, e.g., without approving of the practice) (Madeline, 07 Oct 1999 14:36)

Vox's Is it right to judge a vampire by our own ethical code?

Theories of justice

Retributivism is often summarized with the biblical "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." More technically, it holds that the offender should suffer at least equally to the victim. The Chumash People's desire for vengeance could be justified on Retributivist grounds, although Hus' actions against contemporary people might not be. The philosophy of Jenny Calendar's Uncle Enyos in Innocence might also be seen as an example of Retributivism, although Enyos insisted his motive was vengeance, not justice (Were the gypsies actions true Retributivism?).

Genuine Retributivism is about more than just making ones' self feel better. It is about balancing the scales of justice and safeguarding the interests of victims. So, for example, Xander's desire to hurt Cordelia the way she hurt him in BBB is not an application of Retributivism, because it was not motivated by a long-standing "eye for an eye" philosophy, but mainly by his momentary desire to make himself feel better. Xander's actions fall better under the category unprincipled vengeance. Likewise, despite her lip service to principles of justice, Fred's overriding motives in Supersymmetry seemed to be vengeance.

More examples of theories of justice

Issues of Free Will

| What is free will? | Slayers and free will | Free will and becoming a vampire | Free will and inter-species transformation | Do vampires have free will? | Free will and violence against women | The price and value of free will | Free will and knowledge |

Meanings of "Free Will": it is easier to define what it means to lack free will than what it means to have it. Here are some different definitions.

Pre-destination: An action or event is determined in advance by a non-random force (e.g., destiny, God, the Powers that Be).

Fatalism: An event B will happen no matter what occurs first, event A or not A. Fatalism implies that you will have a certain fate no matter which choice you make. Example: Buffy's death at the hands of the Master. More on the troubling notion of fate: the death of Cassie Newton

Determinism: No event is inevitable no matter what, but if certain conditions A exist, then a certain kind of event B will necessarily take place. Determinism is the theory that every event in the universe, including every human action, has its natural causes; given certain antecedent conditions, an event will take place necessarily, according to the laws of nature.

In the Judeo-Christian world view, humans are free to choose their behavior. The Buffyverse implies some pre-destination, at least for characters like Buffy.

Slayers and free will: choosing to be evil or good

Buffy did not want to be the slayer and yet even when it was prophesied that she would die, she went to face the master anyway. When she thought she could no longer be the slayer she wondered how could she live knowing what was out there and not be able to do anything about it. It was her innate selflessness that led her to these choices. If a more selfish Slayer ...were to decide not fulfill her duties as a slayer, who would stop her? Faith seems to be using her powers to help the mayor/herself achieve power (J.S.K., Mar 18 19:35 1999).

For Slayers, destiny is the gene, or mark, or whatever it is that makes it possible for them to become The Chosen One. ...Free will is simply what they do with those powers. ...Slayers are destined to become Slayers regardless of who they are or what they are doing with their life.... A Slayer would not lose her powers by becoming evil, because the powers are not dependent on her actions (Lord Ruthven, Mar 18 21:22 1999).

Free will and becoming a vampire

In BtVS canon, how much of free will is involved in creating a vampire?

I would suggest that it could be any of the three, surely. It would depend on the vampire and victim involved. For instance, ...the vampire-worshiping teenagers wanted to be vampires - they wanted to be willing victims until the actual reality became evident. ...Others, for the most part seem to be unwilling victims so it would be a figurative act of rape. Then I'm sure that, according to the BtVS reasoning, someone could conceivably surrender if given that option rather than absolute death (Claddagh, Jun 3 21:54 1999).

I would have to go with free will not being an issue here. In every vampire legend I've ever heard of, the victim had no choice whatsoever in whether they were vamped or not. I've seen nothing in Buffy to change that. Further, if we go back to Prophecy Girl, the Master had full control of Buffy for a bit, and in B1 Drusilla had a measure of control over Kendra. Granted these were unuaual situations, but I think that they show us the possibility that garden variety vampires would have some control over their victims, partiularly after they have partially drained them. A vitims strength would be ebbing reducing their resistance, an perhaps the drawing of blood gives the vampire a magical edge as well (Whelk, Jun 3 22:13 1999).

Issues of Personal Identity

| Personal identity issues on BtVS | Theories about identity | The relationship of Angel and Angelus | Who is Darla? | Souled Spike's slippery identity |

What we call the self, either considered as the body or considered as the mind, is not a unitary, unchangeable entity--both our bodies and our personalities have parts, and both change over time. Are you the same person as you were yesterday, last week, a year ago, as a child? What makes you a different person from your mother, your brother, your best friend, your twin? Is a cat or a robot or a demon a person? These are philosophical questions of "personal identity."

Personal identity questions raised by BtVS/AtS episodes

Theories about identity

Identity: The fact that one thing is part of another or that what appears to be two things is in fact one and the same thing; alternatively, the feeling that "this is me (or mine)."

If the self is solely the human body, then one individual is a different person from another individual because they have no biological continuity with each other, and/or because of differences in their physical (biochemical) make-up.

If the self is solely a mind or spirit which is separable from the body, there are two possibilities:

(1) the individual's mental experiences are fundamental. Memories are the essence of who we are, according to philosopher John Locke. Lose our memories, and we become, in essence, a different person. Experience memories as your own, and you are the same person as whomever was conscious when the events those memories are about happened.

(2) beings are differentiated as individuals by their posession of a distinct spirit. If you are somehow given some other spirit's memories so that they feel like your own, you are nevertheless not the same person as whomever created those memories in the first place (see, e.g., the Who is Darla? and Angel vs. Angelus debates). Likewise, if you lose your memories due to amnesia, you are still the same person as you were before.

If the self is both body and mind, then identity becomes traceable along a number of lines and gets sticky fast.

Deconstructing Angel: the relationship of Angel and Angelus

Angel's dilemma is both compelling and perplexing. In one respect, his situation is not so hard to understand. He has a conscience and human emotions, but a demon physiology drives him, and he must fight it. In another respect, Angel's situation raises confounding questions about guilt and responsibility. The show has been fairly clear that upon siring, Angel's human soul was banished to the Ether. Nevertheless, in Lie to Me, Angel "confesses" to Buffy the truth about "his" siring of Drusilla. Does this mean he thinks the human soul is responsible for this horrible act? But how could that be so, since the human soul wasn't even present at the time? In Amends, Angel distanced himself from the acts of the demon when he told the First Evil that "It wasn't me."

And there lies the rub: "It wasn't me" "It was me"--who is the "me" doing the talking? The "Angel" we know is both the demon who did the bad deeds and the human soul that didn't. So what is their relationship to each other? Are we talking about

  1. two consciousnesses in one body taking turns being in control, like some sort of multiple-personality guy?, or
  2. a single, combined consciousness at once both demon and human? or
  3. a split consciousness, two consciousness both aware simultaneously, just not of each other, or
  4. one consciousness--the human's--spurred on by the mindless drives of a vampire physiology?

Angel has "memories" of his mortal life (as Liam of Galway), of Angelus' deeds, and of his days as a souled vampire. This would seem to indicate the second of these choices. But it's not quite that simple. Option number four is also close to the truth, and fits well with Joss' "drug addict" analogy for Angel's condition:

Whedon said that the character of Angel (by the time he got his own series) was intended as a metaphor for an alcoholic in recovery. Angel, like many recovering addicts, is making amends for what he did "under the influence" (Hercules, Aint' It Cool News, March 4, 2001).

*5. A fifth possibility was suggested when Angel was transformed into a "pure vampire" in Pylea. On this model, the intelligence, memories, consciousness, and personality of the original human remain in a body that has been (1) transformed by a primitive mindless demon physiology and is (2) devoid of a human soul (conscience).

More detail on the relationship of Angel, Liam, and Angelus

I always thought of Angel's "soul" as the conscience and goodness of a person or put another way his "control" over doing the evil within all of us, so to speak. The "demon" that comes with being a vampire is what he is controlling and denying the light of day (pardon the pun). So, Angel is always there, regardless of the "demon" aspect pushing towards the commitment of horrible things (i.e. killing Ms. Calendar) ...but when he gets his soul back, he realizes how horrible the things he did are and thus feels all the guilt. I don't think the soul ever goes away, it just gets locked up inside, out of a controlling position (W. R. Terrell 4:17pm Oct 19, 1999).

The "soul" that left Liam of Galway's body upon death/vamping (and Angel's when the Gypsy curse was reversed) was just one part of his personality--namely, his conscience. Everything else that made up the human Liam's personality remained behind. Which means that "Angelus" is merely Liam of Galway with a demon physiology and without a conscience (and the same would be true for all other vampires). This is supported by the fact that Angelus was sadistic and sociopathic, in other words, he lacked empathy.

As for memories being what's left of the person controlled by the demon, aren't memories what make up who we are? Someone i forget who said that we are the sum of our memories. ...(16:53:24 ) I think [Angel's memories] had an affect on the "person" Angelus was. ...The person Angel was had, through the parts left when the demon took over the first time, an influence on how the demon acted. The "person" Angel was when he lost his soul in Surprise had an influence on the demon Angelus and his acts (Lady Bathory, Dec 20 16:14 1998).

If this is the proper view of the Buffyverse soul, then the received story about vampires being "a human body possessed by a demon 'soul'" in The Harvest would have to be dismissed as Watcher mythology, and everything we've learned about vampires would have to be explained according to such a view, including Spike's apparent sensitivity and what Kathy was stealing in LC. This theory does have the merit of being a simpler, more elegant understanding of complex metaphysical situations like Liam-Angelus-Angel and the whole who-the-heck-is-Darla-this time quandary.

Is a soul nothing more than a conscience? by Ellen Ross

Angel's dilemma, then, is the literal sort of "fighting one's demon", where the demon is a part of you and that take control of your actions. This is the description borderline psychotics and alcoholics commonly make of that impulse that drives them to kill or to reach for another drink. Angel can divorce himself from past deeds done when his soul (conscience) was absent, but he chooses not to. His personality and memories--his psyche--were present at the time the deeds were done and so he refers to the actions performed when the human soul was absent as things "I did." This has become his compelling reason to give up living day to day as a tortured vampire and actively join the fight against evil.

Who was Angel in "I Will Remember You"?

Darla's identity crisis FauxSwami: ...she's not even the one who did this to you.
Angel: No. It's still her. Still Darla. It's kind of hard to explain.

When Wolfram and Hart brought back Darla, they brought her back as human. "But," says humanDarla, Mark II in Dear Boy, "I'm still me." She has all of vampDarla's memories, feelings, and attitudes. She also has vague memories of humanDarla Mark I's life as well, e.g., she knows that her name prior to vamping wasn't Darla. In "Darla", she begins to feel the weight of her human conscience. In her desperation for relief from these feelings, she asks Lindsey who she is. Assuming she does have a soul, there are at least three possibilities. Did Wolfram and Hart bring back

  1. the original human soul,
  2. the demon who wreaked havoc for 400 years, making Darla a demon/human soul hybrid like Angel, except in a human body,
  3. or did they create a new human soul?

If option (1) is true, then Darla's situation is something like Anya's, except that Darla had no human soul for 400 years while it is quite possible that Anyanka was a demon with a human soul for 1100 years. Anya has shown enough humanity to be accepted by Xander and his friends, but interestingly, has never shown much regret for her demonic activities.

Purely human Angel (IWRY) continued to have Angelus' memories after losing his demon physiology. In the Buffyverse, memories seem to remain in the brain (additional evidence of this comes from the fact that new-born vampires have the human's memories after the human soul has left). MortalAngel didn't wallow in the demon's memories because he'd had 100 years to differentiate his humanity from the demon. Darla has not. When they reconstituted her brain, she got all the demon's memories with it. And the demon was around for 400 years.

The difficulty with option (1) is that Darla has few memories of her human life. Angel remembers his human life 250 years ago just fine. While Darla was human 400 years ago, she should remember more of it than she does.

As for Darla not remembering her human name. After 400 years of someone calling me something that was not my original name, I might forget what it had been, too! Since Darla clearly wants to be a vampire again, maybe she really doesn't *want* to remember. Besides, she isn't really originalhumanDarla. She has the memories of vampireDarla (purplegrrl, 15-Nov-00 14:04).

This comment suggests option (2), that Darla is both the original human and the vampire Darla at the same time. The difficulty with (2) is that she has no demon physiology. She's not a vampire. And having a human soul does not change a vampire body, as Angel knows all too well.

What about option (3)?

I believe they really didn't "bring Darla back." What they did was create an entirely whole new entity all together. The Human "Darla" has been dead 400 years, the vamp Darla is still dust... this new person "thinks" she is Darla as she has all of Darla's memories, but as an individual, she is someone who has really been alive only a few months. Kinda like Dawn who can remember her [10th] birthday even though she didn't really have it.... Therefore, this new Darla isn't responsible for what the Vamp Darla has done as they were just memories of another creature's experience. It is also why this Darla can't remember ...Demon Darla's afterlife (Anonymous, 15-Nov-00 09:33).

This theory, while plausible, would make the redemption of Darla rather pointless. She would not be the being who committed predatory acts for 400 years. She would only be responsible for the things she has done since she was formed in May of 2000. But she has done most of those things under the influence of the demon's memories! Another difficulty with option (3) is that Darla seemed to be able to sense Angel's presence in Judgment and Dear Boy, something the original vampDarla could always do.

It gets murkier still when Darla becomes VampDarla, Mark II. Did Drusilla bring back the original vampire body that wreaked havoc for 400 years, or does siring necessarily mean giving birth to a new demon? Regardless of whether we're dealing with a new demon or the old one, this demon has Darla's memories not only of the 400 years as a vampire, but her recent memories of being human as well. And she is not unaffected by those experiences, regardless of "who" had them.


Often summarized as "pick that course of action which produces the greatest good for the greatest number," this philosophy comes from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

(Act) Utilitarianism is more accurately stated as "Choose the act in a circumstance that would produce a greater balance of benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness to those involved over mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to those involved."

For example, in Revelations Xander argues that "lots of dead people" constitutes a reason to kill Angel--one human soul dying (Angel's) is better than many human souls dying (his potential victims). If Xander can show that it is likely that Angel will lose his soul again, then on Utilitarian grounds, Angel should die to save the possible consequences of Angelus' reemergence. Utilitarianism can be opposed Immanuel Kant's Deontological Ethics.

Other examples of utilitarian arguments:

Utilitarian justification or not?

Kantian Ethics

Immanuel Kant believed that it is not possible to judge the moral goodness of an act by its consequences. Someone may do something with good consequences, but her motivations may be completely bad and self-serving. Furthermore, an individual can have the very best intentions, and the consequences may not come out the way she intended at all. It therefore makes no sense to praise or blame someone for something (consequences) she could not completely control. On the other hand, what she intends is completely within her control. Hence, moral praise or blame cannot be placed on the actual consequences of actions, but on what the person intended.

Kant's Categorical Imperative: Kant valued the individual's intentions. But it is more difficult to judge an individual's intentions if they are not free to act on them. From this, he thought it followed that trying to control another rational individual was wrong.

A "Kantian stricture... [is] ...a restriction on morally permissible courses of action, proposed by Kant. In this case, the restriction is that one must never treat a person as a morally insignificant object, a tool. Human beings should always be treated as if their own needs and goals count, too (C. Roberson, 10:01pm Jun 15, 1999).

There will be no Thomas Aquinas on this website!* For those who insist, go here: Philosophy of providence.

Cordelia and Plato: The Allegory of the Cave

By Karlman

Cordelia Returns From the Light of Day Into the Shadows

Although Cordelia is the most superficial character on the show, as is intended, her experience draws one of the show's most interesting parallels. Cordelia's journies with Buffy and her recent problems upon her falling out with the group mirror the adventure of the Philosopher in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, a concept Plato used to explain how man percieves the truth and why you really can't go home again.

For Those of You Who Aren't Familiar, the Abridged Version

Picture a cave filled with prisoners chained together and facing the back wall. Their chains are such that it is extremely difficult to turn their heads. The only things these prisoners can see before them are their own shadows. Therefore, to them these shadows are reality. They would probably name them and consider them to be what is real without giving thought to their bodies casting the image of the shadow or the sunlight giving the shadow life (it helps to also understand Plato's three elements: the Creative Force, the World of Ideas, and the Recepticle). Now imagine one of these prisoners turning his head and seeing the sun for the first time. First, he would have difficulty turning his head because of the chains, and secondly the sunlight would practically blind him.

Now imagine that his chains are released and he is free to venture out into the daylight and see the outside world. All the things he sees would be nearly impossible for him to comprehend because all he has known as reality so far has been the shadows in the cave. But the outside, without a doubt, is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. Now, when he returns to the cave, he'll have trouble percieving the shadows the way he did before having seen reality on the outside. When he describes his experience to others, he'll be ridiculed and mocked by his fellow prisoners, because they have never seen the outside world for themselves, and in their minds such a thing not only cannot exist, but is incomprehensible. The cave and the shadows represent our physical world, the prisoners represent us, the chains represent both human and social restraints, the outside represents truth, and the man who escapes represents the philosopher.

How it relates to Cordelia

Believe it or not, Cordelia takes on the role of the philosopher. For a long time we see Cordelia as this stagnant snob, never growing, changing, or seeing anything around her. Her entire world is cut and dry. And why not? She's the most popular girl in school and has no aspirations to be anything else, so she's happy. Then comes her involvement with the Slayer. Aside from the obvious shock of discovering that vampires exist, Cordelia is thrust out of her cave and comes face to face with something she's never been forced to confront before: Not truth, but humanity. Humanity at both its highest and lowest points. She witnesses Buffy, who was so much like her, coming of age. She sees Angel's inner battles and his and Buffy's struggle for true love despite all odds. She sees killing. Killing for a greater good? Maybe. Then she learns to kill. Vampires, not humans. Does that make a difference? Maybe. She witnesses the human spirit in its most strained and desperate hours. Cordelia Chase, the self-manufactured one-dimensional prom queen, has seen, through all this destruction, what it means to be human. In the end, she abandons the slaying life and tries to return to the life she once led. It turns out to be not so easy, because as she tries to return, she is only greeted with mocks and scorns from the people who were once her friends, and finds her new life to be somewhat empty. Her only way of trying to get any of that back is to try to emotionally distance herself from the people who dragged her through that awful mess, but things for Cordelia just aren't the same. You really can't go home again.

Cordelia in the light: L.A.

"All is goats." -- Joss Whedon, Bronze Posting Board 08/23/98

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This page last modified 5/09/04

* I have nothing against ol' Tom. No, really. This is a paraphrase of the line from Beer Bad, "There will be no Thomas Aquinas at this table". And it gets me out of having to explain complicated medieval philosophy.

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