Strangeling Morality

The Alfred Hitchcock movie Rope tells the story of two college classmates who murder their “inferior” classmate, inviting their friends over for a party to see if they can successfully hide their crime and demonstrate their own superiority. It’s a strange suspense movie (set entirely in one room) that keeps you on edge the whole time. The film is also a good reminder that “ideas have consequences.” In this scene, the party guests discuss whether or not the murder of “inferiors” is appropriate. Unbeknownst to them, the guest of honor is lying murdered in a chest in the very same room.

Questioning Morality
The tone at the beginning of the clip is one of sardonic humor as the guests joke about the best way to murder annoying and difficult people. The idea of murdering people that get on our nerves is so disgusting that we can hardly take it seriously. However, as the scene develops, it becomes obvious that both Rupert and Brandon are expressing their true worldview. Their worldview consists of the notion that some people are, in fact, superior to others—be it because of mental capacity, looks, or other factors.

According to Brandon, morality is for other people. It was invented for the inferior to help them keep order. However, there are some people who are so superior that they are beyond good and evil. Accordingly, they have certain privileges not afforded to others, in this case, murder.

But who determines who is superior and who inferior? According to Brandon, the superior humans “are those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they are above the traditional moral concepts.” C. S. Lewis, however, warned us about where this line of reasoning would lead in his book, The Abolition of Man (you can also read his fictional account of the same idea in That Hideous Strength).

Stepping Into the Void
Lewis describes what is likely to happen when people step outside of or claim to be above traditional morality. They become “conditioners.” The conditioners are not unlike those men of “such intellectual and cultural superiority” that Brandon describes. According to Lewis, these men “have stepped into the void.”1 In other words, they are no longer subject to traditional moral rules. They get to decide what good is for everyone else, but they themselves are not subject to it.2

Of course, most people who hold this kind of worldview aren’t murderers. Lewis raises this very objection against himself. Why couldn’t the people in charge be good? According to Lewis, it’s not necessarily that the conditioners will be bad men. They will not be men at all. They have “sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean.”3

Brandon feels that Hitler was a savage and brainless murderer, but what grounds does he have for saying such a thing? A few moments ago he did away with the idea of morality and said that he was above it. Who is to say that Hitler was right or wrong in this worldview? Hitler also thought that he was above morality and knew what was best for the human race.

But Brandon’s last step is even more unsettling. He would hang those who are stupid and incompetent. Hitler exterminated the disabled, elderly, and those considered unuseful to society. What then is the difference? There is clearly no moral that rules Brandon’s thought. No good or evil. What he does to his “inferior” classmate is governed only by his impulses and desires. As Lewis states, “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”4

In murdering his “inferior” classmate, Brandon and his roommate have simply followed their worldview to its logical conclusion. In the end, Rupert (who taught them this worldview), is appalled at their actions. On paper, the worldview may have sounded good; but when carried to its logical conclusions, the consequences are bizarre and evil. Ideas are not just harmless academic subjects to be argued. They have very real consequences in a very real world.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.