Have you ever wanted to kill someone? Fantasized about it? Dexter Morgan, played by Michael C. Hall on James Manos’ hit TV series Dexter, has not only felt that urge, but has followed through on it many, many times. Dexter Morgan is a mild-mannered blood spatter analyst at Miami Metro’s Homicide Division during regular business hours, but in his off hours, he is a manipulative serial killer of serial killers. The TV show Dexter was based on a book series of the same name by Jeff Lindsay written in 2004, with its final installment released in July, 2015. In 2009, an online comic series Dexter’s Early Cuts was created by Lauren Gussis and Tim Schlattmann. Later, in 2013, Jeff Lindsay published a comic series also based on the lovable killer Dexter, entitled Dexter. The TV series ran from 2006 to 2013 and won 42 awards, while being nominated for another 176, making it by far one of Showtime’s most popular shows (Dexter (2006–2013) Awards).
The show stirred up debate because of its seemly ambiguous morals. The Parents Television Council believed that Dexter was too violent for television and wanted it off of public programming (Parents Group Calls for ''Dexter” Boycott). Others disagreed, raving that “America, it seems, has a new hero: Dexter Morgan, the lovable vigilante serial killer” (Donnelly, The New American Hero: Dexter, Serial Killer for the Masses). Of course, mixed reviews surrounding violent television shows are common, but the reason that Dexter specifically received so much attention is because of the title character himself. In this essay, I will argue that Dexter Morgan is, in fact, a morally sound man and relate him to the ethical theories of relativism and utilitarianism. In order to narrow the argument, I will only evaluate the Dexter which appeared in the Showtime series, and disregard the related books and comics.
Dexter, Not a Psychopath
Before I can get into the complexities regarding Dexter’s morality, I must first prove that Dexter is capable of such an evaluation. One of the biggest voices regarding psychopaths and morality, R.J.R. Blair “has suggested that a mechanism for the control of aggression is a prerequisite for the development of morality. Specifically, he has suggested that this mechanism mediates the moral/conventional distinction for transgressions. Blair has suggested that psychopaths may lack this prerequisite, predicting that these subjects should fail to make the moral/conventional distinction for transgressions” (Blair, "Is the Psychopath ‘morally insane’?"). At first glance, one might believe that Dexter was a psychopath. The argument of whether or not a psychopath is mentally sound enough to be held accountable for their morality is another argument altogether. Therefore, in this essay I will first prove that Dexter is not a full-blown psychopath so I can avoid that argument altogether.
As mentioned earlier, Blair has done a lot of research in the field of psychopaths and their relationship to morality. One of his biggest points is, “A causal model is developed showing how the lack of this mechanism would explain the core behavioral symptoms associated with the psychopathic disorder. A prediction of such a causal model would be that psychopaths should fail to make the moral/conventional distinction” (Blair, “A Cognitive Developmental Approach to Morality: Investigating the Psychopath”). The point that Blair is making here is that psychopaths are incapable of making moral distinctions. Throughout the entire series, Dexter questions his own morality and comes to the conclusion that he is a necessary monster. “What makes Dexter so compelling is his self-awareness; he knows that it’s not acceptable to enjoy killing, even in the form of “taking out the trash” (Green, "Dexter Morgan's Monstrous Origins"). The fact that he is able to not only evaluate himself morally, but also see the rest of the world in regards to himself is a sign that he is capable of making moral distinctions.
The biggest point I can make regarding Dexter’s mental state is that psychopathy exists on a sliding scale much, like other mental disorders such as autism. Dexter does have several psychopathic tendencies, such as hiding his dark nature, having trouble relating to other people, and having trouble describing emotions, but he is not a full-blown psychopath. Dexter loves his family, risks his live to protect them, and feels genuine emotions, all of which are beyond a psychopath’s capabilities (Blair, "Is the Psychopath ‘morally insane’?").
Dexter and Utilitarianism
John Mill was a philosopher that thought utilitarianism was the route to a moral world. Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that worries about the masses. This theory is basically a math equation for happiness, in that the action that creates the most happiness for the most people is the moral way to go about things (Fiala, Andrew, and MacKinnion, Barbara 91). To put things simply, Dexter is good for the masses. Dexter follows the Code of Harry, which ensures that all of his killings are helpful for society. The Code of Harry requires that Dexter never kill an innocent and that he have factual evidence and be sure without a doubt that the person is in fact guilty, and will kill again. The code also stipulates that the police have been unable to catch or convict the killer. Since he only kills people who will kill again, Dexter saves the lives of all the people who would have been butchered by the many serial killers that he hunts down. A good example of this can be seen with his friend Manuel Prado, from season three. Prado was an Assistant District Attorney with a strong sense of justice that ran as a nice parallel to Dexter’s. As their friendship progressed, Dexter eventually shared his dark secret with Prado, resulting in Dexter trying to teach Manuel the code of Harry. Unfortunately, Manuel bent the rules of the code to fit his own agenda and murdered Ellen Wolf, a criminal defense attorney, who according to the code of Harry was an innocent. Due to Manuel’s knowledge of Dexter’s secret, as well as his manipulative tendencies and loose interpretation of the code, Dexter had to put him down in order to save the lives of the others that Manuel would wrongly, and inevitably, put to death. Another good example of this can be seen in the story arc of Lumen Pierce from season five. Lumen was kidnapped and raped by a group of a group of men led by Jordan Chase, a man responsible for the murders of over a dozen women. Dexter went out of his way to keep Lumen from killing any innocent men, while also helping her find and kill the men who tormented her so that she could carry on her life. In doing this, Dexter not only saves multiple people, but also preventatively saves any future women who would have been kidnapped, raped, tortured, and eventually killed by the group of demented men.
Dexter also won’t kill if he believes there is a better option. Two good examples of this can be seen in the two troubled youths he tried to teach the code of Harry to. The first child was 19-year-old Jeremy Downs from season one. Jeremy, once accused of murdering the man who raped him and later accused of male prostitution, struggled with depression. Dexter repeatedly tried to reach out to the boy, hoping to set him on a better path. Unfortunately, Jeremy committed suicide. The second example was Zach Hamilton, age 26, from season eight. Zach had a strong obsession with blood, much like Dexter. Throughout Zach’s story arc, he was desperately crying out for Dexter’s help and the guidance that the Code of Harry could provide. Unfortunately, due to events outside of Dexter’s control, he was not able to be there for Zach when he needed him. If Dexter could have succeeded in helping Zach to reach his full potential, then Zach could have carried on Dexter’s legacy as vigilante hero. A third example would be Dexter’s friend Manuel Prado, who as I previously stated, was beyond help and needed to be put down.
While the numbers of his beneficial killings is more than enough to define Dexter as moral by Utilitarian ethics, there is more in Dexter’s favor. Public opinion of Dexter within the local community was very high. While very few knew of Dexter’s night activities, what was known was well received in season two. “When the community finally discovers that a serial killer is killing only murderers, it dubs him ‘the Dark Defender’ and creates a comic book series and action figure after him. Interestingly, Dexter never kills without first taking meticulous steps to ensure his target's guilt. The criminals look normal, as though they were one of us (Margulies, "Deviance, Risk, and Law: Reflections on the Demand for the Preventive Detention of Suspected Terrorists"). The reason for this support was that the homicide solve rate in the show’s Miami was a mere nineteen percent.
Another way of looking at Dexter’s morality is to use the Trolley Problem. In the Trolley Problem, a person has the option to save five people from a runaway trolley by turning the trolley on to another path, which would result in the death of only one, or to let the five die so that one could be saved. The logical course of action runs parallel to Dexter’s line of reasoning. Just as most would let the one die to save the five, Dexter would eliminate any number of killers to save the greater majority. In doing so, he is acting in accordance with the most rational outcome of the Trolley Problem and, again, is well within the moral tenets of utilitarianism.
Incidentally, all of these examples also fit for the ethical theory of consequentialism, in which Dexter would also be considered ethically moral. Consequentialism simply bases morality on the consequences of an action. Since there are more living innocent people due to Dexter’s actions, he is a moral character.
Dexter and Relativism
There are multiple variations of Relativism, but for the sake of simplicity, I will choose the most relevant. Cultural Relativism is an ethical theory that believes that values vary from society to society, so you cannot hold any set values as a standard for all societies (Fiala, Andrew, and MacKinnion, Barbara 46). At the heart of this, as with all variations of relativism, is the idea that the individual and society are different, so one set of moral rules cannot fit every culture. This is not to say that there are no morals, only that the morals that need to be followed are dependent on the person, circumstances, and culture. In the show, the culture of Miami was heavily influenced by Cuban culture and was a hotbed for murder. The homicide solve rate was 19 percent, dipping to 16 percent at its lowest. Killing was very widespread, with evidence of this being seen in two of forensic analyst Vince Masuka’s interns Rayn Chambers and Louise Greenie, both of whom were average college students fascinated by serial killers. Needless to say the culture of the area was very violent. “But this facile distinction between “legitimate” and “criminal” violence is complicated by a number of crucial factors central to the show’s structure. First, Dexter only kills other serial killers who have successfully evaded the law. In other words, the people that Dexter kills have done horrible things to innocent people and “should” be subject to the State’s control; Dexter goes to great lengths to meet this standard of proof for himself, and by extension, for viewers. The potential legitimacy of Dexter’s violence is only emphasized by the fact that he learned many of his skills from his retired police chief father, Detective Harry Morgan” (Arellano, The Heroic Monster: Dexter, Masculinity, And Violence). As Lisa Arello says, Dexter embodies the violence of his culture in a productive and legitimate way.
Since killing was so common, the thought of a person only killing violent criminals was a well-received idea. When his body-hiding spot was discovered and the details of his crimes come to light, Dexter receives the nickname the Dark Defender in season two and gains widespread public support. As stated earlier, the general public thought Dexter was heroic. Not only did the public believe this to be true, but viewers at home did as well. “Bryan: You can’t be a killer and a hero. IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. ("Born Free") Of course Brian is wrong... it does work that way for Dexter; he is both killer and hero (Arellano, "The Heroic Monster: Dexter, Masculinity, And Violence"). Therefore, due to the relative circumstances of Dexter, he is in fact a moral character.
Dexter in My Eyes
I believe that Dexter is a good-hearted person because he has repeatedly proven that he wants the world to be a better place. During the entire TV series, Dexter always battles with himself as to whether the world would be a better place without him. In fact, he said as much in season six episode twelve: “I guess it’s fitting that I end up where I’ve left so many others. I only wonder if the world is going to be a better place without me.” I believe Dexter wants the world to be a better place. In season seven, Dexter even tries but fails to stop killing. Every wrong that Dexter made throughout the series, he later corrects. Examples include his failure with Manuel Prado, the wrongful killing of Oscar Prado, stalling on killing Arthur Mitchell, Reda’s death, and the emotional trauma Dexter caused to his adopted sister Debra Morgan. At the end of the final season, Dexter decides to step out of his family’s lives not to abandon them, but because he truly believes that they will have a better life without him. I will admit that Dexter has his drawbacks such as his compulsive lying, which can be seen whenever someone gets close to learning his secret. However, he only does so because the first rule of the Code of Harry is to not get caught, or in the case of Debra and his family, to save them from having a broken heart.
In conclusion, Dexter is in fact, a non-psychopathic moral person. Relativists and Utilitarians would both agree that Dexter, because of his fulfillment of their moral requirements, is in fact a morally sound character. He saves the masses and the masses love him for it, or in the concise words of Christiana Gregoriou, “More specifically, contributors revealed a tendency to accept Dexter’s ethical consequentialist behavior, while they also admitted to being conflicted whenever their hero took the life of victims not straightforwardly code-fitting. Mostly though, fans tend to accept Dexter, even when he attacks non-guilty victims himself" (Gregoriou, "'Times Like These, I Wish There Was A Real Dexter’: Unpacking Serial Murder Ideologies And Metaphors From TV’S Dexter Internet Forum").
- Arellano, Lisa. "The Heroic Monster: Dexter, Masculinity, And Violence." Television & New
- Media 16.2 (2015): 131-147. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 13
- Oct. 2015.
- Aristotle. The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nichomachaen Ethics. Trans. J. K. Thomson.
- New York: Viking, 1995. Print.
- Athanassoulis, Nafsika. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer Reviewed
- Academic Resource. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. n.d. Web. 29, Oct. 2015. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/virtue/>.
- Blair, R.J.R. “A Cognitive Developmental Approach to Morality: Investigating the Psychopath”.
- Science Direct. Elsevier B.V. 1995. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
- Blair, R.J.R; Clark, F.; Jones, L.; and Smith, M. “Is the Psychopath ‘Morally Insane’?” 100th
- Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. May 1994. Print.
- “Dexter (2006–2013) Awards”.IMDb.com, Inc. IMDb, 2015. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
- Donnelly, Ashley M. "The New American Hero: Dexter, Serial Killer For The Masses." Journal
- Of Popular Culture 45.1 (2012): 15-26. International Bibliography of Theatre &
- Dance with Full Text. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
- Fiala, Andrew, and MacKinnion, Barbara. Ethics Theory and Contemporary Issues.
- Stanford: Cengage Learning, 2015. Print.
- Green, Stephanie. "Dexter Morgan's Monstrous Origins." Critical Studies In Television 6.1
- (2011): 22-35. Humanities International Complete. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
- Gregoriou, Christiana. "‘Times Like These, I Wish There Was A Real Dexter’: Unpacking Serial
- Murder Ideologies And Metaphors From TV’S Dexter Internet Forum." Language
- & Literature 21.3 (2012): 274. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web.
- 13 Oct. 2015.
- Margulies, Joseph. “Deviance, Risk, and Law: Reflections on the Demand for the Preventive
- Detention of Suspected Terrorists.” The Journal of Criminal Law and
- Criminology. Vol. 101, No. 3. 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
- “Parents Group Calls for ''Dexter'' boycott.” Entertainment Weekly Inc. Entertainment Weekly,
- 2015 Web. 4 Nov. 2015. < http://www.ew.com/article/2008/02/22/parents-group-calls-dexter-boycott>.