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Review of 'The Last of Us' 1.9

The Limits of Utilitarianism

By Paul LevinsonPublished 6 days ago 3 min read

The Hollywood Reporter tells us that as of last night's season finale, The Last of Us surpassed House of the Dragon in "full season viewers," and I'm not the least bit surprised. House of the Dragon was superb. The Last of Us was something else, something more, and well, the season one finale on HBO Max last night was the best episode in the series.

[And there will be spoilers ahead ... ]

So, first, here's what happened. Turns out that -- at least according to the docs in the hospital that Joel and Ellie finally manage to get to -- only by destroying Ellie's brain can her immunity to the fungi be disseminated to the rest of a ravaged humanity. We never find out if this hypothesis is scientifically right or wrong, because Joel, once he finds out what the master plan is for Ellie, kills the doc about to perform the surgery and everyone else in his way so he can make good his escape with Ellie.

But here, then, is the question: was Joel right to do this? Was he right to go against the fundamental principle of utilitarian philosophy -- of James Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill -- of the greatest good for the the greatest number, which would deprive humanity of its rescue from death, all so one person, just one single person, Ellie, can survive? I tend to be utilitarian in many things, but ...

You know what? I would have done exactly what Joel did, had I the lethal prowess, to save Ellie. Does that mean I'm weak? Did Joel ignore logic and give into his emotions? Well, he did follow his emotions, but that doesn't mean he was weak or even illogical. Maybe there's a higher logic at work here. The logic of going with your deepest emotion, if that emotion is love.

Joel acted on that principle, but he's not a philosopher. He unconsciously refuted the utilitarian principle, and then he compounded that ethically dangerous action by lying. Parents often lie to their kids -- the younger the kids are, the more often they're not told the truth, presumably for their own good. I said Joel was right to save Ellie. The docs could have been wrong. Even if not, he was right to save her. But was he right to lie to Ellie at the end of the episode when she asked him if he had told her the entire story of what had happened back at the hospital? Here I'd say, probably not. I'm pretty sure I think he owed Ellie the truth.

On the other side of both of these issues, we have Marlene. She kills Ellie's mother Anna, her friend, after she'd given birth to Ellie, after Anna had been bitten, on Anna's instruction. She saved baby Ellie's life. Marlene is able to think clearly, rise above her emotions, and make tough decisions. The decision to kill Ellie, the baby she saved, years later, was an even tougher decision. She went with her head, not her heart. John Stuart Mill would have approved. It's tough to hate or even dislike her, because she was really trying to do the right thing. Unlike Joel, she told the truth. But Joel had to kill her -- fittingly, the last person he killed -- to escape with Ellie. I think he made the right decision here, too.

Being right at least out of two three times in these hellish circumstances ain't bad. And The Last of Us was 100% right to give us such an ethically wrenching season finale. I'll certainly be back here with more reviews when the series resumes.

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I talk about The Last of Us, beginning at 40mins 40secs

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About the Creator

Paul Levinson

Novels include The Silk Code & The Plot To Save Socrates; LPs Twice Upon A Rhyme & Welcome Up; nonfiction includes The Soft Edge & Digital McLuhan, translated into 15 languages. Details here. My Twitter. Prof, Fordham Univ.

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