What movies of the past year challenged our assumptions and made us think about things in new ways?
Can an action flick like Aquaman be philosophically interesting? I thought not as I left the theatre, although I had been entertained well enough by its gripping battle scenes and stunning scenery of the Australian Gold Coast (even if at nearly two and a half hours it runs a bit long). But then my husband chastised me for not thinking it was one of the most important environmentalist movies made in recent years. I thought he was joking until he convinced me to consider what it means to be an environmentalist movie and why Aquaman might be one.
Aquaman features struggles between creatures of the ocean deep and human denizens of the surface world who use the ocean as a convenient garbage dump. From plastic bags in Manila harbor to toxic plastic golf balls hooked or sliced from coastal California golfing resorts, the ocean clearly contains distressing quantities of human detritus. The problems created are severe and it seems to be difficult to motivate people to do anything about it. That it calls viewers' attention to the mess surely makes an important point about environmental degradation, but does this make Aquaman an environmentalist movie? That is, does it contribute to environmental preservation by actually motivating people to do anything about the sludge?
Answering this question requires theorizing about moral motivation. Core philosophical questions about moral motivation are whether moral beliefs give reasons for action and whether these reasons are motivating.
One family of answers claims that moral beliefs motivate by themselves—that they do not require desires to be motivating. Beliefs just are motivating reasons, and failures of motivation are failures in the moral beliefs themselves. If you aren't motivated to pick up your trash, for example, how can you really believe that it's wrong to throw your trash onto the beach? You might think you believe that it’s wrong, but you don’t really believe this if you aren’t motivated at all.
Seeing Aquaman might help here, if viewing the problems caused by the trashy surface dwellers helps evoke the belief that throwing trash in the ocean is morally wrong. It would help even more if the belief it evokes is a special kind of belief, a moral belief that just is motivating. It seems far more likely, though, that people will get caught up in the film's grand battles as personal struggles to reappear in a sequel rather than as clashes in how we treat the environment. If so, the movie doesn’t seem likely to encourage any changes in beliefs as motivating reasons for action.
Relatedly, some hold that moral beliefs cause the desire to do what is moral. On this view, beliefs give rise to motivating desires; they are sufficient for the desires although they might not be necessary for them. For example, one might have the relevant desires without having the moral belief; the desires might stem from the hope of winning approval or of succeeding in a competition such as a “save the air” challenge sponsored by some businesses.
This view about causal sufficiency must counter challenges about apparent disconnections between what people say they believe and what they apparently desire to do. It must also respond to the concern that some people who claim to hold environmentalist beliefs do have desires to act protectively but others apparently do not have such desires at all. People may claim to hold environmentalist beliefs yet apparently have no desires to act in ways that would protect the environment. They drive SUVs with poor gas mileage, fly all over the globe without considering the carbon footprint of air travel, or ignore convenient recycling bins.
To be sure, the explanation might be weakness of will: people who believe they ought to act to protect the environment might have the desire to do so, but find these desires overwhelmed by temptation. Or, it might be procrastination: they desire to do what is right, but they just can’t bring themselves to start doing so today and convince themselves that they’ll get their act together tomorrow. Aquaman doesn't appear to help these challenges, either, unless it somehow forges connections between environmentalist beliefs and desires to act on them.
Still another family of answers to the problem of the connection between moral belief and motivation contends that the connection between the two is purely contingent. If the connection is contingent, you might believe that something is morally right without having any inclination whatsoever to think that you ought to do it. This seems to be true about many supposed environmentalists: those who are oblivious to their carbon footprints or who just don't get into the habit of recycling.
If the connection between moral beliefs and motivation is contingent, factors other than the moral belief in question must come into play to explain the gap between the belief and motivation to act on it. Other beliefs may play roles here. For example, people sometimes explain their apparent indifference to the environmental effects of what they do by saying that their actions don't matter in the larger context. Instead, they say, if they thought they could make a difference, then they would stop taking polluting airplanes or driving vehicles with low gas mileage. Incentives might change, too—if people are rewarded for recycling, or fined for throwing trash out car windows, maybe they’ll be motivated to change, and make the changes sooner rather than later.
Can seeing Aquaman help motivate the powerless or the procrastinator? Maybe a few movie-goers will think twice about buying their water in plastic bottles. But Aquaman might actually make things worse, if it encourages people to think that the solution to environmental disasters is a superhero. Perhaps my husband was wrong and it's better not to think about Aquaman as an environmentalist movie at all and just enjoy its special effects. Or maybe listen again to the Philosophy Talk episode "One Child Too Many," where a mother suggests that her decision to have six children might not be bad for the environment because she's raising her children to be environmental stewards rather than creators of waste.