Lost as a morality tale

There has been a bit of talk over the years of the philosophy of Lost, what does it all mean. A lot has been made of black and white, good and bad, fate and free will. My big problem with these being the major themes in Lost is that they often forget the grey. Life isn’t back or white, good or bad — it is everything in between and the characters on Lost very much fall into this area — they are all very grey. Fate vs Free Will has me uncomfortable for another reason — how can we know? If either are at work, then they are at work for all of us equally. No one can act with free will and another with fate. It is or it isn’t. So for that concept to be one where we judge the actions of the characters, it falls short in that there is no difference for anyone, the only difference is in how we view our lives, and then act accordingly, yes this is definitely part of the show, but I don’t think it is enough.

I’ve been considering Smokie and Jacob (who at the moment are being set up as very black or white) and how there must be more to this back story and relationship — it is too simple at the moment and Lost is anything but simple. For myself, I flipped it. What if smokie is in fact the one who has been wronged? What if Jacob is someone who has let the power of the island go to his head and has acted against smokie? What does that then mean for the duality of good and bad, black and white? How does that work when someone seems to do good or bad but their intentions and motivations are just the opposite. This isn’t a new thought, but I think it plays a much greater role in the morality of Lost than it has been given credit for — do the ends justify the means?

When considering the characters and their lives, this has been the major force for many.
Kate- murders her father to protect her mother
Sawyer — kills the man who conned his mother
Sayid — tortures many but that life causes him to re-evaluate his values and actions
Ben — claims he has done what he does for the good of the island
Widmore — his actions towards Des result in he and Penny having a better relationship than if Charles hadn’t intervened, was that his intention?
Christian — seemed to believe that being hard on Jack would make him the best surgeon he could be

Interestingly other characters have the opposite experiences — they try to do the right thing over and over again but it ends up badly. A do the means justify the ends

Hurley — tries so hard but bad things happen
Charlie — tried to support and be there for his brother and ends up addicted and broken himself
Locke — again has good intentions with his father, Boone, his girlfriend, walkabout, trusts Ben, and we all know where that got him

One character who doesn’t fit easily is our protagonist Jack. Mentioned by Wesley (I think) is Sawyer’s line about Jack just reacting. He does that time and time again without any real thought for what might happen or just thinking about himself and how it makes him feel “I can fix this” not because anyone else wants it fixed but because Jack thinks it does.

So do the ends justify the means has been a huge concept running through every aspect of the show. It is very ambiguous, has no right or wrong answer, changes with new information or situations and requires the viewer to apply their own concept of morality while judging the characters, making it personal and relevant for all.

How does this apply to the end of the show, I think we will find out that Jacob has wronged smokie, whether he has always been this entity or somehow changed because of Jacob’s actions and that smokie’s actions have then been about getting back to where he should always have been. To correct the wrong. But are his actions justifiable by his intent for the end? Why Jacob acted how he did will also be able to be discussed from this perspective.

Many books are going to be written about Lost and I think that this view of the show as a morality tale will explored in great depth. When considering every aspect, from individual character’s actions, to the big picture war between Jacob and smokie to the bigger concept of the island (when we find out what it is) and how it could or should be used, ‘do the ends justify the means?’ can be used as an overlaying question to focus our thoughts and discussions of everything. A great narrative should engage us, black and white, good and bad, free will and fate are too static. There are or they aren’t. Asking ‘do the ends justify the means?’ makes Lost relevant in a specific way to all of us. It asks us to look at our own moral compass, to question how we would act in those circumstances and to possibly re-evaluate our current stance on issues, showing us that if you take a big enough step back, perspectives change. Lost will end with this question unanswered because it can’t be answered by anyone other than ourselves. It means that we can continue to discuss and debate and engage with each other on some really heavy topics. I don’t know too many other texts which have that power. But most importantly from my perspective, it embraces the grey wholeheartedly.

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4 thoughts on “Lost as a morality tale

  1. Lost deals with humanity. Humans tend to polarize. These paradigms exist for a reason. I understand where your Machiavellian viewpoint (to perpetuate a mostly untrue encapsulation of Machiavelli) comes from; I just don’t think it’s a major theme for the show. So far we’ve been exposed to themes that deal on the whole with free will vs. determinism, “good” vs. evil and the cyclical nature of time. Yes, the themes mostly tend to lean towards what you call “static” viewpoints, but there they are. In my opinion, the only times we’ve seen your ends/means theme (Jack/Faraday and the bomb, Juliet and her experiments, Sayid shooting Ben, Michael’s attempts to save Walt, etc.) have been idiosyncrasies of individual characters, not overarching motifs. I do see where you are coming from and it’s nice to see a view of the writers’ intent that’s further from general consensus but I don’t think your examples lend any more credence to the notion than any other individual character’s actions. All have goals; some selfish and some noble. Ultimately, I think these actions represent the ultimate fact that everyone must make choices, and the choices make up the fabric of time, whether or not they may be “justified” or not.

  2. You’ve got me really confused. At one point you say the ends justifying the means is not an overarching theme, then finish by saying it’s about choices the characters make, whether they are justified or not is my point, it is for us the viewers to decide that for ourselves.

    Of the themes you mention, free will vs determinism is really the only one explictily explored in the show of Lost and it has been shown in the light of – it is what it is. What is there to discuss and engage the viewers in an interpretation? The show has not used good vs evil – none of the characters are either. Even when Locke talks about the game with Walt he uses the terms light and dark, not black and white, it’s about grey. The cyclical nature of time has been bought up by the theorists wanting a time loop and to see different iterations of this story but as yet this hasn’t played a major part in the show.
    The biggest statement I have an issue with is that humans polarise. I personally have never met anyone completely good or evil. These paradigms describe the extremes of humanity not the norm. Humanity falls in between these two extremes. Lost is a character based show and the intentions, decisions, choices and motivations of the characters is what makes the overarching themes come together. For there to be an underlying commonality running through the characters as strong as do the ends justify the means, thats a major theme. That’s how the writers are tying it all together – it’s the sum of all the individual actions that come together in a consistent, coherent theme.

  3. I think you guys are probably correct about the greyness of the people on the island. The reason they are grey is they are wobbling between black and white–have any of the characters made a stand for their own morality–chosen black or white? Smoky certainly sees all of the greys–maybe once they make their stands is when they will each be judged? Maybe Echo and Locke both had firm mindsets and were judged accordingly–everyone else is still in play…

  4. I just don’t know that anyone can even choose to be one or the other. I try to be a good person, I don’t always succeed. Even someone who the world has labelled as evil, Hitler, did he think he was evil, how did he view what he was doing? In his own head it seems he was doing what he thought was right for the world, not going to find too many people who’d agree with him but I don’t know that he decided to be evil. It is our intentions and actions that make us who we are, and everyone views everyone else differently depending on context and perspective and knowledge.

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