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What Breaking Bad Can Teach Us About Personal Ethics

During an interminable layover on a recent trip I downloaded the first episode of the hit-show Breaking Bad to pass the time. The premise – and I’m not giving anything away here – is that Mr. White, a chemistry teacher, receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. He then uses his knowledge of chemistry to make methamphetamines to cover the cost of his treatment and to leave something behind for his family. As if that first episode was a hit of meth – I was hooked. If you’ve seen the show then you understand how that happened in just one episode: great acting, engaging narrative, good dialogue, visually rich, and compelling characters.

The show raises one question in episode after episode through the trials and tribulations of the characters: How do we choose to use our gifts and talents, our personality and our natural inclinations? The writers weave this primary tension into the show’s basic premise: A man wants to pay for life-saving treatment. A man wants to support his family. A man achieves these goals by creating an illegal substance. That substance destroys other lives and other families. In any given episode, I find myself cheering for Mr. White when he gets away with his meth production. And, in the very same episode, I find myself horrified at the culture of violence, crime, addiction, and neglect that results from the sale and use of the meth.

Thankfully, most of us will not face such extreme circumstances. Nevertheless, each of us need to decide how we will use our innate talents, how we will fulfill our potential, how we will develop ourselves.

When Aristotle contemplates right action in his Nichomachean Ethics and his Eudemian Ethics, he works through the various motivations for human actions, for the decisions we make. Pleasure and utility, clearly, drive much of our behavior. We need to eat, so we do things to get food. We enjoy laughter, so we listen to jokes. But Aristotle argues that this type of behavior, while necessary, is not sufficient to living a fully meaningful life. Instead, Aristotle argues that we ought to perform actions for the sake of eudaimonia. Often translated as “happiness”, that English word does not fully capture the essence of eudaimonia. Instead, Oxford professor Daniel N. Robinson suggests translating it as “a flourishing life”.

A flourishing life rises above a life lived for utility and pleasure. Of course, utility does matter. In Jewish terms, our first obligation is to put food on our tables. As the ancient rabbis taught in the Talmud, “Without flour there is no Torah.” But those same rabbis also taught that Torah preceded the rest of Creation, that seeking to live for a higher purpose, to live as partners with God, would lead people to fulfillment on a human and personal level. In other words, to flourish.

Outside of the religious realm, we see the need to fulfill potential most clearing in children. Good educators today spurn the idea that every child should excel in all areas. Instead, good educators work with parents to help children reach their potential in the full range of academics, arts, and socialization. Children then grow up more well-rounded, better adjusted, and, most importantly, more fully themselves. Adults can take a page from the educators’ book – and Aristotle’s. While we need to specialize to fulfill our utilitarian obligations and earn a living, we will find greatest satisfaction and fulfillment when we continually develop what Professor Robinson calls “the rich range of potentialities” that lie within us. That is flourishing.

Of course, it is not only about us. We need to develop those “potentialities” in a way that allows others to do the same. Considering the other as we work on ourselves defines us as social creatures. And, when we can help the other develop their potential for their own sake, we can develop the kinds of relationships that give life further meaning and depth.

Mr. White’s decisions in Breaking Bad allow him to fully express his scientific knowledge. They allow him to pay for his treatment. They allow him to support his family. But they also tear at the very fabric of society. This makes for a compelling TV show. It also serves as a call to each of us to maximize our potential in a way that not only benefits us, but fills our own lives with meaning, in a way that improves our communities and our society at large.

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