On Vampires and Virtue: Getting Ethical with Aristotle and Buffy

Photo by Ian Roseboro

Everyone believes they are a good person, or at the very least, everyone wants to believe they are a good person, and Buffy is no exception. Buffy strives for moral goodness and many of the conflicts at the heart of Buffy the Vampire Slayer concern ethical dilemmas and the choices that must be made in order to preserve one’s ethical integrity. In this moral landscape, Buffy embodies the Aristotelian moral agent in pursuit of a virtuous life.

Aristotle’s ethical framework is called “virtue ethics.” Virtue ethics is a system whereby moral actions are pursued with the overall intention of creating a virtuous character. Virtue is both a prime expression of one’s humanity and also the primary prerequisite in pursuit of a happy life. Keep in mind, however, that the Greek word Aristotle uses that is normally translated as happiness is eudaimonia. Happiness is a poor translation choice, since English speakers typically use the word happy to denote a psychological state, often a temporary one, which is not at all what Aristotle has in mind. Eudaimonia alludes to a kind of fulfillment that is possible by an entire life well-lived. Flourishing is perhaps a better choice than happiness, but even it falls short. Eudaimonia is flourishing of a very particular kind which has to do with authenticity. To flourish in the fullest sense is to inhabit one’s own particular life and to do so in an authentic way. Virtue ethics does not posit moral rules that must be followed, but rather a set of virtues that it is worthwhile to pursue. Virtue will look different in each human life. It’s akin to walking a tightrope. Constant adjustments are required based on a sense of one’s location in space. No two versions will look quite the same and no single version is static. Further, if the tightrope walker leans too far in either direction, she will no longer maintain her balance. This middle state is where Aristotle believes virtue is found. Virtues, therefore, are considered a mean between two extremes, the extremes representing vice.¹

Buffy is a virtuous agent in the making. She is courageous without being reckless; she is loyal but is prepared to sacrifice personal attachment in order to preserve the well-being of the larger community of which she is a part. She is truthful, but not tactless. A Buffy/Aristotelian virtue table might look something like this:

Although one cannot pursue moral goodness directly, the virtues can be practiced immediately, and it is precisely by practicing them that one eventually internalizes them. By internalizing virtues over time, a virtuous character is slowly developed. Aristotle does not think people are born virtuous, nor does he think they are born inclined toward evil. Children are bundles of potentiality and it takes work, and some degree of luck, in order to realize this latent potentiality. It is possible that someone might die prematurely, thus depriving them of the possibility of maturation. Aristotle does not believe children can be happy in the eudaimonic sense, precisely because they have not had the necessary time and experience required to learn and practice the virtues that are a prerequisite for a flourishing life.²

Aristotle’s ethical system is devised for the person of action, not the contemplative. It is a type of “practical wisdom” (phronesis). Life provides the stage upon which the virtuous actor might play her part, until the lines become her own and she is no longer playing any role other than herself. Since the world that Buffy and her friends inhabit is a distinctly dualist world, vampire and slayer, demon and human, good and evil, the audience is given a pretty clear yardstick by which to measure our titular character’s actions. Sure, she might slip up at times, she might straddle right up to the edge, she might even cross it a teensy-tiny bit, but Buffy is morally honest with herself and she generally has a clear vision of right vs. wrong action. She is not morally confused and not prone to self-deception.

Dualistic ethical worlds are dangerous places, however, and not ones in which morality generally flourishes. Early in the show, Giles informs Buffy that there is a prohibition against killing humans, no matter how awful their crimes, and this includes werewolves since they are partly human. But how is it that Buffy can be so certain that all vampires deserve to be indiscriminately disposed of? Why does she take this for granted without bothering to question it, after all, she certainly questions most of the other moral decisions taken in her life? The answer posited in the show is that, unlike vampires, humans possess a soul. In the essentially secular world of Sunnydale, soul seems to be shorthand for “moral possibility.” The Buffyverse soul is the quintessential Aristotelian acorn seed from which the mighty oak of virtue might one day blossom. The prohibition against killing humans, even murderous ones, stems from the idea that a human can be redeemed; a bad man can be made good, whereas a vampire cannot.

This presents a problem, however, because vampires in the show do seem to grow and change, sometimes for the better. Spike, for instance, is a vampire who time and again performs distinctly noble, even morally praiseworthy actions. He puts his life on the line to save Buffy and her friends. Granted, he also does terrible things, which makes him no different from many of the humans inhabiting Sunnydale. Spike shows that vampires are capable of falling in love, remaining loyal, valuing friendships, all the classic human virtues. Spike seems to embody the Aristotelian moral principle that we are not born virtuous, but rather become so with practice. Aristotle presents a “fake it till you make it” program of moral development. Virtue is hard won and is a product of actions performed again and again over time.

The Aristotelian ethical system is vastly more subtle than moral dualism. Using the Aristotelian model of virtue, Spike looks very much like a virtuous person in the making. If Spike possesses the raw material of virtue just the same as any other human, what is it exactly that a soul would add to this model? Certainly not immortality, because vampires already have that. Well then, the capacity to love? No, vampires fall in love often in the Buffyverse. Indeed, vampires seem to experience the full gamut of human emotions. No zombies trudging through life, eating whatever human flesh is in front of them, are they. Indeed, they appear “human all too human.” Vampires are more like the Greek gods of old, human, only more so.

Perhaps Spike is an anomaly, an exception to the rule that vampires are unredeemable? There is an event in Season 4 that possibly explains Spike’s behavior, namely a chip is planted in his head that makes it impossible for him to hurt humans without feeling excruciating pain himself. Spike is an altered vampire, then. Perhaps he is, but if so, isn’t the obvious answer to simply “chip” all the vampires instead of killing them? Buffy is already going through the trouble of seeking them out in order to stake them. Instead of driving a stake through their hearts and turning them into dust clouds, why not put a little chip on the tip of that stake a place it wherever it needs to go in the vampire’s body? After all, we see nothing objectionable about giving humans medication to assist their brain functioning and improve the quality of their lives. We certainly don’t think these kinds of medications make anyone less human. Why not do the same for vampires? To kill a being who possesses higher order thought, language, a rich emotional life, not to mention a body that looks more or less human, even in “vamp face,” surely must count as a moral transgression, perhaps even a great one.

Does this mean that Buffy is a murderer, a serial killer even, dressed up as a high school student? No, certainly not. There’s another, far likelier, way to read the text. The arc of the entire Buffy narrative is the tale of a teenage girl becoming a woman. It’s a classic coming of age story, but this one has a distinctive Aristotelian flavor. The most important rite of passage that occurs in one’s development is the birth of moral agency. Virtue ethics places this birthing at the heart of one’s humanity, making it possible to live a good life, a happy life, a eudaimonic life. Further, the successful completion of this rite of passage can only mean one thing: the girl must die so that something else can be born. From the first episode, the show makes clear that Buffy is destined to die, and this death is foreshadowed in every conceivable way. Buffy, in fact, does die at the end of the first season and then again at the end of the fifth season. Either of those endings would have been a narratively satisfying ending to the show (and in both cases the writers thought the show might end, should the network fail to renew). However, the actual ending of the show occurs at the completion of Season 7 when, once again, death visits our titular character, though this time with a twist. Buffy willingly sacrifices the girl she was, the Slayer, in order that she, the woman, might live.

Buffy’s Aristotelian coming of age story is psychologically violent in ways that Aristotle could not have foreseen. Aristotle’s ethical writings were directed toward the privileged of his society. These privileged elite were men. They were rich, powerful, and considered themselves divinely ordained to govern Athens. Aristotle could hardly have imagined that it was even possible for a woman, a girl, no less, from the non-Athenian backwaters of the world to become a full-fledged moral agent, hot on the heels of the eudaimonic life. Simone de Beauvoir observes that those cast as the Other in society will always need to fight to complete rites of passage that are taken for granted by the standard bearers of that society.³ Rites of initiation easily become a death march for the unwanted. Be that as it may, 2000 years later, Aristotle, meet Buffy.

Buffy’s story articulates the creation of authentic personhood and the requisite formation of moral agency that is the essential hallmark of a life well lived. Aristotle advises the young to surround themselves with exemplars of virtue as role-models, but where does that leave those whose moral agency is greeted with hostility or ignored altogether? It’s this constant threat of societal and psychological violence that provides the never-ending tide of horror that surfaces in Sunnydale. It’s not vampires that are evil, or demons, or the looming threat of hell, rather what is evil is all that threatens to smother the personhood and moral sensibility of those whom society renders Other. Buffy fights, not vampires, but the suffocating societal norms that rob humans of the opportunity to pursue a life of eudaimonia, the ultimate human birth rite. Yet, into every generation a philosopher is born and she will not be denied her rightful place in the moral universe.

Notes:
[1]: For more on virtue as a mean between extremes, see Nicomachean Ethics, especially Book II.
[2]: Aristotle on the happiness of children, see Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a18
[3]: De Beauvoir’s conception of the Other is the main focus of her opus, The Second Sex (1952). Her basic argument is that conceiving of other beings as different from oneself is natural, but that the process becomes dangerous when the concept of Otherness is applied to entire groups of people who are seen as intrinsically flawed, inferior, or less human.

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Philosophy Lecturer at Regis University, Contemplator of Pop Culture, Player of the Bass.

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Marni Pickens

Marni Pickens

Philosophy Lecturer at Regis University, Contemplator of Pop Culture, Player of the Bass.

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