Parasite and Moral Luck
Parasite is a profound, sometimes shocking, meditation on class, capitalism, and family. It is also a beautifully rendered portrait of the tragedy of bad moral luck.
Moral luck is a philosophical concept that acknowledges the incongruity between several deep-rooted moral intuitions. One intuition is that I can, and should, be morally assessed for the choices I make. This means that there are certain factors under my control and that I am responsible for the handling of these factors. I chose an action and could reasonably have chosen a different action. I had legitimate and reasonable choices open to me. I have made a choice and it is this choice that is weighed to determine whether it should be morally praised or blamed. This leads to a second, equally strong, moral intuition, namely, that I should not be held accountable for those factors and events that are beyond my control; I am not to be blamed for actions I did not choose. Many accidents, for instance, might be harmful and even “bad,” but they are not morally blameworthy. Moral praise and blame are assigned only when I perform an action and it is thought I had reasonable opportunity to perform a different action, or even refrain from acting altogether.
These two moral intuitions seem straightforward enough: assign moral praise or blame for actions chosen and refrain from assigning such praise or blame for factors not under a person’s control. It is here we encounter an incongruity, however, for despite these two seemingly uncontentious principles, it seems that we often do assign praise or blame for factors and decisions that are ultimately beyond a person’s direct control. Good or bad luck often impacts our moral assessments. For instance, a murderer is seen as “worse” than an attempted murderer even if the culprit’s actions and intentions are precisely the same.
A classic example of the difference between good and bad moral luck is given by Thomas Nagel in his essay, Moral Luck (1). Truck driver #1 is driving home from work and as he is going down a hill, he realizes that his brakes don’t work. Fortunately, the driver can safely bring his truck to a stop once he reaches level ground. Driver #2 finds himself in the exact same scenario only, to his horror, a small child runs in front of his truck before he can bring the vehicle to a stop. The actions performed by these two drivers are identical, however Driver #2 accrues moral responsibility and blame for driving a vehicle that killed a child, whereas Driver #1 accrues no such blame. Both drivers made precisely the same choices under the same circumstances. Everything is the same with the single exception of a child running onto the road. Driver #2 was the recipient of very poor moral luck, thus becoming the recipient of moral blame. If both Drivers performed exactly the same actions, shouldn’t our moral judgement also be exactly the same?
So, this is the tension we must navigate: firstly, the awareness that a person should not be morally judged for factors beyond that person’s control and, secondly, the reality that we often do morally judge a person for those very factors.
To be clear, the problem posed by moral luck, is not simply that we view bad outcomes as being worse than good outcomes, in a trivial sense. The problem, rather, is that we judge the moral character of the people involved in these bad outcomes as being morally inferior when compared to the same people involved in good outcomes. Moreover, philosophers who recognize the problems posed by moral luck need not be determinists who are skeptical of the concept of moral responsibility altogether. On the contrary, the libertarian has a greater stake in addressing these contradictions than does the determinist. Moral accountability, after all, is premised on the twin ideas that people make free choices (first idea) and that these choices are made in circumstances over which the moral agent has control (second idea). Certainly, we do not think we should blame people for events beyond their control, yet in practice we do blame people for such events, and we do so much more frequently than supposed.
Very bad moral luck often looks like tragedy to the outside spectator, and in this sense, Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film, Parasite, is indeed, a tragedy. It is the story of a family, or rather, families, who find themselves in circumstances that are largely given to them rather than created by them. Within this setting, they all make moral choices. Some of those choices are good, some are questionable, but the outcome of these choices far exceeds the scope of any single individual choice. The families involved are unable to predict or stop the absurd chain of events in which they find themselves tangled. The scale of events escalates so quickly as to give the appearance of being utterly unstoppable. Characters don’t so much choose as react. Well-laid plans simply serve to mock the designers of the plans when they go horribly awry. No single character in Parasite possesses the sort of moral deficiency that would justify a ruined life, yet no one escapes without suffering irreparable loss.
Bong Joon-ho has scripted a parable of families. He intends his audience to identify most fully with the Kim family. They are shrewd, yet intend no harm, witless at times, and are filled with such genuine affection for one another that it is hard not to root for them immediately. They are not particularly good or bad people; they are just a family working hard to pay the rent of their small, dank, half-subterranean, apartment. Morally speaking they are just like their apartment, evenly positioned between light and darkness. They are quick to jump at any opportunity to make money, which is why they find themselves hired, one by one, by the wealthy Park family. The Park family is a doppelganger of sorts for the Kims; two adults, two children, and like the Kims, the Parks are neither morally exceptional nor particularly vile, but instead inhabit that wide morally gray terrain in the middle.
Both families navigate worlds that are determined by their social class. The Kims must be on the constant look-out for work to buy food and pay for rent, while the Parks navigate decisions regarding schools for their children, who they should hire to help around the house, and where they should go on vacation. This is a collision of two worlds: the working class and the upper class. The range of decisions open to each family spring firmly from their social conditions. The Kims need not concern themselves with which American university they will send their children to and the Parks do not need to decide what kind of work will pay their utility bills. When her husband comments that they are “…kind. A rich person who’s also kindhearted.” Mrs. Kim (played to great comedic effect by actor Yeo-jeong Cho) chides him by responding, “She’s kindhearted because she’s rich. You get it? If I had all of this, my heart would be overflowing with kindness, too.” What does morality mean when you are never tested, never asked to make morally compromising decisions in the first place?
Nagel classifies the basic circumstances in which we are born and raised as “circumstantial moral luck” (2). Circumstantial luck refers primarily to the circumstances in which we are born, raised, and live. Citizens of Nazi Germany, for instance, were asked to make life and death decisions regarding political affiliation, whereas Americans of the same era made political choices without real personal repercussion. To say someone made a politically brave choice surely has different moral implications for a citizen of a democracy compared to a citizen of an authoritarian nation. Yet, the very same person born into these two different circumstances will almost certainly make very different choices and these choices will then serve as a referendum of the person’s moral character.
The Kim and Park families of the Parasite universe both express distinct awareness of their social circumstances and both families express disdain (either openly or privately) for those below them and envy for those above. When Mrs. Kim is asked for a kindness by a recently fired house maid (the very one whose position Mrs. Kim now holds) the former maid pleads, “Please sis! We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we? We all need a little help to get by.” However, Mrs. Kim refuses by saying, “I’m not your sister and I don’t need anyone’s help.” For the families of Parasite, ethical decisions are financial ones. To be poor is to live in a world marked by moral bad luck.
The primary set piece in Parasite is the luxurious Park home. This home rests atop a hill and the most notable attribute of the house are its many staircases, a feature perfectly in keeping with a tale focused on ethical risings and fallings. This multi-leveled house sits in stark contrast to the Kim’s single-storied, cramped, half-basement apartment. At one point or another, we see all of our major characters taking a nap in the spacious Park home. Even the decision to rest, it seems, requires a level of creature comfort to be a viable decision at all.
Bong Joon-ho creates a world in which the “smell of poverty” is inescapable and impossible to hide. The younger Park child is the first to note that the Kims “all smell the same.” The most poignant moment of the film depicts Mr. Kim (played pitch-perfectly by the great Korean actor Kang-ho Song) overhearing Mr. Park complain of his smell. Mr. Park tells his wife what it is like to sit in an enclosed car with Mr. Kim. He describes it by saying, “That smell when you’re washing a dirty dish rag. That smell definitely crosses the line. It just creeps into the backseat and surrounds you.” Mr. Kim’s smell is the product of his home, his food, his neighborhood, his cleaning supplies, his work, his entire life. The despair Mr. Kim experiences upon overhearing this conversation is seeded in his knowledge that his smell is not his choice, nor will it ever be.
Mr. Kim, hitherto the film’s optimist, is beset by the despair of too many failed plans. How can he execute a meaningful plan when he can’t even choose to smell differently? Mr. Kim’s first line in the film is, “We need a plan.” But now, when confronted with how Mr. Park views him, Mr. Kim abandons his optimism and acknowledges the folly of crafting plans beyond his power to actualize. When Mr. Kim is speaking to his son as they prepare to sleep on a gymnasium floor after their neighborhood has been flooded, his son asks him, “What is the plan?” Mr. Kim responds pessimistically, but sincerely:
If you plan something, it will always go wrong. That’s life. Look around. Do you think these people got up this morning and said, ‘Tonight I’m going to sleep on a dirty floor with hundreds of strangers?’ But look where they are now. Look where we are. That’s why you should never plan.
Moral bad luck renders forethought useless.
What transforms Parasite from a dark comedy to a tragedy is the absurd death of the Kim’s daughter, Ki-jung (snappily portrayed by Soo-dam Park). Ki-jung’s death is unexpected and is the result of endless details that easily could have gone much differently. Unlike a classic Greek tragedy, this death is meaningless and unnecessary, which is precisely why it is so devastating. Ki-jung does not deserve her fate and the person who kills her is not even targeting her specifically.
The epilogue of the film outlines a new “plan” devised by the Kim family son, Ki-woo (played by Woo-sik Choi). While Ki-woo is completely sincere and detailed in the outlining of the plan, the audience is meant to understand that this plan is a total fantasy. Ki-woo intends to work hard at his job, make a fortune, and buy the Park family house in order that the remaining members of his own family might reunite. However, this is not a home that anyone earning his salary will ever be able to afford in a single lifetime. This vision of the future depends on circumstances that far exceed Ki-woo’s power to realize. What misfortune has erased will not be regained. Bong Joon-ho has crafted a moral universe in which personal agency is subsumed by economic reality. Who is the parasite in such a system? Who leeches off whom?
Parasite is a morality tale for our times. It is a world in which moral luck, good and bad, depends more on accidental confluence than moral character. It is our world. The characters are not so much making choices as reacting to events over which they have little control. If moral praise and blame can only be ascribed when a single choice is made from a range of possible choices, Parasite is not such a world. Parasite’s depiction of the Kim and Park families, and the tragedy of moral good luck gone bad, serves as a reminder to have less confidence in our own moral agency and to think twice before passing moral judgement.
(1) Nagel, T. (1993) “Moral Luck.” Moral Luck. Daniel Statman (Ed.). State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, pp. 57–71.
(2) Nagel, 1993, p. 58.