There are a few core philosophical thought experiments at the center of our most popular movies, like ancient cheat codes that filmmakers know we'll pay to see depicted on the big screen over and over again. So while you may think that you're just watching an entertaining movie, you might be pondering big, heavy ideas that have been vexing humanity's deepest thinkers for millennia. For instance ...
5 The State of Nature and the Social Contract
Why aren't we running around trying to kill each other right now? That's the question all the greatest thinkers were trying to answer during the Age of Enlightenment. The world was just waking up from the Dark Ages, and the best and brightest looked around and wondered who turned off the witch burnings and how to make sure nobody turned them back on.
"Lesson one: Zeus is bullshit."
It was around this time that the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes came up with a thought experiment. First, he described a version of the world before laws and society, which he called the state of nature. Hobbes' state of nature looks like one big rugby scrum, with everyone fighting and killing and trying to have sex with each other before their reproductive organs are rendered useless from blunt trauma (we're not overly familiar with the rules of rugby). While that version of existence might have been objectively awful, it was the only time in human existence when everyone was totally and completely free. Without laws, everyone had the right to everything.
To get from that version of existence to the one we're all familiar with, Hobbes speculated that those people must have agreed to what he called the social contract -- you give up your right to drop an anvil on your neighbor and take his stuff in exchange for things like personal safety and the expectation that people will follow a reasonable moral code.
Suddenly that Ben Franklin quote doesn't seem so pithy.
This process seems like a foregone conclusion to us today. Of course life got better when we decided to live together as one big happy society! Only Branch Davidians and the Unabomber would doubt such a thing. But when you look at the movies that we go to see each year, it starts to seem like we secretly regret the hell out of signing the social contract and long to return to the rugby scrum. For instance, every post-apocalyptic movie from zombie flicks to Mad Max takes place in Hobbes' state of nature. The apocalypse is just an excuse to destroy the social contract before the movie even starts.
Lord Humongous, philosopher.
One common thread in three of the most popular movies of 2012 is an obsession with the question of whether the social contract is necessary, or worth it. The heroes in The Avengers battle a villain who represents the social contract on steroids. After rounding up a bunch of classical music fans on the street and forcing them to kneel before him, Loki unleashes the following academic lecture:
"It's the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel."
"All right, now ... well, the rest of my intentions are rather unclear."
In addition to being the speech that Barack Obama gives in the nightmares of the most paranoid, anti-government militia member, that's basically a really poorly worded argument for why we need the social contract. Left to their own devices, people don't know how to act. If you asked Hobbes to make the creepiest case for the social contract he possibly could, he would have written that speech.
The villain in The Dark Knight Rises, like the Joker before him, thinks that the social contract is a sham. Bane removes the people and institutions that enforce the social contract from the equation, and Gotham immediately descends into a citywide prison riot. This is a city that's mostly populated by people who went to school and held jobs and had access to reason for their entire lives, but without anything to enforce the contract, it's back to life in the scrum.
"Welp, the cops are gone. Time to burn everything!"
As one of the old prisoners in the underground prison put it, "Without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war; and such a war, as is of every man, against every man." OK, that's actually a direct quote from Hobbes, but you wouldn't have thought twice if it had shown up in the movie (which also says a lot about the quality of dialogue in that movie, unfortunately).
Then there's The Hunger Games, which explicitly raises the question "Is the social contract worth it?" and then sort of stacks the deck by adding that "By signing the social contract, you consent to having you or your loved ones randomly killed for the entertainment of rich people." That seems less like a movie plot than a piece of propaganda created by people who opposed the first social contract.
"And no puppies for anyone!"
And Hollywood doesn't need to create a fictional universe to question whether society is worth it. They can shoehorn the debate between the social contract and the state of nature into pretty much any type of movie, because that shit is apparently like catnip to our brains. Look at three of the six greatest movie lines of all time, according to the American Film Institute:
Interspersed with the geographical confusion that sets in after one commits residential manslaughter.
So to recap, that's:
1. A society gentleman saying that he doesn't give a damn if a woman lives or dies in a society that's been returned to a state of nature by the Civil War.
2. A mobster mocking the social contract by using the language of business agreements to describe a negotiation tactic straight out of the rugby scrum.
6. A cop toying with a criminal by bragging that he's willing to shoot him right in the middle of his face to uphold the social contract.
Three of the greatest lines ever delivered in a movie, and every single one is basically saying, "Fuck a social contract, I will literally go medieval on your ass," which is also a great movie line that also specifically brings up the very thing Hobbes was writing about back during the Enlightenment. We may play nice and help each other out in our daily lives, but turn down the lights in the movie theater and all we want is to get rid of society and its stupid, asshole rules against killing our neighbors and taking their stuff.