The notion of an overarching, providential justice overseeing and directing all human events, while out of vogue in modern philosophy, remains a huge influence on popular culture. That this sort of determined or corrective justice acts not just generally across time, but within a given life, is a particularly attractive thought to the fictive tales of the film industry. The reasons for this are myriad, bringing to both content creators and audiences an appeasement of their desire to see good things happen to good people; their desire to see bad things happen to bad people; and their desire to witness miraculous or incredible events.
The 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Picture (and other categories) was Slumdog Millionaire, a case-in-point of the populace’s penchant for fictionalized treatments of karmic justice, as directed by Danny Boyle. This concept of overarching justice can be understood by its relation to the philosophical topic of internal meaning. For a human life to have internal meaning, it must be good for the person who lives it and it must include worthwhile activities (for a more detailed account of meaning, see this encyclopedia entry). Ultimately, Slumdog Millionaire seems to put forward a short-sighted account which contends that a life can be internally meaningful if it contains worthwhile activity and if, by way of some kind of providence, it ends up being good for the person who lives it.
The idea behind this conception of internal meaning is that the life which ends well is, on balance, good for the person who lives it; the worth of this principle can be examined by attention to the two brothers at the center of the film. The most obvious and far-reaching application of this principle in Slumdog Millionaire is the way in which the various hardships of protagonist Jamal Malik provide him with the answers needed to stay on the quiz show. Incidents such as the religious genocide of the adults in his hometown and his abduction by a crimelord intent on blinding him provide him with the answers of the name of a Hindu deity and the name of a poet, respectively.
These are specific examples of Slumdog Millionaire‘s larger project of establishing the worth of hardship as an ultimate attainment of justice, as evidenced by its phrasal motif, “It is written.” Yet, the implicit conception of internal meaning behind this project is significantly weakened by careful attention. It seems to place an enormous amount of value on the present above the value of the past, and on the future above that of the present. This is similar to the failure of the ‘Final Outcome’ Argument: there is no justification in the argument as to why something being significant at that future point is any more important than something being significant at any point before that, including the present moment (for a slightly more detailed account of this, read the first few paragraphs of this essay on absurdity by Thomas Nagel).
This is especially relevant in cases where the present worthwhile-ness or goodness of the consequence (knowing the name of the deity) seems to be staggeringly outweighed by the badness of the hardship (the death of Jamal’s mother in the genocidal attack). Similarly, this method of determining internal meaning also provides internal meaning to some who seem to be leading, on balance, negative lives.
Jamal’s brother, Salim Malik, is, without exaggeration, a gangster, a murderer, and a rapist. Yet the composition of the film, with Salim’s death treated as a peaceful moment of praise for a benevolent deity, implies that his final acts of helping Latika escape and killing the mob boss Javed have atoned for an entire decade of work as a hit man, as well as for all of his other crimes. It seems far more intuitive to say that Salim does not lead an internally meaningful life, but only believes that he leads such a life. If he is correct about providence, then perhaps his life has supernatural significance, but this does nothing to advance his life’s internal meaning.
All of this inconsistency in Slumdog Millionaire‘s theme could have been avoided if the film had treated its deterministic ideas differently. If there was some note of loving fate regardless of what it brings, rather than only when it finally brings rewards, then its philosophy might have practical real-world applications. Instead, the film focuses on occasions where lifetimes of horrible suffering yield to some positive experiences, ignores alternatives where the same suffering may lead to no positive experiences, and holds up its few special cases as general proofs of providential justice.
The conception of internal meaning present in Slumdog Millionaire is ultimately an untenable one—due to its granting of internal meaning to lives that seem, on balance, not good or not worthwhile—and an illogical one—due to its extreme valuation of the present and future over the past and present.
One wonders whether the blinded child with whom Jamal converses in Slumdog Millionaire‘s latter half would be as comfortable with the “It is written” mantra as is Jamal during the kiss at the movie’s end. Fate, it would seem, has condemned that child to a life of darkness, pain, and privation. Perhaps it is true that this is the result of a providential oversight, but it nevertheless is inconsistent to declare internally meaningful those lives for which that same providence ultimately provided something positive. Indeed, there seems to be a basic contradiction of the definition of internal meaning in a life that is claimed to be internally meaningful being, on balance, bad for the person who lives it and bad for those influenced by that person.
All’s Unwell that Only Ends Well: