'True Detective' and the Conventions of Morality
In the realm of moral ambiguity they occupy, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart become a microcosm of Lawrence Kohlberg's three stages of moral development.
True Detective pulls you in from the first guitar chords of the opening credits. At the 0:00 mark of the show, you’re already going down that dirt road with Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey). That’s because this is a show about a fight that’s always mid-story: good and evil, the standard classical narrative meant to edify the reader through the moral judgments it makes on the characters’ fates. Every story has its own ethical norms, but the standard one is “X action is good, while Y action is bad.”
TV Show: True Detective
Creator: Nic Pizzolatto
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan
Air date: 2014-01-12
True Detective has its own ethos as well. This is a show about good and evil, yes, but it is peppered with a great deal of moral ambiguity. It’s an allegory about two men who suffer through a crueler hell than any of us would want to imagine, and who in the process get rewarded by learning to trust in each other. But along the way our partners-in-justice commit so many morally questionable acts that they aren’t white knights; they’re tainted, they’re, to use one of the key colors of the show, yellow. Some of the things they do, from Marty breaking into his girlfriend’s place and Rust telling a terrible mother to kill herself, only really look good next to somebody like the Yellow King. They are, after all, the bad men who “keep the other bad men from the door.”
But in that delicious quote, “bad” doesn’t mean wrong; it just means unconventional. There are two different types of unconventional morality: pre-conventional and post-conventional, and this is why Marty and Rust have a completely different code of ethics than the Yellow King.
After first seeing the body of Dora Lange, Rust and Marty are so torn up they can’t sleep, a scene like a gag reflex, but also a sign of peril. Evil is lurking. As detectives, these two guard that line for society. What’s the cost? Dora Lange’s murder in 1995 sends Rust on a bender and flares Marty’s psychotic sexual control so that 17 years later, one is an alcoholic bartender and the other is eating microwave dinners off of TV trays.
That toll is not just from the horrors they’ve seen in investigating the Lange murder, but also what it makes them do: commit and cover up a murder of their own. In a hyper-realistic show, the scene where Marty shoots Reggie Ledoux is like a vaccination of lightning. More than shocking, it excites us as a defiance of a sacred human law— and federal law, too—that we somehow consider justified, and it is justified because it is an example of what Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg would categorize as post-conventional morality.
Book: The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice (Essays on Moral Development, Volume 1)
Author: Lawrence Kohlberg
Publisher: Harper & Row
US Publication Date: 1981-07
Length: 441 pages
Kohlberg introduced his stages of moral development in his dissertation in 1958, when they added a crucial framework that developmental psychology has built on in the decades since. Basically, Kohlberg’s simplified theory posits three levels of moral maturation: pre-conventional morality, conventional morality, post-conventional morality.
First, pre-conventional morality is simplistic. This sphere of moral action is based on avoidance of discomfort and self-interest. A person with a pre-conventional set of ethics worries only about how external consequences are going to affect the individual; this is pure selfishness with no social component. A person in the pre-conventional stage either hasn’t learned society’s rules or chooses not to follow them because he only cares about himself.
It is possible to get away with this when you are two years old, because people understand that you don’t know any better, and that’s an important point: everyone starts at the pre-conventional stage. It takes many years to learn conventional morality, and even more years to develop a heroic ethical code. Thus, if you are at a pre-conventional moral stage when you are an adult, then you are likely a pretty inconsiderate person. (See: The Yellow King.)
Conventional morality is the conforming of behavior to social laws, which are created either for the good of the group or the good of the individual. Conventional morality fosters good human relationships and a stable social structure. One follow conventions not just to avoid punishment, but also because she thinks those rules are right based on a common respect for society and fellow humans.
You identify with your social group or community and feel belonging based on shared belief. Conventional morality promotes the general welfare of the group, although different cultures, large and small, have plenty of different roadmaps how to get there. Furthermore, systems of conventional morality punish those who do not follow those conventions, whether or not those people are justified in doing so, meaning you can be dishonorably discharged for poor conduct or disobeying an order you feel is wrong.
Post-conventional morality is when an individual follows many of the conventional laws but doesn’t follow those that aren’t consistent with their own principles. Still, they know they are good moral people without following every written law. Kohlberg refers to this as a social contract based on individual rights and universal principals. Society shouldn’t just run well; it should also provide fulfilling lives for individuals.
Post-conventionalists care about the general welfare, maybe even moreso than the conventional moralist, because they are willing to risk disobeying the law or angering an audience to stand up for what they believe in, though being post-conventional doesn’t necessarily mean you’re right all the time (To use an example from True Detective, Rust suggesting suicide, for example, doesn’t seem right, while his breaking into Billy Tuttle’s house does). Kohlberg himself exhibited post-conventional morality when he committed suicide to free himself from a long illness of chronic abdominal pains.
This is the argument that Rust and Marty have at the evangelical Christian tent in episode three of True Detective. Marty says that a world without religion would be a “freakshow of murder and debauchery” while Rust maintains that “if the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit.” The convention is question is Christian ethics, and Marty the sex addict contends that without that code people will all be pre-conventional egomaniacs while Rust the nonbeliever believes people should be good for good’s sake, a post-conventional view.
The Yellow King and his Carcossan disciples are clearly said pre-conventional egomaniacs. They may know the laws, might even have an inkling of what human decency is all about, but they clearly don’t care. They gorge on defenseless creatures to feed their power and satisfaction. As we see in the last episode, the King himself can barely control himself around children. If we are to believe Rust, members of the conspiracy even killed their Billy Tuttle, their decorated kin. There is nothing sacred about their code—or, rather, the lack of a code.
But that’s what evil is: selfishness. Flip it around and good becomes selflessness. It’s a boring story because it holds plenty of truth, and it’s not a total shocker that it’s the story of nearly every ethical doctrine created by any religion or culture and any high-grossing animated film ever.
Again, pre-conventional and post-conventional often get confused by the more conventional folk, who label them both as wrong simply because they didn’t follow the moral code. The conventions can never, however, account for every moral circumstance, which is why taking the law into one’s own hands is sometimes important. Many progressive martyrs have paid for being too post-conventional, like Hypatia, Galileo, and the Curies, along with the off-camera co-star of this show, the Christian savior.
The way True Detective uncomfortably juxtaposes sex and Christianity is both beautiful and poignant. It’s like a priest giving a sermon without ever mentioning the elephant he’s sitting on. The shadow of our most primal urge is here beset against an uncompromising ethical system of rigid judgment. This is the perfect cultural landscape for Marty’s and Rust’s character flaws, which are, respectively, sexual and spiritual.
Coupled with Marty’s fidelity issues are the facts that he doesn’t know how to relate to women, doesn’t know how to be a father, and doesn’t know how to stop talking about his physical endowment. This collection of observations not only illustrates his pre-conventional romantic development (i.e., the convention of marriage), but his ethical code as well: Marty knows how to be a man. He follows the law, carries a gun, and gets laid. He doesn’t even go to church. His conventions are those of vigorous, insensitive masculinity.
In contrast, Rust’s malaise is spiritual, a dearth of faith. By snatching his daughter from him, the Universe revealed itself to be a heartless black hole. His bedtime reading is murder manuals so he can stare right at that hole while numbing himself to it. If it really is “one big gutter,” then the injustice done to Rust is commonplace and his suffering is pointless, which makes it easier to avoid. Despite his exegeses, Rust does not transcend any spiritual conventions here, Christian or otherwise. His entire philosophy, poetic as it is, is a big existential tantrum. He’s not saying, “Okay Universe, you got me. Live and learn.” No. He raises his middle finger and isn’t going to play anymore.
This is funny, because as much as Rust loves talking the talk, in many ways he doesn’t walk the walk. He claims zero faith but isn’t a selfish renegade. He’s not denying the universe; he’s denying himself. This manifests itself in his deteriorating physical appearance: he doesn’t care about himself and therefore doesn’t take care of himself. That’s not the case for every Fu Manchu, but it is for this one.
Rust is a pragmatist, willing to defy the law or decency if necessary. Still, all of Rust’s actions are in service of justice; he’s never out for any personal gain. He doesn’t take Quaaludes to get high; he needs them to function. He uses violence to find the trailer park bordello, uses a God he doesn’t believe in to seal interrogations, and quits his job when the system goes against his investigation. His egomania (especially in 2002) is really born out of insecurity, a perfect shadow pair, his blistering arrogance covering the pain of self-doubt.
In telling Marty that they “have a debt” he wants to mean to the victims since 1995, but Mr. Rationality also knows those people are dead. There is no tangible debt. That debt is to the Universe, and though he spouts pessimism, the deepest part of Rust knows connected goodness. A true pessimist would never need to come back from Alaska for resolution. Returning to serve justice is post-conventional because as far as Rust knew everything with the case was settled according to the conventions of the Louisiana State Police Department. Only in returning to Louisiana did he learn of the other bodies. He came back because his spirit called him back to avenge the crimes Marty’s premature gunshot and Rust’s methodical coverup allowed to happen to the future victims.
Rust’s and Marty’s conventional systems overlap in an interesting way. They both adhere to the standard police conventions, like deduction, due process, and the scientific method, and neither are religious (Marty’s actions speak for him here). But in 2012, they both continue the investigation outside of the police department (because they are frightened that pre-conventional agents have hijacked the system of convention). And in a twistedly touching way, it is satisfying that they both consider the murder of Ledoux justified and cover it up without question—the sign of a true bromance.
But if Rust’s main concern is with the metaphysical machinations of the universe, and Marty’s is with the standard conventions of masculinity, then Maggie is the intersection of Marty’s sexual immaturity and Rust’s interpersonal disconnection. This tension starts at the dinner but escalates through the lawn-mowing episode and culminates in Maggie’s own infidelity, which, other than her tempting a stranger (and not following through) are primarily her only unconventional actions of the show, until, as we may well assume, she takes Marty back at the end.
So fitting that the human train wreck we gape at on this show is a synthesis of these two flaws. As an abhorrent sexual predator and a charismatic satanic demagogue, the Yellow King is the metaphorical and literal obstacle Marty and Rust are fated to confront. Both metaphorically and literally, it takes these two heroes overcoming their flaws to destroy the gravity of his selfishness. His pre-conventional sexuality is different from Marty’s in his complete disregard for his partner’s pleasure, while, unlike Rust’s pre-conventional spirituality, the Yellow King tries to rationalize away any connection between himself and the universe by subsuming others’ egos to deify himself.
It takes Rust finally accepting that he needs Marty and Marty finally letting go of his family—actions that transcend the standards of pessimism and masculinity—for them both to be ready to die for the cause. It doesn’t get more post-conventional than consciously defying self-preservation itself. Only when Rust is ready to accept connection and Marty is willing to accept the penance for his transgressions can they both conquer their ultimate evil.
Caught in the middle of True Detective’s two polarities are all those people peppering in between, each struggling to follow the conventions of their own system: Maggie and Marty’s daughters (one rebel and one follower), Papiniya and Gilbough, Sheriff Steve Geraci, Marty’s girlfriend Lisa, their fellow officers, the victim’s families, the preacher in the tent and his ministry, the biker gang members, the black neighborhood, the prostitutes, and the conspirators. All of these characters are doing the best they can to ensure their own happiness and, each in their own degree, the happiness of those around them.
No one individual’s set of morals will ever match exactly with those held by society because society is an amalgamation of all the individuals. There are even all kinds of perspectives on any given religion. For that reason, the constant oscillation between the conventions of society and each individual’s ethics is a constant source of tension. Good and evil are both human traits, as is everything between.
But apart from these timeless messages, the thing about True Detective that will always linger in the memory are those opening credits: a truck stop in an eyeball, an empty playground on a naked back, a highway on a detective’s face, an industrial bayou across a man’s chest, a child’s eyes in a telephone. This is a wounded land, and the song plays like an elegy for its salvation, and for the salvation of lost little girls whose giant faces plaster highway billboards.
Childhood is innocence because it never has a chance to learn how to live, which is why it’s so readily taken advantage of by adults who never wind up learning. Not to say there’s an end goal to morality—it exists in the moment it’s needed. It’s a skill, a muscle that shrivels if you don’t tend it. And those who don’t (whether through choice or denial) wind up being our villains.
You can always learn. But some have studied and learned way more than others, often through painful trial and error. In True Detective, Rust and Marty are put through the most infernal of gauntlets that forces them to challenge the law and our expectations for ethical conduct, which is what the virtuous must do at times. It’s been done in countless other action movies and Shakespearean dramas. Heroes have to learn how to be heroic, and sometimes they have to defy social conventions to do so. The characters and images in this show reflect the ways people follow and defy those conventions in their actions towards each other—or more specifically, in the ways they should act towards each other—and the challenges they face in learning how to do so.
Derek Lazarski is a writer and educator living in Chicago. His writing portfolio and blog are available online at this link.