The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

Series Editor: William Irwin

24 and Philosophy
Edited by Jennifer Hart Weed, Richard Davis, and Ronald Weed
30 Rock and Philosophy
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski
Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy
Edited by Richard Brian Davis
Arrested Development and Philosophy
Edited by Kristopher Phillips and J. Jeremy Wisnewski
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Edited by Mark D. White
Batman and Philosophy
Edited by Mark D. White and Robert Arp
Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy
Edited by Jason T. Eberl
The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy
Edited by Dean Kowalski
The Big Lebowski and Philosophy
Edited by Peter S. Fosl
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Edited by Jason Holt
Family Guy and Philosophy
Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski
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Edited by Jason P. Blahuta and Michel S. Beaulieu
Game of Thrones and Philosophy
Edited by Henry Jacoby
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy
Edited by Eric Bronson
Green Lantern and Philosophy
Edited by Jane Dryden and Mark D. White
Heroes and Philosophy
Edited by David Kyle Johnson
House and Philosophy
Edited by Henry Jacoby
The Hunger Games and Philosophy
Edited by George Dunn and Nicolas Michaud
Inception and Philosophy
Edited by David Johnson
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Edited by James South and Rod Carveth
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Edited by Jonathan Sanford
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Edited by Richard Brown and Kevin Decker
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Edited by Gregory Bassham
The Ultimate Lost and Philosophy
Edited by Sharon Kaye
Watchmen and Philosophy
Edited by Mark D. White
X-Men and Philosophy
Edited by Rebecca Housel and J. Jeremy Wisnewski


To Richard Fleming, who makes me laugh, as well as think


Thanks to Some Real Achievers

I offer my thanks to Bill Irwin, whose guidance, editing skill, and friendship made this a better volume than it would have been in my hands alone. I don’t know if it’s proper to call Bill my hero (’cause what’s a hero, anyway?), but I do recognize that Bill’s talent and hard work in establishing and cultivating this series of books on philosophy and pop culture have promoted philosophical thinking across the world in deeply important ways. Thanks, too, of course, to the editors and the staff at Wiley for their vision in supporting the series. I am especially grateful to associate editor Constance Santisteban for her good counsel and to Kimberly Monroe-Hill and Patricia Waldygo for their proofreading and editing skills.

I have been in this business for some time now but have never before worked with a group of writers as thoughtful, generous, and collegial as those appearing in this volume. It’s been my privilege to help bring their thinking to press. I thank my spouse, Cate Fosl, for her patience and support through the long days of editing and reading that produced these essays, and I remain always grateful to my sons, Isaac and Elijah, for the pleasant hours we’ve shared screening this film and riffing off the Dude and his cohort. I am grateful to Will Russell, Scott Shuffit, and the other organizers of Lebowski Fest for stoking the spirit of the Dude and thereby rendering ours less a world of pain, as well as for helping to keep my beloved Louisville weird. Transylvania University and my students have been indispensable in establishing the necessary conditions for the possibility of philosophy in my life. My gratitude to them is unspeakable. Of course, thanks finally go to the Coen brothers for their sharp and thoughtful filmmaking, as well as to the cast of The Big Lebowski for absolutely unforgettable performances.


Sometimes There’s a Film

What makes a book or a film philosophical? Is it being prepared to argue arcane conceptual minutiae? Whatever the cost? No matter how many people it bores? Is that what makes a philosophical text?

Well, it’s certainly not a pair of testicles.

The editors and the contributors to this volume are committed to the idea that topics of philosophical interest can be found just about anywhere. Sure, in ancient Athens and contemporary universities but also in homes and bars, on iPods, and in movie theaters. When it comes to questions of truth, goodness, beauty, reality, and meaning, frankly, it’s hard to find a time ’n a place they don’t apply.

To some extent, the ubiquity of philosophical considerations in life is both philosophy’s strength and its weakness. Because matters of philosophical interest are everywhere and involve pretty much everyone, it often seems as if anything goes in philosophy. It seems just as right to say to philosophers about their output what the Dude aptly tells the Jesus: “Well, like, uh, that’s just your opinion, man.”

Yet then again, just as not everyone who picks up a bowling ball is a golfer, not just anything a bunch of bums might say or do at a bowling alley can count as philosophy. ’Course, I can’t say I seen London (recently), and I ain’t been to France (as often as I’d like), but it seems to me that thinking philosophically about something, even a movie, means at least thinking carefully about it—means thinking about how it fits right in or doesn’t fit right in with established philosophical theories and principles. Not every child who wanders into the middle of a movie can achieve that kind of thinking. The essays in this volume, however, even those that might sometimes seem stupefyin’, really do.

Still, it might seem a stretch to take seriously the idea of examining The Big Lebowski philosophically. It can look like just a lighthearted comedy, a guy movie, kind of juvenile, really, something silly and escapist. The Big Lebowski may indeed have seemed that way to moviegoers when it was first released in 1998, because it proved to be a box office disappointment. Yet when you start to think about The Big Lebowski, and over time lots of people have, more and more new shit comes to light.

Obviously, the film confronts issues of sex, violence, and death. The action of the film is initiated by the escapades of a nymphomaniacal porn actress, an assault, rug peeing, and an apparent kidnapping. Donny dies. Maude conceives. Children are threatened with castration. Guns are drawn on old friends. Cars are burned. Cocktails are drugged. Money and rugs are stolen. Marmots are nearly drowned. That’s enough by itself to lead any ethicist to put down the Thai stick and crack open the Plato.

Of course, there’s more. In the twin Lebowskis, one finds the legacies of both leftist hippies (still quoting Lenin, or is it Lennon?) and Barry Goldwater’s minions, still locked in struggle. There’s class war between unemployed bums and capitalist achievers, too. Then there’s the Dude’s pacifism and Walter’s Vietnam warrior ethic. There’s Walter’s inflexible certainty and the Dude’s laid-back . . . well . . . Dudeness. There’s religion in Jesus and Moses, as well as gestures toward things Eastern. Even the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher from Islamic Andalusia, Maimonides (aka Rambam) makes a brief appearance.

Stalking across the terrain of the film, too, is European nihilism. Important currents of recent philosophy have focused on the threat (or the absurdity) of nihilism in modern culture, and a number of the philosophers in this volume have undertaken to consider seriously the film’s response to it.

Perhaps most compelling of all, however, is simply the Dude and the way he “abides.” Somehow, this silly, unemployed, developmentally arrested, pot-addled loser captures our imaginations. People are drawn to him as an exemplar of something. They have written about “Dudeism,” and he’s been called “the Duddha.” Perhaps it’s his stoic reaction to being attacked in his own home and having his head shoved down a toilet. Perhaps it’s his simple, nonmaterialistic lifestyle. Perhaps it’s his wit, his passion for bowling, his solidarity with his friends, or just his utterly convincing goodwill.

None of the philosophical dimensions of the film, of course, should be surprising because Ethan Coen graduated from Princeton University in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, having written a senior thesis on “Two Views of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy.”

Whatever the source of it all, people have discovered a lot that’s of philosophical interest among the ins-and-outs and what-have-yous of The Big Lebowski. The contributors here draw on Kant, Aristotle, Mill, Derrida, Butler, phenomenology, Epicurus, existentialism, Augustine, ordinary language philosophy, the philosophy of history, and even modern logical theory to unpack the film and explore its resonances.

I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that, in knowing that thinkers such as those collected in this book are out there, waxing philosophical for all of us sinners, all of us readers—and all of us fans of The Big Lebowski.

Aw, look at me. As my students might say, I’m ramblin’ again. Wal, I hope you enjoy the book.

A note about quotations, which are so important to fans: the standard for quotations in this volume is the film as it was released, rather than the published script or the script as it appears online. That’s because the actors often deviated from the script when performing, and the online versions of the script differ from the film, from one another, and from the published script. The script as published in book form, however, has been used to guide matters of punctuation, spelling, and so on. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, The Big Lebowski (London: Faber & Faber, 1998).



Chapter 1


Deconstructing the Dude

Joseph A. Zeccardi and Hilda H. Ma

From the opening scene in Ralphs supermarket to his final commiseration with the Stranger at the bowling alley bar, we feel a strong affinity for the Dude. Of course, as the victim of various beatings, mistaken identity, and circumstances beyond his control, the Dude engenders sympathy pretty easily. Indeed, it’s easy to feel sorry for him as Jackie Treehorn’s goons micturate on the wrong Lebowski’s rug and jam his head into the john. Beyond feeling bad for him, however, we find ourselves feeling a somewhat surprising admiration and a certainly stupefying respect for el Duderino. As the feller says, “I like your style, Dude.”

Consider, for example, how he calmly but firmly counters the crude brutality of the carpet-pissers with simple toilet-seat logic. The Dude doesn’t answer violence with violence, as the hotheaded Walter probably would. Neither does he merely lie or cower meekly on the bathroom floor, as the diffident Donny might. Instead, he patiently points out inconsistencies between the reasonable (but false) assumption that he is the wealthy husband of Bunny Lebowski, on the one hand, and the reality of his aging hippie bachelor pad, on the other. This is not to suggest that the Dude is a hero (because what’s a hero?), but insofar as the carpet-pissers are swayed by his logic and depart relatively peacefully, the scene demonstrates that the Dude’s pacifistic, deliberative demeanor helps him navigate morally challenging and treacherous situations such as this. As we confront our own carpet-pissers, then, we would do well to ask, “What would the Dude do?”

In this chapter, we pursue an answer to this question through a deconstructive analysis of the film that presents the Dude as a virtuous alternative to the extreme ethical views represented by Walter’s obsession with rules, on the one hand, and Dieter’s nihilist credo that “Zere ARE no ROOLZ,” on zee ozzer. Turns out that the Dude exhibits a Goldilocks combination of principles and virtues that serves him better than the extremes of either Walter’s strictly rule-based ethic or Dieter’s exhausting nihilism.

Deconstruction, Dichotomies, and the Dude

So, what would the Dude do? One way to answer this question is to ask another question about the reasons that underlie the Dude’s actions. After all, if we knew why the Dude does what he does, then we would be in a better position to decide what the Dude would do in any given situation. For example, if he follows strict ethical principles, then we can understand his actions in terms of general reasons. Figuring out what the Dude would do, then, would be a matter of applying the principles of the Dude. Such dedication to principles is characteristic of ethical generalism, the thesis that moral reasons must be general reasons, or reasons that admit generalization into principles. On the other hand, if we cannot consistently explain his actions in terms of general reasons, then the Dude must rely on his judgment, character, or intuition to guide him, rather than on any principles. This rejection of moral principles is characteristic of ethical particularism, which holds that moral reasons need not be general.

At first glance, the generalist approach does not seem too promising as far as the Dude is concerned, because he appears to be an opportunistic, nonconformist ne’er-do-very-well who rejects the societal conventions and rules (that is, the principles) exemplified and championed by the Big Lebowski (who consequently labels him a “bum”). Indeed, his proclivity for impaired driving and illicit drug use suggests that the Dude is not too concerned with rules of any kind, moral or otherwise. Despite his leisurely lifestyle, freewheeling sex life, and slow career, however, the Dude is a rigorously disciplined pacifist (who consistently refuses to fight even when the nihilists threaten to cut off his johnson). In addition, he is an author (who steadfastly refuses to accept revisions to the second, watered-down draft of the Port Huron Statement), a detective (who persistently follows a strict drug regimen to keep his mind limber), and a dipsomaniac (who unyieldingly refuses to drink anything apart from Caucasians and oat sodas). So, the Dude has certain rules, man, principles that he follows without exception, even if that means danger, dismemberment, or death. This suggests that the Dude is a generalist whose practical wisdom or moral decision making consists of the scrupulous application of these and other principles.

Even Walter—who plainly, loudly, and repeatedly expresses his affection for rules—recognizes the Dude’s dedication to principles. After Walter pulls his piece out on the lanes, we find him and the Dude in the Dude’s car outside the bowling alley, as each tries to calm the other down:

Dude: Just, just take it easy, Walter.

Walter: That’s your answer to everything, Dude . . . pacifism is not something to hide behind.

Walter’s claim that taking it easy is the Dude’s “answer for everything” indicates that he applies this principle consistently and even to a foolish extreme, as in situations that call for action, when taking it easy is not the best or the right thing to do. The idea that the Dude “hides behind” his pacifistic principles also suggests that his dedication to generalism is so strong that it can overrule his own judgment or intuition and lead him to act in ways that even he finds morally lacking or otherwise inappropriate.

Indeed, soon after this exchange, it appears that the Dude’s principles are leading him toward a significant and very un-Dude moral lapse. In the bowling alley, soon after entering into the employ of the Big Lebowski, he assures his teammates that any calls from Bunny’s kidnappers will not distract him from bowling in the next round robin:

Dude: They gave Dude a beeper, so whenever these guys call—

Walter: What if it’s during a game?

Dude: I told him if it was during league play—[Here, the Dude makes a dismissive gesture indicating his intention to ignore any calls during league play and, in effect, suggesting that his obligation to the bowling team trumps his obligations to the Big Lebowski and/or Bunny.]

This beeper dilemma sets up a series of potentially problematic moral conflicts for the Dude, conflicts that illustrate the limitations of generalism and threaten to undermine our confidence in the Dude’s moral decision making. As a member of the bowling team and a friend to Walter and Donny, he has an obligation to bowl in the tournament. As an employee of the Big Lebowski and a moral role model deserving of our respect and admiration, however, he has an obligation to answer the call from the kidnappers who have threatened Bunny’s life, which, after all, is in his hands. If the kidnappers call during the tournament, then the Dude will be forced to choose between these apparently inconsistent obligations. Furthermore, if he chooses to keep bowling, even though he believes that this choice could result in Bunny’s injury or death—that is, if his obligation to the bowling team trumps his obligation to Bunny’s life—well, then the Dude is in serious danger of losing his credibility as a moral role model and a good person deserving of our respect and admiration.

Of course, this potential moral conflict never comes to its crisis in the film, and the Dude immediately explains why he believes that Bunny has kidnapped herself (and hence is likely to be in no real danger). Still, he doesn’t know that the kidnapping is a scam, and the idea that the Dude would put bowling before Bunny’s life, based on a hunch, is initially unsettling, nonetheless, particularly insofar as old Duder is an otherwise redeemable, even admirable, character. There are good reasons, however, to believe that el Duderino would do the right thing here, transcend his moral principles, and restore our justifiable faith in the Dude as a moral role model and a paragon of virtue. In fact, by deconstructing the traditional generalist-versus-particularist debate over moral deliberation, the film presents the Dude as a virtuous compromise between the extremes of Walter’s rule-obsessed generalism and the exhausting particularism of the nihilists.

Arguing that language is arbitrary and, hence, that meaning is unstable, shifting, and delayed, the deconstruction theorist Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) held that the author “writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws, and life his discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself, after a fashion and up to a point, be governed by the system.” In other words—drawing from the structuralist and poststructuralist theories that give rise to deconstruction—the relationship between “signifier” and “signified” in language is arbitrary; there is no direct correspondence between a signifier and what it points to, the signified. Anyone who speaks more than one language is confronted with the very arbitrariness of it when, for example, we find that certain concepts can be clearly articulated in one language and not so clearly in the other. Consider that speakers of Spanish will find the masculine overtones of “el Duderino” built into the phrase in ways that have no analogue in English. In this way, the language we use participates in creating a logic or a system of structuring and understanding the world. This allows for unintended and unseen contradictions within a discourse, contradictions that can turn a text against itself—in other words, new shit that may come to light.

Jonathan Culler notes that to “deconstruct a discourse is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies.” Deconstructive analysis begins by identifying tensions, oppositions, and dichotomies within a discourse, a theory, a work of art, literature, or any object of analysis. Along this line, the film is rife with dichotomies: the Dude’s near-poverty, as opposed to the Big Lebowski’s apparent wealth; the Dude’s notorious laziness, as opposed to the Big Lebowski’s (purported) über-achievement; Smokey’s pacifism, as opposed to Walter’s militancy; and what have you. These binaries are not only opposed, however, but are also hierarchical. As far as the Big Lebowski is concerned, he’s not just different from the Dude—he’s better. As Walter sees it, Smokey isn’t only different—he has problems (beyond pacifism) that make him a lesser man. In this way, the film not only sets up oppositions, it defines winners and losers, urban achievers and bums.

Deconstructive analysis undermines these hierarchies by revealing the ways in which the film actually decenters and disrupts the very philosophy it seems to privilege and, as a result, destabilizes its own apparent structure. Thus, deconstructive analysis identifies a conventional, or classical, interpretation of the film in order to show its own deviation from it. While the role of the critic is to find these self-contradictions, this discussion does not intend to suggest any shortcoming on the film’s behalf. Rather, as Robert Gorsch explains in his assessment of a deconstructive approach, “the existence of a limit to the writer’s mastery—will be approached not as an embarrassing failure on the part of an ‘author,’ but rather as evidence of the stubborn complexity of his or her relation to the discourse in which he or she participates.” Gorsch proposes that the “author must employ, and at the same time struggle against, the vocabulary of the tradition in which he or she chooses to speak.” As we shall see, the film itself is a deconstruction of the traditional hierarchical opposition between generalism and particularism. As it employs this opposition, struggles against it, and finally offers a possible resolution to its own deconstruction via the virtues of the Dude, the film uses deconstruction to carve out a space for virtue ethics in the debate between generalism and particularism.

Walter’s Generalism vs. Dieter’s Particularism

Through Walter and Dieter, the film reflects the oppositional debate between generalism and particularism about the structure of moral reasoning, about just how we actually—and how we ought to—deliberate and decide what to do in any given situation. If the Dude is a generalist like Walter, his moral deliberation will proceed from general principles (for example, lying is wrong), through descriptions of particular acts (for example, telling Brandt that “The old man told me to take any rug in the house” is a lie), to moral verdicts or value judgments about those acts (therefore, telling Brandt that “The old man told me to take any rug in the house” is wrong). If the Dude is a particularist like Dieter, then his moral deliberation proceeds from particular facts about the situation at hand to value judgments about the right thing to do.

The principal advantage of ethical generalism is its straightforward approach to moral deliberation. As Walter himself notes, “The beauty of this is its simplicity. If the plan gets too complex something always goes wrong. If there’s one thing I learned in ’Nam—” For the generalist, deciding what to do in any given situation involves an application of general moral principles to particular circumstances via an inferential process of reasoning. Of course, deciding which principles apply and how best to apply them can be tricky, but so long as the principles are the determinate factor in deliberation, the generalist can avoid any need to account for, say, his or her emotions, desires, personal relationships, and other potentially idiosyncratic or irreducibly contextual complexities that cannot be captured by any general principle. For example, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) held that the intentions and feelings underlying actions have no bearing on their ethical value, arguing instead that consequences are all that matter in terms of the ethical value of an action. Thus, for Mill, he “who saves a man from drowning does what is morally right whether his motive be duty, or the hope of being paid for all his trouble.”

As a generalist, Walter defines right action strictly in terms of its coherence with a general principle (or a set of principles), specifically Jewish law (or his interpretation thereof). According to Walter, the right thing to do in any given situation (or any that occurs on the Sabbath, at least) follows from the rules laid down in the Torah and other texts. So, when Walter deliberates over what to do in any given situation, he mainly applies the principles of Jewish law and does whatever those laws dictate (or refrains from doing whatever those laws prohibit). As Walter explains, this “Means I don’t work, I don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit don’t fucking roll! . . . Shomer shabbas.” According to Walter, then, the right thing to do in any given situation is that which follows from the principles of Jewish law.

Indeed, Walter’s penchant for rigid rules extends beyond the Sabbath, as we find him reiterating the generalist’s dedication to principled, rule-based ethics throughout the film. When Smokey’s toe appears to slip over the line at the bowling alley, for example, Walter insists that he incur the corresponding penalty, noting that this “is not ’Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.” The operative rule here is a general principle to the effect that “if a bowler’s toe slips over the end line of the lane during a roll, then the frame is marked zero.” While the Dude suggests that certain contextual details of the particular situation at hand (for example, the disputed, unconfirmed status of the infraction, the fact that Smokey is a friend of theirs, the fact that Smokey is a pacifist, and what have you) warrant an exception to the general rule that would otherwise be applicable in this case, Walter is unconvinced and proceeds to freak out: “HAS THE WHOLE WORLD GONE CRAZY? AM I THE ONLY ONE HERE WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES? MARK IT ZERO!” All of this suggests that Walter’s moral deliberation consists largely, if not exclusively, of a rigorous (if not obsessive) application of moral principles.

Of course, even if we could find some universal moral principles that do not admit of pesky and confounding exceptions, such principles can still come into conflict with one another. For example, even if we agree that we should always keep our promises, what do we do when keeping one promise means breaking another? This is the Dude’s dilemma and reflects the manner in which the film undermines the oppositional hierarchy it once privileged. Deconstructing its initial preference for generalism over particularism, the film destabilizes this hierarchy by gesturing at the inevitable conflict of any principled ethics. If the Dude keeps the implicit promise he made to Walter and Donny and bowls in the tournament, then he cannot keep the explicit promise he made to the Big Lebowski to act as courier when the kidnappers call, and vice versa. How is the generalist supposed to figure out which rule to follow in situations like this? How are we supposed to figure out what the Dude would do?

Either way, Walter is undaunted. Indeed, his dedication to generalism is so deep and abiding that he would apparently prefer to follow the wrong rules than no rules at all. Contemplating the moral bankruptcy of nihilism with Donny and the Dude at the bowling alley bar, he suggests that even though Hitler’s Nazism is wrong, it’s still better than nihilism: “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” The suggestion here—that even some of the worst principles ever conceived are better than no principles at all—is reminiscent of that old adage, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” This is a pretty low threshold for success, however, which makes Walter’s commitment to generalism look more like an end in itself, rather than a means to the good life. He seems to be more interested in following rules than in doing the right thing, doing good, or anything else. In this light, even the nihilists start to look like reasonable folks.

The term “nihilism” comes from the Latin nihil, or “nothing.” Accordingly, we can understand nihilism as the denial of any objective, intrinsic, or inherent meaning, purpose, or value in human life. As Dieter explains, “Vee belief in nossing, Lebowski! NOSSING!” This is somewhat paradoxical, because to believe in nothing is itself to believe in something: that there are no rules, except this one, which says there are no rules, except this one, which says that there are no rules. . . . (As the Dude suggests, it must be terribly exhausting to pursue a rigorous nihilism.)

This wholesale rejection of objective values includes the kind of moral principles that Walter espouses. As Dieter notes, “Zere ARE no ROOLZ!” If the nihilists don’t follow roolz, then they can’t be generalists as Walter is. Indeed, insofar as they purport to believe in nothing, we might conclude that nihilism is inconsistent with any kind of moral deliberation, including generalism, particularism, and any account of moral deliberation. But nihilism does not entail a rejection of any meaning, purpose, or value whatsoever. Rather, following the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), we can understand one form of nihilism, “active nihilism,” as a challenge for human beings to create and sustain their own meaning, purpose, and value in the world. In this sense, the nihilists can have values and engage in moral deliberation without conceding the existence of any interpersonal, objective moral rules that apply to everyone, everywhere, every when. In effect, this makes the nihilists de facto particularists when it comes to moral deliberation.

Particularism avoids the problems that undermine generalism by rejecting the generalist thesis that moral reasons depend on general principles. Following Jonathan Dancy, we can summarize the particularist account of reasons per se as the thesis that “the behaviour of a reason . . . cannot be predicted from its behaviour elsewhere.” In other words, the fact that a particular act involves lying can count as a reason to conclude that the act is wrong in some cases, but in and of itself, this does not mean that it counts as a reason in any other case. For example, truth telling has a positive valence in many cases, but it can have a negative valence in others, as in cases where telling the truth results in a greater balance of suffering over happiness, or where it entails breaking a promise. Accordingly, Dancy describes moral particularism as the thesis that “the possibility of moral thought and judgment does not depend on the provision of a suitable supply of moral principles.”

As far as our question about the Dude goes, particularism looks like a great alternative to generalism, at least insofar as it allows the moral agents to choose the best course of action without compelling them to justify their acts with general reasons. Still, this negative definition begs the question with regard to reasons in ethics and anywhere else, because it does not explain what underwrites moral reasons, if not coherence with a general principle. In other words, even if we agree that moral reasons do not depend on general principles, this does not help us identify that on which they do depend. This doesn’t seem to bother Dieter, but it presents a challenge for particularism and any particularist answer to our question about the Dude. Because Dieter and the nihilists refuse to follow any general moral principles, we cannot predict exactly what they would do in any given situation.

If they were kind, brave, or honest, however, we could at least conclude that we should act bravely or honestly. Of course, Dieter and the nihilists are not particularly honest. Neither are they brave. As Walter notes, they are all “cowards.” This suggests that their characters lack at least two of the classic Aristotelian ethical virtues: honesty and bravery. Fortunately, the Dude exhibits the kind of abiding, virtuous character necessary to incorporate generalism and particularism. As it struggles against the oppositional view that sets generalists above and against particularists, the film deconstructs this binary model and shows us that this hierarchy is actually arbitrary, because neither approach works on its own, and only an approach that incorporates elements of each can be successful.

The Virtues of the Dude

So, what would the Dude do? This is not a philosophical question, but it is characteristic of virtue theories of ethics. We can characterize virtue theory in terms of its direction of analysis. As Linda Zagzebski explains, virtue theory “makes the concept of a right act derivative from the concept of a virtue.” This means that virtue ethics attempts to understand the moral properties of action (for example, rightness or wrongness) in terms of the moral properties of agents or persons, that is, virtues such as bravery, honesty, and kindness. The key here is that particular acts are not right (or wrong), in and of themselves, but only insofar as they constitute an exercise of virtue (or vice). Accordingly, virtue theories are often described as agent-based, rather than act-based. In contrast, act-based approaches typically characterize right action in terms of its coherence with a general principle, its consequences, its universalizibility, or other properties of the action itself. Here, the focus is on the qualities of acts, rather than the qualities of persons.

These different approaches yield distinct models of practical reasoning or moral deliberation. Act-based theories, from Jeremy Bentham’s (1748–1832) hedonistic calculus to W. D. Ross’s (1877–1971) prima facie duties, aim at formulating decision-making procedures for practical choices. In contrast, agent-based virtue theories focus on long-term characteristic patterns of action or habits, downplaying individual acts and particular choice situations. This shifts the focus from actions to agents, which in turn leads to objections that virtue theory privileges style over substance and has little practical, action-guiding value. If we expect ethical theories to tell us something about what we ought to do in any given situation (not unlike a call to Drs. Laura or Phil), then they are likely to disappoint, because virtues are not geared to resolve specific moral dilemmas.

Part of the point here is that when it comes to making real-time decisions about the right thing to do in any given situation or making retrospective judgments about whether specific actions were right or wrong, virtue theories and act-based theories take different approaches. Act-based theories ask questions about the properties of acts themselves and deemphasize questions about the agent who does or did these acts. Virtue theories ask questions about agents and deemphasize questions about the acts themselves. Thus, while act-based approaches ask, “What ought I do?” or “What ought to be done?” virtue theories focus on questions such as “What kind of person should I be?” or “What kind of life should I live?”

As John McDowell notes, the kind person is one who “can be relied on to behave kindly when that is what the situation requires.” Being kind is not simply behaving kindly in every situation but, rather, behaving kindly when the situation at hand calls for kind behavior, when being kind is “the thing to do.” Again, recall the scene in the bowling alley with Smokey. Because Walter is utterly beholden to his principles, all he can do is follow the rules, which dictate that Smokey’s frame should be marked zero. The Dude, on the other hand, sees that certain contextual details of the situation warrant an exception to the general rule that would otherwise be applicable in this case. For example, Smokey disputes Walter’s perception, arguing that he “wasn’t over” the line at all. Furthermore, Smokey is a friend of both Walter and the Dude, which suggests that he would be disinclined to lie about crossing the line. Finally, the fact that Smokey is a pacifist suggests that he would be disinclined to argue the point if he really did cross the line. Fortunately, the Dude has the practical wisdom necessary to weigh these particular facts against his general principles.

According to Aristotle (384–322 BCE), we acquire the practical wisdom (phron-esis) necessary for virtue by developing an understanding of the good life, first in terms of general principles, for example, to be honest, brave, kind, and what have you, and then in applying them. This practical wisdom is frequently characterized in terms of perception (aistheimage;sis), “discernment,” “situational appreciation,” or an ability to see how general principles apply in unfamiliar situations. If we understand the Dude’s reason for behaving in the way that he does as a recognition that the situation requires a certain sort of action, McDowell wrote, “it must be something of which, on each of the relevant occasions, he is aware.” Accordingly, McDowell argues that virtue involves a “reliable sensitivity to a certain sort of requirement which situations impose on behavior.” The deliverances of this sensitivity are cases of knowledge, whereby one knows when to behave kindly, bravely, or honestly. So they are reasons, but they are not general. Rather, McDowell views the sensitivity as a sort of perceptual capacity through which virtuous persons identify certain aspects of any given situation as salient. Indeed, for McDowell, “virtue, in general, is: an ability to recognize requirements which situations impose on one’s behavior.” If the Dude excels in any facet of his life, it is in recognizing requirements that are not dictated by any general rules—for example, the way the Dude recognizes the requirement to sit patiently through his landlord Marty’s dance recital, despite its silliness.

Instead of applying general principles, then, the Dude practices certain virtues, man. Virtues are like good habits or practiced dispositions to think, feel, and act. As deeply ingrained character traits, ethical virtues such as honesty and bravery are expressed in thoughts, feelings, and actions across a variety of different situations over long, sustained periods and, indeed, the course of a lifetime. Virtue theory holds that the right action in any given situation is what a virtuous person would do in that circumstance, the virtuous person is someone possessed of the virtues and, in an Aristotelian view, the virtues are settled dispositions or habits whose exercise is constitutive of eudaimonia, an ancient Greek term that is variously translated in the parlance of our times as human flourishing, success, happiness, or well-being.

As a single, unemployed alcoholic who struggles to make the rent on his apartment, the Dude is hardly flourishing, however, at least according to these conventional criteria. Neither is he successful in any ordinary sense of the term. In a broad, practical sense, then, the Dude is obviously not much of a role model and not someone to be emulated in terms of driving habits or career moves. In his own way, though, the Dude seems pretty happy and largely content with his life, until he runs into Jackie’s goons. Moreover, he consistently does (or at least tries to do) the right thing. In this narrower, ethical sense, the Dude is largely above reproach, particularly in comparison to the other characters in the film.

Initially, the film appears to offer a stark choice between Walter’s generalism and Dieter’s particularism. Pitting both sides against each other, it presents a privileging of the former, that is, until the beeper dilemma highlights the problems with principled generalism. With the aim to decenter and destabilize its own narrative assumptions, the film deconstructs the conventional debate that sets generalism against particularism. As is typical of a deconstructive analysis, the resolution is indeterminate: the Dude is at once generalist and particularist, both, and neither.


. See Jonathan Dancy, Ethics without Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri C. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 158.

. Terry Eagleton, “Post-Structuralism,” in Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 110–130.

. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), 86; Steven Lynn, Texts and Contexts: Writing about Literature with Critical Theory, 6th ed. (Boston: Longman/Pearson, 2011), 107.

. See Lynn, “Opening Up the Text: Structuralism and Deconstruction,” in Texts and Contexts, 103–136. Lynn offers a clear and detailed explanation of how to perform a deconstructive reading, steps that this chapter employs.

. Robert Gorsch, “The Legacy of Deconstruction,” Educational Perspectives 9, no. 1 (1991): 23.

. J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, 2nd ed., edited by George Sher (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 18.

. See Nietzche’s 1901, The Will to Power, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1968).

. Jonathan Dancy, Moral Reasons (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing, 1993), 60.

. Ibid., 7.

. Linda Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 79.

. Robert Louden, “On Some Vices of Virtue Ethics,” in H. Geirsson and M. Holmgren, eds., Ethical Theory: A Concise Anthology (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2001), 231.

. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907); W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930).

. Louden, 241.

. John McDowell, “Virtue and Reason,” in R. Crisp and M. Slote, eds., Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 142.

. Aristotle, Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985), 163, 349; David Wiggins, “Deliberation and Practical Reason,” in A. Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 233.

. McDowell, 142.

. Ibid.

. Ibid., 144.

. Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 28.

Chapter 2


Craig Jackson

Once there was a man. A man perfect for his time and place . . . that being early 1930s Vienna. The man’s name was Kurt Gödel. At the time, Gödel (1906–1978) had just completed his doctorate in mathematical logic, in which he proved the completeness of first-order predicate logic. That is, he had shown that for first-order theories, the notions of “truth” and “provability” are equivalent. The completeness and consistency of the formal systems used to define mathematics had long been an issue of great concern. Many mathematicians and logicians, including such giants as Frege, Russell, and Hilbert, had long worried that the logical foundation on which all of mathematics was built might suffer from one of the following defects: that either the axioms of the system might not be sufficient to prove all true mathematical statements, or that the system itself might be inherently inconsistent and lead to unavoidable contradictions. Incompleteness or inconsistency, these were the two pitfalls to be avoided. Hence, Gödel’s proof that first-order theories are indeed complete was a milestone in the attempt to find a set of consistent axioms sufficient for all mathematics.

Jeffrey Lebowski ≠ Jeffrey Lebowski

Of course, an “axiom” is a logical or mathematical statement in a formal language that is taken for granted and is assumed to be self-evident, requiring no demonstration. Axioms are the foundation of any formal system. Taken together with the rules of inference in the system, the axioms determine what is “true” or “provable” in the system. To put it another way, axioms are a lot like the rug in the 1998 movie by the Coen brothers, The Big Lebowski. Or at least, the rug can be thought of as an axiom in the formal system that is Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude.

Now, “the Dude as formal system” is not exactly the most logical of all logic metaphors, but there is a sense in which it is helpful for understanding both the mathematical problems confronted by Gödel, as well as the “stupefyin’ story” of The Big Lebowski. The Dude, you see, has a finite set of very basic requirements: bowling, White Russians, his rug. They are pretty much the source of all meaning in his life—or, at least, all pleasure. In fact, the Dude seems to be at his happiest and most content when all three coincide: lying on his rug, drinking Caucasians, and listening to old league playoffs cassettes. The trouble begins, of course, when the Dude’s rug is defiled by Jackie Treehorn’s goons.

Notably, the incident with the rug results from a logical inconsistency. Namely, the discovery of a counter-example to the apparent tautology:

Jeffrey Lebowski = Jeffrey Lebowski

But whatever the cause, it is the result that is important. In the Dude’s case, the piss soaking of his rug seems to set his finely balanced system on a self-destruct course.

The dismay the Dude experiences in losing his rug is a reaction to a sudden glaring incompleteness. What had been a pretty good system was thrown into complete turmoil at the loss of that one small but not inconsequential item. It is a dismay similar to that caused whenever the axioms or the first principles of a formal system are cast into doubt. In 1901, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) showed that the assumptions built into naive set theory lead to an ineliminable paradox. On learning that his own theories actually led to the same unstable conclusion, Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) lamented, “Hardly anything more unfortunate can befall a scientific writer than to have one of the foundations of his edifice shaken after the work is finished.” Indeed, it would take ten years for the foundations of mathematics to be shored up again.

In addition, consider the eighteenth-century geometers who spent decades trying to prove that Euclid’s fifth postulate—necessary for the Euclidean proof of the Pythagorean theorem—was implied by the other four. How would they have taken the news of Lobachevski and Bolyai’s result that the fifth postulate was independent and indeed not even essential? That, moreover, the fifth postulate could be abandoned/replaced, resulting in the creation of vertiginous geometries of “straight” lines that bend forever and that no proper ruler and compass could ever hope to circumscribe?