The following article contains mild spoilers for Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Proceed at your own discretion.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout doesn’t open with an action sequence (unlike most of the films in its series) but with a nightmare. Ethan Hunt envisions remarrying his ex-wife, Julia, only to discover that the wedding’s pastor is Solomon Lane, the villain of the fifth film in the series, Rogue Nation. Lane then tells Hunt, “You should’ve killed me, Ethan.”
Should he have? Hunt would like to think not, but with Lane lurking in the shadows, his loved ones (namely Julia) are more susceptible to danger than they would be if Lane were dead. Should protecting your loved ones justify murder?
Ever since the first Mission: Impossible film in 1996, Ethan Hunt has been delineated as the kind of superhuman where the super doesn’t override the human. His capacity to survive precarious stunts aside, Hunt is distinguished by his circumvention of unnecessary death in his espionage escapades. No film in the series highlights this component of Hunt’s characterization as thoroughly as Fallout.
Hunt’s moral code is evocative of the eponymous philosophy of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Kantianism. Kantianism belongs to the branch of normative ethics known as deontology, that deems an act moral if the act itself is intrinsically good. Kantianism distinguishes itself from deontological counterparts is by its categorical imperative, which consists of three facets.
- Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
- Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
- Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in a universal kingdom of ends.
A few out-of-character moments notwithstanding, Hunt has generally acted in accordance with Kant’s categorical imperative throughout the series. Take a moment in Fallout’s HALO jump sequence, for example, when August Walker is struck by lightning and his oxygen tank subsequently gets detached. Even in the midst of a harrowing experience, Hunt nonetheless takes the effort to replace Walker’s oxygen tank with his own, rather than letting him die. It’s this reluctance to kill and unquenchable devotion for justice that makes Ethan Hunt Ethan Hunt.
Ethan Hunt has been delineated as the kind of superhuman where the super doesn’t override the human. His capacity to survive precarious stunts aside, Hunt is distinguished by his circumvention of unnecessary death in espionage escapades. No film in the series highlights this component of Hunt’s characterization as thoroughly as Fallout.
Hunt’s task in the beginning of Fallout is to impede the terrorist organization, The Apostles, from attaining three plutonium cores which they intend to use to contaminate the water supplies of China, India, and Pakistan. Hunt fails to accomplish this as his friend, Luther Stickell, is held hostage and Hunt can only save him if he gives The Apostles what they desire. Under pressure, Hunt prioritizes Stickell’s life over millions. Though he succeeds in keeping his friend alive, he gives The Apostles what they require to engage in a global catastrophe in the process.
From a Kantian standpoint, Hunt is morally justified in attempting to save Stickell. Though thousands of millions are in harm’s way, that shouldn’t invalidate Stickell’s right to live. Stickell is no less important than anyone in potential harm. However, when viewed under a consequentialist lens, Hunt isn’t justified. The opposite of deontology, consequentialism is a class of normative ethics that deems an act moral if its consequences are good. A consequentialist would, therefore, argue that the multitude of potential deaths should negate Stickell’s existence.
The Apostles themselves would be classified as consequentialists. They believe that “the greater the suffering, the greater the peace.” In their eyes, modern government systems are ineffectual. To rectify this, The Apostles believe they must cause a catastrophe that will prompt world governments to join forces to solve issues that will, in turn, lead to peace. In the ultimate scheme of things, Hunt and The Apostles share the same objective. The intentions behind both of their actions are identical: to serve society. Yet Hunt and The Apostles are adversaries because Hunt won’t tolerate the methods The Apostles use to achieve their goals.
In my eyes, the fundamental question Mission: Impossible – Fallout finds itself concerned with is the morality of Hunt’s approach. It is his approach that facilitates The Apostles’ desire to get their hands on the plutonium, therefore putting the world at risk. It’s this approach that leaves Julia in greater danger than she would be if Hunt’s approach were something else. Hunt is preserving Kantian stances on morality, but why should that matter?
Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s ethics reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Bridge of Spies is the true story of James B. Donovan, a lawyer who defended an accused Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, in the height of the Cold War. During a period of profound terror, Donovan distinguished himself through his integrity. He consistently acted in accordance with the US Constitution, whereas most Americans were too afraid to consider their country’s values. Through his genuine respect for the Constitution, deft argumentative skills, and, most importantly, his regard for human life, Donovan prevented Abel from facing the death penalty, in spite of widespread public support for Abel’s execution. Sparing Abel proved to be beneficial for the US as it granted them the ability to successfully engage in a prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union and East Germany between Rudolf Abel, Francis Gary Powers, and Frederic Pryors, which Donovan was a part of. That wouldn’t have been possible had Abel been executed.
Ethan Hunt will go the extra mile to thwart schemes to destroy the world, not necessarily because he cares for the world itself, but for those who inhabit it.
Ethan Hunt relates back to this. His moral compass provides him with a value for life. Life matters to Ethan Hunt, especially when it concerns his loved ones. The emotions Hunt experiences with those he cares about imbues him with an obligation to protect them. Ethan Hunt will go the extra mile to thwart schemes to destroy the world, not necessarily because he cares for the world itself, but for those who inhabit it. For him, it’s not about saving one life over millions, or vice versa. It’s about saving everyone.