Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Sopranos - Family Values

Being an insufferable pedant I've been reading Sopranos criticism online, including this piece which comes from a book that purports to be a philosophical reflection on the Sopranos repleat with a discourse on Plato's views about the corrupting influence of art. This essay is especially obtuse as well as inflated, but much of the criticism seems to me to get it wrong in suggesting that there's something surprising about the bifurcation of Tony's life as mob boss and family man and that his roles exist in a tension that has driven him to panic attacks, therapy and will likely result in some sort of breakdown.

Nonsense. We all do it. And the real philosophical issue that the author of the linked essay has completely missed is that it is a consequence of the conceptual bifurcation between "private morality" and "professional ethics."

We asked students once, in our Women and Work class, whether there was a difference between "morality" and "ethics" and, if there was, to explain what it was. After about half an hour of discussion eliciting student's linguistic intuitions, we came up with the following picture:

Morality is essentially sentimentality, an "ethic of care." It's not rational and can't be argued about: it's a matter of feelings--not either utility calculations or duty. You should be moral with your family and friends. But morality is impractical and out of place in work situtions--after all, you can't hire someone just because they need the work. In the real world you have to follow "professional ethics," the particular codes of conduct for various occupations. Morality is also not realistic in public life--you can't just give away money, it has to come from somewhere. Liberals just don't realize that businesses can't afford to give away products to people who need them or keep incompetent employees on because they need work; they don' t realize that if you tax the rich to provide handouts so that everyone will be exactly equal there will be no incentives. More generally, they don't realize that you have to be rational in work and politics so you can't afford morality.

Tony is just following the standard program: morality at home; professional ethics on the job. It just happens that the code of conduct for his particular line of work licenses extortion, drug-dealing, whoring and murder. All his troubles come about when the wall of seperation between the domestic sphere and his professional life thin--when, e.g. his gumuhs make contact with Carmella.

On Sunday, Adriana was whacked. The FBI was blackmailing her after one of the drug dealers that frequented the club killed a buy in her office and she became involved in the coverup. She confessed that she'd been an informer to Chris on the promise that the FBI would get them into the witness protection program. Chris told Tony who had her executed.

This was inevitable once Chrissy set up Adriana with a business that would become a venue for mob activities, breeching the wall of separation. The system only works when women, children and other contacts in the "civilian" world are strictly segregated from professional activities. Chris brought it on himself. He could have married Adriana and installed her in a suburban mini-mansion in North Caldwell, or set her up with a boutique or some other safe, legitimate business. But he drew her into the margin of his professional world and made her, unwillingly, subject to its code of professional ethics, so she ends up dead and he ends up in mourning and back on drugs. Tsk, tsk.

Now compare this to Tony who, at the end of the same episode moves back in with Carmella for a happy ending after promising in effect that he will not allow his professional activities, in this case whoring, interfere with domestic life. Tony has played it right, setting up Carmella in North Caldwell, far from the Bada Boom Club, and he shall have his reward. So will Carmella.

Is Carmella as badly off as most critics think--or as one suggests, an expensive whore? Not in the least. For all her intermittent Catholic guilt she is not doing anything wrong by living off of what her shrink calls "blood money." Nothing she does can make any difference to Tony's professional activities and, as Tony reminded her in an earlier episode, she knew what she was getting into. She might as well enjoy it.


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