Sam and Dean’s ethical codes
I was thinking about Supernatural this morning (well it’s kind of the only thing I think about). And I started thinking about Sam’s morality, and how it is absolutely fascinating because it’s so contradictory and complex, as well as Dean’s.
Dean is a deontologist. Sam is a consequentialist. I put the links to the Wikipedia pages because it was faster than explaining the concepts myself (also philosophy belongs to the Italian part of my brain, so I would have to translate my thoughts in English instead of producing them directly in English, so forgive me) but if you have any doubts or questions, please ask ahead.
Long story short, Sam judges the goodness or evilness of his actions based on the results of his actions. Dean judges the goodness or evilness of his actions based on whether he believes that those actions are inherently good or bad.
Of course these are their moral codes, which means that they don’t necessarily follow them all the time or that they can be absolutely followed in the concrete circumstances of reality. In fact, the most fascinating moments are the ones where either Sam is faced with having to choose whether to do something or not based on the inherent goodness or evilness of the action itself, or Dean is faced with having to do something he deems bad because of the result it would bring.
But deep down, Sam’s ethics are consequentialists, while Dean’s ethics are deontological. Sam does consider the Ruby deal and the demon blood bad, but eventually he regrets them because the result of those actions was bad. If killing Lilith wasn’t the last seal, if killing Lilith would have indeed prevented the apocalypse, he would have deemed the demon blood thing as something that was just the best option he had, although something better would have been preferable. Dean, on the other end, doesn’t care about what end the action could bring. If the action is bad, it’s bad, and you shouldn’t do it.
I’m not demonizing either of them. Both consequentialism and deontology are valid ethic codes, and can’t be confuted. Each of us is either a consequentialist or a deontologist (or something in the middle of the two extremes, of course), so each of us would see Dean and Sam’s ethics differently. If you’re a consequentialist, you’d see Dean as unnecessarily and often damagingly rigid; if you’re a deontologist, you’d see Sam as dangerously verging on immoral.
But what makes Sam and Dean even more fascinating, is that their moral code doesn’t stop there, in fact is way more complex.
Because, after considering that Sam is a consequentialist and Dean is a deontologist, you’d expect Sam to see the world in a scale of grays while Dean sees the world in black and white. But it’s the opposite, actually.
For Sam, someone is either good, and must be protected, or evil, and must be killed painfully. This is why the idea of Azazel contaminating him with demon blood is so devastating for him - because he can’t decide whether he himself is good or evil. He can’t really conceive the idea that you can be a mixture of goodness and badness. Dean is good so he deserves to be cured of the Mark and live. Crowley is evil so he deserves to die choking on his own demon-ness.
I’ve always found the episode Hook Man extremely interesting. Because Lori represents Sam (it’s the episode just after Skin, when we have the shapeshifter that takes Dean’s form, now we basically have Lori “taking Sam’s form” in a way). Lori causes people to be killed by the Hook Man because she deems them as immoral. Her sex-seeking boyfriend, her sexually disinhibited best friend, her hypocritical father - deep down her mind, she has labelled them as deserving punishment. Of course she’s doing it completely involuntarily and she’s horrified when she finds out what’s happening. Sam, on the other hand - if the Hook Man had attached to him, would he be horrified to discover that he was causing the death of people he judged as evil? I don’t think he would be that upset. A little shaken, of course, because, well, a ghost who kills people you deem evil is not exactly your everyday event. It wouldn’t really be such a bad idea for Sam, deep down, though.
Dean, on the other hand, is used to see people as gray instead of black and white. Although you could argue that in the beginning of the show, he was like that too. But I don’t think so. We have to separate Dean-Dean from the John-built-persona-Dean. Dean-Dean knows people are not either 100% evil or 100% good. He knows perfectly well he’s not 100% evil or 100% good himself (even after Hell, he considers himself weak and messed-up and unworthy, not “evil”). Dean also knows perfectly that his father is not 100% evil or 100% good. He pretends that John is always right and always does the best he can, but he never deludes himself into thinking that John is 100% good. His whole life is a proof of that, after all (believe me - if a person makes your mother cry, you’ll never be able to see them as 100% good just from that). Dean imposes the “black and white way of seeing the world” on himself out of survival instinct. And I’m not only referring to survival-from-monsters, but also survival-from-John. He models himself after what John wants him to be because he has to.
But deep down, his world is much “grayer” than he makes it seem. That’s why he is able to make such a deep connection to Cas way before Sam does. Sam sees “angel” and immediately puts the label “good”, then he realizes angels aren’t the way he thought they were and puts the label “evil”. Dean sees Cas as a gray person - just like Dean himself - way before Sam manages to do it.
You’ll say: what about monsters and demons? Dean sees them as 100% evil! Yes and no. He doesn’t see them as people, at least in the first seasons of the show. His “gray vision” only applies to beings that he deems “people”. It’s completely normal - every one of us only applies the categories of “good” and “evil” to beings we deem as endowed with moral judgement and free will. A bear that kills someone isn’t evil, because she’s just following her nature and you got too close to her cubs and in her mind danger=kill. A person with a severe psychosis that harms someone because of an hallucination isn’t evil. A vase that falls from a windowsill and breaks someone’s skull isn’t evil. And so on.
John has taught Dean that monsters are monsters, not people. So Dean doesn’t apply the categories he applies to people. Sure, demons are “evil” but that’s because they’re demons, their nature is to be evil, period. They’re like viruses, you try to eradicate them because they harm and kill people, but you don’t see viruses in in the same way the legislation of a country or state that allows the death penalty sees criminals (at least in theory, but I’d digress).
Casey in Sin City is incredibly important because she makes Dean start to realize that demons are “people”, in the sense of the word we’re considering here. Thanks to Casey, he doesn’t just shoot Ruby with the Colt as soon as he gets the chance, but he tolerates her presence (in fact, after he discovers Ruby had saved Sam from his suicidal impulses while Dean was in hell, he warms up to Ruby a lot for a while, he sees her as a person). Thanks to Casey (and I’m not saying that names were picked on purpose because it’s impossible but I’m saying that Name Providence exists in this show), he’s able to look past the “angel thing” and see Cas as a person as soon as he realizes Cas isn’t a marble statue.
(Speaking of Ruby, I think that Sam’s relationship with her is fascinating for the very reason that he decides to take a step back from his way of judging people - and the reason he does it is because of his consequentialist attitude, Ruby is a means to an end, he later grows attached to her but he definitely didn’t mean to.)
In Brother’s Keeper, all of this floats to the surface. Sam can’t conceive that Dean may have evilness in him, because in his mind Dean=good. The Mark of Cain has inserted evilness in Dean, but that evilness is like a foreign object that has been put inside Dean. Dean, on the other end, acknowledges that there’s evilness in him, and he reckons that the influence of the Mark is making that evilness all he is, but he doesn’t delude himself into thinking that even without the Mark he’s a perfectly spotless good person. The same applies to his view of Sam - he acknowledges that Sam isn’t a perfectly spotless good person too, because no one is.
I expect that next season, Dean will more or less explicitly tell Sam “stop arbitrarily deciding who’s good and who’s evil”, most likely in reference to Crowley, since Sam is in a very “Crowley=evil=kill” mindset right now, while Dean acknowledges that he’s a lot of things in common with Crowley and is much softer in his judgment of him, but ultimately in a wider sense that goes beyond Crowley specifically.
In the finale, Dean talks about how “evil tracks [them]” and everyone close to them ends up dying, and he says “It’s time we put a proper name to what we really are and we deal with it”. And Sam immediately replies “Wait a second. We are not evil. Listen, we’re far from perfect, but we are good. That thing on your arm is evil. But not you, not me.” And Dean replies “I let Rudy die. How was that not evil?” And then he mentions Sam’s driving Lester to sell his soul, and getting Charlie killed. He asks Sam “how is that not evil” in reference to removing the Mark “no matter the consequences”. Sam replies that Dean has summoned Death to prevent himself from harming other people, and he says “That’s not an evil man. This a good man crying to be heard, searching for some other way.” And they after they fight he says “You’ll never ever hear me say that you, the real you, is anything but good”. And Dean rolls his eyes because Sam just doesn’t get the point.
They’re speaking two different languages. Sam is saying “we aren’t evil, we’re good” while Dean is saying “we’ve been doing evil things”. Dean is speaking about actions, Sam is speaking about an inherent quality that defines them. Dean talks about letting Rudy die, getting Lester sell his soul, getting Charlie killed… specific actions. Sam is like, “you are an inherently good man”. He thinks in a dichotomy, “a man is either evil or good” and Dean isn’t evil, so he’s good! While Dean acknowledges that they’re not either good or evil. They’re people and people to either good or evil actions.
Sam needs to learn something Dean already knows - that people aren’t either good or evil, but a mixture of the two, and what counts is what they do, not what they are. Sam was obsessed about the demon blood in him because it was afraid it made him a freak, a monster, evil. Sam, throughout the whole show, has been trying to prove (including to himself) that he’s good, not evil. Dean wants to do something about the Mark because the Mark makes him do evil things. Dean, throughout the show, has been trying to do good things. That’s the main difference between them. And they won’t be on the same page until they see the world in the same way, or better until Sam sees the world the same way Dean does, because that’s healthier and more accurate.