Torture, heating ducts and liberty in Brazil (1985)

A philosophical review and analysis of Brazil (1985).A philosophical review and analysis of Brazil (1985)

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Imagine Mary Poppins has a drunken night out with George Orwell. Imagine they consummate their aberrant passion amongst enormous heating vents that snake through their bedroom, barely leaving enough space to dream. Imagine eyes peering at them through every peephole; ears listening through every crack in the technicolored walls that shift and pulse with the writhing air-conditioning pipes.

Their bastardized lovechild, the phantasmagoric acid-trip that results, is director Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil.

[If you haven’t seen the film yet, feel free to read on. This is a spoiler-free review.]

With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 98%, and a hallowed IMDB rating above 8/10, Brazil (1985) tells the story of Sam Lowry, a low-level governmental officer in a bureaucracy gone mad. The totalitarian state regulates every aspect of society with appalling ineptitude, from botched air-conditioning maintenance of the ubiquitous air vents, to torture of innocent civilians accused of treason.

Sam, who is unusually good at his job, notices a bureaucratic blunder. He finds a typographical error that results in the wrong man arrested for crimes against the state – family man Archibald Buttle, rather than air-conditioning terrorist Archibald Tuttle (played by the dashing Robert De Niro). When Sam attempts to rectify the error, he becomes an unwitting enemy of the clunky, but brutal, state of Brazil.

A philosophical review and analysis of Brazil (1985)

In addition to the gorgeously designed sets, hilarious social commentary, and megalomaniacal characters that are both absurd, and eerily familiar in today’s politics – in addition to all of this, Gilliam raises a tough philosophical question that we should all be discussing in our current political landscape:

Should citizens be allowed complete freedom (or liberty)? Put otherwise, is the state ever justified in stopping a citizen from doing what he wants?

To see the importance, and difficulty, of this question today, consider the dogged debates around gun control, gay marriage, and border control. If the state has unlimited reach, it can nullify your marriage and deport on a whim. On the other hand, if the state has no power, it can’t adequately prevent mass shootings. The question of how much power the state should have over its citizens is crucial.

Gilliam’s answer seems clear enough. In Brazil, the state is a polymorphous monstrosity, with tentacles that disrupt every aspect of private life. It destroys families (poor Archibald Buttle), drops commandos through your ceiling mid-coitus (not something you ever want to experience), and destroys personal space (Sam Lowry’s apartment is nine parts heating vent to one part living space). Gilliam, in other words, provides a case for Anarchism.

A philosophical review and analysis of Brazil (1985)

In this context, Anarchism is the position that the state is never justified in limiting a citizen’s freedom. You want to take your Pitbull, Roughage, for a walk? No problem. The state isn’t justified in stopping you. Not when you’re walking peacefully. Not when Roughage, who eats a balanced diet, decides to shit on the sidewalk. And not even when you decide to spice things up a little, by instructing Roughage to attack the irritating neighbor who stuck a note to your door last week.

On the other hand, Totalitarians hold that the state is always justified in limiting a citizen’s freedom, so long as it serves the goals of the state. These goals usually involve cohesion of the populace under a common ideal, such as social harmony, productivity, or in more flavorful regimes, world domination.

So, which side of the debate do you support? Anarchism or Totalitarianism? I’m guessing: neither. Both are too extreme, you say. There must be some middle ground.

There must be some principle that tells us when the state can intervene legitimately in the lives of its citizens, and when it can’t.

Libertarians argue that limiting a person’s freedom is alright some of the time, (e.g. preventing you from letting Roughage loose on the neighbor), but usually it’s not alright to limit a person’s freedom (e.g. stopping you from walking Roughage peacefully on a lead). If you’re looking for a Libertarian principle, look no further than the philosophical rockstar, John Stuart Mill.

If you have a philosopher in your life, you’ve probably seen it happen. You know what I’m talking about: their eyes glaze over; the craters in their perpetually bunched foreheads smooth; their gaze lifts to the heavens; and their voice rises an octave. Yes, that’s right. You know what’s about to happen.

They’re about to quote J. S. Mill.

Mill is the doyen, the Abraham Lincoln, of philosophers. Why? Because he’s one of the few of our kind who actually made a difference to anyone at all. Mill was instrumental in giving women the right to vote, in cleaning up Britain’s appalling 19th century sanitation system, and in developing the democratic process. Among all this, Mill came up with a principle for settling the dispute between Anarchists and Totalitarians, called the Harm Principle:

The only time the state may prevent its citizens from acting, is to prevent them from harming one another.

The Harm Principle captures why the state shouldn’t allow me to attack my neighbor, because that would harm the neighbor. The Harm Principle also explains why the state can’t stop me from walking Roughage peacefully, since that doesn’t harm anyone.

A philosophical review and analysis of Brazil (1985)

Sounds good? You agree with Mill? Well then, think about these cases …

We don’t think of fetuses or animals as citizens. So, on Mill’s Harm Principle, the state should allow me to perform medical experiments on my 8 month-old fetus. And the state should have no issue if I want to use fetuses as pothole filler. Since fetuses aren’t citizens, the state can’t prevent me from abusing fetuses in any way. Similarly, suppose I adore the soothing sounds of animal shrieks. Specifically, every Sunday morning, I enjoy performing vivisection (live dissection) of dogs and chimpanzees. I record the sounds, compile the Best of Vivisection soundtrack, and make millions of dollars on YouTube. The state, on Mill’s principle, shouldn’t intervene.

A philosophical review and analysis of Brazil (1985)

Wait! you shout. We can avoid these counterexamples by including fetuses and animals as protected citizens. That way, Mill’s Harm Principle protects them just as it would protect anyone else. But if that’s the case, then the state is justified in forcing all citizens to become vegetarians (since we can’t very well go around eating other citizens). Now you might think that vegetarianism is good, but forcing all citizens to be vegetarians seems a little too Draconian. Not many Libertarians would be happy with this result.

There are other types of problem cases too. What exactly does it mean to ‘harm’ another citizen? Do we harm another person when we cause them distress (or mental anguish)? If distress doesn’t count as harm, then Mill’s principle sees no issue with parading oneself nude in front of the neighbor’s children. Or renting music-concert-worthy speakers, cranking them up to maximum volume, directing them at the neighbor’s bedroom window, and blaring Tom Jones’s Sex Bomb on repeat all through the night. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, unit 6 of my apartment building.)

You might defend Mill’s principle, and avoid these cases by including mental anguish as harm to another person. But then the state would be allowed to prevent gay people from having sex because the mere thought of it causes homophobes anguish.

A philosophical review and analysis of Brazil (1985)

And the problem cases for Mill’s principle don’t stop there. If I consent to you harming me, is it actually harm? Suppose I enjoy rough sex: whips chains, teeth and all. I beg you to tie me up, and have your way with me. It seems you’re not harming me when you do so – at least not harming me in a way that the state should be able to prevent. But if you agree that consensual harm isn’t really harm, then on Mill’s Principle, the state can’t prevent me from selling myself into slavery, or from selling my organs to pay off a loan shark, or from instructing my GP to give me a lethal shot of potassium because I haven’t enjoyed the recent rainy weather.

So where does this leave us? Anarchism is too weak – it doesn’t allow the state to prevent me from attacking my neighbor with Roughage. Totalitarianism is too strong – Nazism was never a great solution. And Libertarianism isn’t convincing – Mill’s Harm Principle doesn’t provide a good way to distinguish when the state can and can’t intervene in the lives of its citizens. Libertarianism can’t handle problem cases involving harm to fetuses and animals, mental anguish, and willful slavery.

I have a solution to the problem for you, but first, I want to know: what do you think? Answer in the poll below.

If you trawled the trove of political articles prior to the last election, everyone and his Pitbull seemed to know the answer to this problem. But it seems there’s no good solution. What’s interesting is: why? Why there is no good solution to the problem of state intervention?

The reason, I think, is that politics is nonsense.

What do I mean by this?

The question of how much power the state should have over its citizens essentially comes down to the question: “how should the state act towards its citizens?” But this question, I think, is fundamentally misguided.

A philosophical review and analysis of Brazil (1985)

We think of the state as an institution that governs a collection of people – its citizenry.  But it doesn’t make sense to think about the actions committed by institutions as actions that ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ happen. This is because it only makes sense to think about ‘shoulds’ in terms of morality, and morality involves individuals (rather than institutions and collectives).

When I do something right or wrong, it’s because my action (as an individual) impacts other individuals in a positive or negative way. It’s wrong for me to attack my neighbor, because that attack impacts the neighbor, as an individual, negatively. If you want to know whether you, as an individual, should intervene in my action, consider whether doing so will have a net positive benefit for everyone involved. Should you stop me from attacking my neighbor? Yes, because that will prevent his suffering.

The solution, then, is to drop discussion of politics altogether, and talk about the morality of individuals instead. Don’t ask what the government should or shouldn’t do. There’s no good answer to that question. Ask instead what individuals should or shouldn’t do to other individuals. Should I, as a border guard, let through this immigrant? On balance, would it benefit everyone to do so?

Think in terms of individuals, and the problem of state power becomes a different beast. A beast we can grapple with.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s your solution to the problem of how much power the state should yield?

About the Author

best philosophical sci-fi movies her 2013Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.

He’s the author of the sci-fi thriller trilogy, Defragmenting Daniel, two novels, Hedon and The Solace Pill, and the short story anthology, Obsidian Worlds. His books will make your brain hurt. And you’ll come back for more.

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  • Karen Giasson

    I feel that the state should only intervene when something you do harms others. Even with this statement there could be arguments for both sides.

  • blanche padgett

    I don’t mind if a child molester gets raped by a bunch of men. That’s harm he caused someone that didn’t deserve it so he gets harmed in return. No state intervention.

    • Jason1

      In cases like that, where the molester is punished by others, it seems like state intervention isn’t necessary. But what if the molester gets away with it? Should the state intervene then?

      • blanche padgett

        Sincerely no molester will get away with mothers around. Just in case, though, a well placed word and the state would not have to be involved.

        • Jason1

          You might think that the structures you’re putting in place – a bunch of men, or a group of mothers, or a network of concerned citizens – are effectively acting as a government? And saying that they should punish the molester is effectively arguing for state intervention.

          • blanche padgett

            No not really. It’s a great idea. The state should intervene in cases like that. Where harm comes to others or if possible even before it happens and making sure people like that don’t get out to hurt others.

      • lizlizzie2

        When a mob provides “justice” it is usually a very bad idea. In America we have seen the mob mentality burn “witches” in the Northeast especially, or execute those they disagreed with over land and card games in the “Wild West”. We have also seen how mobs can treat gay and transgendered persons – all claiming to be doing the morally right thing.

        • Jason1


  • Eolyn V Roberts

    Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to it’s neighbor.

  • Michael Ferguson

    My name is Michael and I have a problem with authority. That said, I don’t think having a country run like a free for all is a good idea either. I want something in the middle.We should be allowed to judge for ourselves when it is okay to break the law or not. Sometimes getting away with small illegal stuff can be fun and I don’t want that rush to be taken away from me.

  • Pam E

    I agree with you on the idea of using morality as a base, rather than government (who get it wrong far to many times). There can be actions that are morally right even though they might not be legal according to the bigwigs.
    It is an incredibly complex issue, I don’t know what would happen about people with no sense of morality if this was used.

    • Jason1

      Yes, it also seems intuitive to me that there are plenty of situations where it’s moral to do something that’s illegal. In Johannesburg, where I live, it’s dangerous to drive late at night, and one shouldn’t stop at street lights if the road is clear. It’s perfectly moral to drive through a stop sign under those circumstances, but it’s illegal.

      Regarding your second point, you’ll probably find that people without a sense of morality will misbehave whether or not there’s a state. They’ll just be more covert about it if there’s a government that may punish them.

  • Very difficult for me to respond, but only because I detest politics so much. For every line I share, there could be ten comeback references why my ideas are ridiculous. I’ll continue to read the responses and just conversations with myself. 🙂

  • lizlizzie2

    When you place it in a moral category don’t we still have the problem of what is morally right and wrong? I have too many relative who think gay relationships are morally wrong. My mother thinks it was morally wrong for the school to allow my 30 year old unmarried pregnant daughter to teach high school students.

    • Jason1

      I take your point here, Liz. By suggesting that we talk about the morality of individuals instead of the legitimacy of the state, I’m replacing one problem (political legitimacy) with another equally difficult problem (morality). And you’re absolutely right – we have enormous disagreement about what is moral in many situations.

      I still think the substitution of morality for political legitimacy is useful, for two reasons. First, it seems to me like morality is a more fundamental problem than politics. That is, to solve the question, How much should the state intervene?, we would need to answer the question, What best supports the happiness of citizens?, plus a bunch of other questions. In other words, we will have to solve the problem of morality anyway, whether or not you think there’s a solution to the problem of political legitimacy. Eliminating these extra political questions and just keeping the moral component simplifies the issue.

      Second, although there’s disagreement about what the moral action is for an individual in certain situations, those situations will be quite different from scenarios where we don’t know what the state should do. For example, it’s a nightmare of political reasoning to decide how open the state’s borders should be as a matter of principle. But it seems easier to decide whether a particular immigrant will benefit society by crossing the border – we could assess the probability of Joanne, specifically, to contribute to society as a whole, taking into account her happiness. So, in at least certain debates, morality (in the form of Utilitarianism) will provide a solution where we couldn’t previously make much headway.

  • SenorSensible

    Well the ideal state is a distillation of the wishes of its citizen electors so it doesn’t intervene but simply administrates the will of the people. Brazil is, by the way one of my favorite films of all time. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. Thanks

    • Jason1

      That’s a clever solution to the problem – it isn’t state intervention when the state merely enacts the will of the people. Effectively, that’s the solution of democracy.

      The problem then becomes this: why think that the will of the people is always legitimate? A number of counterexamples to the legitimacy of democratic outcomes spring to mind. For example, in South Africa we have a democratically elected president – Jacob Zuma – who is brazenly corrupt. Yet, he and his actions have majority support. Or, to use @lizlizzie2:disqus’s example, suppose the majority of citizens believe it’s good and proper to burn witches (as has happened in the past). Is it then legitimate for the state to sponsor witch-hunts on Sundays?

  • lizlizzie2

    John Adams said something to the effect that to determine the form of government you must first determine the goal of government. Madison pointed out that when you give government the power to control the governed you must then find a way for the government to control itself.

    Ask what individuals should or shouldn’t do? People aren’t going to agree. Some people’s ideas of what they should be allowed to do would scare me. On the other hand, my belief that what two consenting adults do in private is not anyone’s business and that love between adults in all forms (gay, straight, bi-sexual, transgendered, and whatever other terms are in today’s lexicon) is acceptable offends a lot of people I know. My ideas in regards to women’s rights and what is acceptable behaviour by a man offends men, women, and many women rights activists. (Yes, you can whistle at me; it doesn’t offend me.) I think leaving it all in the hands of each individual to behave appropriately will create chaos and additional harm.

    • Jason1

      This is the classic problem of anarchism vs state control: if one leaves it up to individuals, there’s a risk of chaos, but if one leaves it up to the state, then there’s the possibility of controlling that chaos, but perhaps in an illegitimate way.

      To solve this problem, most people focus on how the state should act – e.g. come up with solutions like Libertarianism. But we might also come up with better moralities – e.g. more sophisticated types of Utilitarianism. You can argue that not all people will follow these Utilitarian accounts. And that’s true. But on the other hand, the state probably won’t always follow Libertarian principles either.

  • Jamm B.

    Wow that’s quite the mind bender there. I believe that it does come down to whether or not we are morally using our freedom properly. But then that’s what separates us from the animals. And Brazil is one of my favorite films to say the least, maybe a nightmare of mine too. As it is certainly one way we all would not like to live… Oh and the song is very catchy too. Love it!!! But it is a good representation of our stuggles under man lead governments, even it is humorous, where as real life situations are not…

  • Shannon Carlin

    Morality is the best way to govern; however this is still incredibly difficult since each person has their own morals.

  • Eric Jewett

    I’ll admit that I’m conflicted – a libertarian liberal. If my neighbor’s dog-killing symphony causes me pain, is that suffering proscribed? I would certainly hope so. Ayn Rand’s position was that providing for common defense and safety was about the only thing that should be centrally managed and everything else would fall to a free marketplace. Not so sure I can go that far, and quoting Rand puts you on the right-wing-nut mailing lists, mostly populated by those who never really read her work.

  • marypreston

    I have a big problem when my philosophies do not match those of the powers that be. It makes me think that they don’t know the people at all as they sit up on their self-important lofty towers.

  • Jonathon Kahn

    I had no idea this film existed but the review of it has made me want to go out and buy it. It’s has elements, it would seem to me, of the book It can’t happen here by Sinclair Lewis.

    • Jason1

      Thank you for the recommendation, Jonathon! I’ve added it to my To-Read list.

  • Julie Rod.

    I think this is a really great post!

  • vachona

    I think there is a balance. Too much government is just as bad as too little. And the needs of one area might not be the same as those of another, hence state’s rights to self-governance.