A Moral Predicament in Groundhog Day?

The Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day” is one of those movies that has made itself into pop culture martyrdom. It is a comedy that centres on a disgruntled and egotistical local news weatherman who is suddenly ‘cursed’ with a time loop. Everyday he has to live with repeating Groundhog Day, and to him there is no way to break the curse.

While the movie was intended and written to be a comedy, there is a scene in the movie where Phil is drinking his sorrows away. Then he poses the question ‘What if there was no tomorrow?’ in which someone replies ‘No tomorrow? That would mean there would be no consequences, no hangovers. WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE WANT!’ This sets a moral predicament for Phil, and poses deeper question – what is moral?

Just after this scene, Phil starts committing minor acts of crime with the car he is driving, which escalates to more serious acts of crime. Phil then as he commits those crimes stating “I’m not going to live by (society’s) rules anymore!” Anyway, Phil’s not going to pay for his actions since he is stuck in a time loop. Christopher Falzon (2007, p. 131) provides a moral philosophy that can be related to Phil – existentialism. Existentialism describes how human beings are free to decide if they want to be moral or not (Falzon, 2007, p. 131). Phil chose to be initially moral – now he chooses to not be moral. He’s not going to suffer any consequences due to his time loop, so why should he follow society’s moral rules? Phil starts to share a point of view existentialists have – life is meaningless (Falzon, 2007, p. 133). After all, he thinks he’s going to be stuck in that time loop forever.

Mary Litch (2004, p. 145) has identified 3 specific stages of being moral – moral objectivism, moral relativism and moral nihilism – three stages that Phil goes through in the film. Phil prior to being stuck in a time loop, is morally objective – believing that there is something morally right and morally wrong (Litch, 2004, p. 146). When he slowly discovers that he is stuck in a time loop, he goes through a state of moral subjectivism. He questions society’s moral constraints in the drunken car scene as he continues a police chase, and believes that moral judgements are subject to one’s individual standards (Litch, 2004, p. 146). As soon as he wakes up the next day, he is at a point of moral nihilism – to Phil, moral statements are meaningless (Litch, 2004, p. 147). Phil is free to do what he wants. He won’t suffer any consequences.

In the end, Phil realises the ways of his actions and starts to do more good and to become a better person. As a result, Phil’s morally right actions had produced good consequences, and as a result the time curse was broken – a sudden return to moral objectivism (Litch, 2004, p. 146). Existentialism plays a big part here – Phil chooses to become moral again. This poses one last question – is morality just a personal choice?

References

Falzon, C. (2007). Crimes and Misdemeanors – Moral Philosophy. In Philosophy Goes To The Movies (pp. 131 – 140). New York: Routledge.

Litch, M. (2004). Ethics. In Philosophy Through Film (pp. 143 – 166). New Jersey: Routledge.

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