W&L Philosophy Professor's Moral View of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

James Mahon, associate professor of philosophy, Washington and Lee University

James Mahon

In Swedish author Stieg Larsson's popular Millennium Trilogy, the primary protagonists — computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist — engage in deception on numerous occasions as they deal with psychotic villains and the authorities.

Are their actions justified? Can they be excused? Or are some of their activities simply unacceptable, morally or ethically? That is the issue that Washington and Lee University philosophy professor James Mahon tackles in an essay published in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy, edited by Eric Bronson, the latest book in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series from Wiley.

In the book's closing chapter, "To Catch a Thief: The Ethics of Deceiving Bad People," Mahon argues that most people would say that Blomkvist's lies are either justified or excused. “But in the case of the computer hacker Salander," he said, "many of her lies may be justified or excused, but at least some of her lies are neither justified nor excused."


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Mahon explores the difference between saying that an action is justified and is the right thing to do, and saying that an action is excused and that its doer is not to be blamed for the action.

“For example, if I shout at a child, then my action may be justified if the child was about to touch a hot stove,” said Mahon. “Or it may be excusable if, say, I have been unable to sleep for days and the child is making a racket.”

The Larsson trilogy—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest — has been wildly popular as mystery novels. Mahon said they offer more than just a good story, however.

"There are more things going on in the novels because the author was not any old crime writer," said Mahon. "He was a very serious man with a very serious political and social cause. While writing these gripping plots, he managed to write novels that are also about really important social, political and moral questions.

"The novels are not presenting us with heroines and heroes whom we can unanimously and unequivocally endorse. There are some ethical differences, I suspect, between readers and these characters. I certainly entertain those differences. I think that is a way to show respect for the novels and to argue that we shouldn't be so enthusiastic about every single kind of deception and retaliation that is being practiced by these characters."

For further information on the book, see the publisher’s website.

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Jeffery G. Hanna
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