I've been compulsively watching and immensely enjoying the 1970s TV series "Columbo". Normally, the episodes open with the eventual murderer being caught completely on the wrong side of objective moral judgement, which in turn leads
them to commit said murder, oftentimes out of either revenge, or as a result of blackmail.
But in the episode I watched last night, by my judgement-- and I think the judgement of any clear-headed, rational person-- the eventual murderer was on the correct
side of the moral issue in question, and, in fact, he is driven to murder by the irrational and violent actors which surround his character!
But before I get to the specifics, let me pose a few hypothetical scenarios to set the stage for my bewilderment:
Let's say that Person A owns a franchise of health clubs. Person B wishes to buy a franchise. In the contract, it's clearly stated that as long as Person B owns the franchise, he must order his exercise equipment from Supplier X. Person B does his math, it all works out favorably for him, and so he voluntarily signs this contract, in full awareness of that stipulation. Has Person A committed a wrong? Clearly not.
Now let's alter the scenario a bit: it's the same situation as above, except that Person A owns
Supplier X, and Person A makes that point clear to Person B. Has Person A done anything wrong? Clearly, still not; Person A can morally own any companies he wants. And Person B has still done his math, and is in full consciousness of the "supplier clause" before he signs the contract.
Let's alter the scenario further
now; let's say everything is the same as the previous scheme, except that Person A doesn't
disclose his ownership of Supplier X. Still, has he done anything wrong? No, he has not; as long as Person B is aware of that he is required to buy his equipment from Supplier X, and he is ok with that fact and the prices of Supplier X-- which he obviously is if he signs the contract-- then what difference on heaven or Earth does it matter who owns that supplier? Person B is buying exercise equipment at price N-- that is the only fact that matters to his reality. Whether Person A, Person Z, the President, or Santa Claus owns the company does not change that-- his!-- reality.
The episode in question is the first, in series 4
. And indeed, that final scenario is the one in question: the "villain" is a highly successful entrepreneur, providing valuable exercise facilities and training to-- judging by the implied scope of his operation-- many thousands
of people trying to improve their standard of living through fitness. We know that he is improving their standard of living, otherwise they wouldn't be patronizing his business in the first place.
But, one of his franchisees learns that the "villain" also owns suppliers that the franchisees are stipulated to purchase from, as stated in the contract-- the very same contract, of course, that this sour grapes "why didn't I think of that?" franchisee eagerly signed in the first place.
At one point, the "villain" (quite correctly) defends himself, saying (I'm paraphrasing, but only a little) that unlike others who are sicking the government on him, he is the one "selling apples on the street corner, and that's hard-- very, very hard. Much harder than being a bureaucrat."
But nonetheless, the franchisee violently threatens to get the "villain" thrown in prison by turning him "over to the SEC". It's also stated by another
character later in the episode that the "villain" is moving much of his profit to an off-shore bank account to avoid paying taxes.
Surely, dear reader, you can understand my confusion by now; to me, this paints a clear picture of irrational and violent characters who are jealous of the "villain's" success. Whereas, the episode's writers seemingly intended for me to have a distasteful
reaction to the "villain", as I quite rightly do have in most of the show's chapters.
It bears reiterating that all of the disgruntled actors in the show were exuberant participants in the "villain's" scheme prior
to knowing who owned the suppliers. Not a single thing
had changed, other than their improved knowledge! How could their violent reactions to their new-found knowledge be rooted in anything but
I remember reading-- I can't find the quote now unfortunately-- that Columbo's success was partially attributed to the fact that it was a "little guy" (blue collar Columbo with his rumpled coat and $11k/yr income) taking down "wealthy and privileged" (as if that happens by magic) people. It reminded me of Ayn Rand's observation that most people hate others who are successful, and actively try to "cut them down to size". I suspect the above-discussed episode was especially playing to that crowd-- because the only way to perceive the "villain" as a bad guy is by adopting that sort of irrational world view.
You can tell the view is irrational in part because the episode description on Wikipedia explains that the "villain" is "overcharging" for his equipment. But to claim something is being "overcharged" is to presuppose some kind of objective price
for said something, against which the "overcharge" can be compared! But, as we know from simple deduction, a price is set according to totally subjective preferences. Whenever the "overcharge" (or "gouge") card is played, you can be sure that the accuser is thinking emotionally, not logically.
What's interesting is that Columbo is enjoyable to me for the exact opposite
reason that it apparently was for lots of others: many of the villains in the show are the best of the best in their respective fields; I view these characters as possessing the brightest minds in their world. So the fun is in watching these brilliant personages going mano-a-mano with the dazzling detective!