The Ethics of Nothing

Published: June 29, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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Throughout millennia, philosophers have pondered questions like: What is good? What is truth? What is justice?

In the world of Seinfeld, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer ponder nothing but themselves. However, all display a variety of philosophical types.

George is the fatalist. “My father was a quitter, my grandfather was a quitter, I was raised to give up. It’s one of the few things I do well.”

Jerry is the skeptic.

Elaine: So you’re saying that 95% of the population is undateable?


Elaine: Then how are all these people getting together?


Kramer is the existentialist.

Jerry: [Kramer returning from Baseball Fantasy Camp] I thought you weren’t coming back till Monday.

Kramer: Well, the camp ended a few days early.

Jerry: What happened?

Kramer: I punched Mickey Mantle in the mouth.

And Elaine is the fallibilist.

Elaine: You know what your problem is? Your standards are too high.

Jerry: I went out with you.

Elaine: That’s because my standards are too low.

Most every episode begins with a simple premise that grows exponentially into a morass of moral ambiguity.

In The Good Samaritan, Jerry witnesses a car sideswipe another car and drive away. He quickly follows and confronts the driver only to discover a striking redhead that he ends up dating.

Truer to reality than we’d care to admit, when faced with a choice between the right thing to do and the thing they want right away, the “noble” four usually default to the “want” side.

Mr. Lippman: It’s come to my attention that you and the cleaning woman have engaged in sexual intercourse on the desk in your office. Is that correct?

George: Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I gotta plead ignorance on this thing…

Not only are all four (sometimes) masters of their domain, but like most of us, they’re masters of the rationalization.

Jerry: Kramer, I can’t do that. It’s illegal.

Kramer: It’s not illegal.

Jerry: It’s against the law!

Kramer: Well, yeah…

On that rare occasion when George is brutally honest, he ends up working for the New York Yankees.

Cushman: Mr. Steinbrenner, there’s someone here I’d like you to meet. This is Mr. Costanza. He is one of the applicants.

Steinbrenner: Nice to meet you.

George: Well, I wish I could say the same, but I must say, with all due respect, I find it very hard to see the logic behind some of the moves you have made with this fine organization. In the past twenty years, you have caused myself, and the city of New York, a good deal of distress as we have watched you take our beloved Yankees and reduced them to a laughing stock, all for the glorification of your massive ego.

Steinbrenner: Hire this man!

Of course, the key behind every episode is the lie. Nobody elevates the lie to absolute art as the characters on Seinfeld.

Kramer with Jerry.

Kramer: You want to get outta here? Here’s what we do. We leave the car here, we take the plates off, we scratch the serial number off the engine block, and we walk away.

Jerry: Walk away?

Kramer: You’ve got insurance. You tell them that the car was stolen, and then you get another one free.

Elaine with Jerry.

Jerry: What about the breathing, the panting, the moaning, the screaming?

Elaine: Fake, fake, fake, fake.

Jerry: That whole thing, the whole production, it was all an act?

Elaine: Pretty good, huh?

George with Jerry.

George: Jerry, just remember it’s not a lie if you believe it.

And just like us, they carefully consider the critical moral questions… especially when there’s a big payoff.

After discovering that the car that was sideswiped belongs to a better looking woman who lives in his own apartment building, Jerry quickly moves to the moral highground.

Jerry: The blond with the blue sweat pants! She looks like she belongs in one of these Hallmark cards.

George: It’s too bad you can’t say anything because of Angela [the woman who sideswiped].

Jerry: The woman belongs in prison. I actually owe it to society to do something about this. I can’t sit by and allow this to go on. It’s a moral issue, is what it is!

George: You can’t compromise your principles.

Jerry: How am I going to live with myself?

George: You can’t live.

Jerry: I’m not religious but I certainly know where to draw the line.

George: This country needs more people like you!

Ethics require awareness and consistency. Not just another factor to take under consideration, ethics are ground rules of behavior.


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