Inception: The Morality of Dreams and Reality*

*This is NOT a review

The film Inception (2010) directed by Christopher Nolan, follows the life of a man named Cobb who has the ability to enter people’s dreams. He uses this skill to extract secrets, which he uses for corporate espionage, something that immediately becomes a discussion about ethics. Yet, beyond that, Cobb is asked to use this skill to plant an idea in a man, Robert’s, head about dissolving his father’s company in return for clearing Cobb’s criminal record so he can be reunited with his children. Sacrificing someone else’s livelihood for one’s own happiness then adds another level of the questioning of morality. The idea in the film is that by manipulating somebody’s dreams, you are able to manipulate their actions in reality. The issue with this? At a certain point in the movie, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell what is dreaming and reality. By the end, we do not know if what we see is reality. There are a lot of issues with morality in this film, as the main characters are all corrupt corporate men, and most of them are thieves who are perfectly fine with tampering with somebody’s consciousness and subsequently, their reality. But, to go more in-depth about the morality and ethics of the characters’ behaviors in the film, there are two major theories to analyze their morality: relativism and utilitarianism. Is using dreams to control reality ethical? And even if it is, can any of Cobb’s actions really be justified?

Relativism is the idea that morality is relative to the culture or group a person belongs to. In this case, the culture that Cobb belongs to is the corporate world, and more specifically, the side that performs espionage. So, Cobb does not believe that what he is doing by entering dreams and stealing information is wrong, despite what the law says. He is surrounded by people who perform this same kind of action as him, so it creates a culture that is entirely okay with this type of behavior. The thing that becomes a concern is the idea of entering somebody’s consciousness to perform espionage, but even then Cobb does not inherently believe he is wrong. The only reason Cobb questions what he is doing is that it keeps him from his children, as he is legally not allowed in the country. Even then, it is not his own ideas of morality that make him feel this way, but rather the relative morality of the dominant societal group, from which he feels the consequences of his actions from. This is a clear example of how the morality of each character and their actions is completely relative to the groups and culture they belong to: Cobb does not think he is wrong in what he does and only wants to clear his name because he wants to see his children. He needs to clear his name because, in the eyes of a different culture, which is bigger and has more power, he is wrong and must be punished. 

Very different from relativism, utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of an action, and based on that one can decide whether something is right or wrong. Cobb seems to approach almost everything in his life from a very simplistic version of utilitarianism, one that applies to only himself. For example, in traditional utilitarianism, the only way that Cobb’s actions would be justifiable is if his implanting the idea in Robert’s dream to dissolve the company had an outcome that caused happiness in one way or another for a very large group of people. Unfortunately, the only happiness that could possibly have been caused by that was Cobb’s, and maybe a few other corporate executives. Still, whether we like it or not, Cobb’s approach to his decision-making and deciding whether something is wrong is based on its consequences. For Cobb, incepting Robert’s dreams would grant him access to his children, which greatly outweighed the risk of being caught. Even in general, committing espionage through dreams had a much greater reward for Cobb than consequence–or so he thought. 

This brings us to the last idea of the ethics of using dreams to control people, as well as using dreams as a proxy for reality. In reality, Cobb’s wife is dead, something he grapples with for the entire film. As well as that, he is separated from his children, who we can only assume are still alive–something else he struggles with for the entire film. Yet, instead of dealing with these things in the real world, Cobb uses dreams to communicate with a projection of his dead wife, and subsequently, to soothe his guilt about his family. The film closes out with a shot of Cobb hugging his children after finally being reunited, but the audience has to ask: is this real, or is he still living in a dream world? The character’s idea of what is objectively, subjectively, and relatively right and wrong is so skewed that we are easily able to believe that he would rather be trapped in a fantastical dream world rather than face the reality of his situation, and would sacrifice the happiness and healing of his family for his own delusions. 

Nolan does an amazing job throughout this film of creating a character that is so confident in his own actions that it causes the audience to lose a sense of reality and by proxy, a sense of what is right and wrong. In the end, we want to root for him and believe that he is actually with his children. But, if we think about it for even a little bit too long, we begin to realize that it’s almost impossible for that to happen, and it is infinitely more likely that he has created a fantasy world for himself to feel better. The film does a fantastic thing in that it not only blurs the lines between dreams and reality, but it also blurs the lines of morality, until the audience is just as conflicted as the characters.


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