The Things We Do For Love: Breaking Bad and Parental Obligations

My wife and I are (finally, slowly) watching Breaking Bad. While we’re enjoying the show, I’m struck by how the main character, Walter White, justifies increasingly immoral actions under the guise of “providing for his family.” As a parent presently freelancing, I can relate to his concern; I stress about finding my next project in a timely fashion, I contemplate the ever-increasing costs of healthcare and education, and worry about how to ensure that my family’s needs are met. At the same time, the example that I set for my child is even more important to me than providing abundance for them.

We shouldn’t be willing to “do anything” for our children; we don’t give them candy whenever they want, we shouldn’t perform immoral or illegal actions in the name of helping them, and in fact, they should have the space to learn from their own mistakes and bear the consequences of them. Many people justify negative actions on the grounds that they’re doing things “for their family” when an honest evaluation is that they’re doing them for their own ego or wealth. It’s easy to say “Walter White is an antihero, drug dealing is an extreme example,” but the Varsity Blues scandal of college admissions demonstrates the extent to which the same logic of “doing anything for one’s children” can lead to warped and immoral behavior. Through my time in higher education (and my work in career coaching) I have encountered a number of people who feel that a life without a $150,000+ salary is a failure. Some of them have even justified their greed as being for the sake of their children- even if they don’t have any yet, they use their desire to have children in the future and give those children opportunities or experiences as a way to cast their ambition in less transparently self-serving terms. This, however, is an illusory argument; Breaking Bad makes the point powerfully as Walt’s drug dealing damages his marriage and estranges him from his family, even while he claims that he’s doing it for their benefit.

Over time, slowly, I’ve come to realize that money is a lousy yardstick of success. It will come and go depending on others’ moods and willingness to pay for your services, technological disruptions, and other unpredictable factors. Though it’s tempting to use it as a measure of value, at best in an economist’s sense of demonstrating that one has done something that others find worthwhile, or at worst as a means of exerting influence over others, it is a deeply flawed dimension on which to gauge one’s actions. Our sense of honor and self-worth should be independent, and anchored in factors that are within our control. Any metric that risks ranking a degenerate gambler who lucks into a lottery fortune above a Mother Teresa is not worthy of consideration.

An ardent libertarian might argue that any individual can choose their own ends to pursue, and that it’s not my (or their) place to tell anyone else how to live. If some people choose to pursue luxury and wealth for its own sake rather than personal or spiritual fulfillment, so be it. No harm, no foul. You spend your time meditating, I’ll spend mine hustling, we’re both happy. But our lives are more intertwined than that- I care about BOTH my own sense of fulfillment AND my children’s ability to thrive, learn, and grow, so I can’t totally step away. And in business as in athletics, I may be a ferocious competitor who deeply wants to win, but also value that my victory (or failure) occurs on a level playing field.

There’s another wrinkle to the Breaking Bad decision, and that’s the sense of profiting off of someone else’s vices (or weaknesses). Early on, the show makes a point of contrasting society’s view of alcohol (both production and consumption) with meth. Both are addictive, potentially destructive chemicals, and yet one is socially acceptable (and home production can even be a “cool hobby”) and the other is illegal. It’s a provocative, but important, point to consider: why are some vices societally punished while others are viewed as a personal choice (and a personal failing, if the alcoholic fails to recover)? After all, more Americans died from alcohol use in 2020 (140,000) than from meth (93,000). Social drinking leads others to drink more (I don’t know whether meth has the same “peer influence aspect”), so one could argue that it’s a greater issue. I believe there are two critical differences:

  1. Firstly, given the exponential difference in user volumes, fatality rates per user are vastly higher for meth. Maybe Walter White’s care in preparation makes his product less fatal- fewer contaminants could be a good thing (or worse, I don’t really know the biochemistry involved), and if we had commercialized meth sales subject to FDA regulation for quality, it might be better (bathtub gin/illicit moonshine has its problems too).  But that’s a challenging presumption.
  2. Regardless of the logic behind the prohibition, the fact of prohibition means that Walter’s production is not only taking profits from people who grapple with addiction and may be unable to quit, but also funding violent acts. If he were working for a tobacco company, while there would still be moral questions worth considering (is it inherently, in the biblical sense, “putting a stumbling block before the blind” to sell addictive products when their abuse leads to harm?) at least the owners and leaders of the organization would not be murderous. Gus Fring, Walter’s employer in Breaking Bad, is responsible for numerous acts of violence that are directly linked to his meth dealing. By producing the drug, Walter becomes at least complicit in if not responsible for those deaths.

The sense (whether it’s true or not) that missing out on a particular opportunity (e.g., college, travel, or even simply being debt-free) will preclude one’s children from having a meaningful, valuable, joyful life, is a deep problem that clearly contributes to anti- (or at least less pro-) social behavior. I can’t pretend to have an absolute solution for this, but reduced income inequality would surely help; if the differences in lifestyle between being in one income decile and the one above it were smaller, it is likely that fewer people would be willing to make moral/spiritual sacrifices in the hopes of gaining or preserving a comparative advantage. This is an ethical argument for a strong social safety net that I have yet to see advanced; not because we owe it to our fellow citizens to care for them despite their mistakes, but because it allows us to hold ourselves to a higher moral standard without feeling that we are jeopardizing our children’s futures.

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