On shows created by Joss Whedon

Mal's Morals

By Robert Kurzban, Ph.D.

You don’t know me, son. So let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.

-Malcolm Reynolds, “Serenity”

Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity, is a man living on the brink of disaster. He ekes out a meager existence, taking jobs on both sides of the law. Such a man can afford, of course, few luxuries. Despite this fact, he indulges in at least three. As the opening quotation suggests, he indulges in the luxury of honor. Along with that, he indulges in the luxury of loyalty and, most expensive of all, the luxury of morality.

If you don’t believe that these are luxuries, consider “The Train Job,” discussed in more detail below. Mal could have simply set sail with a tidy profit. Instead, because of his sense of honor, he earned nothing for the job, except the ire of a powerful crime lord. These “profits” would accumulate interest and, eventually (in “War Stories”), cost him a profound sum of money (earned in “Ariel”), a horrific torture session, and an ear (subsequently reattached).

Honor, loyalty, and morality are expensive. They cause you to make important-even life-threatening-sacrifices.

In some ways, you might think audiences would react negatively to such extravagance. We have only scorn for the penniless man who, finding a couple of bucks, buys a sixer of Stroh’s. Isn’t Mal foolish for such indulgences?

Perhaps. But that’s not the point.

Such traits—in particular the last of the three—are, to  …

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