Sunday, January 10, 2016

Jessica Jones: How does Kilgrave's ability work?

Warning: Spoilers below

My girlfriend and I have been watching and enjoying the first season of Jessica Jones.  Jessica Jones is cut from the crime drama, suspense-thriller cloth.  The protagonist of the is Jessica Jones, a private investigator who suffers from PTSD as a result of being enthralled by the primary antagonist of the show, simply known as "Kilgrave." 

The show takes its source material from the comic book heroine of the same name.  It's produced by Marvel Studios, and major characters in the show have superpowers.  What's interesting in this show is that it's not so superhero-y.  Jessica tends to downplay her extraordinary abilities, and the use of such abilities is sporadic.

However, this isn't the case with Kilgrave, and this is what I want to focus on in this post.  Kilgrave has the power to make people do whatever he tells them to do, and he uses this ability quite frequently throughout the show.  I've thought a bit about how this power is supposed to work and I suppose writing it out will me make sense of it.  A small disclaimer before I proceed.  I'm ten episodes into a thirteen episode season, so it is possible that some things are revealed in episodes eleven through thirteen that might answer some of the questions I have below.

As I just mentioned, Kilgrave's power is that he can make people do whatever he tells them to do.  Let's unpack this a little more.   What happens is that Kilgrave utters a sentence in the imperative mood, and the individual to whom the sentence is directed at is irresistibly compelled to perform the action commanded by the imperative sentence.  This raises questions, some of which are answered in the series, others left unresolved.

Several constraints on Kilgrave's power are made explicit during the series.  First, Kilgrave's power apparently doesn't work if his voice is transmitted via some medium.  So, for instance, Kilgrave can't order someone to do something over the phone, or over some PA system.  I'm guessing that he can't use a bullhorn either, or two cans attached to a string.  (There's apparently a "scientific" explanation to this, but it comes across as very bullshitty, akin to the whole midi-chlorian nonsense that you get in the Star Wars prequels.)  So, Kilgrave has to be within earshot of the individual that he wants to control.

A second constraint on Kilgrave's power  is that its effects wear off over time.  I believe the time frame is roughly twelve hours, after which an individual feels no longer compelled to do what Kilgrave commanded them to do.

Let's grant these constraints and set them aside.  There are other questions afoot as to how exactly this power is supposed to work. 

Kilgrave's power is delivered via spoken language, more specifically via sentences in the imperative mood.  All imperative sentences have a verb as its main predicate.  However, not all verbs are the same.  For instance, some commands are specific enough such that they can only be carried out in one way.  For example, the command "Sit down" is fairly specific, and we usually have in mind one action that satisfies that command, i.e. the action of immediately sitting down.  Other actions are more ambiguous, and can be carried out in a myriad of ways.  For instance, the command "entertain me" can be successfully carried out in more than one way.  We don't usually think that there is just one action that corresponds to that command.  Thus, there is also a distinction between specific and general commands.

Why does this matter?  Well, one recurring theme in the show is the notion of action and responsibility.  If Kilgrave commands you to do something, and you do it, are you morally responsible for that action?  Can you be blamed for doing it?  At different points in the show, different characters insist that you are not responsible for actions you commit while under Kilgrave's command.  However, it's not so simple.  This is where the notion of a general commands comes into play.

In the show, Will Simpson, a police officer, is commanded by Kilgrave to kill Trish Walker.  This is not a specific command.  Murder can be carried out by a variety of actions.  We don't see a scene where Kilgrave explicitly gives the order to Simpson, so we don't know the exact phrasing of the command.  Suppose the phrase was simple, i.e. "Kill Trish Walker."  We might agree that Simpson should not be held responsible for the attempted murder of Trish Walker, but what about the means by which he attempted murder?  In the show, Simpson tries to deceive Walker into letting him into her apartment so that he can carry out his unfortunate task.   Did Simpson freely choose this way of carrying out Kilgrave's command?  Was this his idea?  If so, should he be held responsible for deceiving Trish Walker?  This leads us to general questions about the scope of Kilgrave's power and the scope of moral responsibility.  How much control does Kilgrave have over an individual?  Is their free will completely overridden?  The extent to which their free will compromised seems to vary positively with the extent to which we would hold them morally responsible.

There are other interesting questions to ask about Kilgrave's power.  We can ask about the extent to which Kilgrave can order people around.  For instance, Kilgrave order someone to do something that they are not capable of doing?  It's probably true that Kilgrave can command an individual to do something they are not physically capable.  They'll probably try and try for twelve hours to do it, but fail to carry out the action.  Kilgrave could order me to slam dunk a basketball on regulation height basket.  I'll pathetically try to do this for twelve hours, but will fail to succeed.  Okay, so commands involving actions that an individual is physically incapable of performing seem fairly straightforward.  However, there are other sorts of commands to consider.  Another category would be commands related to mental states.  Can Kilgrave order someone to feel or believe something that they don't currently feel or believe?  Most would agree that these sorts of mental states are not under our control.  If I don't believe that there is life on Mars, then I can't make myself come to believe that claim.  I can pretend to believe it, but there is a difference between pretending to believe and actually believing.  The same goes for emotions and other sorts of mental phenomena.   I can't directly will myself to be angry if I am not currently angry, nor can I directly will myself to feel pain.  Furthermore, I have no direct control over my preferences or desires.  If I don't like the taste of anchovies (which I don't), then I can't will myself to like them.  If I have no desire to go outside and job, I can't create that desire out of thin air.

Of course we do have some control over all of these things, but the control is indirect.  If I want to believe that there is life on Mars, then I might go rooting around for other pieces of evidence, which may ending up convincing me that there is life on Mars, thus forming a belief.  I can't make myself angry, but I can certainly expose myself to stimuli that might elicit that emotion.  The same goes for pain.  Preferences and desires work in the same indirect way.  We're all familiar with the concept of acquired tastes.  I may not initially like anchovies, but maybe I can come to like them through repeated exposure.

Back to the question about Kilgrave's power.  Can Kilgrave order someone to directly acquire some mental state?  There's an interesting scene in the show that seems to suggest that the answer is yes.  In this scene, Kilgrave is at the local police station.  He's ordered everyone to point their weapons at everyone else.  As he leaves he gives the following paraphrased order: "Once we leave you will all put down your weapons and think that this was all a hilarious joke."  Sure enough, after he leaves they all put down their weapons and start laughing.  What this seems to suggest, then, is that KIlgrave's power is greater than what I had initially been led to believe.  Kilgrave has, in some significant sense, the ability to control minds.

This leads us to some more interesting questions about the individuals under Kilgrave's control.  When they are ordered to carry out some task, are they aware that they are carrying out that task?  The evidence from the show seems to suggest that the answer is yes.  What happens when the task conflicts with their own desires or values?  What's going in the person's mind then?  At one point Kilgrave orders Simpson to jump off the roof of a rather tall building, which would most likely result in his death.  What is Simpson thinking at that point?  He is not normally a suicidal individual, so the order has to conflict with his core desires and beliefs.  What does it feel like to be under Kilgrave's control?

All this leads me to form the following half baked theory.  Kilgrave's power is the ability to plant mental states into an individual's head that last for twelve hours.  Usually these mental states come in the form of desires.  In the literature on free will and moral psychology, there is a distinction made between first and second order desires.  First order desires are the cognitive mechanisms that drive your everyday behavior.  Second order desires are desires about your first order desires.  If your second order desires are incompatible with your first order desires, then you may experience internal conflict.  Take the familiar example of dieting.  I have a first order desire to eat foods like ramen, fast food, and ice cream.  This explains why I eat the way I do.  However, I also have a second order desire not to have this first order desire.  I realize that eating like this is unhealthy, so I really don't want to continue eating this way.  So, I eat a bunch of junk food, yet I don't really want to eat this kind of food, leading me to try to diet.  This is the kind of internal conflict explained by the distinction between first and second order desires.  If I didn't have this kind of conflict going on, then I wouldn't be dieting.  We find plenty of these kinds of examples when it comes to addiction.  Usually addicts know that their addiction, i.e. their first order desire for some substance, is bad.  They don't want to have that desire, yet they find themselves succumbing to that first order desire.

What Kilgrave's power basically does is to plant a very strong first order desire into your head.  It turns you into a kind of temporary addict (This theory is interesting given the Malcolm sub-plot.  Malcolm is a neighbor of Jessica's and also a drug addict.  He was also a delivery guy for Kilgrave.)  You feel a compulsion to carry out the command Kilgrave gives in a manner similar to the compulsion an addict feels to take a certain drug.  In many cases our second order desires are able to at least temporarily override our first order desires.  This is why we are at least temporarily successful at dieting.  However, it seems that the desires implanted via Kilgrave's power are so strong that they cannot be overridden by second order desires.

This might explain why Kilgrave's victims feel guilt after doing something that they thought was morally wrong.  Even though they were compelled to act in the way they did from an external source, to them it really did feel like they wanted to perform that act.  It really felt like their desire, and so it would be hard for them to distance themselves from the act, and from the emotional consequences of that action.

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