By Dan Ziebarth, MA
Class of 2019, Fordham Master’s in Ethics and Society
How often do interesting questions of ethical decision-making arise in popular culture? Quite often, and I was repeatedly reminded of this while watching the new Netflix series, Folk med ångest, translated to “Anxious People.” The six-episode series is based on a book of the same name by Fredrik Backman, and is an outstanding watch. While viewing the series, I was not only struck by how much I enjoyed the show, but how the situations faced by the show’s characters made me think of questions regarding applied ethics.
In moral philosophy there are two common approaches to ethical decision-making: utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of one’s actions and maximizing perceived goods. A utilitarian would say that the most ethical choice is the choice that creates the greatest good, regardless of the means for achieving that good. On one hand this has the benefit of arguably achieving the best ends, but can lead to decisions which appear indefensible to many. For example, a utilitarian might argue that it would be ethical to sacrifice a healthy person if their organs could be used to save the lives of five people who would die if they did not receive an organ transplant. The concern for a utilitarian here is less on the action of sacrificing the single healthy person, and more on the consequence of saving five lives, which a utilitarian may argue ultimately creates a greater good.
Deontology, in contrast, is concerned to a greater extent with duty to an established set of moral principles. Deontologists are less worried about consequences compared to utilitarians and are instead concerned with one’s duty to certain actions. Returning to the previous example, a deontologist might argue that it is never ethical to sacrifice a healthy person, even if it would save five people who would otherwise die. The primary concern here for the deontologist is not whether the consequences of sacrificing the healthy person would lead to an arguably better outcome of saving five people, but instead is on the action of sacrificing a healthy person. The action to take a life to save others, the deontologist might argue, is alway wrongs, no matter how many lives it may save, since we have a duty to respect the autonomy of others and even if sacrificing their life could save a greater number of lives this consequence can never justify the duty to not sacrifice the life of another for this end.
One need not fall neatly into either camp to consider these two approaches to ethical decision-making in relation to the choices they, and others, make. Truly, I think it is clear that almost no one always follows strictly utilitarian or deontological decision-making or agrees with all decisions, actual or hypothetical, using only one approach or the other (recent research also shows how situation factors influence ethical choices). This is where Folk med ångest enters. The story shows how ethical choices regarding duties and consequences can be difficult and complex.
In the first scene of the series, we see the central character, Jack, jogging across a bridge and having a flashback. The flashback is of a tragic event on that bridge while he was a boy, where he encountered a man on his way home from school who is about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. Jack had tried to talk the man out of jumping, and for a hopeful moment appears to have succeeded. The man hands young Jack a letter to drop off at the bank and Jack says he will do that if the man does not jump. Jack takes the letter and they both nod, seemingly having reached an agreement. However, as Jack turns to put the letter in his school bag he averts his gaze and the man jumps off the bridge to his death.
Flash forward a few scenes and Jack is now a police officer in town. He works alongside his father, Jim, and the two men also live together. One day, while halfway through a haircut in the middle of a workday, the hairdresser mentions that Jill, Jack’s estranged sister, will be joining the two men for the holidays and that Jim has paid for Jill’s ticket to return home. Jack leaves upset to confront his father, haircut humorously only half-finished. From here, everything moves towards the trappings of a typical crime thriller.
A bank robbery goes wrong. Jack and Jim pursue the robber, who escapes by entering an open house showing for an apartment in the center of town. The robber proceeds to take those at the showing hostage while Jack and Jim, alongside other police officers, wait outside. Eventually, the robber makes simple demands (bring pizza and set off fireworks) and the police oblige. After this the hostages at the showing are all released and the robber escapes.
This is only the first episode, though, of the six-part series. It quickly becomes apparent that the draw of the story is less about a harrowing hunt to bring a villain to justice, and more about an intriguing mystery involving very ordinary people. From here, we float through the lives of those who were held hostage in the apartment that day while Jack works tirelessly to find out the identity of the robber. We see deeper into the personal lives of the hostages. We observe the struggles of partnership between Anna-Lena and Roger, as well as Julia and Ro. We become a part of the blooming relationship between Linda and Lennart. We even get personal glimpses into the family dynamics between Jack, his father, Jim, and Jack’s sister, Jill. We also see how the lives of the characters begin to intertwine as the story unfolds. Roger and Ro meet one event to talk about parenthood and relationships after striking up an unexpected friendship during the hostage situation. Jack and Linda had both run into the man who jumped from the bridge years earlier on that same day the event occurred.
These deeper dives into the personal stories and interconnected lives of each of the characters means that the decisions each makes, especially in the aftermath of a situation in which a bank robbery attempt had occurred, a gun had been fired, and hostages had been taken, increasingly affect the lives of one another. As such, whether these characters are making the best ethical choices is regularly brought into question. Here is where considerations of duty and consequences arise.
There are many possible areas in which the duties to others can raise ethical questions, including duty to one’s family and those that they love, duty to one’s profession, and duty to the less fortunate, which all arise in Folk med ångest. It is also important to consider how individuals may place different weight in relation to these duties.
We learn that Jim, on the night of the hostage situation when he delivers the requested pizzas to the apartment, becomes aware of the precarity of Liv’s living situation and the reasoning behind the attempted robbery. Liv’s husband was having an affair with Liv’s boss, which led to her husband leaving Liv for her boss and her boss firing Liv. This left Liv without a home and without work. She was staying in a storage shelter, as she could not afford to rent an apartment. Her estranged husband had recently informed Liv that if she did not have an apartment rented by January 1st, which would arrive in the next few days, she would no longer be able to have shared custody of their two daughters. This leads Liv to lie, saying she had just rented an apartment, and subsequently attempt to carry out the robbery out of desperation to continue seeing her daughters.
Here, Jim has more information than Jack, knowing the background behind the attempted robbery. He must also decide, then, to whom he owes a greater duty here. On one hand, he has a duty as a police officer to arrest Liv for committing an act which is clearly illegal and one that she has admitted to committing. But Jim is more than a police officer. He is a father and a person outside of his professional position. He considers her precarity and her love for her children. Jim decides to hide the fact that he now knows the identity and story of the attempted robber from Jack and the other police officers. Later, we see that Jim also deletes security footage of Liv carrying out the robbery attempt.
Jack struggles with a seemingly deontological commitment to his work that we do not see as present in his father. When Jim informs him that he deleted the footage of the robbery, an emotional argument breaks out between father and son. Jim states plainly that he had to delete the footage. Here, he presents a personal belief in the duty of considering the life of another parent seeking to maintain their relationship with their child and in the humanity of someone in need. Jack is enraged in the moment however, claiming that Jim has failed as a police officer, as well as a father. In contrast to Jim, in this moment Jack believes in the duty to be honest and carry out the proper conduct of their job stands above the personal considerations of the attempted robber. Ultimately, however, we see Jack decide that he will not turn Liv in although he knows that she committed the crime. The apparent inner conflict here is important, and the question remains as to whether one consideration or many led Jack to change his view on the correct ethical choice in this case.
Not only do considerations of duties arise, but those of consequences clearly arise as well. For example: How do lies and secrets affect others? Can lies and secrets serve good ends? In a flashback to the hostage situation, we see Anna-Lena talking privately in a bedroom with Julia. Julia mentions how she was seeing another woman when she first met Ro. This other woman was adventurous, always wanting to do different strenuous activities together. Julia says that it had made her wonder if she was not enough for her partner, and that her partner always wanted to do these activities because Julia herself was not enough.
Anna-Lena then confides in Julia that she would love to simply just enjoy being with Roger. She comments how he always needs a project and how the couple is always going to IKEA for supplies to fix up apartments they had bought for resale. Instead, she did not love these projects as much as Roger and wished he would simply take her to a movie or be with her without the stress and striving these projects entailed.
Later, when Anna-Lena and Roger are together at their home we see that Roger is still upset with Anna-Lena for hiring Lennart to drive down the price of the apartment. She chose to do this because she believed it would help make Roger feel better when they got a lower price for the apartment, but did not tell him she was doing this because she did not want to hurt his pride. Here, Anna-Lena believed her secrets would create a greater good for a person she loved. Yet we see that the outcome of this choice ultimately led to Roger’s frustration and distrust towards Anna-Lena in the aftermath.
The secrets that Anna-Lena has been hiding from Roger in their relationship are resolved when Roger asks Anna-Lena directly whether she enjoys buying and fixing up apartments for resale. At first she says yes, but Roger immediately calls out her lie. Anna-Lena then admits that she does not enjoy these projects. Roger, in this moment, realizes his selfishness and how his wife had kept these secrets from him simply because she was trying to help him. They hug and Roger asks what Anna-Lena would like to do. She is honest with him again and says she would like to go to a movie. He says that they would look to see what movies were playing that evening and they would go watch any movie she chose. The consequences of honesty in this moment create a good that the lies could not achieve.
Another one of the most interesting aspects of the series surrounds questions of the consequences of our jobs. Many movies and television shows present workplace actions with exceeding drama or hyperbole, painting workplaces as sources of dysfunction and darkness like in Succession or The Morning Show, or sources of frequent positivity and kindness like in Ted Lasso or The Office. While these shows deftly display workplace dynamics at times, Folk med ångest presents how the requirements of jobs have important consequences in ways that do not necessarily crash the global economy, ruining companies, or getting co-workers fired. Instead, we are presented with a couple ethical questions about the choices sometimes made, or decided against, at work. What are the negative consequences of the decisions we make at our jobs? And are there positive consequences that outweigh them?
In the second episode, we see a lengthy flashback of Linda and Lennart talking while held hostage in the apartment. Linda wants to be left alone, but Lennart cannot seem to stop himself from talking to her. Linda has also discovered at this point why Lennart was there, hired by Anna-Lena to dress in a rabbit costume and create a disgusting scene during the showing to put off potential buyers and drive down the price of the apartment. Linda questions Lennart about whether he feels guilt for doing this job. She argues that actions such as his artificially alter the real estate market, creating negative consequences for the sellers and possibly disrupting housing markets which could have broader negative economic consequences.
Lennart counters with the argument that he is simply helping individual buyers who need a place to live and could not otherwise afford most places. The real threat to the economic system, he claims, is greedy banks who make exorbitant profits and that housing prices are too high for most average buyers. Not only does he need this job to survive (he is an actor, but unsuccessful in this field professionally), but this job is helping the everyday buyer against corporate greed. The personal road of the debate runs both ways as well, since Linda works as a loan officer at a bank. Here, both characters go back and forth about their own culpability, however small, in doing good for individuals while possibly contributing to broader issues they observe.
Particularly important in this too is that we later observe how Linda denied the man who jumped from the bridge a loan earlier that day. She had come to the apartment showing to deliver the letter that the man who jumped had written to his mother, the owner of the apartment. Jack had delivered the letter to the bank for the man after he had jumped, and the letter was written for Linda. She has been unable to open the letter because she believes that the man had jumped from the bridge that day, at least in part, because she had denied him a loan.
Jack leaves, but runs into Estelle, who informs Jack for the first time that the man who jumped from the bridge that day was her son and he had done this because he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jack returns to Linda’s office and hands Linda the letter. Linda opens the letter and breaks down in tears, learning that he had written the letter to her to let her know that his death was not her fault. Linda had thought that the choice she made at her job that day had the consequence of ending another person’s life, but she is able to learn that the man’s death was not a result of her actions.
The most important part of watching any tv series or movie is always whether you enjoy it or not. Folk med ångest is certainly a show that was well-shot, well-acted, engagingly written, and ultimately beautiful. Yet one of the greatest things too when watching a series or movie can be that it makes you think deeper, consider things in a different way than before, and see how fictional stories are never far from the realities we inhabit.
By the end of the series, Folk med ångest provides its own resolutions to many of these questions. In the final episode, we see Jack hug his sister in the hospital and they begin to reconcile. Liv is living with Estelle and Liv’s daughters are with them. Julia and Ro are moving into the apartment next to Liv and Estelle and Roger and Anna-Lena are helping them fix up the home. But some questions do remain unanswered. Will Jack actually mend his relationship with Jill? Will Liv find a stable job and retain shared custody of her two girls? What decisions will Julia and Ro make regarding how they raise their child?
We like to think that relationships will certainly be healed, livelihoods will be protected, families will stay together, and partnerships will remain strong. These things could very well be true, but taking a cursory glance at the world around us we also know that these ideals could ultimately not be achieved. Ultimately one thing we will not, and cannot, know is what happens in the days, the months, the years that follow.
This is, of course, not in any way a fault in the show. Shows and movies must always end. Characters are eventually left in a sort of purgatory where viewers will never know what future questions and answers may arise in the lives of those in the world contained within the screen. This is the beauty and the pain of stories. We observe that ethical questions can have answers, but ethical decisions can also be contingent, and finding an answer that satisfices at one point in time does not ensure that new questions will not soon be on the horizon. Folk med ångest does a great job of not only raising these ethical questions, but presenting a wonderfully heartwarming and complex story which shows the struggles and triumphs of humanity.
Dan Ziebarth, MA, an alum of the Fordham University Master’s in Ethics and Society program, is currently a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University and an Editor at the Institute for Greater Europe.