On the Moral Example of Captain Jack Sparrow

Jana, the boys, and I are pretty big Pirates of the Caribbean fans. More precisely, we're huge Jack Sparrow fans. I loved the first film--Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl--but only moderately enjoyed the following three films. But I'd go to anything if Jack Sparrow is in it. I think Depp's character is really one of the most entertaining characters in Silver Screen history.

Anyway, given that this is a psychology and theology blog I wanted to make a moral observation about Jack Sparrow, specifically his penchant for non-violence.

To be sure, Jack Sparrow isn't a moral paragon. Far from it. But it is noteworthy that he dislikes violence. Sparrow doesn't start fights. And he'll go to ridiculous lengths to avoid them. And it's not because he's a coward or lacking in skill. Sparrow is very brave and exemplary with the sword. He just doesn't like to fight.

For example, there are multiple scenes across the four movies where violence is about to break out and Sparrow jumps in to stop it and work out a negotiation. His efforts always fail, but he spends a great deal of time in the movies trying to talk people out of fighting.

Yes, his motivations are generally self-interested. And he's no pacifist. But I find Sparrow's reticence regarding violence to be morally commendable and worthy of note, particularly among pirates.

With so many violent action heroes in our movies Sparrow stands out as a moral exemplar and an exception. I think Sparrow's aversion to violence is striking given, say, the examples of the Marvel and DC Comics heroes currently dominating the screen. Consequently, Sparrow's example might have a salutary effect on young audiences.

Though we might have to lock up the rum. Savvy?

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23 thoughts on “On the Moral Example of Captain Jack Sparrow”

  1. I love these movies too.  Not only is Jack Sparrow nonviolent, he has some degree of empathy and connection (even his womanizing is not objectifying like it could be, in a way I'm struggling to explain) 

  2. You're right, I hadn't noticed that before. Though if you're looking for non-violent action figures you should also check out Doctor Who, who in the most recent series at least has been very much defined by his refusal of violence and commitment to giving the bad guys a chance to change their mind about exterminating the human race or whatever it is they're up to.

    You might also enjoy this series of posts by Kester Brewin on why pirates are so enduringly appealing: http://www.kesterbrewin.com/2009/09/16/a-plea-for-christian-piracy-7-so-why-do-children-love-pirates-peter-pan/

  3. Ha! I love Jack Sparrow too, though I'd never noticed his tendency toward non-violence. (I always just thought he'd rather talk his way out of a situation than fight his way out.) He's certainly no moral paragon ("commandeering" ships, anyone?), but he's much more complicated than he first appears.

  4. Richard, I am ever impressed by your ability to find a positive side to so many things, even somewhat amoral pirates.

  5. I'll second the suggestion of Doctor Who as an example of the lengths a character can go to in order to avoid violence.  Thanks for the interesting thoughts on Cap'n Sparrow - we all love to watch him flounce around and yes, it's always more entertaining when he's talking than when the fighting is on the screen.

    I would say that, as general "teachers of morals" go - Captain America, IronMan, etc probably do a little better job. 

  6. Let me add this. I was talking with Jana last night about this post. And one of the things I commented on was how in the Pirates movies it isn't always clear who the good guys are and who bad guys are. More, the balance of goodness and badness is always shifting around. (To be sure, there is generally one bad guy in each film. I'm mainly commenting on the shifting among the key characters.)

    I think this moral ambiguity is more realistic than the moral universes found in the Comic Book movies where there is a clear distinction between Good and Evil and Good uses violence to defeat Evil. Basically, those movies just create a secular mythology about redemptive violence. Pirates, it seems to me, is more realistic and truthful. Good and bad isn't so obvious. Every character is complicit (think: original sin). All the violence is clearly self-interested. It's not masked under the veil of "Good." Consequently, there is no end to the violence in Pirates. No final moment when the Good has eradicated the bad. Just people, self-interest, and more conflict. That's honest.

    Rene Girard anyone? Mimetic rivalry?

    And, in light of that honest portrayal, Jack Sparrow's reticence toward violence stands out as noteworthy.

  7. I have always had this beleif that 'toying' with violence leads to greater violence. We need to have more such heroes.

  8. I can't believe that there is a Talk Like a Pirate Day!  Thanks for the link... it made me laugh :-)

  9. I can't believe I'm thinking more about a Girardian analysis of Pirates of the Caribbean. Have I no life?!

    Anyhow, my ruminations carry me forward. So consider this:

    I think Sparrow, Barbossa, and The Black Pearl are a classic Girardian triangle. Sparrow and Barbossa are, at root, decent chaps and often try to be friends, but they both want the same thing: The Black Pearl. And this desire fuels their rivalry. Which will never end because there is only one Black Pearl. Thus, mimetic rivalry--wanting the same thing--leads to violence. Classic Girard.

  10. If you are on Facebook, you can even set your default language as"English, Pirate".  Scroll down the list toward the bottom.  It makes for some fun.

  11. Jason Bourne is another great example of this in film. I've always loved that he throws away more guns than he shoots.

  12. I don't know if Sparrow is really displaying much character in his disdain for violence. It seems to me that his primary motivation in many of the movies is just self-preservation and that is why he avoids fights.

  13. Roy Williams of the Wizard Academy & Capt Jack




  14. On the other hand, I saw the trailer of Machine Gun Preacher yesterday.  http://www.machinegunpreacher.org/movie/
    Violence on behalf of saving the children....the ultimate marriage of born again goodness with incredible violence for a charitable cause.  Do we wonder why the right wingers love their Bibles and their guns in equal measure?  This is why.

  15. How can you not love a pirate who answers a little girl's letter and shows up for an assembly at her school? Arrr

  16. Actually, I think Jack Sparrow is a moral exemplar in many other things, too, and particularly in the first part where he had a consistently written character.

    Jack Sparrow is a very interesting character. He admits his faults often, yet doesn't take them too seriously (His reaction to women hitting him all the time). He genuinely cares for other characters and does a number of truly selfless acts - even stupid acts, from a selfish point of view, and acknowledges that (his "honest man" speech to Barbosa). He certainly has a code that he lives by that is different from the conventional one of the rest of the characters, being a pirate, but he has one nevertheless, and he speaks of it sporadically as he 'teaches' Will, and If I think about it a little more I'm sure I'll be able to draw more observations on Jack's morality.

    This may be unrelated to the question of his Morality, but it might be worth noting that he also seems to be the only character not drawn into the plot, but rather observing it (his lax attitude when thrown into jail, or while being hanged) and at times writing it himself (his entrance scene, how he escapes prison, how he escapes being locked up in the ship), so we might say that he is more "real"  than other characters, i.e. in another "higher" mode of existence within the movie, like the writer is more real than the character it writes.

  17. I always felt that in the film we were being presented with two distinct forms of Pirate morality. The first being the regular old pillage plunder your weasly black guts out type exemplified by Barbossa and his crew of miscreants which gives all piracy a bad name and causes the Crown to decree they should be immediately hung with no bones about it. The second moral code "the Pirate's Code" which Jack exemplifies demands a higher standard of behaviour. Namely - the things you have mentioned. Mainly non-violence. Keep track of who Jack harms and when. I found that he only ever harms people when it comes to a me-or-them survival situation, which as you note are always instigated by others. Nobody would call that morally reprehensible. I have an essay pending in my blog about this very subject. www.andrewsnewblog.wordpress.com if anyone wanted to discuss this more

  18. While this is of course the entire premise of the movie, another layer that I guess you have to just BELIEVE is there is that Jack is doing the Caribbean a public service if you like by killing Barbossa, who is "the last real pirate threat in the caribbean" whom the Royal Navy seem to be unable to catch. This reveals Jack to have a nasty streak of morality. I would have thought if he was simply an egotist, the greatest returns for HIM would be if he could have manipulated a deal whereby Barbossa sailed under JACKS's colours.

  19. I agree.BTW, did you notice that apart from avoiding fighting, Captain Sparrow also very rarely lies?

    So, you have the Pirate's Code (Those who stay behind are left behind -- I'd recommend reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians- series by Rick Riordan - a story about a son of Poseidon and just how often that particular code comes to play among true heroes. Will Turner and Elisabeth seem to have quite the wrong idea about the code...) In addition, it guarantees certain freedom: they can technically leave the crew if they choose to. The pirates never force anyone to join them or stay with them....

    In World's End, you see there's text written in Jack's back. Not easy to read but I tell you, it's Desiderata. A poem - describing yet another code Jack lives by.

    There's also something called Poseidon's Law: basically, it says Don't Lie at Sea. Never mind what you do on shore. Sounds like that, too.

    Most importantly, Jack's True Desire is Freedom. He has it with the Pearl so it won't disturb finding his lesser desires, but oh well... and not just his own freedom but that of others... the act he was originally branded as a Pirate for? Freeing slaves.

    Oh, and in a way, Jack's also declaring quite loudly his preference to negotiation by the Black Sails and hull of the Black Pearl. Historically, Pirate Flags came in two colors: Black and Red. Red's the one meaning trouble - they'd kill everyone on their way, no prisoners. With a Black Flag, one might offer a deal - ransom, or possibly joining the crew, or maybe some other thing. And Black Pearl carries Black sails...

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