Dick Tracy: Morality in Black and White

An Objectivist Analysis
by Rodney Schroeter

     One often remarked-on aspect of Chester Gould's work is his stylistic use of black and white. This refers to his artwork, but it also applies to his view of morality.
     My analysis of the "black & white" nature of morality found in Tracy is based on Objectivism, the philosophy originated by Ayn Rand. I am confident in my understanding of Objectivism, but if there are any errors in this article, they are mine alone--if any reader finds such errors, please make them known to me. I am not claiming that Gould was an Objectivist; however, his overall approach to moral matters was one that I, as an Objectivist, am fairly comfortable with.
     First, we must define our subject. Morality (or ethics) is a code of values one uses to guide one's thoughts and actions.
     Ayn Rand realized that the starting point of a study of morality is not to ask, "What kind of morality is proper?"  Rather, it is, "Does man need morality, and if so, why?" But even with this question, other important questions arise, such as: What is man's nature? What is the nature of the world he lives in? And how does he know this?
     In other words, ethics is not the beginning. There are two other branches of philosophy--metaphysics and epistemology--upon which ethics depends. Metaphysics is the branch that deals with the nature of existence as such. Epistemology deals with the nature of knowledge, how it is acquired, and validated.
     It is metaphysically given that a living thing can die. For a living thing, life is the ultimate value. Just think of any other value, if one has lost one's life. Would it matter to a corpse if it had good food, nice clothes, a warm room to lie in, or fine music playing in the background? No.
     Life, the ultimate value, is the standard by which actions are to be judged as good or evil.
     An animal is programmed to act to promote its own survival, and the survival of its species. Man has no such programming; he needs to choose to identify that which exists (metaphysics), to discover and validate the means to this knowledge (epistemology), and then--apply these in order to sustain and promote his life (ethics). In metaphysics, Objectivism holds that existence exists, and that it has a certain nature; in epistemology, that reason is the only valid means of obtaining knowledge; in ethics, rational egoism (neither sacrificing oneself to others, nor others to oneself).
     Most codes of morality advocate self-sacrifice. But this creates a false and deadly conflict--between the moral and the practical. Consistent, complete self-sacrifice would lead to death. Most people (aside from a few "saints") choose to be practical--and live--but fail to reject self-sacrifice as an ideal. This leads to various degrees of cynicism, or outright viciousness, in the belief that "It's either eat or be eaten."
     Productive work is required to sustain human life and is, therefore, considered a virtue by Objectivism. (Note that it is also practical, as all virtues should be.) If a person owns his life, he also has the right to sustain it: the right to produce, and the right to keep that which he has produced. The concept of "rights" is dealt with by a fourth branch of philosophy--politics. As ethics is dependent on the prior two branches, so politics is based on the three branches that precede it. As differences in metaphysics and epistemology will lead to different ethical views, so will different codes of ethics lead to different political systems.
     The premise that a person has a right to his own life, the right to sustain his life through productive work, and the right to keep the results of that work, is the basis for the Tracy strip, and a great deal of other popular drama.
     The conflict between "good and evil" is between the pro-life and the anti-life; those who hold life as the standard of value and recognize the existence of individual rights, and those who act against their own lives and the lives of others.
     (I hasten to clarify that my use of "pro-life" is definitely not meant for the anti-abortion movement.)
     The dividing line between these two types of character in the Tracy strip is absolute--as distinct as black and white. (There are characters in the strip's history that are mixed, or cross over. I'll discuss them later.)
     But it is not popular to treat moral matters as black-and-white issues. There are no absolutes, it is said, where morality is concerned. There is some bad in the most virtuous of us, and some good in the worst. This attitude is based on two premises: first, that a person is not in control of his own thoughts and actions; and then, that it is wrong to pass moral judgement on another person ("Judge not, that ye be not judged").
     Gould challenged both of these conventional beliefs.
     It's amazing how widely dismissed and attacked the concept of volition is. From the religionist claim that man is depraved by nature (original sin), to the secular claim that he is not even conscious (behaviorism), very few among those who study man take free will seriously--or even grant its existence. But if there is no choice, there is no morality.
     The villains in the Tracy strip chose to be what they were. Each made a decision to act against reality, to achieve values he or she hadn't earned, by violating the rights of those who had produced those values. In presenting these evil characters, Gould did not shrug his shoulder and say, "Who am I to judge?" He was presenting them for the reader's moral condemnation.
     Generally, Gould drew the good characters to be attractive (in a cartoony way), and the villains--well, the villains in the Tracy strip are legendary. They spanned the spectrum of the grotesque, from the dopey Joe Period, to the slimy Influence, to the nauseating Wormy. Ugly, repulsive, detestable--even sub-human, in some cases.
     Critics say, "That is not how life is! Good people are not all good-looking, and not all bad people are ugly! Er--ahem, that is, assuming there is a difference between good and evil people, in the first place!"
     But this complaint misses the point. Gould's work was a successful mix of accurate realism and stylization. An artist must choose carefully when composing, and a great deal must be said with very little. His villains were visual metaphors for what they were. It was Gould's way of saying, "Evil is ugly."
     The evil, anti-life premises these villains held led to evil actions. The results could have been nothing other than evil; from an evil cause can come only evil effects. This is shown time after time by the terrible deaths these villains, and their victims, meet. Shakey freezing to death; Dr. Plain scorched by his own flame-thrower (remember that closeup of his charred corpse? Ugh!); Jerome Trohs dying of those steam burns. Shudder!
     (It's interesting to consider that, of all those protectors of innocent youth in our world, who would demand that newspapers not subject children--or anyone else--to such horrors, some of these same people would eagerly shove photos of rotted stomachs, tumor-encrusted lungs, or abscessed brains into the faces of six-year-olds, hoping to frighten them into refraining from drinking, smoking, or using rusty needles.)
     Now, if the evil only destroyed themselves, only violated the rights of other evil people, things would not be so bad. But, as Ayn Rand pointed out, evil is impotent without the good. If it were not for the values produced by the good, the evil would have nothing to take by force. The good has nothing to gain from evil; the evil, however, is like a parasite on the good, and couldn't exist by itself.
     It is evil to initiate force against another person, but proper and moral to use the appropriate level of retaliatory force against the attacker. But two problems arise. First, a physically weak person who cannot operate firearms has the same rights as a strong person who is good with guns. Second, if retaliatory force were the responsibility or each citizen, there would be gang warfare, anarchy.
     This leads to the need for a police force, backed by objective law; courts to determine what the facts are in complex cases; and a military, to protect the country from aggressors.
     Two errors regarding force are common today. The first is equivocating between initiatory force and retaliatory force--to believe that a policeman using force is no better than the criminal he is arresting. The second error is to protest against "violence," in comic strips and in real life, implying that at issue is the form of force being initiated, rather than use of force as such. Non-violent methods of initiating force, such as fraud and censorship laws, are just as evil as violent forms. To condemn Tracy's character because he is as violent as the villains he fights, is to combine these two errors.
     The cops who protect the individual rights of the innocent, and capture or neutralize the villains, are the moral good guys. Tracy, and all the cops uncompromisingly dedicated to the principles that a police force properly operate on, are heroic figures.
     So we have an absolute demarcation between good and evil, the "black and white." Is there nothing in between? Or, can a person go from one side to another?
     Gould populated his strip with various characters who seemed to be neither quite as contemptible as the main villains, but still on the shady side of morality. This does not weaken my view that morality must be judged in terms of absolute principles--rather, it strengthens it.
     There were different types of this character. Consider the Summer Sisters, or Charlie Yenom, or the Jenkins kid--the punk who blackmailed Flattop into giving him hush-money, and who drowned with his expensive new skates. This type of person believes he can benefit from the evil. Not by going to extremes and actually becoming evil--oh, no! They think they can make a compromise, or "judge not," just for a little while, and come out untouched by evil. But this is a false, and therefore destructive, idea. Gould has given us many examples of this kind of person who corrupted himself by deliberately blurring the line between black and white.
     Then, there is the villain who realizes that evil leads to destruction, and makes the choice to reform. For this, three things are needed. First, he must face reality and recognize what he has done, renouncing evil and choosing to be virtuous. Second, he must serve whatever punishment he has earned, and make whatever restitutions possible. For a proven murderer, this would not be possible; a life cannot be restored. Otherwise, the third step is to demonstrate over a sufficient time, by words and actions, that he has truly reformed. Steve the Tramp is an example. Contemptible when first introduced, he made a heroic effort to become good. Tracy treated Steve with justice (identified Steve for what he was and acted accordingly) in both situations. When Steve chose evil, Tracy threw him in the slammer. Years later, after Steve's touching radio speech, where he vowed to go straight, Tracy lent Steve an amount of support that was as strong and as heroic as Steve's own efforts to choose the good.
     Another type of character Gould used was the person who aided the evil through ignorance. Nellie, the little farm girl who assisted 88 Keys, is a memorable example. Infatuated with the piano player, excited by his suave manner but not mature enough to look beyond it, she helps him escape from the law. But when she discovers his true nature, she thinks, "He--he's a real crook, and I didn't know it! What can I do?" She is to be applauded for being honest with herself and discarding her illusion. But she makes another mistake, an innocent one. Her "What a fool I've been" is misdirected. She attacks herself for not knowing everything--for making an error. Later, we see the source of that thinking. Her father says something that, unfortunately, many children undoubtedly hear. "Why, it's a wonder you're not in reform school! You--you've disgraced us--that's what you've done." Would it be surprising if a child who heard that enough, were to conclude that morality is beyond his
control and cynically stop caring what type of person he is, that he "can't help it," and blindly drift into self-destruction?
     Morality is an issue of choice. Choices that are made honestly, with full attention to the facts, are still subject to error. And when an error manifests itself with whatever degree of harm it causes, an honest, moral person takes steps to correct it.
     I have briefly indicated what philosophical principles underlie the stylized world of Dick Tracy. For those who are still skeptical about such abstract principles having any practical relationship with real life, I'd like to speculate on what Tracy's world would be like, if it were based on opposite principles.
     Tracy is called out on a case. Someone's been murdered. He gives a careless glance at the body and says, "Scum-Bum did it." Sam gapes at him. "But Tracy, how could you know that? You didn't even look at the evidence! What about the facts?" Tracy looks sharply down his nose at Sam. "Facts? Sam, old boy, you're out of touch with the times. We all perceive reality differently, so no one can really know what's a fact and what isn't. In fact, there ain't even any such thing as reality, so reason and logic are an old-fashioned myth. We can't know any facts for certain, so I go purely by instinct, Sam. Instinct! That's the one way of knowing for sure. Let's go!"
     Sam, shaking his head, rides along with Tracy to Scum-Bum's place. As Sam is about to knock, Tracy brushes him aside, pulls out his pistol, and empties it through the door. "Tracy!" Sam shouts, after the smoke clears and they knock down the door. "You didn't just get Scum-Bum--look! His wife--his two kids--the dog--ye gods, Tracy! You just slaughtered innocent people!"
     "Innocent?" Tracy asks, sneering. "Sam, I'm surprised at you. Don't you know we're all guilty, from the day we were born? There's no difference between any of us, no one's better or worse than anyone else. And if these people really are innocent, well, they'll be rewarded in the afterlife. This material, earthly life is not the ultimate value, you know. And if a few individuals have to be sacrificed for the good of society, in the name of justice, well, they should be glad to make that sacrifice. It's not individuals who matter, Sam, but society as a whole. Remember that."
     "Tracy," says Sam, as the two ride back to headquarters, "you mentioned 'justice' a minute ago. Just what do you mean by that?"
     Tracy sighs impatiently. "Words mean different things to different people, Sam," he says grumpily. "Justice? It means whatever one wants it to mean. There are no objective definitions. What's justice for me might be an injustice to a crook. Concepts don't refer to anything in reality, so all human knowledge is cut off from reality--and as you know, there is no reality in the first place. Ah, but justice? I interpret that as the fight against evil."
     "Oh," says Sam. They ride further. "Then what is evil?"
     "Really putting the old grey matter through the ringer tonight, aren't you, Sam?" Tracy says, chuckling. "Evil is a potent force in this world, which exists independently from man. It's just like electricity or sunlight, which you can protect yourself from with rubber gloves or sun-tan lotion. You can protect yourself from evil if you have the right talisman, or know the right incantation. But as I said, Sam, evil is a part of human nature. Man can't do anything about it. It's man's nature to be evil."
     Sam shakes his head in disbelief. "But then, Tracy, if that's the case--whew! If that really were true, then what's to stop a person from just giving in, surrendering to that evil, for someone like you becoming as corrupt and evil as any of the so-called crooks we fight?"
     Tracy screechingly pulls up to a curb. He reaches in the glove compartment, pulls out a loaded syringe, and plunges it into his arm. His lips pull back as he grins at Sam. "Why, nothing, Sam," he says. He tosses the syringe out the window, reaches in the back seat, and pulls a towel away, revealing piles of bloody paper money. "Nothing at all!"
     Tracy's maniacal laughter fills the car.
     Fortunately, this is not Tracy's world. Unfortunately, it is descriptive of a huge amount of depraved literature and movies, the result of philosophical principles that are opposites to those in the Tracy strip.
     Chester Gould indicated to his readers that moral choices in life are unavoidable. This made some readers uncomfortable. It implied that a person is responsible for his own moral stature, and that moral judgement is part of that responsibility. But other readers, facing difficult moral battles in real life, welcomed the encouragement offered by Dick Tracy, or any other character who constantly strove to discover the truth and see justice done. In our culture, such encouragement is all too rare.
     In 1977, I traveled to Chicago with the hopes of meeting Chester Gould at the Chicago Comicon. He did make an appearance, but left before I was able to meet him.
     I will always regret missing him, that day.
     At the time, I would not have been able to express my admiration for his work, and the reasons, as well as I could now. I would not have explicitly understood all the reasons myself. I am saying it now, even though Chester Gould can no longer hear it, and hope that sometime in his life, he had heard the main points I have made, in praise of his work.
     That would be justice.

For those interested, the works of Ayn Rand are generally available through libraries and bookstores. Free information about her philosophy can be obtained from:

The Ayn Rand Institute

This article written by:

Rodney Schroeter

Copyright 1992 by Rodney Schroeter