Philosophy in the Movies: Dr. Orlof

This is a new feature here at We Love Philosophy where Alec and I will look at some piece of film or literature or whatever, a piece that few if any would consider to have philosophical themes or import, and try to find philosophical themes or import within. This is not an easy task and may be better abandoned than pursued, but, as my old P.E. teacher used to tell me: “Go ahead and try Thomas, just so you will know I was right about your failing.” Let’s try. We will start with a brief synopsis of the work selected and then the picking and stretching will begin.

For the inaugural posting within this topic we chose a topic sure to kill this topic nigh-immediately: the film The Awful Dr. Orlof. Alec chose this. I agreed with the choice, but remember that this was Alec’s remarkably ugly baby.

Dr. Orlof and his blind sidekick.

Dr. Orlof and his blind sidekick.

[Note from Alec: I’m really terribly sorry. I recommend that no one watch this movie. Ever. If you see it playing one night on Turner Classic, throw your TV out. And move.]

Since this movie is on Netflix and came out in 1962, and we’ve warned you not to watch it, we are going to ignore any worries about spoilers and just lay the whole intricate plot out. Dr. Orlof is kidnapping and then killing young girls in order to cure his daughter. A few specific points should be made: Dr. Orlof himself does little of the killing, but has a blind ‘special’ assistant, Morpho, do so; the cure seems to involve skinning the women, or at least some body parts of the women; it is not entirely clear what is wrong with his daughter aside from a kind of catatonic listlessness and mild scarring; the entire police force is hopeless and remarkably uncaring about the people they have sworn to protect.

While Dr. Orlof is having girls taken and killed by Morpho, a police detective is trying to find the killer — this after four women have been reported missing. The police department really kicks into action when a man is found murdered though. I suppose one could make an argument that the movie is sexist here, but, to be fair, they found the dead body of the man, and the bodies of the women are still just missing. The police detective’s fiancee gets involved in the investigation for reasons that are never clear, but not much of the movie is, so let’s not hold that against her. She, the fiancee, is kidnapped by the doctor who, I think, needs her breasts to complete the treatment of his daughter (the contents of such a thought are uber-creepy). Dr. Orlof is eventually killed by the monster he inspired to kill for him, and that monster dies as well.

Whither Whence the Philosophy Cometh?

Oof. So, now that the summary is out of the way, whither whence the philosophy cometh? Some of these entries are going to require more stretching than others. This first entry is beyond Stretch Armstrong levels and approaching Mr. Fantastic/Plastic-Man levels. Here goes: we are going to divide this into two sections. Ethics and Epistemology. I will take the ethics section, for reasons that have yet to be explained, and Alec will take epistemology. The ethics topic of the movie is fairly straightforward, unlike everything else in the movie: is the life of one person dear to you (here, Dr. Orlof’s daughter) worth more than the lives of (at least) five strangers? And if the answer is yes, is it morally allowable to have an irrational person do the killing for you? For that last question, there is a sub-question dealing with who is to blame for the killings. Morpho did not seem to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he was remarkably capable of tracking and killing, despite his blindness (which I think was almost entirely due to the papier mache mask he was wearing).

The epistemology part is a bit of a stretch, but that is what we are here for. Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge — what makes something knowledge and what justifies our beliefs. There are a couple of questions about the movie that fit that description: 1) As no one had ever tried Orlof’s methods before, what justified his belief in them (assuming that he was justified at all); 2) How did the detective’s fiancee ‘know’ that she had seen the killer? Is women’s intuition a reliable font of knowledge?

The Ethics of Orlof

Dr. Orlof is clearly not a utilitarian. At least, based on what we are given by the plot, Dr. Orloff is not a Utilitarian. His acts are all aimed at making his daughter better/cured (as it is never clear what her condition is beyond a sort of laissez faire attitude about life combined with a bad make-up job), and this is never suggested as being anything other than purely selfish on his part. She, Orlof-fils, is never portrayed as a brilliant scientist, or a dedicated humanitarian, or a inspirational person. Rather, she is the doctor’s daughter and so she must be fixed.

Utilitarianism is the ethic that the right action is the one that creates the most pleasure and the least pain for the greatest number of people. Ergo, Orlof is not a utilitarian.

He is selfish to a degree that many of us would find startling were he a real person (Note to Alec: this was not based on true story, was it?). We all love those in our family. Well, many of us love at least someone in our family. Within that group are many who say, truthfully or so they believe, that they would do anything to save or preserve the life of their loved one. Perhaps that includes even dying, if doing so would certainly, or damn near certainly, save or preserve the life of the loved one. Such an attitude is not entirely selfish, of course.

Dr. Orlof, however, not only loves his daughter, and not only loves his daughter more than he loves anyone else, but he loves her to the point that other lives are meaningless when compared to her own. The lives of other human beings are merely tools for Orloff to use to better aid his daughter. “What I want,” Dr. Orlof seems to be saying through his actions, if not through well-written dialog, “is what determines what is right for me and so for the world. If it is not what you want, whoever you might be, then I will sic my blind murderer on you as well.”

This is a kind of hedonism, the idea that pleasure is the most important goal, but of a non-universal character. It is one thing to say or argue that the goal in life is to be as happy as possible. That can be universal in the sense that it is what you think is so for everyone. “Hey,” you might say to me, “why are you sitting at that desk when you could be having fun?” Good question.

Alright, I am back. Thanks for suggesting that I take a break. See? A hedonist need not be a selfish prick, at least a universal hedonist need not be. Orlof, though? He’s a selfish prick. His pleasure is what matter the most to him. One could argue that he does what he does (or gives the orders to kill that he gives) because he is thinking only of his daughter, a kind of pass-the-buck hedonism.

“Your pleasure is what matters the most, such a person would say to you, “so tell me what would make you happy and I will do it.” That almost sounds like altruism: the sacrificing of one’s happiness so that another is made happy in your stead. Ignoring whether or not altruism truly exists or is rational (hey — future topics!), is that what Orlof is guilty of? I doubt it. His daughter never says or indicates that she approves of what he is doing; in fact, there is no indication at all that she is receiving any benefit at all from the murders and procedures her father is performing. Perhaps Dr. Orlof is telling himself that what he is doing is for his daughter alone, but all the visual evidence (that I shudder to recall) indicates he is doing it for himself.

So, is selfish hedonism a valid ethical standpoint? Sure, I suppose. It is as valid as any other ethical standpoint, so long as you do not take as a given that all or even most or at best some people are equal to yourself in terms what it takes to be happy. Is that what you think? Are you an Orlofian? Are you???

The Epistemology of Orlof

How did I get stuck with the epistemology piece of this? Sigh. Oh well, here goes what might literally be nothing.

First things first, let’s dive into the women’s intuition thing. So, in the movie, the detective’s fiancee happens to see the killer (without knowing that he’s the killer), and somehow is immediately convinced that she has just seen the killer.

Is she justified in this belief?

You know what? Let’s dive right back out of this women’s intuition thing. There’s nothing good that can come of the discussion, is there?

What’s more interesting here is the sentence “Is she justified in this belief?” This contains two of the three components to what might be considered having genuine knowledge of something.

A Standard Conception of Knowledge

When can we be said to know something?

Obviously, belief has to factor into it.


If Dr. Orlof is the murderer, but I don’t believe that he is, then I really can’t have knowledge that he is the murderer. So belief is certainly necessary for knowledge, though it’s also not sufficient.

Suppose Superman is the murderer. If I believe that Dr. Orlof is the murderer, I still don’t have any knowledge that Dr. Orlof is the murderer. (My belief is false.)

So we need to account for truth — circumstances that match our beliefs.


If I believe that Dr. Orlof is the murderer, and he is in fact the murderer, then can I say I have knowledge of him being the murderer?

Well, though truth is definitely necessary, it’s not sufficient.

Suppose Dr. Orlof is the murderer. But I believe he’s the murderer only because I dreamed about him being the murderer the night before. Do I have knowledge of Dr. Orlof being the murderer in this case? Nope. In effect, I’ve just made a lucky guess, and this shouldn’t count as knowledge.

So we need to account for the idea that knowledge should also be justified.


If I don’t know that Dr. Orlof is the murderer, but my wife (who never lies to me) tells me she saw Dr. Orlof murdering the victims, do I have knowledge yet?

Justified true belief. A pretty darn good working definition of knowledge. (Though we’ll talk about a famous counterexample to this definition in a future post.)

So does the detective’s wife have knowledge that Dr. Orlof is the murderer? Well, she has the belief that he is, and it’s true that he is, and so the question hinges on whether or not her women’s intuition can form the basis of a justified belief. I won’t take a stand on that issue here. Feel free to take a stand in the comments…

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