“I Need to Get Back to My Crew”: Amos and Crowd-Sourced Morality
The Expanse provides some ethical lessons about learning about ethics.
The final stirring speech on season 6 of the space opera The Expanse is given to engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper). It’s a synopsis of sorts of the morality of the series.
You followed your conscience in the hope that others would follow theirs…The universe never tells us if we did right or wrong. It’s more important to try and help people, and to know that you did…. You never know the effect you might have on someone, not really. Maybe one cruel thing you said haunts you forever. Maybe one moment of kindness gives them comfort or courage. Maybe you said the one thing they needed to hear. It doesn’t matter if you ever know. You just have to try.
While Naomi is speaking, we see her son Filip (Jasai Chase Owens) abandon his terrorist father Marco (Keon Alexander) and set off on his own—avoiding his father’s death and turning his back on bloodshed. Marcos kidnapped Filip when he was an infant, and Naomi in season 5 sought him out and tried to lead him on a better path. He rejected her at first, but the final montage suggests that she did affect him. Maybe she said “the one thing” he needed to hear.
If The Expanse is about the virtues and possibilities of moral persuasion, though, the character who best embodies the series’ethic isn’t Filip or Naomi. It’s mechanic, murderer, thug, and possible sociopath Amos Burton (the marvelous Wes Chatham.)
Being good by proxy
Over the series, we learn enough about Amos to put together a broad biographical sketch. The Expanse is set in a future in which humans colonized the solar system; Mars is an independent power, and both inner planets exploit the miners and space station inhabitants in the outer Belt.
Amos was born and probably orphaned early in Baltimore. He was trafficked, systematically sexually abused, and then recruited as a child soldier into the local gang scene. He eventually managed to get out by assassinating a kingpin and taking his identity. He shipped off Earth and became a mechanic working in the asteroid belt (the Belt) on the ice hauler Canterbury —which is where we first meet him in season 1.
Amos is no longer a badly damaged child; he’s a stone-cold killer. But he’s trying to become a better man. He doesn’t do that in the usual way that bad men become good in pulp though, which is to say he doesn’t just start killing “bad guys” rather than “good guys.” Instead, he decides that he’s not a good judge of what goodness is, and so he needs to outsource his moral choices to people who are better at being good.
Initially, that means outsourcing them to Naomi Nagata herself. As he tells series protagonist James Holden while they are working outside the ship in what is basically their first conversation:
You must think I'm pretty stupid, don't you? I mean, you're right. I can take a core apart and put it back together with my eyes closed. But ask me whether or not I should rip your helmet off and kick you off this bucket, and I couldn't give you a reason why I should or shouldn't. Except Naomi wouldn't like it.
Holden is somewhat taken aback and assumes (as I think most viewers will) that Amos has a weird crush on Naomi. But that’s not really what’s going on Amos and Naomi have not slept together and never will (though Amos notes at one point with characteristically incongruous forthrightness, “I’d do her if she let me”.)
Amos isn’t in love or lust with Naomi. He just admires her goodness, and so has adopted her as a designated conscience. Amos has killed so often, and with so little guilt, that he doesn’t trust himself to be a good person. Naomi, on the other hand, in his estimation, is a kind, caring person with a strong and reliable sense of right and wrong. So by listening to her, and doing what she tells him, he can approximate being a good person too.
Building a better conscience
Amos doesn’t just listen to Naomi, though. As he says to Holden, he’s worked to internalize Naomi’s words and attitudes. Naomi doesn’t have to tell him explicitly not to space Holden. He knows that she wouldn’t like it, so he doesn’t do it. He says he’s stupid and can’t make moral decisions on his own. But immediately after saying that, he makes an intelligent inference—and then makes a moral decision on his own.
Amos’ conscience isn’t static either. He eventually decides that Holden is also a good person, and he starts to try to behave as Holden would. He still listens to Naomi, though—and/or to his inner Naomi. Again, he often presents himself as outsourcing his agency entirely, and as just doing what he’s told. But in fact during the series he’s actively building out his conscience in the way that most of us generally build out our consciences—by finding people we respect and can trust, and incorporating their insights and ethical stances into our own.
This is a way, arguably, that Amos is like all those bad men trying to do good—except he approaches it with more explicit focus. Usually, the isolated killer becomes a better person by finding a community to protect and commit himself to. Han Solo in Star Wars, Al Swearengen in Deadwood—they’re amoral basterds who come to care about other people in their community. That caring means they’re no longer amoral bastards. They’re civilized.
Community sneaks up on Han. Al chooses it, but as a money-making strategy; the fact that he (arguably) becomes a better person is more or less accidental. They stumble into caring about others and into moral transformation.
Amos has the same arc, but he’s much more conscious about it. He recognizes that no one thinks for themselves, and that his early life among violent abusers gave him a busted sense of right and wrong. And so he sets out to think better by finding better people to think for him. He doesn’t become more moral by stumbling into community. Rather he chooses his community in order to become more moral.
Listening to Amos
Amos understands that morality is a group effort. He can’t be good on his own; he needs other people to help him. He thinks (at least sometimes) that this makes him stupid and unreliable. But he’s wrong. It arguably makes him the most moral person on the show.
Amos never becomes a pacifist; he’s always willing to murder someone in a pinch. He’s willing to lie too, and he is prone to tough-guy posturing that can lead to unnecessary violence (like when he calls a huge, massively muscles, violent guy “Tiny” over and over until said violent guy predictably snaps.)
So you can’t say Amos is a parago beyond reproach. But because he’s committed to the idea of morality as a communal endeavor, he’s basically always willing to listen to criticism with an open mind and without recrimination.
As on example, in season 5, while Amos is on Earth during a planetwide catastrophe, he seeks out a paranoid territorial farmer because he needs supplies. He suspects he’ll have to kill the guy, and sure enough, he has to kill the guy.
His traveling companion, Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), points out that seeking out someone—even a bad someone—to murder for his stuff isn’t the sort of thing a good person would do. Wes Chatham as Amos hesitates, with an expression that’s half innocence and half homicidal.
Then he agrees, and acknowledges that, yes, Holden wouldn’t have wanted to be part of a plan that resulted in murdering that paranoid asshole farmer. “I have to get back to my crew,” Amos concludes.
Amos does eventually get back to the crew—but when he does, he takes Clarissa with him, to train her as a mechanic. Clarissa has a brutal past herself; she tried to murder Holden and succeeded in murdering a bunch of other people.
Amos isn’t just teaching her how to fix the ship; he’s teaching her how to be a better person. He shows her that you become good by being around people who are good, which in this case means being around Amos himself. She becomes better by being around him, as he became better by being around Naomi—and also by being around Clarissa. People learn morality from each other, but that learning isn’t just one way. You build being better together.
James Holden, lone doofus
As I’ve said, one of the people who Amos relies on for building that better together morality is James Holden. And in general, The Expanse agrees with Amos’s assessment of its main character. Holden is held up as a bastion of moral authority and good decision making. In the first season, when he ignores the order of the captain on the Canterbury and insists on answering a ship’s distress call. He’s got an unwavering sense of right, and he won’t let anyone sway him. He’s a paragon.
But is he? If, as Amos understands, morality is a group endeavor, then Holden’s stubborn, go-it-alone approach to ethical thinking looks less like an ideal and more like a flaw. The captain of the Canterbury refused to answer the distress call because he thought it was a trap. And he was right; it was a trap. Holden’s rash, individual decision, taken without consulting anyone and in defiance of the chain of command, ends up killing just about everyone on the Canterbury, and almost precipitating a war.
Holen is guilty about the carnage that results from his decision. But he never exactly changes his approach. At the end of the series, he’s still doing the same shit. He disarms a torpedo at the last minute before it destroys Marco’s ship entirely on is own, without any input or discussion. Holden says he didn’t want to be responsible for killing Naomi’s child, Filip, who was also on the ship. But even Naomi, it turns out, didn’t want Holden to pull his punch. As for Amos, he’s pissed—and rightly so, since Marco goes on to kill a bunch more people.
The tension between Holden’s approach to morality and Amos’ highlights an ambiguity in Naomi’s speech at the end of the series. “You followed your conscience in the hope that others would follow theirs,” suggests that morality means following your own sense of right and wrong, whether or not others agree. Everyone, from this perspective, has to listen to themselves to know what is right.
But when Naomi says, “Maybe you said the one thing they needed to hear,” she’s suggesting that people can and should influence each other—that conscience isn’t a matter of listening to yourself and no one else but is instead a communal project. You get to goodness by talking to and checking in with one another.
So is The Expanse telling you to follow your gut? Or is it telling you to listen to others? The answer is that it doesn’t provide a clear answer. The relationship between individual and collective moral sense is difficult to parse even for professional moral cogitators, and The Expanse is a pulp space opera, not an ethical treatise. But, at least personally, if I had to choose who to follow as a moral guide, I’d pick Amos over Holden—even if it meant I wasn’t allowed to space the latter.
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