I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.
- Jay Gould
Killing the Poor Part One
The high concept at the heart of The Purge franchise is that following economic collapse, a new political party has taken control of the United States on a platform of ending crime. The New Founding Fathers (NFF) have ripped off an old Star Trek episode and instituted a sort of festival where all crime is legal for one night a year. The politicians are, obviously, exempted. You aren’t allowed to kill your Senator.
Over the course of five films and a TV series, The Purge has mutated from a clever home-invasion horror into Swiftian political satire with very ragged teeth.
American Fascism is on the rise, and the NFF bears a striking resemblance to Trump’s GOP. The NFF scapegoats immigrants, the poor and other groups. They use fear and overblown rhetoric about crime to gain power, then wield that power like a chainsaw.
The value of purge night is multifoliate to the ruling class. It's population control (side note, tech bros all seem to harbor Malthusian philosophies); it keeps the poors in line; it’s entertainment of the Roman Coliseum variety. (another side note: the makers of these films seem to grossly underestimate just what a major problem fire would be in the purge. All cities should probably burn completely on the first purge night).
There has been much discussion about the philosophy of the Purge series and some of it is questionable. For instance, the first film (The Purge) has been held out as an example of the “inquiring murderer” objection to Kant’s Categorical Imperative. For those playing along at home, the TLDR here is that Kant argues that lying is always ethically wrong ("Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.") The objection asks you to imagine that an innocent person being pursued by a killer has taken refuge in your house. The killer appears and asks you if their intended victim is there. If you answer truthfully, the innocent will be killed. This objection is unanswerable. I question its use in discussing The Purge, as the scenarios on offer don’t really line up here. While Deontology fails, it is unclear that this is the best way to demolish it.
A better discussion around these movies can he had by considering Utilitarianism.
The Purge could be used as an objection to Bentham’s Utilitarian ethics. Consider that the masked murderers causing mayhem on purge night are akin to a Utility Monster. That is, a creature that gets so much pleasure from causing pain, that it outweighs the pain caused. If the purgers enjoy their acts enough, then those acts are actually moral.