Film philosophy: The problem with unity in ‘Rick and Morty’

The episode “Auto Erotic Assimilation” of “Rick and Morty” explores themes of individualism and conformity. (Courtesy: BagoGames)

Created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland of Adult Swim, “Rick and Morty” is an animated, science fiction and cosmically nihilistic TV show that covers many existential questions. The episode “Auto Erotic Assimilation” grapples with the difficult balance of unity and respecting individual rights.

“Auto Erotic Assimilation” begins with a satiric homage to the counterculture of the 1960s, with Rick and his grandchildren, Summer and Morty, tone-deafly singing along to a song about love and connection. While comedic in presentation, the scene importantly denotes the first major theme: a seeming naivety with respect to peace. 

Rick, Summer and Morty soon encounter the hivemind named Unity, which presents the first challenge of the episode: Is unity bad? Simply put, the concept of unity can be generally agreed upon as something good. Having amiable relationships with others allows for beneficial, productive work to be done which progresses society as a whole.

However, the creators personify the concept as a hivemind. While its method of infecting individuals via vomiting into their mouths is visually comical, taking control of an entire planet’s population is morally questionable at best. The situation raises an uncomfortable question regarding like-mindedness: To what extent does it become more harmful than helpful?

Summer’s initial answer is obvious. After arriving on Unity’s entirely assimilated planet, Summer shouts to the people, “You have to have some individuality left in there!” She not only points out the obvious imposition on free will, but also reveals the value she places on individualism. 

In response to Summer’s protests, Unity responds by revealing how taking control of each person either helped them individually or benefited society as a whole. One woman had been a heroin addict with a horrible quality of life until Unity cured her, while another man had been a registered sex offender.

Unity and Summer’s exchange presents the difficulties of a society built on individualism. To what extent should the expression and pursuit of someone’s desires be allowed? Is it morally correct to impose moral rights on an individual in order to benefit society as a whole? 

To many, the answer would lie somewhere in between. While a discussion of inherent moral rights and moral status is beyond the scope of this column, the cases presented in “Auto Erotic Assimilation” are worthy of consideration. 

In the case of the sex offender, it may be generally agreed that he harms society and infringes upon others’ rights. However, these harmful actions are technically part of his individualism. Summer’s initial stance as a proponent of individualism would then morally allow for his actions to continue. However, his actions are immoral. To remedy this, it may be agreed that he relinquishes some of his own moral rights when acting harmfully, and therefore it may be justified for Unity to take control. 

The episode continues to manipulate this idea, enlarging the scale to include a larger portion of the population as Unity loses increasingly more control. Moments after a larger fraction of the population is released from Unity’s control, a race war begins. Does the involvement of a greater number of people influence the answers regarding individual freedoms and rights?

After witnessing the unnecessary bloodshed, Summer eventually admits that she “didn’t realize freedom meant people doing things that suck!” While this may be an oversimplification, the statement clearly signifies her change in perspective. 

Summer’s concerns echo that of the general American value of rugged individualism. As the show is produced in an American-based studio, it makes sense to relate her concerns to the United States. 

An unfortunately obvious example would be the debate over masks. Mask-wearing has been proven to significantly reduce the transmission of COVID-19, yet many Americans have protested wearing them. In this case, the individualist mindset prevalent in American culture manifests in a harmful manner to society. 

While the total mind control of hivemind is clearly also not morally correct, this case presents the interesting gray area in between. As members of society, it can be argued that people do have moral obligations to one another to keep each other safe, especially at the generally low burden of wearing a mask. 

However, placing Adult Swim’s challenging personification aside, the concept of unity would also support the wearing of masks to benefit society. 

While it is possible to be both a proponent of peace and individualism, difficulties with the coexistence of the two are prominent and to be considered. The moral issues raised by “Auto Erotic Assimilation” are pervasive and do not have immediately clear solutions. While such conclusions may be unfulfilling, the open-endedness allows for continuous reevaluation and engagement in everyday life. 

Simone Bogedal PO ’24 is from Chester, New Jersey. She regularly consumes excessive amounts of coffee and is interested in applicable philosophy found in TV shows. 

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