No Country for Old Men

Pdf fan dd71f526917d6085d66d045bd94fb5b55d02a108dd45d836cbdd4abe2d4c043d Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics Theme Icon
Fate, Chance, and Free Will  Theme Icon
Justice and Higher Law Theme Icon
Changing Times: Past, Present, and Future Theme Icon
Corruption, Greed, and Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in No Country for Old Men, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics Theme Icon

McCarthy’s novel explores the human struggle toward a definition and framework of morality and ethics. Several of the novel’s characters search for a moral center—some reference point against which they may measure their decision, actions, and beliefs—as they confront extreme instances of violence and corruption. The novel’s three main characters, Llewellyn Moss, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, and Anton Chigurh, each operate in the world with different conceptions of morality and ethics. Each man holds a different moral code, and each character’s actions work to challenge common frameworks of morality and ethics.

Sheriff Bell struggles to find a moral center against which he might explain the gruesome violence he encounters throughout the narrative. Since he was a young sheriff, he has perceived the law, religion, and truth as the reference points for morality. These moral frameworks have not only provided a clear sense of right and wrong, they have given him a clear sense of obligation and duty as a sheriff, husband, and community member. Llewellyn Moss’s philosophy is not as clear-cut as Bell’s. Common frameworks of morality and ethics defined by law and religion do not guide him. His sense of morality comes from within, through his desire for authenticity, autonomy, and freedom.

Moss is operating in a framework that is not defined externally, by society or god, but by his own internal framework. Chigurh provides a counterpoint to these different moral positions. He operates outside of any single understanding of morality and ethics, and continually raises philosophical questions to his victims. His actions do not fall into any single philosophical framework. During the scene with the proprietor, he shifts the situation from a moral decision to chance by introducing the coin. When he kills Wells, his philosophy hinges on pragmatism. And when he kills Carla Jean, he does so out of moral duty. He acts in ways that complicate human attempts to construct moral frameworks and guidelines for their lives and society.

Through the exploration of these characters, their decisions, and the outcomes, the novel raises questions about human conceptions of morality and ethics, but does not seem to offer any single answer beyond the fact that the world remains indifferent to the strivings of its people. The novel is not concerned with providing an answer or a version of the “correct” moral philosophy. Instead, the novel aims to explore the limits and frailties of several philosophical frameworks dealing with morality and ethics, leaving the reader to face their own conceptions of these ideas.

Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics appears in each chapter of No Country for Old Men. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:
Get the entire No Country for Old Men LitChart as a printable PDF.
No country for old men.pdf.medium

Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics Quotes in No Country for Old Men

Below you will find the important quotes in No Country for Old Men related to the theme of Philosophy, Morality, and Ethics.
Chapter 1 Quotes

But there is another view of the world out there and other eyes to see it and that where this is going…Somewhere there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell, an agent of law and order, is frightened by the state of modern society. There is tremendous evil in the human soul--indeed, Bell has met the very embodiment of evil; the "prophet of destruction." Though we haven't met him yet, Bell is probably referring to Anton Chigurh, the nihilistic killer around whom much of the book revolves. As Bell admits, he has no desire to confront such a frightening person ever again.

Bell's description of Chigurh makes him sound like a force of nature more than a human being. In the clash between good and evil, Bell seems to acknowledge that evil has the "edge." Bell can't do anything to remove evil from the face of the Earth; all he can do is hope that Chigurh chooses to stay far away from the rest of humanity.


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other No Country for Old Men quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
Chapter 2 Quotes

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there is an accounting. And after that nothing is the same…you see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Anton Chigurh, the novel's main antagonist, challenges a man to bet on the outcome of a coin toss. Chigurh spares the man's life, it's strongly implied, because the man correctly guesses the result of the toss. Chigurh gives the man a flavor of his life philosophy: as he sees it, major events can be determined by the tiniest of events. Here, for example, a man's life has been spared due to something as minor as a coin flip. Chigurh leaves the man to puzzle over his own fate: was it destiny that led him to correctly predict the toss, sparing his own life? Or was it just random chance?

The themes Chigurh raises in this passage are crucial to the plot of the novel. Chigurh seems like the embodiment of evil, and yet he also seems to abide by a strict moral code that respects the basic uncertainty of the universe. Instead of choosing to kill his victim, Chigurh honors the results of the coin toss. Even if he's dangerous, Chigurh himself is just a cog in the "machine" of life--as we'll come to see, he has no real control over his own fate.

Chapter 3 Quotes

The ones that really ought to be on death row will never make it. You remember certain things about [an execution]. People didnt know what to wear. There was one or two that come dressed in black, which I suppose was all right...Still they seemed to know what to do and that surprised me. Most of em I know had never been to a execution before. When it was over they pulled this curtain back around the gas chamber with him in there settin slumped over and people just got up and filed out. Like out of church or somthin.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 62-63
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell comments on the decay of law and order, and connects it to the broader decay of society. Bell notes that the people who really deserve to die never actually make it to death row--sometimes, they go free, since they're smart enough to escape the police. On the other hand, many people who are executed for their crimes don't really deserve to die, at least according to Bell. Bell describes a grisly execution, and then compares it to a church gathering. Bell's comparison between the execution and  church seems to suggest that death and execution have replaced love and mercy as "events" for common people. All of society seems to follow a twisted religion, in which a man's death is a cause for a community gathering.

Clearly, Bell has some strong opinions about modern society, and a nostalgic view of a more "just" past. By the same token, he himself has a strong moral code--a code grounded in his own experiences as a police officer and former soldier, and in his religious faith. One of the most important conflicts of the novel is between Bell's philosophy of justice, higher power, and moral absolutes, the chaos and nihilism of Chigurh, and the independence and self-actualization of Moss.

It’s a odd thing when you come to think about it. The opportunities for abuse are just about everywhere. There’s no requirements in the Texas State Constitution for bein a sheriff. Not a one. There is no such thing as county law. You think about a job where you have pretty much the same authority as God and there is no requirements put upon you and you are charged with preservin nonexistent laws and you tell me if that’s peculiar or not. Because I say it is…it takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell is insecure about the current state of society, and he's equally insecure about the current state of law enforcement. Despite working as a sheriff for many years, Bell notes that anyone can be a cop, no matter how immoral they are. Bell recognizes the absurdity of the situation: anyone can apply to be a police officer and be given "the same authority as God."

Bell's comments reinforce the decay of civilization as he sees it. Law enforcement--an institution that's supposed to protect good people and punish bad people--has become hopelessly corrupt, to the point where the law enforcers themselves are often the real villains. In the end, Bell repeats, justice has disappeared and the most evil people always go free--Chigurh is just one example.

Chapter 5 Quotes

I know they’s a lot of things in a family history that just plain aint so. Any family. The stories get passed on and the truth gets passed over…which I reckon some would take as meaning that the truth cant compete. But I dont believe that. I think that when the lies are all told and forgot the truth will be there yet.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Bell acknowledges that his family history is full of fictions--tall tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. In spite of the prevalence of fiction in his "family lore," Bell insists that truth wins out in the end. Truth--with a capital "T"--will always last longer than fiction.

Bell's comments could be interpreted as a confirmation of his faith in moral values--the timeless truths of human society. Rules like "do unto others ..." and "love thy neighbor" don't fade away with time, at least according to Bell--rather, they're true both now and forever. Bell sees evil and immorality all around him, And yet rather than accept that the world is a dark, meaningless place, he continues to feel a profound faith in the rightness of moral truths. Whether this kind of rigid morality is admirable or just naive, however, is up to the reader to judge.

I guess in all honesty I would have to say that I never knew nor did I ever hear of anybody that money didnt change.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Carla Jean Moss
Related Symbols: The Briefcase
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Bell pays a visit to Carla Jean Moss, the wife of Llewellyn Moss. Carla Jean knows that Moss has run off with a lot of money, but she's confident that her husband will remain the same man--in other words, his personality and values won't change at all. Bell, who's more experienced and more realistic about human nature (on this subject, at least), insists that money changes everyone.

We've already seen plentiful evidence that Bell is right about Moss. Even after Moss senses that possessing the briefcase full of money is endangering his life, he continues to hang onto it. The love of money, so the saying goes, is the root of all evil. But the novel makes a subtler point about the briefcase--that Llewellyn keeps it even after he knows his peril not because he hopes to get rich (he seems to know that he would never have the freedom and safety to actually enjoy the money), but because he wants to assert his own survival and independence in the face of a seemingly-unstoppable murderer like Chigurh.

You can’t make a deal with him. Let me say it again. Even if you gave him the money he’d still kill you. There’s no one alive on this planet that’s ever had even a cross word with him. They’re all dead. These are not good odds. He’s a peculiar man. You could even say that he has principals. Principals that transcend money or drugs or anything like that.

Related Characters: Carson Wells (speaker), Llewellyn Moss
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Carson Wells--a criminal and negotiator--tries to tell Llewellyn the truth about his situation. Wells knows that Moss is even now being hunted by Anton Chigurh, and he tells Moss that there's nothing he can do to escape Chigurh's vengeance. Moss cockily claims that he can "cut a deal" with Chigurh, but Moss disagrees: Chigurh doesn't bargain with his enemies--he tracks them down and kills them.

The passage helps us understand what kind of man Chigurh is. Moss--who trusts that money can buy anything--thinks that he can always pay off Chigurh in return for protection. But Chigurh isn't a regular human being--he doesn't let his short-term need for money distract him. Once Chigurh has decided to kill a man, nothing can distract him from his goal--not even the offer of millions of dollars.

The irony of Wells's speech is that Chigurh comes off as being much more "principled" than either Wells or Moss. Where Moss trusts that money is the ultimate source of power, Chigurh appeals to a higher set of rules. What, exactly, these rules are is unclear. And yet, peculiarly, Chigurh's refusal to be "bought" is what makes him stand out from the rest of society.

Chapter 6 Quotes

What is that Torbert says? About truth and justice?
We dedicate ourselves anew daily. Somthin like that.
I think I’m goin to commence dedicatin myself twice daily. It may come to three fore it’s over.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker), Torbert and Wendell
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Bell remembers something his colleague says about law and justice: one must dedicate himself to the rules of justice every single day. In other words, one makes a constant "choice" to uphold the laws of morality--at any given time, one could choose to stop upholding justice.

Bell acknowledges that it takes constant effort to be a good, moral agent in the modern world. Indeed, it's not enough to choose to uphold the law every day--Bell promises, half-jokingly, to dedicate himself two or more times daily. Bell's quiet joke expresses the impossibility of being a constant moral agent. Bell has managed to spend most of his life being "good," but at any given time, he could waver in his principles and commit an evil act. In spite of the apparent impossibility of justice, Bell resolves to continue trying to be good--a mark of his near-fanatical devotion to right and wrong.

If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker), Carson Wells
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Anton Chigurh tracks down Carson Wells and prepares to murder him. Before he kills Wells, Chigurh taunts his victim. He wants to know: if the "rules" by which Wells lived his life brought him to this point (i.e., brought him to be murdered by Chigurh), what was the point of following the rules?

Chigurh's question is more profound than it might seem. As Chigurh sees it, the only reason to live according to a moral "code" (a religion, a philosophy, etc.) is that the code brings you some kind of success. There's no point in being, say, a Christian, if your Christian beliefs lead you to death. In short, Chigurh sneers at all of society's values and laws. Where most human beings delude themselves into following useless rules, Chigurh follows his own religion--the religion of random chance--and breaks all other rules.

You’ve been giving up things for years to get here. I dont think I even understood that. How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life? We’re in the same line of work. Up to a point. Did you hold me in such contempt? Why would you do that? How did you let yourself get in this situation?

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker), Carson Wells
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

In this complex scene, Anton Chigurh continues to talk to Carson Wells before murdering him. Chigurh makes a complicated, contradictory point, simultaneously distinguishing himself from Carson and identifying with him.

Chigurh criticizes Wells for living his life according to other people's rules. Wells obeys his bosses, and--crucially--he "worships" money. Chigurh, by contrast, seems not to care about money or authority--he's "his own boss," and can't be bought or paid off. In the end, Chigurh claims, Wells's love for money has been utterly futile--his love hasn't led to wealth or prosperity; it's led to his death at Chigurh's hands.

And yet Chigurh insists that he and Wells are alike, "up to a point." Both Chigurh and Wells would be considered criminals by society's standards. But according to Chigurh, Wells doesn't go far enough in rejecting conventional law and order. Wells breaks the law all the time, but he's allowed himself to be controlled by money--the ultimate symbol of society. Chigurh, by contrast, is totally amoral and totally nihilistic. He doesn't let anyone or anything control what he does--even himself. Instead, he submits to random chance.

Chapter 8 Quotes

That aint half of it. [The drug dealers] dont even think about the law. It dont seem to even concern em. Of course here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge. I guess he concerned em. Add to that that there’s peace officers along this border getting rich off narcotics. That’s a painful thing to know. Or it is for me. I dont believe that was true even ten years ago. A crooked peace officer is just a damn abomination.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to Chapter 8, Bell continues to lament the decay of law and order. Even a decade ago, he claims, there were no corrupt peace officers--nowadays, however, the prevalence of drugs has led to police officers who secretly sell drugs and profit at every turn.

Bell's point is that criminals no longer try to kill police officers--unless the officers are corrupt, and need to be taken "out of the picture." Police officers have become so ineffectual that criminals have no practical need to murder them. In short, Bell is humiliated and embarrassed by the incompetence and corruption of his peers, and, as usual, he nostalgically looks back to an idealized past to contrast to the current state of affairs.

The point is there aint no point.

Related Characters: The Young Hitchhiker (speaker), Loretta Bell
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Llewellyn Moss crosses paths with a young female hitchhiker. They drive together, not even bothering to share names. In the car, Moss begins to talk about the "one who follows"--a figure whom the young woman thinks is God, but whom we know to be Anton Chigurh. Eventually, the young woman asks Moss what's the point of his ramblings--Moss responds that there is no point.

The quote encapsulates the bleak nihilism of the novel. There is no "point"--no moral or intellectual meaning--in life, Moss seems to suggest. He's going to die because he's stolen money from drug dealers, and there's basically nothing he can do about it except wait for death.

And yet Moss's quote suggests that there is a kind of freedom in accepting that life has no point. Moss seems to be accepting his fate, where before he tried to avoid it by running away. Moss's observation also sums up Chigurh's nihilistic philosophy. Chigurh doesn't believe in religion or philosophy of any kind--and yet his lack of belief becomes a kind of religion, a belief in the power of chance and randomness that acts as Chigurh's guiding principle. In short, at the end of his life, Moss seems to accept some of the same depressing ideas about life that Chigurh upholds.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Not everyone is suited to this line of work. The prospect of outsized profits leads people to exaggerate their own capabilities. In their minds. They pretend to themselves that they are in control of events where perhaps they are not. And it is always one’s stance upon uncertain ground that invites the attentions of one’s enemies. Or discourages it.

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker)
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Anton Chigurh returns the drug money to its "rightful" owner, a quiet man who works in an office. As he leaves, Chigurh warns the man not to believe that he controls his own destiny--no one does. Chigurh even suggests that the belief that one controls destiny is a sign of weakness--an invitation for failure and defeat.

The passage is arguably Chigurh's most coherent explanation of his own philosophy. Chigurh believes that fate (or random chance) is the ultimate authority in the universe--nobody can control it or master it, Chigurh included. Even powerful drug lords, who control millions of dollars, have no real control over their own destinies--at any given time, they could lose their money or be killed. The only source of power, paradoxically, is accepting one's own powerlessness. Chigurh has long since accepted that randomness governs his own life--and ironically, his acceptance is what makes him such a dangerous enemy for Moss and the other characters (for example, he refuses money and bribery, and can't be bought or pleaded with).

Every moment in your life is a turning and every one a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous. The shape is drawn. No line can be erased. I had no believe in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A Person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.

Related Characters: Anton Chigurh (speaker), Carla Jean Moss
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

In this disturbing scene, Anton Chigurh tracks down Carla Jean and prepares to murder her, claiming that Llewellyn Moss has doomed her by refusing to part with his money. He gives her the chance to save her life by flipping a coin--when Carla Jean makes the wrong call, Chigurh prepares to shoot her. Before dying, Carla Jean asks Chigurh how he can choose whether or not to kill someone based on a simple coin toss.

Chigurh offers Carla Jean a long, contradictory explanation for his own behavior. As Chigurh sees it, humans go through life with free will--they exercise their freedom thousands of times. And yet all these free choices can't save a human being from the inevitable act of dying, which no one can choose to escape. Chigurh sees himself as an executor of fate, neither good nor evil. Paradoxically, he describes Carl Jean's death as both fated and a product of her free will: she "made a choice" that led her here, and yet cannot escape her predetermined fate ("visible from the beginning") in the present moment.

Chigurh's philosophy, in short, is contradictory and baffling. What makes Chigurh so maddening is that Chigurh himself refuses to exercise any free will: he just lives out his dark philosophy, obeying his own word and the "law of the coin toss."

How come people dont feel like this country has got a lot to answer for? They dont. You can say that the country is just the country, it dont actively do nothing, but that dont mean much…This country will kill you in a heartbeat and still people love it. You understand what I’m sayin?

Related Characters: Uncle Ellis (speaker), Sheriff Ed Tom Bell
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Sheriff Bell talks to an old relative, Uncle Ellis. Ellis challenges Bell's nostalgia for the past, pointing out that the nation of America has always been violent and dangerous, killing its own citizens. Ellis is old enough to remember some of the wars Americans have fought in long ago. Moreover, he's critical of the people who continue to trust their country long after their country proves itself to be corrupt.

In short, Uncle Ellis's words challenge everything Sheriff Bell has been telling us. Bell naively believes that things were better a time long ago in America--a belief that Ellis angrily disputes. Bell continues to feel a deep faith in American law enforcement and government, even if he doesn't like specific law enforcers and governors. Ellis tells Bell that he should throw aside his own love for his country and for the past: life has always been and will always be savage.

Chapter 11 Quotes

I told him that a lawyer one time told me that in law school they try and teach you not to worry about right and wrong but just to follow the law and I said I wasnt so sure about that. He thought about that and he nodded and he said that he pretty much had to agree…if you dont follow the law right and wrong wont save you.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

Sheriff Bell crosses paths with a young lawyer, with whom Bell discusses law in the United States. The prosecutor confirms Bell's worst suspicions: he claims that the purpose of the legal system of the United States is to maintain law, not to "do the right thing."

In short, the institutions of law and order--the very thing that Bell continues to trust after all these years--are no more "right" than organized crime. Courts and juries aren't really designed to dole out justice to people; they're designed to preserve the law itself, whether the law is morally correct or not. In general, the passage further challenges Bell's faith in morality. There is no institution, it would seem, that's genuinely concerned with good, moral behavior. Bell's only benchmark for right and wrong, then, is his own instinct.

Chapter 12 Quotes

She was tryin to be a reporter. She said: Sheriff how come you to let crime get so out of hand in your county? Sounded like a fair question I reckon. Maybe it was a fair question. Anyway I told her, I said: It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Anytime you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight. I told her, I said: It reaches into every strata. You’ve heard about that aint you?...I told her that you cant have a dope business without dopers. A lot of em are well dressed and holdin down goodpayin jobs too.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell offers his own theory for the decay of society. Bell, when asked by a reporter why crime is so bad in the U.S., claims that crime begins with the decay of manners. When people don't say Sir and Ma'am, "the end is pretty much in sight."

Bell seems to believe in a kind of "broken window hypothesis" of crime: i.e., he believes that small crimes and misdemeanors gradually give rise to big crimes like murder and theft. It's difficult to tell if Bell is being totally sincere in this passage, though. Bell's explanation may explain some crimes, but it can't do justice to a figure like Anton Chigurh. (Chigurh, we can be pretty sure, didn't become a criminal simply because he didn't say "please" as a child.)

Chapter 13 Quotes

This man had set down with a hammer and a chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in? It wasn’t that nothing would change. Which is what you might think, I suppose. He had to know bettern that. I’ve thought about it a great deal…And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart.

Related Characters: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (speaker)
Page Number: 308
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sheriff Bell recalls a stone trough that he saw long ago. The trough makes a great impression on him: it strikes him as a symbol of everything that humans, and human civilization, are capable of. The stone trough will still be there in thousands of years, exactly the same as it is now. When Bell tries to understand why anyone would carve such a trough, he concludes that the sculptor must have been trying to honor "a promise."

What does Bell mean by "a promise?" Perhaps Bell is suggesting that it takes faith to build something like the stone trough: faith in the correctness and usefulness of one's own profession. The sculptor carves the trough because he's confident that his work will bring help and comfort to people for many years. It could also be something vaguer and more individual, like a sense of hope or optimism. Sheriff Bell obviously admires the sculptor deeply: Bell struggles to bring the same commitment and optimism to his own work as a law enforcement officer, but by now he can't help but feel that his work is useless. He'll never be able to reduce crime or fight people like Chigurh. In part, Bell's poignant admiration for the sculptor's work explains why Bell chose to retire: he knew he could never create anything as useful and long-lasting.