On The Philosophy of Catfishing


I’ve been watching this reality TV show on MTV called Catfish: the TV Show. I haven’t watched anything on MTV in years. I’m hooked on watching this show. And I’m surprised that I’m watching MTV and not complaining that they’re not showing music videos.

The TV show is inspired by the 2010 documentary Catfish. The movie is about the real-life story of filmmaker Nev Schulman and his online relationship with a woman who turned out to be a 40 year-old woman.

She was a catfish.

A few years ago, the important internet question was “Have you been one cupped?” now it’s “have you been catfished?”

I’ve been one cupped. I will never be the same again.

According to Wikipedia a catfish “is a person who creates fake profiles online and pretends to be someone they are not by using someone else’s pictures and information. These “catfish” use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, usually with the intention of getting other people or a person to fall in love with them.”

In short, a catfish is liar.

They lie sometimes about everything

Dr. Phil even had a show about Catfish. He told his viewers how to spot an internet “catfish”.

He says there are five signs you may be dealing with a catfish.

I’ve met three of Dr. Phil’s five signs.

But I’m not a catfish. I don’t lie online.

I just prefer not to tell anyone anything about me.

It’s obvious that the problem with catfish is misrepresentation. If someone misrepresents who they are we have no idea who we are really talking to. This problem is only amplified on the internet.

The internet (especially social networking sites like Facebook) is supposed to make communication easier and to bring people with like interests together. This is what makes the internet not only useful but fun: the ability to find a potential soul mate or (at least) a friend. I may not know anyone in the town where I live who likes Jean Claude Van Damme movies and blueberry pancakes, but I most assuredly will find someone on the internet that does.

But the convenience of fiber optic communication also makes it easy to be deceitful. The absence of physical contact between individuals communicating via computer means anyone can say anything about themselves or their lives leaving us only to assume what people post on the internet is true. A catfish relies on the fact that whomever they are misrepresenting themselves to is either trusting or hasn’t the time or the know-how to investigate every social network follower and/or friend to verify that they are who they claim they are.

Thus proving what they say about what happens when we assume.

When you assume things you end up making yourself one of these.

When you assume things you end up making yourself look like one of these.

We know what Immanuel Kant would say about a catfish. According to the Kantian view, the real harm of a catfish is that a catfish’s lies are damaging to individuals and society. In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Kant tells us

Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature

Kant’s ethics forbid all lying in all circumstances. He argues that our actions are morally correct only if we can universalize the act. Honesty (at least a certain amount) and trust are necessary not only for the world to function but for relationships as well. Kant argues that one of our duties to others is an obligation to be honest. If people make a universal habit of being deceitful to others, Kant says we have no reason to trust what anyone says (especially people we meet online). Kant states:

He immediately sees that it could never hold as a universal law and be consistent with itself; rather it must necessarily contradict itself. For the universality of a law which says that anyone who believes himself to be in need could promise what he pleased with the intention of not fulfilling it would make the promise itself and the end to be accomplished by it impossible; no one would believe what was promised to him but would only laugh at any such assertion as vain pretense.*

Kant also states:

…it is nevertheless impossible to will that such a principle should hold everywhere as a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would conflict with itself…

If Kant is correct, the act of lying undermines the purpose of social networking.


The problem with a catfish may not be the lying in itself. Everybody lies to some degree (if you claim that you don’t, congratulations you’re a liar). I think it’s safe to say that the real problem with lying is that when we do not tell the truth to others we are involved with our relationships are inauthentic.

The catfish specializes in inauthentic relationships.

Authenticity is necessary to develop healthy, long-lasting relationships with others. Aristotle tells us that the only way to develop true (authentic) relationships with others is to engage in frequent social intercourse with others. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that close physical proximity is a necessary component for real relationships (Aristotle calls physical interaction a “characteristic of friendship”). Aristotle writes:

Such friendship, moreover, requires long and familiar intercourse. For, as the proverb says, it is impossible for people to know one another till they have consumed the requisite quantity of salt together.

A Kantian may argue that a person is damaged by a catfish’s online deception, but Aristotle may tell us we never had a true relationship (at least in the philosophical sense) to begin with.

This, of course, raises and interesting philosophical question.

Is the anonymity of the internet actually better for relationships?

Namely, given the fact that we do not physically interact with people we “talk” to online, some may argue that since we don’t have physical contact with people over the internet, we are forced to deal (supposedly) with people as is, with who they really are.

Let’s say the only thing that a person is deceitful about (in an internet relationship) is their appearance. An individual uses a photo of someone else (presumably more attractive) when communicating with others on the internet. This individual reasons that s/he uses a fake photo because s/he feels that they must hide their physical appearance in order to successfully communicate with others and that using a fake photo on the internet allows them to avoid the (negative) aesthetic judgments of others.

Some might consider this person a catfish especially if they enter into a “relationship” with another person while representing themselves as the person in the photo.

But is that always a bad thing?

Now, some people create fake profiles out of maliciousness. Some people do it because they are mentally disturbed or narcissistic. But if everything else, sans appearance thoughts, feelings, opinions, even a person’s voice (if they speak to others on the phone) are the real deal?  Philosophers often emphasize character over perceived material worth (that is, unless you’re a materialist). Socrates and Aristotle sought virtuous people; Kant wanted people who possessed good will. And John Stuart Mill argued people should rather be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. Would a philosopher appreciate internet relationships with good, virtuous, or philosophically oriented people even if a person lied about what they look like (assuming the intention wasn’t malevolent-intended)? Perhaps a utilitarian (and certainly an ethical egoist) would say that a little white lie may be necessary if one’s intention is to develop a relationship that would be beneficial to both parties.

Perhaps for some catfish the lie enables them to get to the truth. The lie makes them honest.

Then is it possible that catfishing be a philosophically good thing?

Watch this clip and decide for yourself.


In the documentary Catfish, the term “catfish” as a reference to people who misrepresent themselves on the internet is explained  as follows: fishermen, exporting cod from the U.S. to markets in Asia noticed that the cod were soggy when they arrived at their destination. When catfish were shipped along with the cod, the cod retained their firmness and vigor. Catfish, the film explains, are people who keep other people from losing their firmness and vitality.

* Kant’s example refers to someone who repeatedly makes promises to others and subsequently breaks them, which is a form of lying. It’s easy to see how lying about one’s life and/or appearance is similar to breaking a promise as lying  and promise breaking are grounded in misrepresentation of one’s intention and requires trust on the part of the other party.

You can find Dr. Phil’s signs you’re possibly dealing with an online catfish at: http://drphil.com/articles/article/720


1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catfish_(film)

2) Immanuel Kant. 1997 [1785]. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Lewis White Beck. 2nd Edition, Revised. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 38-40.

3) Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 1893. 2004. Trans. F.H. Peters, M.A. NY: Barnes & Noble Books. 177.

The Philosophical Merits of Blaxploitation

I have a thing for bad movies.

I’m not just talking about marginally bad movies. Like odd numbered Star Trek movies bad. Or even movies that are so bad that they’re good.

I’m talking really bad movies.

Nicolas Cage bad.

This bad.



Sorry about that.

Everybody’s got their favorite worst genre or era of film. Personally, I have a thing for mid to late seventies schlock horror films. But if you ask a few true cinematic crapophiles, some of them may tell you that the 1970s was the lowest point in American cinematic culture. After all, the seventies was the decade that forced American theatergoers to endure Roller Boogie, Grizzly, Sssssss!, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Incredible Melting Man, The Exorcist II: The  Heretic, Big Bad Mama, Zaat, Myra Breckenridge, The Thing With Two Heads, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, It’s Alive!, Moment By Moment, Zardoz, Hercules In New York, and the Robert Stigwood-produced film adaptation of The Beatles’ 1967 concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (??????)

…. Starring the Bee Gees.

Really. It starred the Bee Gees.

(Warning: watching the following clip may produce a feeling of pity that John Lennon had to witness this cinematic monstrosity before he died and an extreme hatred towards Peter Frampton)


I’ll wait while you take a moment to recover.

Although most bad movies will certainly leave you with the feeling of a loss of faith in the human race, even the worst movie sometimes has a hidden lesson to be learned. The method to appreciating bad seventies cinema is mastering how to hold a barf bag while taking note of a film’s hidden philosophical subtext. Now, some people will tell you that a particular subgenre of bad film is where one is guaranteed to find lots of philosophical subtext.And there are certainly quite a few craptastic genres of 1970s cinema to choose from: slasher flicks, hard-core pornography, disaster movies (to name a few). Second to my love for schlock horror, my favorite philosophically instructive genre of seventies cinema is blaxploitation.

For those of you who don’t know, the word blaxploitation is a portmanteau of the words black and exploitation.

Black + exploitation = blaxploitation

Blaxploitation films are known for Bad Ass (i.e. excessively violent) characters, chic 1970s attire, hip soundtracks, not-so-good acting, loose and frequent use of the N-word, and white people (aka THE MAN) getting the hell beaten out of them. Better (and better known) examples of the genre are Shaft, Superfly, Sweet Sweetback’s Baad-Asssss Song, Cooley High, Three the Hard Way, Hammer, Foxy Brown.

That Shaft is a bad mutha --- SHUT YO MOUTH!

That Shaft is a bad mutha — SHUT YO MOUTH!

Just as physics teaches us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, unfortunately for any good film there is also often an equally (very) bad movie. Blaxploitation also birthed some of the worst films in history: Brotherhood of Death, TNT Jackson, Mandingo, Blacula (and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream), Blackenstein, Abby (a nausea-inducing, all-black, knock-off of The Exorcist), Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw, Disco Godfather,  and The Human Tornado.

Basically any movie starring Rudy Ray Moore.

Rudy Ray Moore is the African-American Nicolas Cage.


See what I mean?


Although it’s easy (and encouraged) to toss away bad Blaxploitation films to the dung heap of cinematic history, the fact that a movie is a Blaxploitation film (or any exploitation film for that matter) does not necessarily infer that a movie has no philosophical lessons to teach. A handful of Blaxploitation films are actually philosophically useful. One such example of a philosophically valuable bad movie is the 1974 Blaxploitation film Jive Turkey (Aka Baby Needs A New Pair of Shoes).

Ok, let’s ignore the obvious. This movie is terrible. It’s set in the 1950s but it’s filled with more anachronisms than one can count. The acting quality is at best shitty  questionable. And the actor playing “Serene” the cross-dressing hitman is fooling no one.

See for yourself.


If you couldn't make it through the clip, this is Serene.

If you couldn’t make it through the clip, this is Serene.


Shangela Laquifa Wadley he is not.

This is Shangela.

This is Shangela.

See what I mean?

If you’ve never seen Jive Turkey (Chances are you haven’t) here’s a brief synopsis:

Pasha (Phil Harris) runs the numbers game. Pasha’s former childhood friend and current rival, Italian gangster Big Tony (Frank de Kova) wants in on Pasha’s territory. Not only does Pasha have to deal with a bounty placed on his head by the big guys in Chicago, but internal dissention within Pasha’s ranks threatens to destroy his numbers empire.

If that synopsis hasn’t piqued your philosophical interest, here’s a short list of the philosophical questions and topics in Jive Turkey:

* Gender (In particular, Serene, Pasha’s cross-dressing hitman. Is she a transgendered woman who disguises herself as a man to evade her enemies or is she a man who cross-dresses to do his job? Serene is referred to as “she” but is that because she is accepted as a woman or because most people do not know Serene is a man? Is the notion of a female hitman so unacceptable/unusual that the part had to be played by a man in drag?)

* Aristotle’s idea of the magnanimous man (Is Pasha magnanimous?)

* Act vs. Rule Utilitarianism

* Race (inter and intra-race relations)

* Crime and virtue (Can good people do bad things, or does doing bad things necessarily make a person bad?)

* Is revenge morally justified? (If so, when and under what circumstances?)

* What are victimless crimes? Is there such a thing as a victimless crime (e.g. gambling)?

* Good vs. evil (Are Pasha and his gang good guys and the police bad guys or vice versa?)

* Is there such a thing as a “necessary evil”?

* Was Sweetman a jive turkey? What should be the price of disloyalty?

If you want to check out Jive Turkey for yourself, here is is.




For further reading on Blaxploitation films see Wikipedia article on Blaxploitation at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaxploitation

Daily Philosophical Musings

I read somewhere that, when Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was finally hunted down and shot by federal troops, his last words was, “meaningless, meaningless.”

I’m not really sure what Booth meant by what he said, but I suspect that in his last moments he realized that that whole assassinate the president thing hadn’t turned out quite like he planned.

He defeats the tyrant just to die in a barn.

That might have been the “meaningless” John Wilkes Booth was talking about.

I’m thinking that Booth realized his bad decision right about now.

I’m thinking that Booth realized his bad decision right about now.

You know, philosophy is supposed to be meaningful. At the very least it’s supposed to serve a good purpose.

But sometimes it’s kind of hard to see the meaningfulness or purpose for philosophical thinking.

After all, philosophy doesn’t seem to be as useful as listening to the newest Kei$ha single, owning an iPod, having a Facebook account, Skypeing with potential internet hook-ups before meeting them in person, or knowing how to say “I think I killed your cat” in Spanish.

In a world where renowned physicists Stephen Hawking and Laurence Krauss declare philosophy dead, it’s pretty difficult to argue that contemplating the number of angels on the head of a pin has anything to do with anything going on in the real world.

That is, of course, unless you’re explaining to your neighbor how his cat is one of those angels.