ETHICALLY SPEAKING, I’M PRETTY much all over the place.
I would never admit it to anyone, especially not to my old ethics professor, but my ethics often depends on my mood.
And no, I wouldn’t say I’m an emotivist.
Even an emotivist has consistent principles.
I have more of a whatever happens happens kind of ethics.
Some people say that’s treating ethics like a buffet. You pick and choose only what you want to eat.
I had a professor who called it theory shopping.
Well, if theory shopping is what I’m doing, then color me a shopaholic.
For many years I called myself a Kantian Egoist. My first blog was called The KantianEgoist. I still kind of consider myself a practitioner of Kantian egoism.
…and it doesn’t violate the categorical imperative.
Now, anybody who has ever tried it, knows that adopting a purely Kantian ethics lifestyle is next to impossible. Anyone who wants to keep friends would ever tell an axe murderer that the murderer’s intended victim is hiding in a closet.
Even Rahab lied to protect the Israelites.
That’s kind of where the egoism comes in.
But there’s a problem with egoism.
To wit: this problem with egoism is this
She’s not the only egoist-slash-objectivist, but she’s certainly the most famous one. And if I have any goal in life, it is to not be associated with being a devotee of Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead.
Besides, being an egoist just makes everybody hate you.
I’ve tried virtue ethics. I’ve done moral relativism. I dabbled in moral nihilism and at various times called myself a practitioner of hedonism, and of classical, act, and rule utilitarianism.
Still…I just can’t get over my fondness for Kantianism.
Don’t get me wrong…I’m not gaga over everything Kant.
There’s not enough bitcoin I could mine to pay me to slog through Kant’s Critique of PureReason again.
It’s a book of pure something, but it ain’t reason.
I may be guilty of a philosophical sin, here, but I prefer Kant’s ethics over his metaphysics.
Yeah, I know. They’re connected.
How could one POSSIBLY be a fan of the categorical imperative without also accepting transcendental idealism as the end-all be-all of philosophical metaphysics????
I know, right?!?!?
You see, I spent exactly 3.7 years as a practicing utilitarian and all I got for it was a mess of bad decisions motivated by the expectation of good consequences.
I did more than a little bit of bad trying to do the greatest good.
The best-laid plans of mice and men, eh?
Utilitarian ethics is all based on calculating consequences, and I suck at math.
That’s precisely why I like Kantian ethics. It’s so cut and dry. No consequences. No evading my moral responsibilities with a that wasn’t supposed to happen, or it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Kantian ethics is pretty (somewhat) easy.
Ok. I know what you’re going to say: “The Mindless Philosopher, you said, not more than a few semi-paragraphs ago, that, ‘anybody who has ever tried it, knows that adopting a purely Kantian ethics lifestyle is next to impossible.’”
Yes, I did say that.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the fact that a theory is difficult to practice as a lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean that the theory isn’t easy to practice on paper – aka, the place where all good philosophical theories work best.
Allow me to give an example.
Because of your all-consuming railroad track fetish, you spend countless, unproductive hours staring at train tracks, waiting for “something” to happen. One day, while observing your favorite pair of diverging rail tracks, you spot on one track, Track A, a group of five people who have been lashed to the rails. On the other track, Track B, your five-year-old child has taken up the family tradition of hanging out on busy railroad tracks for no good reason. A large freight train is racing down the track. Your option is to pull a lever that diverts the train down either Track A) the track with the group of five, or down Track B) the track with your weird kid.
YOU must pull the lever to decide which track (A or B) the freight train takes. Do you save your kid and kill five people, or do you kill your ONE kid and save the five?
This is, of course, the famous (or infamous) Trolley Problem thought experiment. The thought experiment is intended to test utilitarian ethics.
The utilitarian’s decision, to pull the lever to send the train down Track A or Track B, depends on what the utilitarian believes will bring about the best consequences e.g., the greatest good for the greatest number.
Now, can Kantian ethics solve the Trolley Problem? No, not necessarily. But – the problem with utilitarian ethics is, despite our most calculated calculations, we might arrive at the wrong outcome.
Our initial utilitarian instinct when dealing with the Trolley Problem is to say that our utilitarian duty would require us to sacrifice the one life to save the lives of the five.
The net good of saving five people is greater than the net good of saving one person.
…because five is more than one.
But wait a minute… utilitarian ethics requires us to calculate the right course of action based on expected consequences. Of course, because human knowledge is limited, we can’t know what the consequence of an action will be. Utilitarian ethics is, at best, based on speculation.
There’s no way we can know that your weird five-year-old child (the one we decided to kill to save the five) would grow up to discover the cure for herpes, saving millions from the pain and embarrassment associated with the disease.
There’s no way we can know that one of the five people we saved was a serial killer, who promptly rewarded your kindness by slaughtering you and the other four people you saved.
…along with a few more people.
That would not be the greatest good for the greatest number.
Fortunately for us, Kant does not require us to speculate consequences.
Kant’s ethics is based entirely on DUTY.
Consequences be damned, Kant says, we do what we do because it is the right thing to do.
It’s the right thing to do because the categorical imperative tells us so.
Kant’s Categorical Imperatives are absolute and non-negotiable. They hold for all people, under all circumstances, at all times.
There are four formulations (are there four? I know there’s at least three) of the Categorical Imperative, but the most important (at least the most well-known) is the first formulation:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
There’s also the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never as merely means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
That is, don’t use people to get things that benefit only you.
If you just take formulations one and two, it’s virtually impossible to do anything wrong!
And there’s absolutely no need to worry about consequences because you won’t be doing anything bad in the first place!
You won’t cheat on your spouse or on your taxes because we wouldn’t want to make infidelity or cheating on taxes universal law.
You won’t want to use people to your own advantage because people are not here as mere means to our ends.
…and we wouldn’t want to make using people a universal law.
So many bad decisions would be prevented with the simple question “Would I want everyone to do this?”
If the answer is no, don’t do it.
But…what about that trolley, tho?
Now, if we’re utilitarian, we’d strain a muscle patting ourselves on the back for our morally correct decision making. After all, we saved the lives of five people. The Kantian, on the other hand, does not engage in such muscle training activity. Namely, because the Kantian realizes that
YOU KILLED SOMEONE.
Remember: for Kant, the consequence does not matter. What matters is the principle that got you to what you did. If you flip the switch, are you using the one as a mere means to the ends of the other five? Would we want to say it’s ok for everybody to disregard one life because it makes other people feel good? *
You see, just as Kant would not want us to lie to the axe murderer, because lying is a violation of moral principles, we can’t violate our moral principles just because it is expedient for us to do so. Kant tells us that we must respect the lives of all (rational autonomous) beings, and that we cannot, no matter what beneficial consequences might result from our actions, violate the autonomy of a fellow rational being.
If we believe that it is morally wrong to kill, it is always wrong to kill – no exceptions.
I guess the Kantian would just walk away, or something.
…or ask an egoist to pull the lever.
*I am aware that there is an argument to be made that Kant would pull the lever. I am not making that argument. Play along.
IT’S BEEN SOME time since the first half season of season two of Fear the Walking Dead ended.
I’ve had some time to sit back and think about what I saw.
For starters, I think the show is getting better.
It’s not great, but it’s better.
And secondly, I’ve noticed that some of the characters on the show are like walking philosophy.
The show should be called Fear the Philosophical Dead.
No. not really. It shouldn’t.
Although some characters are philosophically interesting,
Some, mind you, not all.
After watching Fear the Walking Dead for a season and a half, I think the most philosophically intriguing character on the show is the wealthy, debonair, and most importantly, mysterious captain of the Abigail, Victor Strand.
I gotta admit, when Strand was introduced, I was prepared to see the character die after a few episodes. You know, because, well, people like Strand have a habit of not fairing too well in the world of The Walking Dead.
It seemed that Victor Strand was destined to become another victim of the being-a-black-guy-in-The-Walking-Dead thing, but he was an interesting character – by far more interesting than the characters we were supposed to be most concerned about.
The reason why I think Victor Strand is so interesting is because so many of the show’s philosophical dilemmas have to do with what Strand either does or says. Victor Strand is a one man philosophical conundrum generator.
I’ve spent a season and a half of Fear the Walking Dead trying to figure out exactly where Victor Strand stands philosophically. Is Strand a Randian ethical egoist? Is he a moral nihilist? An incredibly consistent utilitarian? An all of the above?
More than a dozen episodes into the series and I still can’t figure it out.
When we’re introduced to Victor Strand in the season one episode “Cobalt”, we see Strand is one of many detainees imprisoned by the government.
We’re never told exactly why.
We witness Strand goading a mentally fragile man to the point of a mental breakdown. And we learn that Strand is a man who is willing to exchange goods for favors from the National Guardsmen who are guarding the detainee camp.
Strand is introduced as a man who is cool, calculating, and not encumbered by empathy for others. Strand initially displays all the traits of a classic Ayn Rand protagonist. Strand is concerned with one thing: his own interests. Rand writes:
… he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.
We can imagine a dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged next to Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tsu’s Art of War on Strand’s bookshelf.
However, Strand quickly realizes that fellow detainee (and main character) Nick Clark is useful -insofar as Nick can serve as a means to Strand’s ends -namely, escaping from the detainment camp.
Using others to further your ends is not a very Randian thing to do.
Ayn Rand also writes:
Man -every man- is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself…
Although Victor Strand isn’t a very good Randian, he still abides by Rand’s principle of pursuing one’s happiness as one’s supreme moral principle. Strand does not allow the misfortunes of others interfere with his main task: surviving.
Here are a few things that Strand says concerning his interests versus the needs of others:
[To Madison after she informs Strand that she sees some people at sea who need to be rescued]: I filled my mercy quota. Seven people saved to date.
Rules for Strand’s yacht, the Abigail: Please, let me explain the rules of the boat. Rule number one, it’s my boat. Rule number two, it’s my boat. And if there remains any confusion about rules one and two, I offer rule number three, it’s my goddamn boat. If I weren’t for me, you’d all be burned. You’re welcome.
[Strand’s response after fellow survivors insist that the Abigail take on more passengers]: If I stop the boat, it’ll be to drop folks off, not take them on.
[Strand’s response when Madison insists that the Abigail take on an orphaned child]:
Children are the definition of dead weight.
Strand on the real danger in an undead apocalypse: You know what the real danger is on the ocean? People.
When other survivors hitch a lifeboat containing a young woman and her mortally wounded companion to the Abigail, Strand cuts them loose, reasoning that the survivors can’t risk their lives to save people who may be dangerous -especially a dying boy (who will become a zombie when he dies).
Everything Strand says strikes of Ayn Rand’s clearly (at least Any Rand influenced) ethics. Strand clearly puts no man ahead of himself.
This is why Victor Strand is a fan favorite.
And yet, Strand has considered the interests of others, and even put his life on the line to save the lives of people in his group.
Strand not only helps Nick to escape the detainee camp, he also agrees to house Nick’s family and another family (the Salazar family) in his home and on the Abigail.
Although Strand lays down the rules for admission on the Abigail, we know he isn’t just looking after himself. Strand could easily pull up anchor and abandon the group when they leave the Abigail to explore dry land.
Yet he does not.
Strand risks his life to help Nick escape from the detainee camp and in the season two midseason finale, Strand, after he’s expelled from a temporary sanctuary, risks his life to save Nick’s mother Madison.
Wait a minute. Does this mean that Strand is a secret utilitarian? Is he masquerading as a Randian while clandestinely pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number?
But could is it possible that Strand has given up on all ethics? Is it possible that Strand believes that in a world without civilization all things are permitted? Strand tells Nick that the only way to survive in a mad world is to embrace the madness. Is Strand preaching moral nihilism?
In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche writes:
He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
Is Strand telling Nick not just to stare into the abyss but to leap headlong into it? Is Strand telling Nick to become a monster? Is Stand saying that all of the characters should become monsters?
It’s worth noting that the first episode of season two is titled “Monster”. In the season two midseason finale, Nick Clark covers himself in zombie guts (a means of camouflage) and refuses to join his mother and Strand to safety. Nick chooses to join the horde of zombies that has overrun their sanctuary. Nick is last seen walking among the dead, one of the monsters.
Fear the Walking Dead is not a great show. Sometimes it’s not even a good TV show. But what the show lacks in quality it more than makes up for in philosophical interestingness. Victor Strand is just one of the philosophically compelling characters on the series. In a TV world dominated by reality TV it’s refreshing to find a TV show with characters that have us thinking about them and discussing a series days (sometimes months) after an episode has aired.
One can only hope that Fear the Walking Dead continues to be one of the most philosophical TV shows on television.
I’ve got my fingers crossed.
That years from now, when we talk about Fear the Walking Dead, we think of the show as more like Better Call Saul than like Joanie Loves Chachi.
THERE’S A WELL-KNOWN saying that goes “you’re only as old as you feel”. Well, sometimes even when you feel quite youthful, something happens that makes you feel old.
Like when you remember one of your favorite movies when you were a kid was released 30 years ago.
Or when the person who wrote and directed a movie you loved as a kid dies.
On August 6, 2009, film writer-director and Generation X icon John Hughes died.
There’s something really unnerving when the idols of one’s youth start popping off from the same diseases, ailments, and blocked arteries that killed your grandparents. The death of John Hughes only reminded me of how old I’m getting; that my chances of dying young and leaving a good looking corpse is quickly slipping away.
I was thinking about how much (way back in the 1980s) John Hughes’ movies were, as they say in the modern vernacular, the shit. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Pretty in Pink were the cinematic soundtrack of my youth. Honestly, who can hear Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” without defiantly thrusting your fist in the air like Judd Nelson? (Alright, no one ever does).
New York School of the Performing Arts kids like Doris Finsecker and Ralph Garci might have experienced self discovery while smoking weed and doing the time warp to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but for the suburbia-adjacent kids like me, we saw our so-called lives played out in the teen angst drama of Some Kind of Wonderful.**
Not too long ago, partly because a) I had nothing better to do, b) I wanted to honor the memory of John Hughes, and c) I was desperately engaged in a vain attempt to capture my lost youth; I decided to watch a John Hughes movie. After some serious contemplation – and because it was the easiest John Hughes movie to grab off of my DVD shelf – I spent an afternoon watching John Hughes’ teen comedy magnum opus 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Nearly every one of John Hughes’ movies is quotable but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was the one where we learned the eternally quotable “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it”.
I’m not entirely sure if Ferris Bueller is actually the first person to say it, but I do remember that hearing that line was the first time I’d ever been floored by anyone, let alone a character in a movie, speaking philosophically.
Imagine this: you’re an eleven year old kid, home alone on a Wednesday afternoon, watching cable TV, probably HBO.
Ferris Bueller is dressed in a bathrobe and is actively breaking the fourth wall just to speak directly to you, the eleven year old kid sitting at home alone watching HBO.
Nowadays, looking back, Ferris Bueller’s wisdom seems a bit trite (were we really supposed to learn the value of carpe dieming from a character who is still in high school?), but back then, just like Cameron Frye, Ferris Bueller was my hero.
My, how things have changed.
I thought when I sat down to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off so many years after I had initially seen it as a kid, that I would re-experience the same sense of philosophical enlightenment that I had felt all those years ago when I was a lonely latchkey kid looking for someone to look up to.
Because one‘s parents are never the first choice.
Maybe it’s because I’m looking at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off through cynical adult eyes, but while I sat, watching the shenanigans of Ferris Bueller and Co., it suddenly hit me; I realized what a horrible person Ferris Bueller is.
Wait – my revelation didn’t stop there. I realized that almost every John Hughes character was an unforgivable jerk in some major way.
Collectively speaking, most of John Hughes’ characters are self- indulgent assholes.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples for you:
Farmer Ted (Sixteen Candles) is a date-rapist (he has sex with Jake Ryan’s drunken, passed out girfriend, with Jake’s encouragement no less. Watch the movie. It’s true).
Andie (Pretty in Pink) was kind of a bitch who not only wanted way out of her league (for even considering that she should go to the prom with high school hottie Blane Mc Donnagh), but Andie in no way deserved Duckie.
There is not one redeeming character in The Breakfast Club (we’re supposed to like Andy, this time played by Emilio Estevez, even though he committed a possible sexual assault/battery on a classmate by taping the guy‘s buttcheeks together).
And the Griswold family (National Lampoon’s Vacation) are just plain racists.
Watch the hubcap stealing scene if you don’t believe me.
Now that I’m thinking about it, If characters like Ferris Bueller were supposed to be a portrait of the American teenager (if you live in a world where amazingly enough, everybody is white, upper middle class, and the only minorities you encounter come straight out of Black Acting School), I think in retrospect, that John Hughes’ American teenager was about as true to life as the fictional hamlet of Shermer, Illinois.
I know that I am treading on thin ice, here. For those of a certain age, the movies of John Hughes are like GOSPEL and Hughes’ characters are so freaking cool that they can do no wrong. But after several viewings of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I really began to think that of all John Hughes’ characters. Perhaps with the exception of Kevin McCallister, who possessed more knowledge about planting booby traps and countermeasures against home invaders than a seasoned Navy Seal, Ferris Bueller is Hughes’ most selfish character.
Really. The entire movie is about how Ferris Bueller spends an entire day scheming, exploiting, and outright lying to people to get what he wants. The fact that all the “sportos, motor heads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebies, dickheads,” all adore Ferris, and think he’s a “righteous dude”, doesn’t mitigate the fact that Ferris is an
The proof is in the viewing: As the movie opens, we see Ferris (Matthew Broderick) faking that he’s sick. Of course we know that Ferris isn’t sick, but Ferris’ very concerned and clueless parents have no idea their is lying to them. They believe that there actually is something physically wrong with their son. After all, why else would their son be bent over moaning and wailing with sweaty palms if he wasn’t dreadfully ill?
Tom and Katie Bueller believe Ferris is sick, and Ferris is glad that they do. Ferris is so glad that he’s duped his parents into believing that he is deathly ill that he doesn’t feel even the slightest tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. In fact, Ferris Bueller doesn’t spend one moment of the movie regretting the fact that he weaves a web of deception around not only his own parents but around practically everyone he knows.
Ferris doesn’t care when his (supposedly) BFF Cameron Frye tells Ferris that he’s (actually) sick and can’t accompany Ferris on his adventure. SFW, Ferris says. Instead of offering Cameron a decongestant or well wishes, Ferris tells his best friend that if he doesn’t get out of bed and hang out, that Cameron will have to find a new best friend.
Ferris not only decides that he’s going to coerce others to join his plan, he also decides to “borrow” Cameron’s father’s prized sports car for the day’s activities. Ferris could not care less when Cameron tells him that his (likely physically abusive) father will kill him if his prized 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California gets “so much as a scratch on it.” Ferris ignores his (supposedly best) friend and steals the car anyway – even if the consequence of discovery means almost certain death for his best friend.
Unlike a good person, Ferris has no problem lying to his parents or to his principal, Mr. Rooney, or falsifying his school records. Nor does Ferris have any compunction over pulling his girlfriend, Sloane Peterson, out of class.
By faking her grandmother’s death, no less.
Ferris gleefully mouths off to a snooty restaurant maitre d’ to prove his moral superiority to the guy and assumes the identity of someone he is not to humiliate the maitre d’ in front of the restaurant‘s patrons.
Ferris doesn’t hesitate to commandeer a Von Steuben Day Parade float not only to garner more attention for FERRIS but also to publicly humiliate Cameron in front of the gathered crowd by declaring that his best friend is a grump who didn‘t think he would “see anything good today”.
NOT ONLY DOES FERRIS DRESS DOWN HIS “BEST” FRIEND IN PUBLIC, HE SPECULATES ON CAMERON’S (LACK OF) SEXUAL EXPERIENCES , TALKS SHIT ABOUT THE STATE OF CAMERON’S HOME LIFE, AND COMPARES HIS FRIEND’S RECTUM TO THE GEOLOGIC DIAMOND-MAKING PROCESS. SOME BEST FRIEND, EH?
Ferris Bueller doesn’t care if everyone else has to go to school or to work “on a day like this”. Oh no! Ferris’ day off is all about the fact that Ferris can’t be bothered by responsibility. That’s what other people do. After all, with all that hard work being idolized by everyone at school, Ferris Bueller needs a day off!
By the way, if you really pay attention to the movie, you’ll notice that he only time Ferris shows any sort of remorse for what he’s done is when he feigns an apology so he can further exploit other people.
Now, either Ferris Bueller either is suffering from some sort of sociopathy, which is a matter best handled by mental health professionals, but since I am a philosopher, and consequently, am in no way interested or qualified to render a psychiatric diagnosis, my philosophical diagnosis is that Ferris Bueller is nothing more than a standard ethical egoist.
Ethical egoism is the ethical theory that holds an act is right if (and only if) an act produces happiness for a particular agent — you. Everyone ought to look after, as a follower of the goddess of egoism, Ayn Rand (1905-1982) would tell you, his own rational self interest. The philosopher Gregory Kavka (1947-1994) explained that an egoist (in particular a Rule Egoist) acts according to the following principle:
Each agent should attempt always to follow that set if general rules of conduct whose acceptance (and sincere attempt to follow) by him on all occasions would produce the best (expected) outcomes by him.
In short, egoist ethics is the inverse of utilitarian-esque “Vulcan logic”. Instead of believing that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, the egoist believes the needs of the one, the agent, outweigh the needs of the many.
But enough Star Trek.
The ethical egoist’s reasoning is this: because we are unable to know anyone else’s needs or motivations and because we are restricted to seeing the world from only our own particular point of view, we only are morally obligated to act in a manner that benefits us. Egoism poster-girl, Ayn Rand, wrote, “This is why objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest – or of rational selfishness.” In a way, Ferris Bueller is not unlike Rand’s description of Howard Roark, the protagonist of Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (1943). In her description of Roark, Ayn Rand writes:
He is not even militant or defiant about his utter selfishness… He has a quiet, irrevocable calm of an iron conviction. No dramatics, no hysteria, no sensitiveness about it — because there are no doubts… A quick, sharp mind, courageousness and not afraid to be hurt… He will be himself at any cost — the only thing he really wants of life. And, deep inside if him, he knows that he has the ability to win the fight to be himself.
So apparently not only is Ferris Bueller an ethical egoist, more specifically, he’s a Randian objectivist.
**Objectivism is most closely associated with the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand describes the objectivist ethic, based on rational self interest, as “The proper standard of ethics is: man’s survival qua man – i.e., that which is required for his survival as a rational being … Man – every man – is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself, he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose in life”. In short, a Randian objectivist’s primary moral objective is to act only in a manner that is most beneficial to him, which is exactly what an ethical egoist does.**
According to Rand the egoist is concerned about others in so far as his concern for others contributes to his own happiness. Sure, an egoist might give to charity, but he is not motivated by any sense of altruism. The egoist is motivated by a personal want (a good reputation and public accolades, for example) than by a want to selflessly give to people less fortunate than he is. So when Ferris tells Cameron that his day off really was for Cameron’s benefit, we know that Ferris is full of shit.
We know that Cameron’s good day was a only fortunate consequence to Ferris’ egoism. Ferris is so focused on his own day off that if either his best friend Cameron or his girlfriend Sloane has a good day it is an unintentional consequence of Ferris‘ selfishness. In truth, the day is all about as the water tower says, saving Ferris.
As mere movie watchers unaware of the deeper philosophical significance of Ferris Bueller‘s Day Off, we only see Ferris as a go-getter, a mercurial rogue who lives life on his own terms. Ferris knows what he wants and doesn’t let obstacles get in his way. Ferris Bueller is the guy we, and Cameron Frye, always wanted to be.
I don’t know if John Hughes had Howard Roark, Ayn Rand, or ethical egoism in mind when he wrote and directed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m assuming that he did not. John Hughes may or may not have had Rand in mind, but philosophically speaking, Ferris is imbued with what Rand describes as the three fundamental values of man: reason, purpose, and self-esteem. Ferris Bueller is, as Ayn Rand’s ethics describes, a man who lives for his own sake.
As a man who lives for his own sake, a guy like a snooty maitre d’ or a power hungry Principal Rooney isn’t going to get into Ferris’ way. An egoist (like Ferris) does not allow anyone else’s needs trump his own needs and/or wants. That means if Ferris Bueller wants to have his way, Ferris gets his way; everyone else’s needs simply do not come first.
As we watch the film, we come to understand what Cameron Frye must have realized about Ferris – being with Ferris Bueller is easy if you understand this one thing: Ferris comes first.
This explains why Cameron’s father’s car goes from looking like this:
To looking like this by the end of the movie:
** It’s worth noting here that an individual who lives for one’s own sake might be interpreted be described by others as acting selfishly. To perceive an egoist’s actions as selfish is not a misinterpretation of an ethical egoist’s guiding moral philosophy. According to Ayn Rand, an ethics of selfishness isn’t a bad thing (in fact, Rand considers selfishness a virtue). An ethical egoist’s selfishness isn’t a moral or psychological defect. Unlike most people who are concerned with soul (and bank account) draining activities and ideals like altruism or a sense of selflessness in dealing with their fellow humans, an egoist knows what he wants and knows exactly what he needs to do to get it (serving others selflessly often interferes with our ability to serve our own interests). Ferris Bueller would inform you that his actions were not due to a lack of morals or because he is an asshole. Ferris would tell you that he is, in fact, quite a moral individual. The situation simply is this: he chooses to not be encumbered by fulfilling the interests of others. **
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off costar Ben Stein described Ferris as having an “inner mobility” and an “inner sense of freedom and self-confidence”, and John Hughes said that Ferris Bueller isn’t “labored with all the difficulties that everyone else is”. Given Ferris’ behavior during his day off, we’re safe to assume that the achievement of his own happiness is Ferris’ greatest purpose in life.
Straight outta Rand.
** This is why we not only like but want to be like Ferris Bueller and why all the sportos, motor heads, geeks, sluts, and dweebies adore him. The unfortunate reality for most of us is that although we want to be Ferris Bueller, we all know that deep down we all really are like Cameron Frye trapped in lives as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Of quiet desperation”. We need people like Ferris to show us that life is worth living. This is exactly what Ferris does for Cameron. This leads us to a question: since the day ended pretty well for everyone, what’s the harm in what Ferris did? What’s the harm of being selfish and using other people to get what you want if everyone has fun? **
Well, Ferris Bueller’s universally fun-filled day off aside, there’s a tremendous problem with ethical egoism. Namely, the problem with ethical egoism is the fact that egoism tends to be self defeating.
Listen: the only way a person can really ever be a successful egoist is if a person remains closeted about it. The late Australian philosopher, Brian Medlin (1927-2004), says ethical egoism doesn’t work because people don’t want to live in a world where people only live for themselves. Medlin says:
What is he when he urges upon his audience that they should observe his own interests and those alone? Is he not acting contrary to the egoist principle? It cannot be to his advantage to convince them, for seizing always their own advantage they will impair his. Surely is he does believes what he says, he should try to persuade them otherwise.
If everybody is an ethical egoist, says Medlin, our selfish pursuit of our own pleasure will inevitably conflict with someone else’s selfish pursuits. Although an ethical egoist can be quite comfortable calling himself an egoist, he is likely to be uncomfortable with other people knowing that he is an egotist. For example, Ferris couldn’t very well ring up Cameron and say, “hey, Cam. I’ve decided, being the ethical egoist that I am, to take the day off. And as an egoist, I’m going to spend the entire day pleasing me, and I’m going to exploit you, Sloane, and anyone else who I need to use along the way. Wanna come along? By the way, bring your dad’s car”.
This would not work. Cameron has his own selfish interests he may want to pursue, including not being exploited by his best friend.
Obviously Ferris’ want to exploit Cameron and Cameron’s want to not be exploited by Ferris conflict. An egoist as smart as Ferris Bueller knows that he cannot and should not prance around waving his ethical egoism in everyone’s faces. And Ferris, like many egoists, is far too clever to let other people in on his game. Ferris says that he’s doing it all for Cameron, but really, Cameron’s happiness is a happy accident. An egoist knows that the key to getting what you want does not mean that someone always gets harmed, but it does mean that nobody else knows you’re an ethical egoist.
Alright. Rebuttal time, you say. Ethical egoism naysayers like Brian Medlin and Jesus Christ are only partially right.
The egoism-is-self-defeating-argument may be a problem if an egoist is indeed strictly in it for himself. Doing so would indeed be self-defeating. However, being an egoist does not mean that you always have to seek your own happiness to the exclusion of the happiness of others. Ethical egoists often discover that pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people actually increases the egoist’s happiness as well.
Ben Stein claims that Ferris helps Cameron to “liberate” himself. So when Ferris “borrows” Cameron’s father’s car, ignores Cameron’s illness, and talks to the camera about his friend’s non-existent sex life, it’s really to help Cameron to break free from his fear. When Ferris stands completely still and does nothing to stop Cameron while Cameron kicks the holy hell out his father’s car, it’s not because Ferris is looking after his own ass and wants to wipe his hands clean of the whole ordeal, it is because Ferris is being a great friend helping Cameron to gain independence from his father. When Ferris humiliates the maitre d’ at Chez Quis, it’s not because Ferris gets his rocks off humiliating people in public, it’s to put a snarky butthole in his place. When Ferris lip sync’s The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” on the Von Steuben Day Parade float, it’s not to be the center of attention, he’s doing it to show Cameron something good that day.
The fact that Ferris’ happiness was Ferris’ main motivation for taking the day off didn’t necessarily mean that other people had to get hurt. It’s possible that everyone can think you’re a righteous dude and they can get what they want, too.
And because no one admits that we’re all in it for ourselves, everyone is happy.
In the end, my two cents worth says that Ferris Bueller indeed is a Randian egoist.
I will, however, concede that Medlin and the other haters tend to act as if being an egoist means that you’re required to go all Marquis de Sade in how you treat others. We know that’s not so.
The trick is that you simply don’t go waiving your egoist banner everywhere. If you have to tell people that you’re a Kantian, so be it. Just as long as everyone (especially you) is happy. If you are successful, you can get exactly what you want while everyone else thinks you’re a righteous dude. All it takes is a little bit of obfuscation. And because no one ever admits that we’re all in it for ourselves, everyone is happy.
Maybe except for Cameron.
Anyone else get the feeling that Cameron didn’t show up the next day at school?
Or the next…
… or the next?
** I have once again made reference to an original version of a film (and not its sequel). For those who are unfamiliar with the original film, the characters “Doris Finsecker” and “Ralph Garci” are characters from the film Fame, originally released in 1980.
*** For those who don’t know, SFW means “so fucking what?”
*THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ANOTHER FORM IN THE BOOK MINDLESS PHILOSOPHER: HOW PHILOSOPHY TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT POPULAR CULTURE AND ON THE (now defunct) BLOGGER BLOG “THE KANTIAN EGOIST” (POSTED AUGUST 25, 2009).
Gregory Kavka. “A Reconciliation Project”. Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 2007. Ed. Louis J. Poijman. pp. 358-9.
IF YOU WATCH ENOUGH Fox News you’ll learn the world generally is made up of two kinds of people: God-loving Americans and Communists.
For those who don’t know the demographics, “God-loving Americans” consists of the 300 million or so citizens of the United States of America.
Minus the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
This means, of course, that the everyone else in the world is a communist.
Communists don’t love God.
Americans love God.
If you’re a God-loving American, by definition that means you’re a capitalist.
Bet you didn’t know God is a capitalist, too.
Indeed He is.
This means God is an American.
If He wasn’t, God’s only-begotten son JESUS CHRIST wouldn’t look like this:
As much as Americans love God, God loves America.
That’s why America is the greatest country that ever was.
Communists can’t love America.
And just to prove how much God loves Americans, he rewards those who love him most (i.e. Americans) with boundless prosperity. That’s why American money looks like this:
Americans tend to be funny people.
The greatest comedians are all American.
That’s because God must have a heck of a sense of humor.
Even though Americans love him so, not all Americans have been blessed with prosperity and abundance. Some Americans don’t have a lot of money.
Some are positively broke.
Some joke, huh?
Still, even if you don’t have money, there’s no reason to lose faith.
Why else would we say we’re “One nation under God”?
We know that the Almighty loves each and every American as much as he loves the private accumulation of capital, but you’re probably asking how can a God that loves Americans so much allow for any of the people that He loves to go without his blessings of prosperity?
How can God allow capitalism if capitalism is the root of so much poverty, homelessness, class tension, exploitation, and war around the world?
At least that’s what some people say it does.
First, I assume if you’re questioning God’s love of capitalism that you’re either a communist, a college student or a Democrat.
Either way, you’re probably wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt right now.
Well, communist, that’s because most people don’t appreciate capitalism because they have no idea what capitalism is.
Most folks think that capitalism is all about making money.
Sure, it’s about that, but there’s more to capitalism than that.
Capitalism isn’t just about money, it’s about morality. Capitalism is a moral theory.
Capitalism isn’t meant to only enrich individuals, but to benefit society as a whole.
Although capitalism’s roots are in the feudal system, it was the 18th century Scottish moral philosopher, Adam Smith’s (1723-1790), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), that is considered the “Bible of Capitalism”.
Smith believed that people are motivated by self-love and that the primary motivation for capitalism is self-interest, private property, and to be compensated in the market.
Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command … it is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of society, which he has in view.
According to Smith, we enter into exchanges with other people because we are working to our own benefit.
Now, at first glance, this seems all rather selfish. A society that encourages people to only fulfill their own needs won’t endure for long.
That perception is absolutely correct.
But for Smith, there’s an ultimate benefit to pursuing one’s own self-interest – being kind of selfish is actually beneficial to society as a whole.
Smith maintains that while we pursue our own interests, by extension we also ensure the well being of others.
Some of this has to do with the nature of the market itself.
We should keep in mind that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher. The goal of our ethics is to do what is good – in particular – to act in a way that is ethically best for society.
People, according to Smith, not only vote at the ballot, they also vote with their wallets. This is how the free market works. A business owner who has a reputation for treating his employees and/or customers poorly or produces a substandard product/service is subject to the will of the market. He may find that people don’t want to do business with a bad businessman. The businessman must realize that he bears some degree of responsibility to the pubic (his business practices must be consistent with the common good) if he wants to make money.
A good businessman must keep in mind that he is bound to operate his business subject to public demand.
Smith also maintains that capitalism encourages innovation. Innovation is based on competition and competition is the catalyst of improvement. In competing with other businesses, entrepreneurs (motivated by self-interest) create new, unique, and better products.
Individuals, like businesses, are motivated by self-interest and that we also possess the want to improve ourselves.
Milton Friedman maintains that liberty not only guarantees wealth, but that freedom is protected by capitalism. That’s because government, by nature, is coercive and hinders personal freedom. Capitalists (and capitalism) can counteract the actions of government because the free market reflects the true will of the people.
*The drive to improve ourselves is materially-oriented. When you add natural liberty to the drive for self-improvement you get capitalism. The outcomes are reason-based. Smith keeps in line with Enlightenment philosophers like Immanuel Kant who maintained that we are driven by reason. Our decisions are rational. This is why Smith discourages monopolies. Monopolies eliminate competition. It’s not rational for one business to dominate the market.
Because Smith believes people make rational decisions, he believes that government regulation should be minimal. The market will function as if guided by an “invisible hand”.
Smith says about the Invisible Hand
By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it.
That is, Smith believes when we make money for ourselves, our interactions in the marketplace (as consumers, producers, and investors) benefits other people and society as a whole.
Just in case you didn’t know, the invisible hand is a moral concept.
Adam Smith also wrote
… improvement of the lower ranks of the people to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to society? The answer seems at first sight abundantly plain. Servants, laborers, and workers make up the far greater part of every aspect of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances for the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.
So far, capitalism sounds like a great gig, right?
There’s a big problem with capitalism, tho.
There’s a pretty good chance that not everyone will profit equally. Not everyone will make money, Smith says. Despite the opportunity for individuals to make a F-ton of money, there will still be poor people.
Despite all the material fun stuff that capitalism promises, not everyone is on the capitalism bandwagon.
Call them Socialists, Marxists, Communists, Godless America haters or folks who feel the Bern.
Some people would rather be Red than dead.
You know what that is, right?
The most famous treatise on socialism, The Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), maintains that capitalism determines people’s way of life (how people produce, distribute, and use goods). Life in a capitalist society alienates people, oppresses and dehumanizes people, and destroys social bonds. Workers and slaves to machines and slaves to the capitalist and the state that supports him.
This happens because everything is about making money.
According to Marx, even the rich are dehumanized by capitalism.
Fans of the theories of 19th century German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) tend to believe:
Poverty and exploitation are products of capitalism (private property in particular).
Private property leads to class division and economic inequality.
Justice requires and end to private property.
To abolish private ownership of capital and replace it with social (public) ownership.
Collective ownership by the workers/public.
Workers should choose how corporations are to be managed.
Capital is not productive, labor is productive.
Capitalism breeds unhealthy rivalry.
Capitalism oppresses women.
Markets are inherently unstable.
Capitalism fails to provide social services.
In a capitalist system, profits trump everything.
Marx advocated fair wages and public education.
Now, socialism doesn’t seem so scary, does it?
Marx (and Engels) wrote:
…that kid of property which exploits wage labour, and which cannot increase except upon conditions of begetting a new supply of wage labour for fresh exploitation. … when, therefore, capital is converted into common property, into the property of all members of society, personal property is not thereby transformed into social property. It is only the social character of the property that is changed. It loses all its class character.
Marx states that the class struggle resulting from the capitalist system will eventually lead to the proletariat abolishing the capitalist system and replacing it with collective (worker-owned) means of production – Communism.
Under communism, Marx explains, the workers will have a workers paradise.
It’s understandable that people aren’t fans of capitalism and why they’d feel that socialism is the answer.* As an American, and a lover of dollars in my wallet, I can respect the right for others to hold different political views than I do.
As wrong as those people may be.
I’ll admit, capitalism can be pretty messed up to some people.
But, before we jump on the to-each-according-to-his-need-and-ability horse-drawn cart, we might consider how or why capitalism is so messed up.
There’s a real possibility that we’ve been doing capitalism wrong.
Yes, it’s possible for Americans to do something wrong.
Here’s the thing: Americans are capitalists at heart, but our current brand of capitalism may not be the same kind of capitalism that Adam Smith wrote about.
And that might have a little something to do with this woman right here.
The Russian born, American philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982), is not only known for her novels/philosophical treatises The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and Anthem, she also almost single-handedly influenced modern American capitalism.
If anyone you know declares that they are “going Galt”, blame it on Ayn Rand.
Rand is most famous for her philosophy of Objectivism, grounded in the moral principle of the “Virtue of Selfishness”. According to Rand, selfishness was acting according to one’s rational self interest. Rand states that altruism (emphasized in deontological ethical theories such as Kantian and Christian ethics) is harmful to individuals and society, and leads to immorality, injustice, and double standards.
The purpose of morality is to define man’s proper values and interests, that concern with his own interests is the essence of moral existence, and that man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions… the Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his actions and that man must act for his own rational self-interest.
According to Rand, if you earn it, it’s yours. You are under NO moral obligation to share with or do for others.
That’s because acting with the interests in mind forces us to ignore our own…
Like Adam Smith, Rand’s moral philosophy is also applicable to economics.
However, Randian economics holds that any attempt to regulate the economy or to influence what we do with what is ours is an infringement on an individual’s liberty and rational self-interest. If you do not do well financially, that is your problem.
No safety net. No invisible hand.
You shouldn’t expect that others will bear the responsibility of maintaining your well being.
No help for you, moocher.
Rand’s influence on American politics and economics is far-reaching.
Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, was a student of Ayn Rand.
It’s said that Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were fans of Rand’s philosophy.
As are Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who forces, whoops, recommends that his staffers watch the film adaptation of The Fountainhead.
Former Congressman Bob Barr is a fan of Ayn Rand.
Other members of Congress who follow Rand’s objectivist philosophy include Representative Steve King (R-IA), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and Paul’s father, former Representative Rand Paul of Texas.
Former 2012 Vice-Presidential candidate and current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-WI), stated that he handed out copies of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to his congressional staffers as Christmas presents.
Paul Ryan said of Rand
You know, it doesn’t surprise me that sales of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have surged lately with the Obama Administration coming in, because it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of writing, that is sorely needed right now. And I think a lot of people would observe that we are living in an Ayn Rand novel right now, metaphorically speaking… The attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism, and freedom America is an attack on the moral foundation of America, and Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism. And this, to me, is what matters most, it’s not enough to say that President Obama’s taxes are too big, or the health care plan doesn’t work for this or that policy reason. It is the moral [aspect] of what’s occurring right now and how it offends the morality of individuals working [by] their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed, that is under attack. And it’s that which Ayn Rand would be commenting on, and we need that kind of comment more and more than ever.
… Although to be fair, Ryan later said that he rejected Rand’s atheism.
To be honest, Randian capitalism-influenced economic policies work.
People make money.
And when pursuing one’s own interests, one is usually happy.
Because they have money.
Rand’s rational self-interest rejects Smith’s (capitalist) ethic that when we do for ourselves, we are actually acting in the interests of the common good.
And as 9 out of 10 philosophers will tell you, when we don’t act in the interests of the common good, society doesn’t fair too well.
The tenth philosopher is Ayn Rand.
She thinks giving the finger to society is ok.
Ok, the Capitalist-Socialist divide has been going on for quite some time. Despite the fact that both theories have had the chance to prove which one is correct, all we’ve really done is proved that – well, that nobody has really gotten either theory right.
After all, both theories are over a century old. It’s a little difficult to ring up Adam Smith and ask him how capitalism is really supposed to work.
Besides, I have a feeling that Adam Smith spend all of his time on the phone taking selfies.
The way things are, we’ve been made to think that there are only two economic theories to choose from. However, Capitalism is not without flaws.
But neither is Socialism.
‘Cause as much as I want universal health care, having a bunch of cash really isn’t that bad of an idea.
*I realize that throughout this post I have been using the terms Socialism, Communism, and Marxism interchangeably. And yes, I am aware of the differences between the three ideologies. SOURCES: Great Treasury of Western Thought: A Compendium of Important Statements of Man and His Institutions By the Great Thinkers In Western History. 1977. Eds. Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren. NY: R.R. Bowker Company. p. 803.
Adam Smith. “Benefits of the Profit Motive”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p. 747.
Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1988 . NY: Signet Classic p. 67, 70.
You’re born alone, and you’ll die alone, and the world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one. – Don Draper, Mad Men.
I used to feel embarrassed to tell people that I watch television.
I’m not anymore.
I watch TV. A lot.
You see, when you hang around with philosophy types, the phrase you’ll most often hear is something like, “I don’t even own a TV” or “I only watch PBS”. Stuff like TV is a distraction or there’s better things to do with one’s brain.
Like reading Kant or Bertrand Russell.
Apparently philosophers aren’t too keen on the TV.
I guess that’s not a bad thing.
But I ain’t like that.
Let me say this clearly so that I‘m not misunderstood: I not only WATCH television, I ENJOY watching television.
I own a TV. Actually, more than one. I have cable. I watch Ridiculousness. I get bummed out when my favorite tattoo artist is eliminated on Ink Master. I take the judges’ critiques of my favorite drag queen personally when I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I make sure to never miss an episode of Master Chef, Project Runway, The Walking Dead, Bar Rescue and Chopped.
I watch Cinemax After Dark.
I DVR Taxicab Confessions.
And yes, I know Taxicab Confessions airs on HBO not Cinemax.
Or, as it’s also known – Skinemax.
Let me tell you something: even though I am an unrepentant TV watcher, I still feel a bit dirty after spending an afternoon binge watching Firefly.
For the twentieth weekend in a row.
I think it has something to do with the fact that my excessive TV watching has afforded me enough time to occasionally chit chat with philosophers.
The deficit of philosophical chat time means my philosophical skills aren’t quite up to par.
Actually, my skills kind of suck.
This has not done well for my self-esteem.
You see, even if you don’t feel bad enough about yourself you’ll invariably end up feeling like a total flunkie once you talk to a philosopher.
Every time I talk to a philosopher, I inevitably leave the conversation feeling bad. Even when I’m engaged in small talk with a philosopher, his “trivial” conversation almost always involves mind-numbing discussions of mind-body dualism or Hegel.
Philosophers really dig talking about Hegel.
This is how any conversation I have with a philosopher goes: I stand, eyes glazing over, while the (real) philosopher talks about something written by Frege or Leibniz- something that I have not a clue about. I stand there; looking at my feet, hoping that the philosopher will forget I’m there or move on to someone smarter else after I attempt to evade the subject by telling a joke. But it never works. My philosophical ignorance is revealed.
This is what most of my trivial conversations are about:
I’d much rather talk about June Thompson’s “forklift foot” or about the lady with the dead chickens on Hoarders.
You know what episode I’m talking about.
I can never admit to a philosopher that I spend more time in front of a TV set than I spend with my nose deep in the pages of a major philosophical treatise.
I could tell you everything there is to know about RuPaul’s guest spot on Walker Texas Ranger or name the number of times Sheldon Cooper has said the word “Bazinga” on Big Bang Theory, but I know virtually nothing about John Locke or his philosophy.
When it comes to philosophy my mind is a tabula rasa – a blank slate.
Which is kind of appropriate considering Locke’s philosophy.
It’s all because I spend most of my waking hours watching television instead of reading philosophy.
I can’t tell you who this is
But I can certainly tell you who this is
Or what TV show made this guy famous
Well, somewhat famous.
By the way, that first picture is of the philosopher, Phillipa Foot.
I know that’s Phillipa Foot because Google told me that’s her.
My unfortunate reality is that no matter how much philosophy I read every conversation I’ve ever had with a philosopher is always accompanied by an overwhelming sense of dumb.
A special kind of dumb.
I always feel like at the end of every philosophical conversation that there’s going to be a test.
A test I’m going to fail.
There’s something that these philosophers don’t know, though. They don’t watch TV so they have no idea. This is what they don‘t know: TV can teach you things. Lots of things.
I’ve written this before and I’ll say it ‘til the day I die – television is one of the best places to learn philosophy. You don’t have to watch the high-brow stuff, either. You don’t have to spend your evenings watching PBS or some British something-rather starring Dame Maggie Smith.
You can watch anything. Anything.
The ideas – the philosophy – it’s in there.
I really mean that. You can watch Hobbes’ state of nature play out in an episode of Survivor. You can find Schopenhauer in an episode of Modern Family. Descartes in an episode of Star Trek.
There’s Socrates in The Walking Dead.
I’m kidding about that finding Schopenhauer in Modern Family thing. I wouldn’t know if that’s true or not. I’ve never seen the show.
And, as I discovered, if you watch enough episodes, you’ll find that there’s plenty philosophy to be found in Mad Men.
Fans of the show already know that Mad Men, created by Matthew Weiner, debuted in July 2007 on the basic cable network AMC (American Music Classics). The series, now going into its sixth and final season, averages 2.5 million viewers per episode.
That’s pretty good numbers for a basic cable TV show.
Until you consider AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead.
That show averages 13 million viewers an episode.
Ok. I admit it, I’m a little late to this Mad Men thing. I started watching the show mid-way during season four.
By then, Peggy had already had her baby.
Roger was on marriage number two.
The Lucky Strike guy had gotten Sal fired.
Don was already divorced from Betty and had his eye on Megan.
Who the hell is Anna Draper???
But it’s not because I hadn’t heard of the show.
I didn’t watch it on principle.
You see, Mad Men was on every TV critic’s top ten list.
It was the one show whose poop didn’t stink.
So naturally, now that I’m a fan, I was obligated to do this:
Naturally, the hater pop culture dismissing-philosopher inside me immediately disliked (without watching) the show and would not spend a moment of my time watching a show loved by the non-philosophically-inclined masses.
As it turns out I was wrong.
But then …..
Sometimes enjoying TV makes you change your mind about things.
From Sterling Cooper boss Bert Cooper’s love of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism to Betty Draper’s philosophy of femininity, the entire show is soaking in philosophy.
Fortunately for us, we’re not required to watch all seven seasons of Mad Men or contemplate the philosophical doings of the entire cast of characters to get a grasp of the philosophy in Mad Men. You really need only to look at the first season of the show and specifically at only one character: the power-drinking, cigarette smoking, philandering, identity-stealing, Army-deserting, bad dad, anti-hero, Don Draper.
I guess you could spend a little bit of time watching Peggy Olsen.
That whole hidden pregnancy thing was mildly interesting.
In the season 1 (one) episode titled “Hobo Code”, Don Draper awakens his young son Bobby from a sound sleep and tells the boy to ask him anything. The boy asks his father why lightning bugs light up. Don tells his son that he doesn’t know.
Don doesn’t know the answer and does not pretend to know.
Don vows that he will never lie to his son.
We all know that’s a lie.
This is not Don Draper’s first lie. It won’t be Don Draper’s last.
At this point the audience realizes that Don Draper may be the worst man TV dad in television history.
You see, Don Draper’s entire existence is a lie.
Don Draper isn’t really Don Draper at all. Don Draper is really Dick Whitman, the self-described “whore child” who stole the identity of fellow soldier, Don Draper, by switching dog tags with Draper after (the real) Don Draper is mortally wounded in an explosion in Korea.
An explosion totally caused by Dick Whitman, by the way.
This is all morally reprehensible enough, but, as we all know, there’s a moral theory that will justify just about anything we do. Luckily for the man formerly known as Richard Whitman, the man currently known as Don Draper finds employment with an adherent of one such theory.
The man is Bert Cooper. The theory is OBJECTIVISM.
The creator of objectivism, like Don Draper, also changed her name.
Her parents knew her as Alisa Z. Rosenbaum.
The world knows her as Ayn Rand.
Ayn Rand is mentioned no fewer than three times in season one.
Draper’s boss, Ayn Rand-loving Bert Cooper, has a bookshelf in his office that looks like this:
THIS IS BERT COOPER TALKING ABOUT AYN RAND
When Cooper is informed of Draper’s deception, Bert Cooper’s reaction is not moral outrage that Draper is a deserter and identity thief, but “who cares?”
(Ok, this may need explaining: Dick Whitman’s long-lost (or is it abandoned?) kid brother, Adam, discovers that Dick has been living in New York as Don Draper. Adam sends a package of old photographs to Dick/Don that is intercepted by Peter (“Humps”) Campbell, a particularly devious and overly ambitious fellow who works with Don and who very much wants Don’s job. Campbell decides that the best way to Draper’s job is through blackmail and so Campbell threatens to reveal Draper’s secret if Draper does not appoint him to head of accounts. When Peter tells Bert Cooper that Don Draper is not who he says that he is but is actually Dick Whitman, Cooper responds to Campbell’s revelation with “who cares?”)
What Pete Campbell doesn’t realize is that Bert Cooper’s failure to gin up a sense of moral disgust at Don Draper’s behavior has everything to do with his fondness for the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
What Pete Campbell fails to realize is that he would have saved himself from embarrassment if he had just made himself aware of Rand’s philosophy, based on the virtue of selfishness.
This doesn’t turn out too well for Pete.
You see, long before Dick Whitman had become Don Draper or had met Bert Cooper or heard of Ayn Rand, Dick Whitman/Don Draper was already a well-seasoned adherent of Rand’s virtue of selfishness. Dick Whitman didn’t consider what effect his actions in Korea would have on his brother Adam, or about the family of Don Draper or about Draper himself, with whom Dick swaps ID tags when Draper is mortally wounded.
Don Draper’s interest in maintaining his new identity (and his secret) means Don has to not care. Don can’t be concerned with the affairs of others (particularly those who potentially can reveal Don’s true identity) because to do so would interfere with his mission to live life as far away from the life of Dick Whitman as possible.
Don Draper, formerly known as Dick Whitman, acts according to his own self-interests.
Don Draper’s motivation is pure selfishness.
This is why Don offers his brother Adam five thousand dollars in exchange for Adam‘s silence and a promise to never return to New York City.
Don Draper isn’t morally invested in the effect of his adulterous affairs on his wife Betty or for Betty’s feelings (in general) when he talks to her therapist without her knowledge or consent.
Because he’s selfish.
…or it could be because Don is an alcoholic.
When Dick/Don propositions his mistress to run away with him ( actually mistresses, Don carries on with with as many as two women in season one), he does not consider the effect that abandoning his family will have on his children.
In fact, Don doesn’t think about that until he is reminded that leaving would be devastating to the children.
By one of his mistresses, no less.
Hint: it’s because Don is selfish.
Without ever having read it, Don Draper personal morality runs pretty much according to the philosophy of this book:
Whoops. I meant this book:
And this is what happens after you’ve divorced someone who lives life according to the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Don Draper’s utter lack of regard for the consequences of his actions on others (aka his selfishness) leads Bert Cooper to observe:
Bert Cooper (To Don):By that I mean you are a productive and reasonable man, and in the end completely self-interested. It’s strength. We are different – unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work.
Cooper even recommends that Draper pick up a copy of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and tells Don that he must introduce him to his “friend” Miss Ayn Rand.
One can only imagine what Ayn Rand would with/to Don Draper.
For those of you who have never heard of Ayn Rand or read any of Rand’s novels, Rand’s ethical philosophy, called Objectivism, is based on the principle of self interest; what Rand calls the “virtue of selfishness”.
If you’ve never heard of Rand or her work, all I can say is
But I digress…
Don Draper is an example of the kind of man that Rand describes as one who lives fir his own sake “neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself”. This type of is a man completely devoted to the pursuit of his own happiness. Rand says of the Objectivist man:
He is not even militant or defiant about his utter selfishness… He
has a quiet, irrevocable calm of an iron conviction. No
dramatics, no hysteria, no sensitiveness about it —
because there are no doubts… A quick, sharp mind,
courageousness and not afraid to be hurt… He will be himself
at any cost — the only thing he really wants of life. And,
deep inside if him, he knows that he has the ability to
win the fight to be himself.*
In other words….
Don Draper is the kind of self-made Randian type (like Rand’s Howard Roark and John Galt) that owes nothing to anyone and does things on his own terms. He isn’t (terribly) concerned with what he has to do to get ahead.
Like the true Randian Objectivist, Don Draper’ pursuit of personal happiness is the reason why we alternately admire and hate him. It is the reason why Don’s fellow ad men envy his life and want to follow in his footsteps.
It’s the reason why women find him irresistible.
It’s also the reason why:
Don Draper is a man cut from the Randian mold, but there’s something that makes Don not quite the Objectivist that Bert Cooper thinks that he is.
Don Draper (seemingly) pulls the very existentialist move of self invention.
Existentialism assumes that there is a real you despite the role society imposes on us. We alone choose who we are and what role we want to fulfill. Dick Whitman sheds the confining identity that he was doomed to lead – he runs away from who he was possibly doomed to become – a poor farm boy, raised in a whorehouse – and transforms himself into Don Draper.
Following existentialist philosophy allows poor farm boy Dick Whitman transforms himself from this:
Unlike the true existentialist, Dick Whitman doesn’t become who he is, rather, he assumes the identity of someone else. The move doesn’t make the former Dick Whitman any more authentic than he was. If anything, Don Draper is another mask, just another layer Dick Whitman puts on to hide himself. Don repeatedly evades questions about his past because he does not want who he truly is to be revealed.
According to existentialists, failure to be who we truly are means we live our lives inauthenticly.
An inauthentic life, says the existentialist, is a life without meaning.
Fortunately for Don Draper, Rand’s highest moral goal isn’t authenticity; it is fulfilling one’s own self interest.
And as Bert Cooper observed, Don Draper does this in spades.
Sure, Don Draper occasionally says something vaguely existentialist like this:
And he hung out with some beatniks who probably read Camus and Sartre.
But after awhile one eventually figures out that it’s highly unlikely that Don Draper is an existentialist.
At least not in the strict sense of the word.
Which is to say that he really isn’t an existentialist at all.
But to suggest that one can easily figure out Don Draper because he is the kind of man Ayn Rand talks about in Atlas Shrugged or that he’s a French-style existentialist is to ignore a basic truth about human nature.
The truth is this: Like many people in the real world, the characters of Mad Men are a mix of ideologies. They, like people in the real world, are not philosophically just one thing.
More often than not, Don Draper is just like everyone else – that is to say, Don Draper, ideologically speaking, is a mix of everything and of nothing in particular.
One might say the Don Draper is a “pastiche” of identities and ideologies.
That’s a very postmodern thing to be.*
It’s not surprising that Don Draper is a bit on the postmodern side. Don works in advertising, an occupation where selling the image is the most important commodity.
In advertising, it doesn’t matter what the product actually is, what’s important is how the ad makes you feel. Advertising sells an idea – or rather, the feeling associated with an idea. Don Draper says:
Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing, it’s ok. You are ok.
The postmodernist idea is that we shop for identities.
And not necessarily authentic ones.
Becoming who we are is not unlike trying on different hats. During a life time we may try on many hats. Different kinds of hats may look good on us. The hat we wear at any given time may reflect who we are
Or say nothing about us at all.
For the postmodernist, changing one’s hat is like reinventing ourselves. We do it not to get at who we really are, but to play a role or to manifest a particular style.
Or to wear something that matches our outfit.
The image is what matters.
According to postmodernism, there is no real. Nothing or no one is (or can be) authentic. We’re not concerned with finding who anyone truly is. We’re not concerned because there is no real you that we must find to live existentially real lives. Who we are is nothing more than a veneer; the image we portray to others. As crafted as the image we see in advertising.
Dick Whitman is a genuine fake Don Draper.
Don Draper’s identity is the embodiment of postmodern advertising. The primary concern in advertising is not authenticity. Life is a fashion statement. And Don Draper doesn’t seem terribly concerned with being authentic, either.
What Dick Whitman does best is sell the idea of Don Draper.
The idea of the attractive image of an American success story.
When it comes down to it, I knowassume think the reason why television audiences like TV shows like Mad Men and are attracted to characters like Don Draper has to do with the fact that we are intrigued by the mix of ideologies. As we watch the chaotic philosophical lives of unreal people, we can not only vicariously experience their philosophical struggles but (hopefully) gain insight and understand our own real world philosophical conundrums.
We tune in to Mad Men to watch the characters as they struggle with ethical dilemmas and exhibit the moral contradictions that, if we did the same thing in the real world, would alienate us from our friends, co-workers, and family.
We see, while watching the unreal lives of those who inhabit the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Price (Cutler, Chaough….whoever) that these characters, though fictional, are like us in the real world – we are all a mix of different, often conflicting, ideologies.
The philosophical principles by which we live our lives and our moral choices are often inconsistent; sometimes even incoherent.
The fact that these characters are able to do thins that we can not do and get away with doing it is why we praise Don Draper’s Randian self-centered rugged individualism
and condemn him for his inability to keep his zipper closed around any woman within his immediate vicinity (except for Peggy Olsen).
What’s up with the Don-not-doing-Peggy thing?
We see Don’s existentialist tendencies yet we also see that Don is a product of society where authenticity is as real as the happy, smiling family in a Coca-Cola ad.
I’m sure the second half of the final season will give me more to think about.
We’ll have to wait until Spring 2015 to see how Don Draper’s philosophical struggle ultimately plays out.
Unfortunately, with Mad Men drawing to a close I’ll have to move on to other philosophical thought-inspiring television. Luckily, I’ve just been turned on to another TV show that I hear is not only philosophical, but is also pretty popular.
I think it’s called Breaking Bad.
It’s all about a high school chemistry teacher who gets into selling meth.
I haven’t seen it yet, but from what I’ve heard, I’m sure it’s gonna be philosophically compelling
Hey, maybe you should watch it, too!
* Ayn Rand is most often associated with Libertarianism. Don is mum about his political preferences, besides remarking that he preferred Nixon over Kennedy (Nixon was a man who built himself from the ground up, as opposed to JFK who was born with a silver spoon). Draper’s politics tend to be apolitical. We can assume, given Don’s actions, that it is highly unlikely that he is a liberal Democrat. * It is worth noting that the term “postmodernism” applies to a broad range of subjects, including art, architecture, literature, and philosophy. (For more info on postmodernism in philosophy check out the SEP entry on Postmodernism:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/)
1. Leonard Peikoff. “Afterword”. 1992. In The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand. [orig. published 1943]. NY: Signet. p. 698.
When I started this blog, which is ostensibly about philosophy in popular culture, one thing that I’d planned to do is film reviews.
Kind of like Men on Film. But from a philosophical point of view.
And they weren’t going to be just film reviews. I was going to write commentaries.
I didn’t have to watch too many movies until I realized that there really aren’t that many movies to write about.
Ok, I hear ya. You’re asking how can I say, given the thousands of movies that have made since the creation of the motion picture, that there aren’t any movies worth writing about.
I say to you, take a look out there. Take a good look at our movie choice out there. What movies am I supposed to write deep philosophical commentaries about: the latest Tyler Perry movie? The latest installment of the Final Destination franchise? Adam Sandler’s next flick? Or Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance?
Oh God, Ghost Rider.
Listen: most major (mainstream) films are crap. And most “philosophical” movies are overly long, pretentious, needlessly convoluted, and have the philosophical depth of a philosophy 101 class.
Yes, Larry and Lana Wachowski. I’m talking about you.
Worse yet, many truly philosophical movies are foreign. And that requires reading subtitles.
And that just ain’t happening.
Besides, with the advent of On Demand and Netflix, I rarely see first-run films anymore. Why pay to see a movie during its theatrical run once for fifteen bucks when I can watch the same movie two months later for 24 straight hours for only $6.99?
After all, if given the choice between going out and watching a lousy movie and staying home and watching a shi lousy movie, I’d rather stay home.
Unfortunately for my philosophical commentary writing, as much as I enjoy any technology that re-enforces my budding sense of agoraphobia, the lag time between a film’s theatrical release and my writing an adequate philosophical review means I’d be posting a topical commentary a little late.
And if there’s anything the internet hates, it’s those who arrive late.
Hey, that rhymed!
Still, the movie choices, whether in the theatres or on Netflix, are pretty dismal.
Especially if one intends to comment on them from a philosophical point of view.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve decided to lower my cinematic standards.
Fortunately for the philosopher suffering from a case of shut-inism, doing one’s job rarely requires one to leave the house. Thinking can be done just about anywhere.
And as I discovered, about anything.
Even about shitty made-for-TV movies.
Listen: you don’t have to watch Woody Allen movies or trudge through a subtitled Truffaut film to get into the habit of thinking philosophically about cinema. And really, announcing to your friends and neighbors that you just bought the Criterion Collection edition of Hannah and Her Sisters won’t impress everyone you know.
If you ask me, all that fancy film watching is overdoing it.
You too can master the art of philosophical cinema critique from the comfort of your own home, without the bother of finding your local indie theater or reading a single subtitle.
All it takes is a comfy sofa and your television remote.
…and maybe a bit of intestinal fortitude.
Any viewer of too much television knows that Saturdays are not merely the first day of the weekend, it’s the prime viewing day for the overabundance of made-for-TV schlock generated by the too-numerous-to-count basic cable television networks. Some networks are devoted exclusively to airing a 24-hour cycle of made-for-TV original programming.
The Hallmark Channel has a made-for-TV movie network. As does the Lifetime Network.
And other basic cable channels, SyFy, Chiller, USA Network, ABC Family, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, OWN (that’s the Oprah Winfrey Network), Fox Movie Channel, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), A&E, Oxygen Network, LOGO, and American Movie Classics (AMC) (and their never-ending Steven Segal movie marathons and airings of Gone In 60 Seconds – Damn! That Nicolas Cage!), air enough beyond awful movies to keep any television watcher, let alone anyone intent on reviewing movies from a philosophical point of view, awash in less-than-quality direct-to-video and made-for-TV cinema to last one longer than the average American life span.
Wait, if a movie is made for TV does it qualify as “cinema”?
Figuring it wouldn’t make any difference (a bad made-for-TV movie is as good as any movie released in the theaters these days), I decided to randomly pick one of the many Saturday afternoon schlockfests to watch and analyze from a philosophical point of view.
I literally closed my eyes and pushed random buttons on my cable box remote.
The movie I randomly chose was Pterodactyl, starring made-for-Lifetime-movie regular Cameron Daddo and – wait for it – Coolio.
That’s right. Coolio.
“Gangsta’s Paradise” Coolio.
Mind you, I’m not knocking Coolio. He was the only thing worth watching in the movie.
Ok… the plot of this movie was thin enough to make a supermodel jealous, but from what I gather, the movie was about a grad student expedition along the Turkish-Albanian border, that, unfortunately for the professor and his too-old-looking-to-be-convincing-grad-students-students, just so happens to be a war zone. Joining the mix, is a ragtag band of American soldiers (headed by Coolio), a group of Albanian (or were they Turkish?) paramilitary types with bad Eastern European accents, and, of course, man-eating, would-be-extinct, flying dinosaurs.
As you can see, this is a very philosophical movie.
It is… In that kind of squint your eyes while staring at the sun kind of way of seeing things.
If watching the whole movie would be too painful for you to endure (and it will be), I’ve saved you the two hours excruciating made-for-TV movie watching and made a short list of my philosophical observations while watching the movie Pterodactyl:
Philosophers are nice like that.
PHILOSOPHICAL OBSERVATION NO. 1: THE BAD TEACHER-STUDENT RELATIONSHIP
Ok. You don’t have to be a philosopher or Sting to realize that there’s something more than a little pervy about a teacher who diddles a student. For starters, if such a relationship is going on, it’s a pretty good way for a professor to lose his or her job.
HAVING SEX WITH A STUDENT IS A NO-NO. UNLESS YOU’RE STING. YOU CAN WRITE A SONG ABOUT IT AND IT’S TOTALLY COOL.
You see, the reason why this is so is because it’s considered unethical for a professor to make it with his student (or students), is because: a) an older teacher or professor can take advantage of a young student who lacks to maturity to understand the they are being exploited, b) risk of favoritism (i.e. good lay = good grades), c) potential conflicts between both and other parties (like other students and faculty) who either know of or suspect an improper relationship, or d) either or both parties invariably compromise something called “integrity”.
In the movie, Professor what’s-his-name (I never actually learned what any of the character’s names were) and one of his female students are in a romantic relationship. Not only is he forced to hide this fact from the other students on the expedition (in case you didn’t know, lying and hiding the truth are both moral no-nos), but when the student is carried away by a pterodactyl, Professor missed-his-name’s inappropriate feelings for his student lady love leads him to carry out a rescue mission where, you guessed it – other people die.
Was her life worth risking the lives of others? Did Professor nevermind-what-his-name-is value her as a mere means to his end – namely, his want to engage in illicit sex with his beyond the age of consent, yet naïve student?
PHILOSOPHICAL OBSERVATION NO. 2: YOU’RE NOT INVITED ON COOLIO’S FANTASTIC VOYAGE
Generally speaking, in most movies, when the military shows up, characters need not worry about anything dangerous. This is not the case in the movie Pterodactyl.
Captain Bergen (played by Coolio) shows absolutely no interest in helping the pterodactylly-besieged group of grad students until he learns that one of the students is the daughter of a beloved general. Bergen is obviously motivated by his own self-interests. He agrees to help the professor and his students, not because he is concerned about the general’s daughter, but because of his feelings towards her father. If he saves the girl he’s sure to earn a few extra brownie points with the general.
Concern for one’s own interests above and beyond the interests of others is the moral position that most adheres to ethical egoism, the moral theory that holds that an act is morally right (or permissible) if it increases the happiness of the agent. That is, if doing something makes you happy, it doesn’t matter what happens to other people.
This point of view is most associated with the Russian-born, American philosopher, Ayn Rand (1905-82). Rand wrote:
… he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.
Obviously, if you ever find yourself tasked to save the general’s daughter, Randian “rational self-interest” (i.e. ethical egoism) might not be the principle that would best enable you to fulfill your mission.
Because if you’re any kind of a Randian egoist, your main (in fact, only) priority is saving your own butt.
If the pterodactyl kills the general’s daughter, that’s their problem, not yours.
The fact that Bergen ignored ethical egoism’s primary principle is exactly why Captain Bergen is dead by the time the end credits roll.
If you watch enough made-for-TV movies (particularly the ones with monsters in them), you’ll realize something: no one ever thinks about the bad guy.
I mean, they think about the bad guy as exactly that – a bad guy (or in the case of Pterodactyl, a flying extinct dinosaur). The bad guy is important to the plot, but he, she, or in this case, it, isn’t important morally. No one in the movie even once considers the discovery of a thought-to-be-extinct dinosaur species important enough to at least attempt to not kill the pterodactyl.
Ok, I know, the pterodactyls were dangerous. They killed people. But so do lions. So do killer whales, bees, and some breeds of dogs. The fact that an animal is dangerous or even deadly doesn’t necessarily mean that it should lose it’s moral value. I know that the human lives are important, but shouldn’t we consider the scientific value of finding a life form that was thought to be extinct? To simply dismiss the pterodactyls as nothing more than mere beasts without any moral value would demonstrate speciesism, which is, according to the philosopher, Peter Singer:
… a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.
The fact that a winged monster has wiped out a group of Albanian(?) militia men, an elite Army unit, and most of your grad student expeditionary crew (including swooping up your would-be girlfriend-if-she-wasn’t-your-student to feed to its young) shouldn’t excuse you from having at least one serious thought about the well being or moral standing of the pterodactyl.
Ok. I’m going to be honest. I didn’t make it all the way through the movie. But given how most of these movies end, I assume I’m free to assume that they kill the pterodactyls and the professor and his student/girlfriend live happily ever after without any negative consequence to legitimacy of her final grade or his career in academia.
I’m also guessing that there’s some sort of twist ending.
Like the last shot of the movie is the camera focusing on a nest of eggs or something.
If so, that’s good.
That means I won’t have to get off the sofa.
To do philosophy, anyway.
1) Peter Singer. Writings On An Ethical Life. 2002. NY: Ecco. p 33.
2) “Reader’s Guide to the Writings and Philosophy of Ayn Rand”. From The Fountainhead. 1952 [orig. published 1943]. NY: Signet.
I remember when I was a kid, Mr. Blackwell would put out a list of the year’s best and worst dressed celebrities.
Although the more positive thing to do would have been to talk about the best dressed list, the media seemed to anticipate the announcement of Mr. Blackwell’s worst dressed list. They treated Mr. Blackwell’s announcement like a little kid flips his lid opening up his presents on Christmas.
You’d think that Santa Claus had delivered the list.
I don’t remember too much about Mr. Blackwell’s critiques other than his proclamations were announced in rhyming couplets.
This is Mr. Blackwell
Mr. Blackwell is dead now.
That was Mr. Blackwell.
I guess Joan Rivers does his job these days. I don’t think she uses rhyming couplets, though.
It’d be pretty cool if Kelly Osbourne did.
Whether it’s cars, movies, electronic equipment, summer reads, fashion icons, or reality television shows, everyone – from the editors of Entertainment Weekly to any guy or gal with a blog has got a top ten list of something. If you spend any significant amount of time doing or paying attention to anything, you’re bound to think up a list of things about that thing you do or don’t like. You don’t have to read very many lists to see that for some things, the lists are pretty much the same.
I’ve read more than twenty top ten lists that name Breaking Bad as the best TV show.
Nearly every list of the best music groups say that The Beatles are the greatest band ever*.
If you’re wondering who the greatest president of the United States was, eleven out of ten political scientists will tell you that America’s greatest president was Abraham Lincoln – even before he was a vampire hunter.
But, just as everyone has a list of music groups, books, or movies, that you love, everyone also has a list of everything and anyone we just cannot stand. Everybody has a list. A THAT list. Although I have yet to hear anyone say it, I know that every philosopher, philosophy fan, and philosophy student has that list of philosophers that they feel less than a positive affinity towards. A philosophy shit list.
Although one might assume that finding a list of hate-inducing philosophers would be a challenging task, picking the list is actually quite easy. After all, it’s easy to come up with a list of philosophers we’re supposed to like: Socrates, Descartes, Hume, Kant… But let’s be honest, some philosophers practically screamout to be hated. For every great philosopher, for every great philosophical idea like the problem of induction, Gettier examples, the naturalistic fallacy, or correspondence theory of truth, there’s a Pascal’s wager or transcendental idealism. Or the homunculus.
That bad idea, by the way, was peddled by Aristotle.
Some philosophers were not good people. Other philosophers were/are a-holes. And some philosophers invent theories that are so wacky that you have no other reasonable choice but to hate that philosopher and everything they’ve ever written.
I promise I won’t say a thing about logical positivism or Wittgenstein.
Still, sometimes you come to hate other philosophers merely by looking at them.
I mean, it’s easy to hate a guy that looks like this:
Really, the more one reads philosophy, the more one finds philosophers (and theories) worthy of a “worst of” list.
So without further ado, I present my top ten worst philosophers (aka 10 good reasons to hate philosophy):
1. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Perhaps best known for his works Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Critique of Pure Reason (1781), and the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), the German Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is considered the greatest philosopher since Aristotle. Kant taught at the University at Konigsberg (East Prussia) where he was a popular and well-regarded professor. Satisfied with neither the rationalist nor the empiricist theories of knowledge, Kant called for a “Copernican revolution” in philosophy – an attempt to provide a satisfactory account for knowledge.
This all makes Kant sound like a swell guy but there’s plenty of reasons to hate him and his philosophy.
For starters, philosophers, until Immanuel Kant, weren’t exclusively academics.
Second, not only are Kant’s Transcendental Idealism and synthetic a priori knowledge incredibly (and annoyingly) confusing concepts, but Kant’s ethical opus, the CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE, is damned-near impossible to carry out in real life.
In Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, Kant instructs that we may never violate any moral rule, no matter what good may come about as a result of violating the rule. So, if your friend comes to your house and says to you that he’s being followed by an axe murderer and he wants to hide in your closet, according to Kant, you’re supposed to tell the axe murderer that your friend is hiding in the closet if the murderer asks you where your friend is hiding.
The reason why you gotta fink out your friend, Kant says, is because it is morally wrong to lie. Kant writes:
Whoever then tells a lie, however good his intentions may be, must answer for the consequences of it… because truthfulness is a duty that must be regarded as the basis of all duties founded on contract, the laws of which would be rendered uncertain and useless if even the least exception to the were admitted.
The act of lying undermines our pursuit of truth, Kant says.
You see, Kant says we have an inviolable duty to the axe murderer to tell the truth because if we lie, we are endorsing the act of lying, not just to save lives, but in any situation where the circumstances may work out nicely for ourselves (or anyone else for that matter). What if the axe murderer knows you’re lying, Kant asks. And because he knows you’re lying he sneaks around to the back of your house where your fried is also sneaking out the back way. The murderer kills your friend. Kant says that you’re not only morally on the hook for the lie but for the murder as well.
If you didn’t lie the murderer wouldn’t have doubted you. And if he hadn’t doubted you, he wouldn’t have sneaked around to the back door. If you had pointed to your closet and said “He’s right in there”, sure, you’re violating your friend’s trust and handing him over to a deranged killer, but, at least according to Kant, you did so with a clear moral conscience.
It doesn’t take much contemplation to figure out that this line of thinking is kind of…. wrong.
2. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is undoubtedly one of the most influential (if not most popular) philosophers ever. Besides Socrates, Friedrich Nietzsche has probably contributed more ideas and catchphrases to the popular culture than any other philosopher (eternal recurrence, the ubermensch, master/slave morality, “God is dead”, “What does not kill me makes me stronger”, “there are no facts, only interpretations”…) Nietzsche is considered one of the forerunners of existentialism and credited with founding the philosophy of nihilism.
And is the patron philosopher saint of goth kids everywhere.
That’s pretty much where the problem with Nietzsche starts.
The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche is the sole genesis of more philosophical misinterpretation and wrongheaded-ness than any other philosopher in history. Nietzsche’s misogyny, anti-Semitism, and fervent German nationalism not only inspired the malevolent philosophy of National Socialism, but we can find Nietzsche’s philosophical influence in the Satanic religious teachings of the late Anton LaVey to the mass murderers at Columbine High School.
3. Gottlob Frege (1848-1925)
Gottlob Frege is credited with revolutionizing the study of logic, which, until Frege, was dominated by Aristotelian logic. His work, Begriffsschrift (1879) set forward a system of formal logic that overthrew Aristotle’s logic. Frege, (along with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein) is credited with creating the groundwork of modern philosophy of language. Frege argued that logic, mathematics, and language have continuity, and that we should view language more logically for clarity and to remove confusion (in language).
Anyone who hated symbolic logic or encountered the phrases Venus is Hesperus or Venus is phosphorus has Frege to blame.
And as many philosophy students has complained, Frege’s formal logic operates too much like mathematics – which is precisely the subject that many mathophobic philosophy students aim to avoid.
4. Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
Called “The Philosopher”, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote on subjects as diverse as politics, economics, psychology, biology, physics, ethics, logic, and auto repair. Scholasticism, the school of theological thought based in part on the philosophy of Aristotle, was the official doctrine of the early Catholic church, and Aristotle’s logic was the standard logic until Frege. Aristotle’s philosophy (which includes ideas such as the golden mean, eudemonia, and virtue ethics) is still a foundation of philosophical and political thought. Aristotle’s philosophical works are so extensive and he remains one of the world’s most influential philosophers, it’s amazing to think that it’s possible to dislike the man they called “The Philosopher”.
It is possible.
Aristotle proves that the quantity of one’s writing doesn’t necessarily correlate to the fact that everything that someone writes is correct.
A few examples:
On the subject of slavery Aristotle wrote:
… from birth certain things diverge, some towards being ruled, other towards ruling… Accordingly, those who are as different [from other men] as the soul from the body or man from beast – and they are in the state if their work is the use of the body, and if this is the best that can come from them – are slaves by nature. For them its is better to be ruled with this sort of rule…
No, you didn’t read it wrong. Aristotle believed some people are natural slaves.
And On the subject of women Aristotle wrote:
Woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears. At the same time, she is more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful than man, more devoid of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive and of more retentive memory.
Pretty much speaks for itself.
Aristotle also believed:
Deformed children should be put to death.
If people married young their children would be weak and female (Aristotle probably believed that was redundant).
Animals are mere tools to be used however people see fit.
Democracy is bad.
The Earth is the center of the universe.
Heavenly bodies float on eternal invisible spheres.
Some people have no souls (and therefore are fit to be used as slaves)
And, of course, Aristotle believed a man’s semen contains fully-developed, miniature people.
We expect that even the greatest philosopher may miss the mark, but when Aristotle was wrong, he wasn’t just slightly incorrect or a wee bit off track; the guy was wrong.
Centuries of Aristotle’s wrong-headed philosophy dominating church doctrine not only held back the progress of science (as it was not in one’s best interest to oppose church doctrine), but Aristotle’s truly messed up notions involving the intellectual aptitude of women and the (in)ability of average citizens to manage government are still prevalent.
If that isn’t enough, Aristotle’s political philosophy influenced neo-conservatism.
5. John Rawls (1921-2002)
Veil of ignorance. Period.
6. Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
Best known as the author of objectivist masterpieces The Fountainhead (1943), Anthem (1938), and Atlas Shrugged (1957), Ayn Rand is only slightly less regarded by philosophers as a philosopher worth taking seriously. Rand is the founder of Objectivism, the philosophical school of thought grounded on the principle of rational self interest. Rand’s rational self interest is defined as follows:
Man – every man – is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.
At first glance Rand’s philosophy makes sense. It’s difficult to argue that we shouldn’t place the achievement of our own happiness first and foremost among our life goals.
And we should wan to be happy.
The problem with Rand is that following her philosophy will turn you into a complete dick.
Anyone who has endured a soon-to-be-former-friend’s Rand-soaked rants about “moochers”, “the virtue of selfishness” or “going Galt”, knows that the mere sight of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged on a friend or prospective mate’s bookshelf spells certain doom for any relationship. The trouble with Ayn Rand is that fans of Rand often espouse Rand’s anti-helping-one’s-fellow-man sentiments, while also failing to realize, like Rand, that helping the less fortunate actually benefits society. You see, Rand’s fans often fail to see that she wrote fiction.
That’s probably why if you ask any philosopher if he takes Ayn Rand seriously, you’ll be laughed out of the room.
Rand not only calls philosophical god Immanuel Kant “evil”, but Rand proclaimed that the Christian ethic of altruism is dangerous and harmful to society.
Which is pretty odd considering some of Rand’s biggest fans are Christian politicians.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy is such a bag of mixed-up ideas that Rand’s influence can be found behind the personal philosophies of former Republican 2012 Vice-Presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, who insisted all his staffers read Atlas Shrugged, and Anton LaVey, the late founder of the Church of Satan.
Rand herself decried social assistance to the poor (because it takes from the rich, who, according to Rand had allearned their money, so no poor person has a right to be helped by it) while receiving social security – a social assistance program.
That’s not only mixed up. That’s being a total Dick.
7. Ayn Rand
Rand proves that it is possible to so despise a philosopher she’s worth mentioning twice.
8. Sir Bertrand Russell (1873-1970)
Regarded by many as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century and (perhaps) the greatest philosopher ever, Sir Bertrand Russell (along with Gottlob Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein) played a major role in the development of analytic philosophy. Russell’s works includes writings on logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, epistemology, metaphysics, moral philosophy, politics, economics, religion, and Russell, with Alfred North Whitehead, wrote Principia Mathematica (1910-13), which established the logical foundations of mathematics.
Ok. I know, I know, Bertrand Russell is the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, quite possibly the greatest philosopher ever. Blah blah blah.
It’s absolutely correct that every philosophy student should know the philosophical importance of Bertrand Russell. But here’s my problem:
First: Russell’s Paradox.
Second: Unlike Leo Strauss, whose approach to writing was to be intentionally obscure, Bertrand Russell is damn-near un-understandable. I have no clue what Russell is writing about. Read this:
The unity of the sentence is particularly obvious in the case of asymmetrical relations: ‘x precedes y’ and ‘y precedes x’ consist of the same words, arranged by the same relation of temporal succession; there is nothing whatever in their ingredients to distinguish the one from the other. The sentences differ as wholes, but not in their parts, it is this that I mean when I speak of a sentence as a unity.
Now, either Bertrand Russell is that brilliant or I’m that dumb.
Because I have no idea what that meant.
That’s why I hate Bertrand Russell.
9. Leo Strauss (1899-1973)
Known as the father of neo-conservatism, the political philosophy of the late German-American philosopher, Leo Strauss, has created more animus between liberals and conservatives than the epic “tastes great/less filling” debate. In fact, Leo Strauss is probably the most influential modern philosopher no one has ever heard of.
Have you ever heard the name Paul Wolfowitz?
If you haven’t, I’m guessing you’re not an American.
If you are an American and you haven‘t, God help you.
What’s important to know about Paul Wolfowitz is that he was a student of Leo Strauss. AND he was a Deputy Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration.That means Paul Wolfowitz had the ear of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.
No big deal, right?
Well, that would be no big deal if Leo Strauss hadn’t spent his entire philosophical career lamenting modern political theory and what he saw as modernity’s liberal, relativistic values, and “the corroding effects of mass culture.” Strauss writes:
Many people today hold the view that the standard in question is in the best case nothing but the ideal adopted by our society or our “civilization” and embodied in its way of life or its institutions. But, according to the same view, all societies have their ideals, cannibal societies no less than civilized ones. If principles are sufficiently justified by the fact that they are accepted by a society, the principles of cannibalism are as defensible or sound as those of civilized life.
Strauss explains that moral relativism and “the uninhibited cultivation of individuality” is “bound to lead to disastrous consequences” and nihilism.
It would be no big deal if Strauss hadn’t taught at the University of Chicago from 1949 to 1968, allowing Strauss to influence a generation of students (they’re called “Straussians”). And it wouldn’t be a big deal that Leo Strauss taught guys like Paul Wolfowitz and influenced a generation of Straussians if Strauss hadn’t believed and taught his students that philosophy should be esoteric, and not understood by everybody, and that knowledge is something that is hidden to most people and only understood by a few individuals (namely Strauss and his students).
It wouldn’t be a problem that Strauss taught guys like Paul Wolfowitz if Strauss hadn’t taught his students that society should be structured so that the wisest should rise to the top (mind you, Strauss believed that he and his students were the wisest) and that it’s perfectly within a government’s power to lie to and ignore the will of the people.
It wouldn’t be a big deal if Straussians hadn’t been affecting American domestic and foreign policy for the last 12 years*.
It wouldn’t be a problem if Strauss’ followers didn’t go into politics and influence and entire administration to follow Strauss’ wacked-out ideas.
10. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (of course he was German!) is best known for his work The World As Will (1818). Schopenhauer, along with (fellow Germans) Georg Hegel and Nietzsche introduced the concept of the will as a force in the world that makes things happen. The world, according to Schopenhauer (and later Nietzsche) is an expression of the will.
Schopenhauer believed that the Eastern philosophical tradition was better at dealing with our philosophical crises than the established European philosophy. Schopenhauer also believed that animals should be treated humanely. He even objected to animals being used for scientific research.
That makes Schopenhauer seem like a pretty cool guy, right?
Well, if you thought that you’d be wrong.
You could say Schopenhauer was the Debbie Downer of philosophy.
Schopenhauer believed that there is no such thing as friendship or happiness and since the will wants its way, we will always be subject to suffering caused by our unfulfilled desires. According to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, even if we get what we want we can never be truly satisfied. Schopenhauer says that ultimately nothing we do matters because death will eventually claim us, thus rendering all of our efforts at anything futile. Schopenhauer writes:
we blow out a soap bubble as long and as large as possible, although we know perfectly well that it will burst.
You don’t have to be a philosopher to know it’s kind of hard to like people like this.
Ok, you say, pessimism is forgivable. Many philosophers display more than an inkling of the dourness. But if Schopenhauer’s sunny attitude isn’t enough to turn you off, Arthur Schopenhauer was also a pretty rotten guy.
For starters, his attitude towards women sucked.
Schopenhauer’s attitude towards relationships with women was no different from his view on friendship and happiness. Schopenhauer had many romantic relationships but no permanent. Worse yet, not only did Schopenhauer write that women are “mental myopic” with “weaker reasoning powers”, he pushed an elderly neighbor down a flight of stairs. When the woman died, Schopenhauer rejoiced that the woman’s death relieved him of his obligation to pay compensation for the injuries she sustained in the fall.
That alone places Schopenhauer second only to Ayn Rand on the dickness scale.
Alright. I know that my list sounds like I’m just bitching about philosophers without any real, substantive criticism of any philosopher of his or her philosophy. If that’s what you’re thinking, that would be an entirely correct assumption. Just as one my dislike The Beatles because of John Lennon’s nasally vocals, our reasons for disliking (or even hating) a particular philosopher, philosophical theory, or philosophical school of thought, may come down to something as trivial as the fact that that particular philosopher invented symbolic logic.
It may be un-philosophical to say so, but it’s ok if you don’t like everything. It’s even ok to really despise a philosopher or two.
As any philosopher will tell you, everybody’s got an opinion, and –
* Although the critics are nearly unanimous in their praise of The Beatles, I think that it’s highly unlikely that the Beatles would appear at the number on spot on every best musical artists lists. To my knowledge, The Beatles have never occupied the top spot on a list of the 10 greatest hip hop artists. But then, I haven’t seen every top ten hip hop artists list, either.
* It’s clear that the Bush Administration’s policies have continued into the Obama Administration. The U.S. is still involved in Iraq, and U.S. troops are still active in Afghanistan. Bush era economic policies, government surveillance, and rendition of “enemy combatants” have also continued into the Obama Administration.
1) Aristotle. The Politics. 1984. Trans. Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 40-1.
2) Aristotle. “The Inequality of Women”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p. 525.
3) Bertrand Russell. “Sentence, Syntax, and Parts of Speech”. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. 1961. Eds. Robert Egner and Lester E. Denonn. NY: Touchstone. p. 122.
4) “Reader’s Guide to the Writings and Philosophy of Ayn Rand”. From The Fountainhead. 1952 [orig. published 1943]. NY: Signet.