The Utilitarian Calculus Will Shut That Shit Down, NO EXCEPTIONS

WELL… IT’S FALL and if autumn means one thing, it means the return of my favorite hate to love/love to hate TV show, The Walking Dead.
I’ve been watching this show, basic cable television’s highest rated zombie-infused soap opera, since the first episode aired in October 2009.

It’s only now that I’m really beginning to question if I should have devoted so much time to this t.v. show.

Now, before you start going on about how if I don’t like the show, I should just stop watching, for starters, I’ve been telling myself that for the past three seasons. Second, I would stop watching The Walking Dead if they would stop putting so much philosophy in it.

It’s the worst best philosophical show on t.v.
Best because the show combines my two favorite things: philosophy and zombies.

Worst because of this guy





That’s right. I’m no fan of Negan.

The more I watch Negan, the more I kinda miss the Governor.





Rick Grimes’ current nemesis , the mononymously named Negan, first appeared in the season six finale episode “Last Day On Earth”. Armed with his barbed wire-wrapped Louisville Slugger Lucile, Negan declares himself the ultimate badass, bludgeons not one, but two of Rick Grimes’ group (Abraham and Glenn), humiliates Rick in front of his people, and nearly forces Rick to cut off the arm of his son Carl.

Negan does all of this and he still becomes a fan favorite.

Seriously, just Google Negan cosplay.

Up until season eight Negan was just a deranged, leather coat wearing, inexplicably leaning back, monologuing, constant dick joke telling, bat wielding psychopath. But, in the season eight episode 5 episode “The Big Scary U”, The Walking Dead shows us is that Negan isn’t just a guy with a ridiculously wide, bright-toothed grin in a leather jacket who’ll bash your brains in, he’s actually got a philosophy.

Dare I say the man’s got ethics.

Being that this is The Walking Dead, one guess what system of ethics Negan uses.

You guessed it: Negan is a utilitarian.
The big scary U is utilitarianism.





Well, actually in the show it’s the unknown.

However, ethically speaking, the big scary u guiding damn-near every dumb decision ever made by any character on The Walking Dead seems grounded in the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.

I say seems grounded.

Because most of the time they get it wrong.





Well, before I get into how they get utilitarianism wrong on The Walking Dead, it’s probably a good idea to explain what utilitarianism is.

Utilitarianism, the consequentialist ethical theory which stats that an act is judged morally right or wrong depending on the consequences (of that action). Although consequentialist ethics have been around since humans have had ethics, the origin of utilitarianism s credited to the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748 –1832).
Bentham’s consequentialist ethical theory (hedonism) is grounded on the principle of utility.
Bentham states:

By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words to promote or to oppose that happiness.

For Bentham, maximizing pleasure is the goal of any action. The maximization of pleasure is the highest good.




Although Bentham is credited with inventing modern utilitarianism, the British economist and philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is the philosopher most associated with utilitarianism.


I guess if you don’t include Peter Singer.
Or Henry Sidgwick.

…or G.E. Moore.

Mill rejects Bentham’s hedonistic calculus (Mill states that pleasure alone cannot be the standard by which we judge the morality of an act). According to Mill, an act is morally right if the act maximizes the happiness of the community.

Mill defines happiness as well being.

The primary principle of Mill’s utilitarianism is the Greatest Happiness Principle.
And that, according to Mill, is:

The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals “utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

We’ve seen plenty of (sometimes opposing) ethical systems on The Walking Dead.

The deontological ethics of Dale Horvath.

Hershel Greene’s biblically based morality.

The egoist tendencies of the Governor.

The Hobbesian nightmare of Terminus.

Daryl Dixon’s ethics of loyalty.

The moral grab bag that is Rick Grimes…





So, when you see a man beat a man to death with a baseball bat, one may be inclined to ask, “exactly how does he justify doing this?”

Luckily the fifth episode of season eight tells us exactly that.

Negan’s justification is Utilitarian.





Negan explains to Father Gabriel that he hasn’t “killed anyone who didn’t need it”.
In an exchange with the recently deposed leader of the Hilltop (and all-around weaselly guy) Gregory

Apparently, no one has a last name in a zombie apocalypse.

Negan explains to Gregory that he is not guilty of committing brutal murder. On the contrary, Negan says, his seemingly evil actions are not only justified but necessary.
Their conversation goes like this:

Gregory: Listen, I mean it when I say it – Negan, I don’t like killing people any more than you do.
Negan: I like killing people… I say it’s about killing the right people. So you kill the right people at the right time, everything falls into place. Everybody’s happy. Well, some people more than others. But you kill one, then you can be saving hundreds more – and THAT is what we are all about. We save people.

The right people.
The right time.
Everybody’s happy.
We save people.
Saving hundreds.

Furthermore, when Father Gabriel suggests that Negan’s workers are being forced to work against their will, Negan tells Gabriel (or “Gabey”, as Negan calls him) that his worker class is “an economy”. Negan says no one is a slave no one goes hungry.
No one goes hungry.





If we evaluate Negan’s explanations to Gregory and Father Gabriel, according to Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle, a Sanctuary full of happy, safe people with full bellies make a damn good argument in favor of Negan’s justification for killing a few people.

Even if those people are Abraham and Glenn.
And Denise
And Olivia
And Spencer
And Benjamin
And Sasha…







The Walking Dead. “The Big Scary U”. Story by Scott M. Gimple, David Leslie Johnson & Angela Kang. Teleplay by David Leslie Johnson & Angela Kang. Directed by Michael E. Satrazemis. Original airdate: November 19, 2017.

WHERE’S CARL? (On The Walking Dead and moral culpability)

THERE ARE ONLY A FEW things that really get me excited these days.

One thing that gets me going is a good deal on outdoor summer plants at Home Depot.

Another thing is watching The Walking Dead.
I’m not going to say it’s the best TV show ever (Lord knows that’s Firefly), but I will say that, as a philosopher, The Walking Dead is chock-full of philosophical whatnot!

Whatnot is a legitimate philosophical term, by the way.

One philosophical topic that is particularly whatnotty on The Walking Dead is ethics.

The show is a never-ending bounty of moral dilemmas.

Philosophers love moral dilemmas.

moral dilemmas


After six seasons and approximately one and a half years of TV show time,


Seriously, how does Carl Grimes do five years worth of aging in eight months?



After six seasons and approximately one and a half years of TV show time, the primary goal of former sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes and his bad of fellow survivors is to survive. Morally speaking, the fight for survival would make the show much like Hobbes’ Leviathan – a world where life is nasty, brutish and short. A war of all against all.


But there’s something else going on in The Walking Dead besides mere survival. The characters don’t just want to survive, they want to live. They want to make a better world. To bring about a greater good.

Unfortunately for Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors, morally speaking, The Walking Dead plays out more like a series of unfortunate events.

How the best of intentions sometimes paves the road to hell.




The idea of pursuing the greater good is the focus of the ethical theory of Utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism, most associated with the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), is based on the Greatest Happiness Principle, which is, according to Mill in Utilitarianism (1861):


the creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.


That is to say, utilitarianism dictates that an act is morally permissible if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number (of people).

However, unlike Kant’s deontological ethics, which emphasizes the intrinsic goodness of an act, utilitarianism is teleological, that is, the ultimate rightness of an act depends on an act’s consequences.

This only highlights the main problem with utilitarianism.

The focus is on expected consequences.




You see, when we use utilitarian ethics, we notice something almost immediately. Utilitarian ethics seems very easy to do. We simply do what we think will make the most people happy. Unfortunately, the seemingly ease of utilitarian ethics is often deceptive.

Figuring out what “happiness” is, is often more difficult than it appears to be.




There’s one, BIG problem with evaluating moral goodness on consequences.


the big problem


As the saying goes, even your best laid plans don’t always get you laid like you planned. Shit happens, and sometimes things don’t turn out quite the way that we wanted it.




The Walking Dead seems to be plagued by a nasty, little cause and effect scenario: Some character’s (often well-meaning) direct action constantly leads to something worse happening.

And when something worse happens; when outcomes don’t turn out as planned, we’re in a position to assign moral culpability.


blame it on


Ok, utilitarianism requires us to make decisions based on expected consequences (what we think will bring the greatest good for the greatest number), but we often lack full knowledge of a given situation.




Because we do not possess full knowledge of a situation, our utilitarian moral judgments are always going to be based on our best estimates. There is always a chance that even our best estimates of what actions will bring about the greatest happiness will not result in the greatest good.

Even with the best of intentions bad things happen.

Remember: Mill tells us that the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.


  • So, when Carol tells Sam a story about zombies eating him so he won’t snitch about seeing Carol in Alexandria‘s food pantry/armory, Carol’s terrifying story eventually results in the deaths of Sam, his mother, Jessie, and his brother, Ron. Carol tells Sam the story with the intention of keeping Rick’s group’s plans to take over Alexandria (a move that Rick’s group thought would be for the greater good) secret. However, when Sam and his family are surrounded by a herd of the undead, Carol’s story repeats in his head, causing Sam to panic and draw attention to Sam and his family.


The show had already established that Sam was s bit unhinged and suggests that what Carol tells him is what sends poor Sam over the edge.

Because Carol failed to calculate the ultimate consequence of what she said, we feel that Carol bears (at least some of) the blame for Sam’s death.

  • Also in that scene, Michonne fatally stabs Ron with her Katana when Ron points his gun at Rick after Ron’s mother and brother are devoured by walkers. We (and Michonne, we assume) know that if Rick dies, the group will be leaderless.


And that would be bad.

Michonne, we presume, stabs Ron because keeping Rick alive would be good for the group (i.e. the greater good).





However, what happens is Ron shoots Carl in the eye.

An unforeseen consequence.

Because Michonne didn’t calculate the possibility that Ron would flinch while being stabbed through the back with a katana, Carl lost an eye, it wouldn’t be too far fetched if we ascribed a little bit of moral blame to Michonne for what happened to Carl.


  • Then there’s Morgan, who lets a group of attackers (The Wolves) escape after they’ve viciously attacked and slaughtered people in Alexandria. Morgan allows The Wolves to escape because he believes that all life is precious and that not killing is the greater good. The bad guys, in turn, attempt to kill Rick. And – a lone Wolf that Morgan captures takes a hostage and nearly gets the woman killed while attempting to leave Alexandria. Morgan’s goal was to rehabilitate the Wolf – something he thought would be good for everyone.


It makes sense that people are pissed off at Morgan for thinking that “all life is precious”.


morgan jones



That’s because Morgan is morally culpable for The Wolves nearly killing Rick and the hostage.


  • Earlier in the series, Carl Grimes taunts a walker stuck in the mud and runs away when the re-animated corpse breaks free from the mud and grabs hold of Carl’s pants. The walker eventually makes its way to Hershel’s farm where it attacks Dale, who has to be put down. Carl wanted to prove that he was capable of handling himself and could contribute to the group and not just be a helpless kid, something that would benefit the group as a whole. However, Carl didn’t calculate that the walker he taunted would follow him to the Greene farm and kill Dale.

And viewers were right to be pissed at Carl for “killing” Dale.




We’re angry with Carl because Carl is (partly) morally responsible for Dale’s death.


  • In the series’ third episode, “Tell It to the Frogs”, Rick leads a small group back to zombie-infested Atlanta to rescue Merle who (whom?) Rick has left handcuffed to a pipe on a roof. Rick argues that rescuing Merle is the morally right thing to do. Despite the warning that the camp needs as many available men as possible to protect the camp from the undead, Rick insists that retrieving Merle and Rick’s dropped bag of guns will serve the greater good.


While Rick and the small group are away, the camp is attacked by a herd of walkers, resulting in the deaths of several no-named red shirts and a couple of relatively minor characters.

Rick failed to calculate the possibility that the camp would be attacked in his absence.


victim the-walking-dead-amy



Therefore, Shane isn’t all wrong when he says that by leaving the camp Rick bears some culpability for deaths in the group.





That’s just a few examples of moral culpability in The Walking Dead.

You can write an entire book about philosophy and this show.


the walking dead and philosophy



Well – as season six of The Walking Dead draws to a close, there are sure to be more utilitarian miscalculations – as well as many other examples of philosophy gone wrong. And I’m sure I will be watching seasons to come, watching my weekly dose of philosophical whatnot.
That is, unless Daryl Dixon dies.

I’ll be too busy rioting.




if daryl dies we riot


John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. 2005 [1861]. NY: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc.. p.8.

Of Mice and Mika

Ask this philosopher what her favorite TV show is.

Go ahead. Ask.

Ok then, I’ll tell you. My favorite TV show is The Walking Dead.
You know, the one with the zombies.

Although it’s (just) a show about zombies, The Walking Dead is basic cable’s highest rated scripted drama.

It’s been on for four seasons. Here are each of the season’s posters:


TWD poster season 1



TWD poster season 2




TWD poster season 3



TWD poster season 4





Oh yeah, this is the poster for the second half of season 4.



TW poster season 4 #2


All of the posters have the character Rick Grimes on it. He’s the star of the show.

Rick does stuff and things.





So far, season 4 has been kinda slow.






Although season 4 has been a bit on the slow side, no matter how boring a season of The Walking Dead gets, you can guarantee a season will include a few things:


  • Plenty of zombie blood and guts
  • A likable bad guy
  • Soap opera-esque dialogue (except for Michonne. She barely says anything)
  • The T-Dog Effect*
  • The constant fangirl threats of “If Daryl dies, we riot”


if daryl dies we riot


And Rick Grimes totally eye F-ing the camera.



eye F

The Walking Dead is certainly tainted with zombie-flavored melodrama, but a little known fact is that the show is packed with philosophy – if you decide to look for it.

That is, if you can get past visuals like this:





Or this:



zombie eating



Or this:



merle zombie


A recent philosophically-packed episode had something to do with the death of the character Lizzie Samuels.






What makes the death of Lizzie philosophically significant isn’t just the fact that Lizzie is a child, but also the utilitarian justification for her killing.


That’s right, I said killing.


Someone intentionally kills Lizzie Samuels.


That person is Carol.


That’s right. Carol.


The same person who killed David and Tyreese’s girlfriend Karen, Carol.





This is what happens:
In The Walking Dead season 4 episode titled “The Grove”, Carol, Tyreese, baby Judith (Grimes), and the Samuels sisters, Lizzie and her younger sister Mika, find an abandoned farm. Once there the group decides to – you know, nevermind. Long story short (too late) Carol and Tyreese discover that there is something seriously wrong with the eldest Samuels sister Lizzie.


Lizzie Samuels is a psychopath.


lizzie messed up


Lizzie expresses an unnatural fondness for zombies (or “walkers”) that endangers the lives of the small group. Lizzie believes that zombies are not dangerous and that zombies are her friends.


Wait. It gets worse.


Not only does Lizzie believe that flesh-eating zombies are capable of sustaining friendships, she believes that becoming a zombie isn’t such a bad thing.


Oh – before I forget – before Carol, Tyreese, Judith, Mika, and Lizzie found the farm they were are a prison. Someone at the prison was feeding rats to the zombies and eviscerating small animals. That person was Lizzie.

Lizzie also named the zombies.
She became quite fond of one she named “Nick”.


This, as you may see, is a problem.

I think it might be the right time for a list.




  • Lizzie freaks out when she discovers that someone has “killed” Nick.
  • Lizzie violently admonishes Carol when Carol kills a zombie (Lizzie claims she was merely playing with the potentially dangerous flesh eater).
  • Lizzie fails to (re)kill a zombie when a revenant threatens the lives of Lizzie, Mika, and Judith.
  • Lizzie expresses reluctance to kill any zombie (she does not, however, have any difficulty killing the living).
  • While “protecting” Rick Grimes’ infant daughter Judith, Lizzie attempts to smother the child.
  • And lastly, Lizzie kills her sister Mika.


It’s okay, Lizzie says. Her sister will come back.


lizzie says her sister will come back


Oh yeah, after killing Mika, Lizzie intends to kill Judith.


lizzie's babysitting service




Carol and Tyreese conclude that Lizzie must be dealt with. But how? Lizzie is a child and any extreme method of dealing with the child must be considered very carefully.

The options are as follows:


  • Abandon Lizzie and let her fend for herself (this would be cruel)
  • Watch Lizzie at all times to make sure that she doesn’t have the chance to harm anyone else (impractical)
  • Attempt to reason with Lizzie (impossible given Lizzie’s mental state)
  • Physically restrain Lizzie to prevent her from killing more people (cruel and impractical)
  • Kill Lizzie


Carol reluctantly concludes that the only way to effectively deal with Lizzie is to kill the child.


Of course Carol finds this morally troubling.

Carol’s moral predicament is not unlike the classic Trolley Problem.


The Trolley Problem goes like this: a trolley filled with passengers is heading down a stretch of track that – well, something is wrong with the track: a bridge is not extended, a section of track is missing, whatever. However, you can save the lives of the passengers on the trolley of you divert the train to another track. The problem is, there is someone or some people (like five or so) on the other track. Now, do you send the trolley down the track with the five people, lower the bridge, etc. knowing that doing so will kill the people on the other track? Would you save the lives of others by intentionally ending the life of another person?


You know, this explains the problem much better than I can:





Although Lizzie killed her sister, she is unaware of what she’s done – her actions are not malicious. In fact, Lizzie’s intention was good. She believed that, by becoming a walker, her sister was in a better place.


Carol decides to kill the one person to protect the lives of the rest of the group because doing so is the only feasible option. Carol has to stop Lizzie from being a threat to others. Lizzie doesn’t realize that the “walkers” are dangerous. She kills her sister Mika in hopes that she will resurrect. She attempted to smother Rick Grimes’ infant daughter Judith.


Lizzie’s death parallels the death of Lennie in the Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men. In Steinbeck’s story, George kills his mentally handicapped companion Lennie after Lennie accidentally kills the wife of a fellow farmhand. Like Lizzie, Lennie did not realize that he had done something wrong.


George kills his friend to protect him from a worse fate (a lynch mob). Similarly, Carol kills Lizzie to save others from a worse fate – even to save Lizzie from herself. The motivation to do the greater good (for the greatest number of people) is the basis of utilitarian ethics. Carol’s motivation is to protect the others in the group.


John Stuart Mill writes in Utilitarianism:

Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness*

The utilitarian goal of providing the greatest good for the greatest number or conducting one’s actions according to the Vulcan principle “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”, is what ultimately leads to Carol’s dreadful decision.



trolley problem bear

This situation is also kind of like the end of the movie The Cabin in the Woods.


When whatsherface had to kill whatever his name before sunrise or else the gods will kill everyone on Earth – that’s a Trolley Problem.





You see, utilitarianism is based on results. An act is right or wrong (morally) if the expected outcome produces the best result or increases the happiness of the people as a whole. Once we decide which act will result in the greatest good for the greatest number, we are morally obligated to do that act. Lizzie was clearly a danger to others. There was no way to convince her that the walkers were dangerous or to stop her from killing another member of the group. Therefore, as the Trolley Problem dictates, one life must be sacrificed to save the lives of the greatest number.


So, barring no other viable option, Carol is morally obligated to kill Lizzie.
Carol ultimately takes the girl to a patch of flowers where she kills the girl as quickly and humanely as possible.

She shoots the girl in the back of the head.



look at the flowers

Obviously the problem with utilitarianism is that doing the morally right thing doesn’t always make us feel better.



At the close of the episode the group may be safer, but we know that Carol and Tyresse are far from being happy.










* Happiness may or may not include emotional happiness. Happiness may also be defined as physical well-being or safety. The fact that killing Lizzie did not make Carol or Tyreese emotionally happy is secondary to the fact that Lizzie’s death made the remaining members of the group safer.



* For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, the T-Dog Effect goes something like this: every time a new African-American male character is introduced, an already-existing African-American male character dies. This is the T-Dog Effect:





The effect has generated humorous memes such as this:



y twd no keep a black character



And this:


t-dog reached season 3



And this:



twd new black guy

However, the simultaneous existence of African-American male characters Tyreese and Bob Stookey have proven that the T-Dog effect does not hold. The T-Dog Effect is more of an urban myth (or joke) amongst The Walking Dead fans than a (fictional) reality.




John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. 2005. [1861]. NY: Barnes and Noble Books. p. 8

A View From Monster Island (Is That an Unmanned Drone????????!)

Some people are into certain seasons.

Some people are Spring people. Some people like Summer. Or Winter.

I’m definitely an Autumn kind of gal.

I’m super into Halloween.


Yes, I refer to Halloween as a holiday.

It’s like my Christmas.

I dress up, bake holiday-themed goodies, and play holiday-appropriate music.


No. I don’t worship the Devil.


I’ve been asked that before.


For me, Halloween is the time to dwell upon all things spooky and scary.

I like to think of myself as spooky and a little bit scary. Wednesday Addams is my totem animal.


it's wednesday again

I’ve found the quickest way to get into the spooky and scary mood is through the cinema.

Actually, the quickest way might be through a Ouija board. But then, who wants to risk conjuring up Captain Howdy while trying to communicate with the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe?





I must say that it’s not very often that watching a creature feature gets one thinking about U.S. foreign policy. After all, the point of a creature feature is to spook you out or even scare you a little bit. It’s even less likely that a 1950s B-grade, sci-fi flick would get one thinking about foreign policy and philosophy.

It would be fair to say that it doesn’t really happen at all.


It’s not that fifties cinema wasn’t political or philosophical. Fifties films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Day of the Triffids, and The Day the Earth Stood Still (not to mention Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone) not only are classic sci-fi films, but are also plenty political and philosophical.

Spend an afternoon watching movies on Syfy. You’ll see.


The reason, I think, so few sci-fi flicks get me (us?) thinking about politics and philosophy really has more to do with the fact that Hollywood so rarely makes old-fashioned monster movies these days. Modern cinema is all special effects or all slice and dice.

Paranormal Activity-whatever numbered sequel they’re up to by now.

We don’t think because movies no longer encourage us to think… about anything.

Oh wait, Cloverfield came out a few years ago.

That movie got me thinking. Not sure if all my thoughts about it were political or philosophical, though.*

To be honest, that movie kind of messed me up, man.

I used to think that only vampire and zombie bites were dangerous.







Unfortunately for monster flick lovers like me, we have to look to the past to enjoy a good “What the F@#K is THAT???!” flick.

Giant lizard films from the sixties are always a good place to start.

A remake of Godzilla was released a few years ago. I’m not going to beat a dead horse but if there was anything worth watching in that barely watchable movie (admit it, it was barely watchable), it was Jean Reno – who is by definition required viewing no matter what movie he is in.





Actually, the problem isn’t the Godzilla remake. To be honest, there is a problem with Godzilla movies in general. Watch more than two Godzilla movies and you’ll soon discover that if you can get past the comically bad dubbing, the weird made-for-American-audiences re-editing, strangely choreographed monster fight sequences, and chuckle-inducing monster suits, your intestinal constitution is stronger than any champion competitive food eater.






Oh God, I hear they’re making another one. Another remake.

Why must they punish my eyes so?


The funny thing is, is that even though Godzilla flicks are, qualitatively speaking, pretty awful movies, once you see past all that‘s not worth watching, there’s actually something really smart going on. Godzilla movies are not only some of the finest examples of unintentional madcap comedy, they’re some of the best teaching tools around.

Especially if one is inclined to think about philosophy or foreign policy.





When I was a kid, weekends meant only one thing: spending my Saturday afternoons watching bad movies. In the days before basic cable and the endless stream of made-for-Syfy and the Lifetime Network’s obscure 80’s actors cinematic crapfests, one only had local television affiliates and a bunny-eared antenna to view the best of the worst cinema ever made. I remember the local Los Angeles affiliate, KHJ (now KCAL) aired Movie Macabre, hosted by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.


elvira's movie macabre


I spent many Saturday afternoons watching craptacular gems like The Werewolf of Washington, The Monster Club, The Devil’s Rain, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, and The Incredible Melting Man.






I may be wrong but I think John Saxon hosted a show called Kung-Fu Theatre.

Those movies were pretty bad, too.

Still, more than any other memory of those Saturdays spent boob-tubing away my early childhood, I remember watching Godzilla movies.

Enough Godzilla flicks to last a Japanese school boy in too-tight-shorts a life time.


Admittedly, by the time Godzilla was pitted against the giant, flying, pollution-dispensing, melted shuttlecock-looking, Smog Monster, the intelligence quotient of the film series had reached an all-time low.





By the mid-1960s, Godzilla flicks had started the slippery slide down the crap scale from slightly stupid movies to full-blown, “you’ve got to be kidding me”-inducing plotlines involving the son of Godzilla (never once addressing where Mrs. Godzilla, was) and pitting the King of Monsters against America’s own racially-metaphored monster, King Kong.






The sad thing is Godzilla started out as kind of a smart film.

An invention of the Toho Picture Company, Godzilla made his film debut in Gojira released in 1954. Originally an anti-nuke, anti-war allegory, Gojira was re-cut for U.S. audiences with footage of American actor Raymond Burr (best known as TV’s Perry Mason) and re-titled Godzilla, King of Monsters.


raymond burr in godzilla


Gojira was intended to be a cautionary tale; a warning against man’s arrogance and want to harness the power of the gods creating real-life monsters (nuclear weapons) that can destroy man and the planet. Gojira producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, said:


The theme of the film from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.






However, in the Americanized Godzilla, King of Monsters, any references to the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, and U.S. hydrogen bomb tests (in the original Gojira we’re told the hydrogen bomb is what created Godzilla) were also removed from the film.






By the way, Raymond Burr plays a reporter named “Steve Martin”. His character’s name still makes me laugh.






It’s not unreasonable that a Japanese film company would make an anti-nuke movie.

Japan is the only country to have been bombed twice with nuclear weapons.


Watching the original Gojira and its anti-nuke message got me thinking: Of course, being anti-nuke is a political position, but if being anti anything means you’ve taken a stand against something because you think it’s wrong, you’re taking a moral position as well.


If you’re talking morals, you’re talking philosophy.


And if you’re talking about the ethics of atomic warfare, you’re talking foreign policy.


We’ve all heard the explanation before: The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to save lives that would have been lost in U.S. invasion of Japan. The explanation is utilitarian. The bombs were dropped to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) explains:


… actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.


The utilitarian position is this: if dropping atomic bombs on Japan would save lives and end the war, ending thousands of Japanese lives was a small price to pay for saving millions of American and Allied lives. U.S. government argued Hiroshima and Nagasaki were military targets; which made destroying the cities all the more necessary. Therefore, the total destruction of two Japanese cities was a necessary and morally justified act.


It was the only solution.


after the atomic bomb



Utilitarian justifications for military action are not uncommon. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the Bush Doctrine, military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Libya, Grenada, the Balkans, and American support of coups in Iran and Chile, were all based on utilitarian arguments. In arguing for military action in Iraq, President George W. Bush stated:


By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it… We have a great opportunity to extend a just peace, by replacing poverty, repression, and resentment around the world with the hope of a better day.


That, my friends, is a utilitarian argument.


But wait, you say, the Vietnam War ended badly for the United States. As did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you think about it, more than a few “interventions” have gone very badly. If this is so, how can you justify military aggression if the result is worse than the initial problem?

If you just said that, congratulations. You figured out the problem with utilitarianism.


You see, the utilitarian (moral) position tells us that if we possess the means to end or prevent the suffering of others, we are obligated to act. We would be neglecting our moral duty if we do not. Taking lives is not necessarily wrong if our ultimate goal is to increase the overall good (or happiness) of the whole.

So, if dropping bombs from unmanned drones will decrease violent acts of Islamic extremism, then blowing up weddings, unarmed journalists or people eating lunch is morally justified.


utilitarian cartoon

On its face, that all sounds fine and dandy. But, if you haven’t already realized it, not every bomb falls on its intended target. And sometimes our best utilitarian intentions fall victim to the law of unintended consequences.

Utilitarian ethics tells us that if we ought to act if we have the means to increase the happiness of the whole, but the sometimes inaccurate calculation of (best) consequences leads to bad things happening rather than the outcomes we expected. Sometimes, despite our best intentions and expectations, the situation ends up much worse than before we did anything.





godzilla 1956



If you’re a utilitarian, this is unacceptable.


Because the moral rightness or wrongness depends on the consequences of our actions, not our intentions. We can have all the best intentions in the world, but if we act and the consequences are bad, then our actions are morally wrong.


hiroshima after bomb



Because in the real world when we act, we risk more than creating an irradiated, 150 foot, “big-gutted, big-butted” prehistoric beast hell-bent on destroying Tokyo.

In the real world, we must weigh our actions against the possibility that we’ll kill real people and cause real damage to others.

Even if our intentions tell us unmanned drones will get the job done.





* Actually Cloverfield is a political movie. One need not look too deeply into the plot to see the parallels between the events in the film and the terrorist attack on New York on September 11th, 2001.





1) John Stuart Mill. “Utilitarianism”. 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. 571

2) Sam Stall, Lou Harry, and Julia Spaulding. The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1001 Things You Hate to Love. 2004. Philadelphia: Quirk Books. p.108.

3) Steve Ryfle. “Godzilla’s Footprint”. Gojira DVD insert.

4) The Evolving Presidency: Addresses, Cases, Essays, Letters, Reports, Resolutions, Transcripts, and Other Landmark Documents, 1787-2004. 2004. 2nd Edition. Ed. Michael Nelson. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press. pp. 288.

Oh, Carol!


They’re in, you know.

When you’ve gotten to the point you’re using zombies to sell cell phone plans, you know society is in pretty bad shape.



You don’t have to ask around, but I think it’s entirely safe to say that zombies are probably the least appealing monster in the movie monster kingdom.

It’s not that the zombie’s least appealing status is undeserved. There are plenty of reasons to dislike them. Zombies aren’t at all like well-cultured, romantic, erudite Vampires. They’re not mischievous like your local poltergeist.  They’re not powerful and all biblical like demons. And they’re not beastly manifestations of man’s repressed id like a werewolf.


Nope. That’s not a zombie.


Zombies are smelly, rotting, people-chomping, mindless bags of flesh.

If a zombie finds you, it will not bid you good morning or offer you its seat on the bus. A zombie will tear you apart and eat you.

Zombies don’t sparkle. They don’t talk to you through the TV. They don’t look like David Naughton. Zombies look like this:




You can’t get rid of a zombie with sunlight. Or by driving a stake through its heart. Or with love. You can’t hire a priest to perform an exorcism.

The only way to get rid of a zombie is to do this:




Even killing a zombie is pretty gross.

It’s a wonder why zombies are so popular these days.


Wait a minute. That movie Warm Bodies. They cured zombies with love, didn’t they?

Twilight + dead hipster = Warm Bodies

Twilight + dead hipster = Warm Bodies


If you ask me, Warm Bodies movie is the Nightmare on Elm Street 2 of zombie films.

It’s an ok movie, but… I think they aimed for the wrong audience.

But then, we’ve dealt with running zombies, haven’t we?


For the last time, zombies do not run!

For the last time, zombies do not run!


It is a well-established fact that you have to kill the brain to kill the ghoul. But zombie brain bashing might get a little messy.

Some people might be put off by that. Squeamish types, you know.

However, there is one thing about zombies that isn’t too gross zombies are fantastically ethical monsters.

You can discuss matters of ethics using zombies, that is.

Luckily for us, the AMC television network has made discussing zombies fairly easy.

Yes. I’m talking about The Walking Dead.





In the season 4 episode “Indifference”,  Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) kicks fellow zombie apocalypse survivor, Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride), out of the group for killing two people who are sick with a deadly strain of the flu. Rick tells Carol that the two might have lived (Carol hadn’t given them a chance to get well), and that Carol had no right to decide who lives and who dies. Carol tells Rick that her justification for killing the two sick people is that she was trying to prevent anyone else from getting sick; that she was protecting the group.

If we look at Carol’s actions through our ethics glasses, we see that Carol’s reasoning is based on the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. John Stuart Mill wrote in Utilitarianism:

The creed which accepts [utility] as the foundation of morals, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

Carol believes that she has done the right thing. And by killing two people, she believes that she will prevent the deaths of the several dozen living people in the camp. Carol argues the two were terminal, and it’s not wrong if you kill someone who is terminally ill. Carol tells Rick that she ended their suffering, and by hastening their deaths, she saved them from a very painful death of drowning in their own blood.

If a couple of people die so that others may live, Carol reasons, so be it. She tells Rick that she “stepped up” and did something when no one else (including Rick) was willing or able to do what had to be done.




If we judge Carol’s actions based strictly on the Greatest Happiness Principle, Carol appears to have done the right thing.

Of course, there’s a problem.

Vulcan logic might work well for Mr.Spock, but when people in the real world use the Vulcan logic dictate that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (…or the one)”, things don’t always work out well.

The problem with utilitarian ethics is that utilitarian-based decisions are often based on speculation. Our actions are based on what we estimate will be the best outcome. Unfortunately, we know, despite our best guesses, that speculation is sometimes wrong.

How do we determine what “the needs” are, and more importantly, how can we definitively know what is the best solution for satisfying those needs?

The answer is we can’t.

The reason why is simple: we can’t know all things. That is, humans lack the ability to foresee all possible outcomes. So all the utilitarian is really stuck with is good intentions and a hope that things turn out for the best.

So, we can assume that we’re doing the right thing so long as out intentions are good, right? If Carol meant to do the right thing, she’s in the moral clear….. Right?


We might think that what matters (when we act) is that our intention is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but according to utilitarianism, intentions don’t matter. An act is morally permissible if the act actually produces the greatest good for the greatest number. You might be driven by the best of intentions, but if your actions fail to produce real world good outcomes or makes the situation worse, you’ve done something wrong.

Carol did something wrong.

Listen, there’s no denying that Carol’s argument is appealing. She meant well and she did what she thought was the best thing to do. It’d be tough to argue that anyone shouldn’t do what they think is best. And several killings on The Walking Dead  were committed (justified) in the interest of the Greatest Happiness Principle (Otis, Dave, Tony, Randall, Shane, Big Tiny, Tomas, Andrew, and Hershel’s leg). However, Rick concludes Carol’s utilitarian-based argument doesn’t hold.*

Of course, as Rick surely must have been thinking to himself, the problem with Carol’s argument is that her rationalization for killing the infected is based on speculation. Carol perceived the pair as an immediate threat and determined that the only way to deal with the immediate threat was to kill whoever was infected with the flu. Rick counters Carol’s argument, stating that there was a chance, however small, that the two might have recovered from their illness. We know that even the most virulent strain of flu (like the 1918 Spanish influenza upon which The Walking Dead flu is based) is not 100 percent fatal.


what ever you do. do. not. cough.


Utilitarian ethics tells us that if there is another, equally acceptable or better solution, we are obligated to either consider other options or not act as we had intended. In short, if there was a chance that the pair might not have died, Carol was morally obligated to NOT kill them.

Carol’s miscalculated utilitarian ethics led her to commit an act that ultimately was not only morally wrong, but showed that Carol was liable to act without fully considering other possible outcomes. Carol went for the immediate, not best solution. Carol’s impulsive act made her a threat to the (overall) safety of the group. This is why Rick is perfectly justified when he kicks Carol out of the group.

By removing Carol from the group, Rick did the greatest good for the greatest number.


Oops. Carol's bad.

Oops. Carol’s bad.


Carol argues that she was trying to save the group, but ultimately her effort did not work. Other people were infected with the flu and died. AND to make matters much worse for Carol, Tyreese, the boyfriend of one of Carol’s victims, has pledged to kill whoever killed his girlfriend.

Carol not only failed to save anyone, but by killing people, she put her own life in double jeopardy if the flu doesn’t kill her, Tyreese will.


Carol isn’t a well-intentioned hero. She’s nothing more than a common murderer.


let’s not forget that because of her actions Carol was kicked out of the group and left to fend for herself in a world populated by smelly, rotting, people-chomping, mindless bags of flesh.







* I speculate that Carol’s reasoning might have been more on the side of rule utilitarianism that simple utilitarianism (or act utilitarianism).  I think Carol might have followed a rule utilitarian position as described by JCC Smart:

“generally, he argues consequences are not relevant at all when we are deciding what to do in a particular case. In general, they are relevant only in deciding what rules are good reasons for acting in a certain way in particular cases”

Carol might have believed that in any circumstance where there is an immediate threat to the group, one must eliminate the threat (the rule). However, as a rule utilitarian, she might have not actually acted on her principle until this particular set of circumstances.





John Stuart Mill. “Utilitarianism”. 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. 571

Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 5th edition. Ed. Louis P. Pojman. (Wadsworth) 2007. p. 208.

Living the Good Life: On the Pursuit of Happiness, Fame, Fortune, and the Philosophical Necessity of Twerking

Miley Cyrus.

There. I said it.

Nowadays, if someone even whispers the word “twerking”, she’s the first (and often only) name that comes to mind.


I guess it’s up to you whether you want to tack a “fortunately” or “unfortunately” on that fact. For the record, when I think about twerking I think about this:

I’m not going to say anything about whether it is a good career move to officially shed one’s child star image by shaking one’s rear end in public places, but what I will say is that I can’t watch more than five minutes of TMZ Live without hearing the words “Miley”, and “Cyrus”, and “twerking”.

I’ve heard the word Syria on TV fewer times than I’ve heard the word “twerking” all month.

I gotta say that as much as I enjoy watching people twerk, I’m not a Miley Cyrus fan.

Luckily, for everything one can grow to dislike as much as one hates paper cuts or tequila-induced hangovers, there’s a philosophical something hidden in it somewhere.

They say that all of Miley Cyrus’ twerking antics isn’t about being inappropriate, but is about her want to reclaim the childhood that she lost while she was the star of the Disney series Hannah Montana®. It seems that Miley Cyrus has decided, now that she has the opportunity, to act the manner she wasn’t permitted to act when she was at the age when young people typically behave in a manner that we would call “acting out”.

In Miley Cyrus’ case, her “acting out” includes smoking weed and hanging out with “Molly”.





It seems that what’s really at the heart of Miley Cyrus’ behavior is that Miley, like so many of us, is trying to live the good life – the kind of life that makes one happy.

And when you talk about stuff like the good life and happiness, you’re talking philosophy.

Philosophers, from Socrates to Mill, have written about what kind of life constitutes the good life. Socrates wrote (actually, Plato wrote) that the good life is a life of philosophical contemplation. For Aristotle, the good life meant that one lives virtuously. John Stuart Mill says that once we’ve acquired a preference for higher pleasures (instead of lower pleasures) we are well on our way to living not only a good life, but a happy life. Mill writes that lower pleasures (e.g. sexual promiscuity, intemperance, gluttonous consumption of food and twerking) are merely physically satisfying and can’t make us happy. Indulging in mere physical pleasures, Mill writes:

“a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do no regard anything as happiness which does not include their contemplation.”

Mill says that we should want to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig.
Unfortunately, though Socrates tells us that the best life is a life spent in philosophical contemplation, that’s not what society tells us is the good life. Two thousand years ago you could hire a philosopher (or a sophist, if you went that way) to teach you how to think. These days, the media not only tells us what the cultural zeitgeist is, the media tells us what to think about it.

The media tells us not only what’s important, what we should care about, but more importantly, what makes a good life. If you pay attention to the media long enough, you’ll soon be convinced that nothing matters more than being young, rich, famous, and beautiful.

And if you watch TMZ you’ll spend your day wondering what Lindsay Lohan is doing right now.

lindsay lohan tmz

What the media tells us is no matter how good we think our lives are, there are people out there (i.e. famous people) whose lives are marvelously better than ours. Not only are their lives better than ours, we should want to live the lives they lead. Their lives are the good life. After all, what could be more essential to living the good life than smoking salvia or twerking?

What can be more essential to living the good life than being famous?

So, when we watch the real-life downward-spiraling life of a Hollywood starlet or watch a fictional character whose life is nothing but a meaningless, black void, as long as they are either rich, famous, of good-looking, we can believe that their lives, despite all appearances, is good. Sure, a guy like Don Draper is a morally bankrupt, miserable, S.O.B., who lies not only to himself but to everyone else, but the fact that Don is moderately well-off and looks swell in a Brooks Brothers suit tells us that we need not worry about his philosophical well-being.

A guy like Don Draper is certain to live a good life and be happy.

I guess it has to do with pulling off a debonair look while smoking a cigarette.

don draper smoking


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily condemning Miley Cyrus, TMZ  or any other celebrity.

Well, maybe I am condemning TMZ.

Any philosopher, well, most, will tell you that the right amount of physical pleasure is a good thing. A proper philosophical soul knows how to satisfy our higher and lower pleasures. And really, when’s the last time you heard of a philosopher drowning in his own vomit?

Our problem is that when we look at the media, they tell us that a good – THE good life is a life devoted to lower pleasures. According to our culture, the life of celebrity is the quickest way to living a lower pleasure-filled life. He might not have known it when he said it, but Andy Warhol hit the nail when he said that everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.

As long as there’s reality television, everybody’s got a chance of getting famous on TV.

No doubt that being rich and famous is a good gig, but there are far too many examples of how fame and fortune has good reversing effect on people’s lives.

I mean, have you ever heard of the 27 club?

It’s not entirely wrong to appreciate the fact that the contemplative lifestyle requires longevity. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Gram Parsons, and Amy Winehouse all lived the culturally-approved good life, but they all died before their 28th birthday.
Aristotle lived to be 62.
Leibniz lived to 70.
Sartre died at 76.
Ayn Rand unfortunately lived to the ripe old age of 77.
Immanuel Kant lived to 80.
Heidegger died at 87.
Bertrand Russell nearly made it to the century mark. He died at age 97.

Noam Chomsky is 85 years old and counting…

Listen: A philosopher may be a dissatisfied Socrates, but living past the age of twenty seven might give us enough time to realize that satisfied piggery isn’t the best life to lead. Having fun is alright. We have an inalienable right to be happy (The Declaration of Independence says so), but we also should want to do more than have a good time or feel that knowing intimate details about the Kimye baby is more important than knowing details about the Chelsea Manning case. We should know that twerking or even reclaiming one’s lost childhood isn’t a bad thing, so long as we realize that some of the things we believe will make us happy or make our lives “good” are merely distractions; things that keep us from pursuing the kind of life that will make us truly happy – the philosophical life.

… But then again, it’s hard to argue that partying with Molly won’t make your life good, too.


John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. 2005 [1861]. NY: Barnes and Noble Books. pp. 12.

On The Philosophy of Catfishing


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

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

She was a catfish.

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

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

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

In short, a catfish is liar.

They lie sometimes about everything

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

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

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

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

I just prefer not to tell anyone anything about me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kant also states:

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

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


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

The catfish specializes in inauthentic relationships.

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

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

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

This, of course, raises and interesting philosophical question.

Is the anonymity of the internet actually better for relationships?

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

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

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

But is that always a bad thing?

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

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

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

Watch this clip and decide for yourself.


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

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

You can find Dr. Phil’s signs you’re possibly dealing with an online catfish at:



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

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

War and the Utilitarian dilemma

Once upon a time, I used to read the Bible. Reading the Bible is neither unusual nor a particularly special or significant act. Millions of people read the Bible.

The reason why I mentioned reading the Bible is this: As anyone who has ever thumbed through the Bible knows the Gospel of Matthew says this:

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matt. 24:6. NIV)

These says, I usually don’t read from, let alone quote from the Bible, except to make a point about something.

I swear this post actually has a point.

It’s been 15 months since the start of the confilct in Syria. The Arab Spring was supposed to bring liberty and democracy to the oppressed citizens of the Middle East, but instead of news stories of people enjoying the benefits of freedom and the lack of government oppression, I read stories about entire villages slaughtered and talk of a proxy war with Russia. This news has even an avowed apatheist like me reading my Bible.

So far, the conflict between Syrian rebels and government forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has taken over 10,000 lives (I’ve seen reports that the number of dead Syrians is over 14, 000), and recently reports have surfaced that children have been murdered, tortured, and used as human shields. Worse yet, there doesn’t seem to be an end to this confilct coming any time soon.

The world community has threatened sanctions against Syria, but is this really going to help? Will sanctions convince President al-Assad that he needs to step down? (Lets remember that Fidel Castro ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2011, and stepped down only when his health began to fail — not because U.S. sanctions forced him out of office. Castro once said,”I’m really happy to reach 80. I never expected it, not least having a neighbor – the greatest power in the world – trying to kill me every day.”) The world comunity has the option of removing the Syrian president by force, but is a military assault on Syria the most humane  or even the best way of removing a tyrannical dictator?

Obviously, something must be done to stop President al-Assad from harming the citizens of his country. But what should we do? Is it morally permissible to interveve in Syria’s conflict, and what, if anything, would be the morally correct thing to do?

What we have here is a utilitarian dilemma.

Utilitarian ethics, most notably associated with the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill, is the ethical theory that tells us an act is morally right or permissible if and only if the act produces the greatest happiness (or good) for the greatest number of people. On Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill wrote:

“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain.”
When a utilitarian asks whether an act is good or bad (or right or wrong) he is asking, “what consequence will follow from my act?”
So how should the global community bring about the greatest good in Syria?
If we suppose that emposing sanctions against the al-Assad regime will deter the government from engaging in acts against its citizens (thus maximizing the people’s happiness)– lets look at how sanctions have worked in the past. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Pakistan, and Libya have all had economic sanctions imposed in response to violations of human rights.  Iran, North Korea, and Cuba are still ruled by the established “dictatorship” to which the global community was opposed. But wait a minute: we know that Iraq and Libya are no longer under the rule of their dictators (Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi respectively). But neither was removed by way of sanctions. They were removed by force.
In 1993, the U.S. Catholic Conference stated:
“Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”  
The Catholic (and philosophical) doctrine of just war can be traced back to the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who both argued that war is necessary (and morally justified) if the intention is to prevent a greater evil.  It is obvious that the massacre of innocent men, women, and children counts as a great evil. And we would be morally justified in doing something — but is a military intervention in Syria the right thing to do?
This is why the answer might be no.
Anyone who has fiddled around at all with utilitarian ethics (and I’m pretty sure that’s all of us) has discovered that there is one, big problem with grounding the rightness or wrongness of our acts on what we think will happen — namely, we have no idea what will happen in the future. The problem with utilitarian ethics is that it is always speculative. We’ll never be certain of outcomes — no matter how well-intended our intentions are. And speaking of intentions, if the moral permissibility of an act is based on consequences (as opposed to duty or intentions) we can lie, cheat, manipulate, or use coersion so long as what we want is good outcomes. It’s not just that — utilitarian-based morals also allows us to mistreat or even kill other people if killing, torturing, damaging people, or violating human rights if doing so contributes to the happiness of the whole. In fact, philosophers have dozens of thought experiments explaining how utilitarian ethics screws people up.
If this isn’t bad enough, another problem with utilitarian ethics is that we just cannot properly calculate benefits and harms. We’ve all etiher heard of or experienced the effects of the “law of unintended consquences”. I’m certain that the Allies thought they were teaching Germany a lesson with the Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of WWI, but just as the Allies had calculated that punishing Germany was a good thing (i.e. they wanted to maximize the happiness for Europe and the rest of the world), they had also laid the groundwork for WWII. If we act, and the greater happiness (good) of others isn’t the consequence of our act, we’re morally on the hook for what we did.
By the way, did I mention that we’re required to think about everybody? John Stewart Mill wrote:

“The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not…(one’s) own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.”

But — how do we know for certain what the happiness of “that of all concerned” is? How do we know if we use force against President al-Assad that we’re not just causing more trouble in the long run? If we’re utilitatians we just cannot know.

Do the Dew… as long as your drink is smaller than 16 ounces..

It’s funny the things that can get a person thinking about how precious — or even precarious — we think our freedoms are.

This week, New York (City) Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced New York City’s proposed plan to ban sugary beverages over 16 ounces (or more than 25 calories per 8 ounces) in fast-food restaurants. This means next year, New York City residents might have to cross city lines to score a Big Gulp at the local 7-11. Mayor Bloomberg said high-sugar, high-calorie beverages need to be banned because, as we all know, Mountain Dew makes people fat.

I think we’d all agree that there is something going on with the waistlines of a not-insignificant number of Americans. Americans are getting fatter. As a portly American I can personally attest to the fact that Americans, as a nationality, are a chubby bunch of folks. But — as much as I agree that America does have weight issues, I’m not too certain that a wholesale ban on sugary soft drinks is the way to win America’s battle of the bulge. Here’s the reason why:

Americans love freedom.  That is, we love the idea that the word “freedom” represents: being unrestricted, self-determination, not being controlled by fate or necessity, liberty. Every American possesses the freedom or liberty do what one pleases — as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The idea that our liberty, the freedom to do what we choose, is infringed upon (especially when the infringing is by the government), is inherently unappealing to many Americans. The notion that the government would restrict the exercise of one’s unalienable liberties is seen by some as downright un-American. Of course, how unAmerican banning sugary drinks is depends on what philosopher you read.

Liberty, defined as the freedom to do as one pleases, is often divided into two types:

  1. freedom from
  2. freedom to

Liberty, as “freedom from” is defined as freedom from restraint or interference by law (e.g. the concept of “natural rights” — As Thomas Hobbes writes, “a free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do.”). Liberty, as “freedom to” is any right that we have the power to do, (e.g. freedom of speech or religion).

This is not the point I am trying to make.

The point that I am trying to make is that when we define freedom or liberty from a philosophical point to view (although some people argue that there is a distinction between the two, most people use them interchangably), we think that a being that possesses liberty is one that is autonomous, that is, free beings are self-legislating and directed by their (freely chosen) sense of reason or rationality. Philosophers such as the German philospher, Immanuel kant, argue that our rational choices are the result of of rationally-held beliefs. When we think in a clear, rational manner, Kant says, we will make ethically correct decisions. So what we choose to do, including what we choose to eat or drink, not only affects our health, but is also a moral decision as well. A person who chooses to drink a soda pop may be doing a bad thing to do healthwise — but he might also be doing a bad thing, period.

But, here’s the thing: if we see drinking sugary beverages as a moral choice in addition to a health choice, we run into the question concerning the role of government in legislating morality. The English philosopher John Locke wrote that governments are never successful when it comes to legislating morality (Locke famously wrote that forcing non-believers to go to church does no one any good). We might say that the ability to make our own rational choices outweighs any reason to curtail the availability of individuals to purchase high sugar, high calorie beverages. And Kant states any attempt to legislate on behalf of rational individuals is morally impermissible (as this denies said individuals the right to exercise their capacity to use their own rational judgment).

So at this point, we say that Bloomberg’s proposed soda ban is bad because the act of interfering with an individual’s ability to freely purchase a beverage of their choosing interferes with our ability to choose for ourselves. To respect an individual’s ability to choose, we must respect their choices, whether we find (the choices) objectionable or not.

We might be satisfied with a Kantian response to Bloomberg’s ban, but we have a problem: namely, governments have the right to restrict freedom — if the restriction is in the interest of preserving freedom. For example, murder is illegal. The government acknowledges that not allowing murder restricts some individuals, but making murder illegal also preserves the freedom of others (i.e. people who are not murdered). If banning sugary beverages serves the greater good, then a ban on sugary beverages may be justifed. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote

As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it… it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them. (63-7)

Mill says that when we believe that our actions affect no one but ourselves, we’re mistaken; our actions can reach far beyond ourselves. Proponents of the ban say that the costs of obesity outweigh an individual’s right to engage in behavior that results in higher medical costs for society at large. According to this argument, proponents of the ban aren’t overextending the reach of the Nanny State or vegan meannies who don’t want anyone to have any fun.  They are simply civic-minded citizens who are looking out for the whole and trying to to what is best for everyone.

….although that doesn’t explain why milkshakes and alcoholoc beverages are exempt.