My New Year’s Resolution…. I Guess.

2012 is over.

We’ve only been a few days into 2013 and I’ve discovered that the new year has revealed a new problem.

I can’t talk to people.

Actually, I’ve known this for years.

That’s not exactly right. Let me correct myself. I mean, I can speak my vocal cords work and whatnot. I can make sound and say words. It’s just that for the past few years I’ve spent so much time writing, talking about, and thinking of philosophy that when it comes to the act of simple chit chat, it’s a no-can-do for me.

All I talk about is, ugh! philosophy.

As a result, I think I’ve become the most boring person, ever.

When I speak people this is what happens:


And as a result of that, I’ve decided my New Year’s resolution. I’ve resolved to become an INTERESTING, DYNAMIC, NOT-SOCIALLY AWKWARD PERSON.

By the end of 2013, I’ve resolved to be less like me and more like this:



Yeah, I know. I’m a philosopher. Good luck with that.

However, as much as I truly desire to become as exciting as Diamond Dave in any conversation, I realize that I’ve got one big problem I can’t stop talking about philosophy. No, really. I can’t it’s like I have a compulsion a moral imperative that I do. You see, the (great) German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that if one has a talent like intelligence, judgment, or wit (regrettably a quality I lack) we are obligated to use that talent. It is our imperative to do so. Kant writes:

A third finds himself a talent which could, by means of some cultivation, make him in many respects a useful man but he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers indulgence in pleasure to troubling himself with broadening and improving his fortunate natural gifts… let him ask whether his maxim of neglecting his gifts… agrees also with what is called duty… But he cannot possibly will that this should become a universal law of nature or that it should be implanted in us by a natural instinct. For, as a rational being, he necessarily wills that all his faculties should be developed, inasmuch as they are given him and serve him for all sorts of purposes.

I guess my talent is talking about philosophy.

So you see, if I don’t go around telling people about philosophy, I’m totally violating Kant’s categorical imperative. And that means

Hey wait! Where are you going? I was just explaining how Kant says




Immanuel Kant. 1997 [1785]. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Lewis White Beck. 2nd Edition, Revised. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 39-40.

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.

Same-sex Chickens

If you ask me, I think people are entirely too focused on sex.

Philosophers are no exception. There’s an entire field of philosophy devoted to the study of human sexuality: it’s called philosophy of sexuality.  Philosophers of sexuality explore topics such as contraception, celibacy, marriage, adultery, casual sex, prostitution, homosexuality, masturbation, rape, sexual harassment, sadomasochism, pornography, bestiality, and pedophilia.

That’s quite a list.

Studying sexuality, philosophically or otherwise, wouldn’t be such a bad idea if not for the fact that people seem to be obsessed not with their own sex lives, but with what other people do behind closed doors.

… especially if the people those people are having sex with are the same sex.

Culturally speaking, we’re kind of hung up on homosexuals and homosexuality.

That could be because when some people think about gay people, they think of people like this:

Instead of this:

Just watch an episode of the 700 Club. You’d be smashed if you took a shot of tequila every time someone says the words “gay agenda”.

Pat Robertson wants you to buy a shitty chicken sandwich and waffle fries to prove you aren’t a part of the gay agenda

Although the term ‘homosexuality’ is fairly new (it was coined in the 19th century German psychologist, Karoly Maria Benkert), philosophers have written about the subject of sexuality and homosexuality since the ancient Greek philosophers, in works such as Plato’s Symposium and Plutarch’s Erotikos. In Plutarch’s work, “the noble lover of beauty engages in love” without regard for the gender of the lover of and the object of beauty. Contemporary philosophers have also participated in the discussion, adding to theories on human sexuality, including queer theory.

Every philosophy student knows that Plato was gay. But Plato wasn’t (or isn’t) the only well-known gay (or lesbian) philosopher. Sir Francis Bacon, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Claudia Card, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, are well-known gay (or lesbian) philosophers (Aristotle, Socrates, Erasmus, Zeno of Elea, Niccolo Machiavelli, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Voltaire, Arthur Schopenhauer, George Santayana, Simone de Beauvoir, and Henry David Thoreau are all suspected of being  gay or lesbian). It’s strange, given that gay and lesbian philosophers have been a part of philosophical thought, that philosophy hasn’t always been so gay friendly.

….Not that this is shocking, considering how the rest of the world and all of history has thought of homosexuality.

Historically, individuals accused of being gay or lesbian were regarded as socially dangerous and disruptive to the natural order. Religious and civil leaders thought homosexuality was so dangerous that sexual contact between individuals of the same gender was a crime punishable by death (or at the very least arrest and/or public humiliation).

I know I am using the word “was”. But I am well aware that in many parts of the world homosexuality (or even suspected homosexuality) is a crime punishable by torture, imprisonment, or death. Of course, when we make the claim that homosexuality is dangerous, we are assigning a moral judgment on a particular or general (set of) sexual act(s).

The judgment is that the act is either immoral, unnatural, or both.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and the biblical view on sex, sexual acts other than acts done for the purpose of procreation were not only immoral, but also unnatural, for any sexual act that did not result in procreation was an act done against the will of God.  Sex, according to Aquinas (and religion in general) is strictly male/female done only for the purpose of reproduction. One need only to look to the natural world for confirmation of naturalness of heterosexuality and the unnaturalness of homosexuality.

And since God made nature, obviously God intended to make all reproductive sex between male and female.

Aquinas says you can have all the gay sex you want… if this is how you want to spend eternity

This is totally off the topic, but the “look at what other animals do” was also used to justify treating women like inferior beings, owning slaves, and dominating other people in general.

Although Aquinas, St. Augustine (and theologians in general) argue that homosexual relations are immoral and every homosexual is doomed to an eternity of hellfire, ancient philosophers held a different point of view. In ancient Greece, homosexual acts between individuals were not only common but same-sex relations were immoral, only if the sex was between individuals of equal social stature. Citizens of ancient Greece were allowed to engage in homosexual activity, but only if one of the participants was in no danger of losing respect.

You see, the Greeks believed that in a sexual act, one person is dominant while the other is passive. To be passive would be to equate one’s self with the status of a woman, child, or slave.

The funny thing is, after the ancient Greeks, philosophers are pretty mum on the matter.

Well, not all of them.

Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand not only considered homosexuality immoral, but also wrote in her book The New Left  (1971), that homosexuals “hideous” and wanted “special privileges” from the government (a charge Rand made against the poor as well), but that  homosexuality, which Rand regarded as contradictory to natural sex roles, was

…so repulsive a set of premises from so loathsome a sense of life that an accurate commentary would require the kind of language I do not like to see in print.

BTW:  The prevailing philosophical view on sex tends to focus on the morality of sexuality and sex acts in general rather than specific views on heterosexuality or homosexuality. For instance, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant states that sexual desire is immoral in that sexual lust inevitably leads individuals to engage in all sorts of moral naughtiness. Moral naughtiness, including consensual sex between adults, Kant argues, is disruptive to civilization. According to Kant, sex is okay only if we do not violate the Categorical Imperative. Kant writes:

The sole condition on which we are free to make use of our sexual desires depends upon the right to dispose over the person as a whole – over the welfare and happiness and generally over all the circumstances of that person…each of them undertaking to surrender the whole of their person to the other with a complete right to disposal over it.

One can only suspect that Kant would find homosexual sex extremely dangerous.

Of course the argument that homosexuality is morally (or even physically) harmful to society was made before modern science demonstrated that homosexual behavior is common not only among humans, but in many animal species as well.

Evolutionary biologists theorize that homosexuality in humans is the result of mutually beneficial behavior; that engaging in non-procreative sexual behavior contributes to the overall stability, cohesion, and well-being of society (homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, may serve to enforce social bonds between individuals). Likewise, contemporary philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Michel Foucault (whose theory of postsexualism aimed to go beyond the assigned sexual boundaries in our culture), argued that our moral apprehensions with any sexuality were due to fear rather than an actual societal threat. Bertrand Russell writes:

Certain forms of sex which do not lead to children are at present punished by the criminal law: this is purely superstitious, since the matter is one which affects no one except the parties directly concerned…  Moral rules ought not to be such as to make instinctive happiness impossible.

Still… as a philosopher, I’d like to think that Bertrand Russell has the power to convince each of us that there’s absolutely nothing to fear when a couple of guys (or ladies) choose to have sex. But, I know no matter how well argued any philosopher puts his argument, we won’t be getting over our obsession with the gay agenda anytime soon.

You may now take a shot.

We Do Not Kill the Living… Except… : On the Shifting Morality of Rick Grimes on AMC’s The Walking Dead

If it’s not obvious by now, I’m obsessed with a fan of The Walking Dead.

Actually, I’m pretty much a fan of anything to do with zombies (one notable exception being George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead. Sorry. I love Romero’s movies but that one was just awful). So, if you want to invite me over for dinner and a movie, you’d better be sure that the movie has something to do with reanimated corpses and flesh eating.

Any fan or even non-fan of the show knows there’s a great deal of ballyhoo over AMC’s unlikely hit chronicling a small band of zombie plague survivors as they fight for survival amid the zombie apocalypse (aka ZA), and that the series has become the highest rated basic cable television show in TV history. And as sure as Trioxin 245 re-animates dead flesh, the show’s popularity has incited what can only be described as “haters”. If you think about it, it’s fairly easy to deride  a TV show that not only is based on the ridiculous premise of society being overrun by flesh eating revenants, but also plays out less like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and more like an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. However, for reasons that even the most enthusiastic The Walking Dead fan can’t quite explain, millions of television viewers tune in every week to see the high drama (and maybe a zombie kill or two), post-apocalyptic world of former sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes and his fellow ZA survivors.

Ok, there’s a good reason to think of The Walking Dead as nothing more than soap operatic or as a mere B-movie zombie flick delivered in weekly installments, but those who are philosophically inclined might have noticed amid the 3-way love triangles and Carl Grimes’ incessant annoyingness, something afoot going on  namely, that hidden within the throngs of shambling draugurs, The Walking Dead also gives its fans something philosophical to chew on.

One of those things is the shifting morality of former deputy sheriff Rick Grimes.

When we’re introduced to Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), a deputy sheriff from BFE, Georgia, in the series’ debut episode “Days Gone Bye”, Rick is initially presented as an honest, hard-working, small-town sheriff who sternly reminds a fellow (albeit inept) deputy to make sure the safety of his gun is off before getting shot by a fleeing robbery suspect. When we see Rick Grimes we should be thinking this:

This is Sheriff Andy Taylor as played by Andy Griffith on “The Andy Griffith show”.

Even though we’ve seen Rick on screen for barely five minutes, when his is shot and slips into a coma, we worry about him. We want him to make it through ok. When Rick awakens from his coma (after an unspecified amount of time) to find the world has been overrun by the living dead, we know that he will survive

Because after all, he is Rick Grimes.

As viewers, we like Rick Grimes. We like Rick because despite the fact that he has no idea what is happening around him, Rick  slips into badass mode and quickly assumes the role of the hero. Rick (barely fully recovered from emerging from a coma, mind you) helps Morgan Jones and his son Duane find a hot shower and load up on guns at the abandoned sheriff’s office. Next, Rick helps a group of survivors escape a department store in Atlanta, and even attempts to return back to the city to rescue a member of the group (the abrasive, sexist, homophobic, and racist Merle Dixon) who is chained to a pipe on the store’s roof and left behind. Although members of the group argue that Merle is not worth saving, Rick feels that it is his duty to return to the city to get Merle. Rick tells the others that no living being deserves to be chained to a roof and left to die. Rick’s absolutist morality dictates that he is obligated to save Merle Dixon, even if it means that his own life is on the line; even if he dies in the attempt, Rick feels that he must fulfill his duty to others despite the consequences.

At this point, Rick’s morality is deontological. That is, Rick Grimes is following the moral principles of Deontological Ethics. Deontological ethics, most notably associated with the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), is the ethical theory that holds that the morality of an action is judged according to one’s adherence to universally binding rules, duties or obligations to oneself and others. For the deontologist, the consequences of an act do not matter as much as the intentions behind an act. Kant wrote:

Do what is right, though the world may perish

Rick’s uniform symbolizes law and order; an absolutist (deontological) morality. And it is clear that Rick, who sports his sheriffs’ uniform well into season 2*, is strongly rooted in a clear sense of right and wrong. He does what is right despite the fact that the world has ended. Rick’s strong and unwavering sense of right and wrong suggests that according to Rick’s Kantian ethics, neglecting his duty to save others is morally wrong even if the person he‘s saving is a morally reprehensible sexist, racist, homophobe.

Kant states that we act from a good will when we follow the Categorical Imperative. The categorical imperative consists of two primary formulations:

Formulation One: Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.

Formulation Two: Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

Rick sees Merle as an end in himself, a person who, despite his flaws, deserves to be treated in a humane way.

We know that Rick Grimes is not only a man who acts in an ethically correct manner, he’s a Good  (capital G) man. Rick believes that it is wrong to leave Merle Dixon chained and abandoned on a rooftop. When Rick tells his wife Lori about the generous acts of Morgan Jones and his son Duane, he explains to her that he is obligated to repay their act of generosity through doing good for others. And when a fellow survivor (Jim) is bitten by a zombie, Rick clearly lays down a deontologically-inspired universal edict when he tells the others who want to kill Jim before he dies and turns into one of the undead, “we do not kill the living!”

It’s worth noting Rick says it while holding a gun to a man’s head.

And even when Rick is re-killing the dead, he does so with a sense of compassion.

Rick Grimes is such a good guy, he apologizes to this zombie before he shoots her in the head.

From all appearances, Rick Grimes is a zombie slaying, Kantian badass but there’s a problem he doesn’t stay that way.

…it all has something to do with a guy named Shane Walsh.

Shane Walsh (played by Jon Bernthal), Rick’s former partner and wife stealer best friend, operates by a different set of ethics. Although Rick Grimes and Shane Walsh are partners in upholding the law as sworn sheriff’s deputies, it’s clear that their moral compasses are pointed in different directions. Unlike Rick, whose morality is deeply rooted in deontological obligations and duty, Shane’s morality rests on a different standard of right and wrong: consequences. Shane’s morality does not ask what is my moral obligation to others. But instead Shane’s morality asks, what do I have to do to stay alive?  And more often than not, the answer to Shane’s moral question is whatever it takes, by any means necessary. Shane’s ethics are pragmatic; in that Shane, as pragmatic philosophers suggest, determines what actions are morally correct based on whether an action works.

So, when Shane beats the ever-loving crap out of Ed Peletier, the abusive husband of Carol Peletier (while threatening to beat Ed to death, even though Ed posed no danger to Shane), Shane justifies his actions by believing that beating Ed contributes to group cohesion. When Shane breaks the lock on Hershel’s barn and re-kills all the zombies inside, he is doing it, not to crush Hershel’s hope of finding a zombie cure, but to save the group from danger. When Shane shoots Otis, repeatedly challenges Rick’s authority and leadership abilities, breaks the prisoner Randall’s neck, or even justifies his adulterous relationship with Rick’s wife Lori, Shane reasons, although he might not have done the popular thing (aka right thing to do), that his actions were ultimately justified in that what he did produced positive results.*

Shane Walsh solves his moral dilemmas like this:

… and like this

… and like this

… and like this

… and like this

* I suppose it can be argued that Shane Walsh’s ethics are not so much pragmatic as he is an act utilitarian. Either theory works.

Although Rick initially rejects Shane’s necessary evil in an evil world-based morality. Rick’s deontological ethical standpoint does not hold up for long (at least not past season 2). Rick Grimes is forced to kill Shane after Shane plots to kill Rick in an attempt to steal Lori and Carl from his former partner.

Shane eventually ends up like this:

I’m thinking Shane was really regretting trying to kill Rick.

Although by killing Shane, Rick is free to resume his deontological ethical ways, he does not. Instead of sticking to his Kantian guns, Rick assumes Shane’s pragmatic/act utilitarian ethical view. Rick’s new morality, which is pragmatic at best (ambiguous at worst) reflects the new world A world without distinctions. A world of contradictions, where beings are alive and dead and one must do whatever it takes to survive.

When Rick puts away his badge at Hershel’s farm, it signals that Rick has abandoned his absolutist morality. And by mid-second season, Rick violates his universal declaration that we do not kill the living when he shoots and kills two living men in a bar (by season 3, Rick’s kill count is up to five). When Rick kills Shane, we not only realize that Rick has put aside his own morality, but we realize that the kind of absolutist morality of Immanuel Kant belongs in the old world where absolutes like good and bad, right and wrong, and living and dead exist. In a world filled with the undead, absolutes no longer apply.

By the end of season 2, Rick Grimes is a morally changed man. He is no longer willing to adhere to the rules of the former world. Rick will do whatever it takes and by any means necessary to survive, even if doing so means that he has to (intentionally) hurt others to do so.

As The Walking Dead continues, we will see how the shifting morality of Rick Grimes plays out. Rick’s group of survivors has yet to encounter morally challenged Governor of Woodbury. And Rick’s mental breakdown following the death of his wife most assuredly will affect his moral position in future episodes. Although we’re only halfway through season 3, I have the feeling that in the future, Rick Grimes is going to be solving most of his problems like this:


On Honey Boo Boo and the ethics of self exploitation

I’ve noticed a few things lately. I’ve noticed that scripted television isn’t around much anymore. I think there are still writers out there (or did I miss something? Are professional television writers banned?). Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but none seem to be busy writing for prime time TV.

I have noticed that there are a whole lot of “reality TV” shows flooding my Time Warner cable.

I’m not necessarily complaining about reality TV. I actually like some of these shows. I admit I can’t do without my RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, Chopped, Face-Off, or My Cat From Hell. Although I enjoy watching the overly dramatic (and thoroughly edited) lives of reality TV stars and their shows, I’ve noticed that despite the tremendous entertainment value of reality TV, the genre has been the object of an equal amount of criticism. As of late, the criticism seems to be focused on one reality TV show in particular.

This one:

This is the cast of The Learning Channel’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or just somewhere where there is life beyond television), Here Comes Honey Boo Boo follows the lives and antics of seven-year old pageant kid, Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, her parents, June “Mama” Shannon and Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson, and Alana’s three older sisters, Anna (aka “Chickadee”), Jessica (aka “Chubbs”), and Lauryn (aka “Pumpkin”), while giving the rest of America a glimpse into life in rural McIntyre, Georgia.

Might I add that the family recently added Baby Kaitlyn, the daughter of Alana’s eldest sister Anna.

…And for a while the family owned a pig named “Glitzy”.

Now, on the surface, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is no different from its watching-real-people-as-entertainment predecessors. PBS’ An American Family, which aired in the 1970s, established the tradition of broadcasting one’s private tribulations for the world to see (I think one can clearly mark the start of the decline of reality television from the moment PBS aired Pat Loud asking her husband Bill for a divorce). The problem with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, some say, has to do with the fact that the Family Boo Boo has done something one might have thought was impossible to do in reality television: show has actually crossed the line of good taste. A critique of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in The Hollywood Reporter read:

“You know this show is exploitation. TLC knows it. Maybe even Mama and HBB know it, deep down in their rotund bodies. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a car crash, and everybody rubber-necks at a car crash, right? It’s human nature. Yes, except that if you play that card, you also have to realize that human nature comes with the capacity to draw a line, to hold fast against the dehumanization and incremental tearing down of the social fabric … “

The Hollywood Reporter called the show “horrifying”.

The Guardian wrote:

“none of the women or girls who participate in the show seems to hate themselves for their poverty, their weight, their less-than-urbane lifestyle, or the ways in which they diverge from the socially-acceptable beauty standard.”

In addition, The Guardian accused TLC of  portraying Honey Boo Boo and her family as something to “point and snicker at”.

But what exactly are we pointing and snickering at? As much as we might want to keep the reality of rural America a secret, the Thompson/Shannon family is no different from many families in the U.S. Thirty-seven percent of Americans live in the South. At last count, a clear majority of the American public (like Honey Boo Boo’s family) is overweight. And like June Shannon’s family, many American families include children fathered by different men.

So what’s the problem?

If The Guardian is correct and TLC is offering Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as something to “point and snicker at”, then we should consider what exactly the network is up to in airing the series. If the show is on merely for the purpose of laughing at the Thompson/Shannon family, we may have an ethical problem on our hands. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (via the Second Formulation of his Categorical Imperative) argues that we are not to use others as mere means to our ends. Kant writes:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” — Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

This means, if we want something (e.g. we want to be entertained) we must make sure that no one is exploited by our act. THAT means if we watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo for the sole purpose of laughing at Honey Boo Boo and her family, we are using them as mere means to our ends. There are other, less harmful ways we can be entertained (like reading philosophy). And our entertainment should not come at the of the degradation of others.

But is the TV show truly exploitive? Well, lets start by asking what is truly exploitive about the show? We know that low-income, not-too-educated, rural, self-professed “rednecks” exist — whether they are on TV or not — and Alana Thompson’s parents were entering their daughter into kiddie pageants long before the show aired. Watching a family like Honey Boo Boo’s isn’t necessarily exploitive, even if we are entertained by what we see.

It is possible that some people are watching the show for educational reasons.

Hey — It’s possible!!!

I guess we’re left to ask, does the fact that a camera is present automatically mean that anyone is being exploited?

Watch it and make the call for yourself:


* it is worth noting that The Learning Channel (TLC) was created as a joint project between NASA and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, in 1972, for the purpose of providing “real education” via television. So, the claim that one is watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo for its educative value is not so far-fetched as it seems.

On the Question of So-Called Superchimps, Their Place in our Moral Universe, and What Their Inclusion Means For the Average Idiot

I have a dog. I care about my dog. I care about my dog’s well being. I want him to be safe from moving cars or tainted dog food. I want others to be nice to my dog and respect my dog’s “right” to live a full, fun-filled dog life. My sentiment is not uncommon or even discouraged among pet owners. If asked, most pet owners would say that they care for their pets. They care about whether their pets have enough food to eat, or whether they are kept warm at night or safe from harm. But why is this so? Why do we value our pets so dearly?

The answer is because we include our pets in our moral sphere, that is, our pets are morally considerable. But, if we say that our pets are morally considerable, what do we mean when we say that something counts morally? What criteria do we use to determine who is in and who is out of our moral universe?

We say that something has “moral status” if that thing ( or being ) counts for us morally. That is, we owe certain moral obligations to certain, other beings. Status is most often defined in terms of  moral agents and moral patients. Individuals who possess rational autonomy and are self-legislating are moral agents. Moral patients are those individuals who lack, either by age, physical or mental condition, etc, the ability to self-legislate or rational autonomy are moral patients. For example, a year-old child lacks the ability to engage in rational, self-legislating behavior. The child is a moral patient. The child’s parent, if the parent is autonomous and self-legislating, is the moral agent who must act to the benefit of the child. An individual is in our moral sphere only if we grant the individual moral consider ability.

But, the act of considering an individual’s moral status relies on an important supposition: The act of considering the effects of our actions upon others indicates that those individuals that we take into account are already included  in our moral sphere. So, if moral considerability indicates that others are in our moral sphere, then we must ask, how do we include others in our sphere? That is, what are the criteria for the inclusion of other beings?

The West’s traditional view of moral status is grounded in the biblical texts of the Old Testament and Aristotle‘s hierarchy concerning nature and the natural order. The book of Genesis clearly states the relationship between man and animals:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and

let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the

air , and over the cattle, and all over the earth, and over every creeping

thing that creeps upon the earth”. (Genesis 1:26. Emphasis added).

The traditional biblical view holds that man, as a being created in God’s image, is given the earth to rule as he sees fit. The fact that animals are not made in God’s image  discharges any human from any moral obligation to the welfare of animals. According to the biblical view, the lack of any ability to morally wrong any animal means that animals are not morally considerable.  Aristotle brought the hierarchy to nature (and the natural order of things) which placed humans, more specifically free human males, at the top of the “natural” hierarchy. Aristotle wrote that man’s power of reasoning endowed him with natural superiority (and a soul). The way of nature, in Aristotle’s view, naturally places superior beings in positions of authority over inferior beings. In other words, if a rational soul is a superior trait, then it is the way of nature for animals who possess this trait to rule over animals that do not possess the same superior trait. Aristotle stated that animals, by contrast, are governed by their passions or instincts. Aristotle wrote that man’s rational soul ruled over his passions, and that this trait indicates that man’s natural place is to rule over animals. Aristotle reflects the traditional view in that inferior animals are “natural slaves” that are benefited by serving the interests of superior animals. Aristotle writes,

“…the other animals exist for the sake of man, and tame for use and food, the wild, if not all, at least the greater part of them for food…”

Descartes continued the traditional view of moral status. Descartes wrote that animals are mere “machines” meant to serve the need of their human masters. Although Descartes maintains the traditional view that man’s intellect confers superior status, Descartes gives an additional criteria for man’s moral superiority to animals. For Descartes, the capacity for speech is indicative of an individual’s intellectual capacity. The fact that animals possess no capacity for speech (at least no speech that humans can understand), animals cannot “… use speech… as we do when placing our thoughts on record for the benefit of others.”

It is important to stop at this point to clear up an immediate objection to Descartes’ speech criteria.  If Descartes means to state that any being that lacks the capacity to express their thoughts in speech also lacks the capacity to think, one might put forth that Descartes is excluding humans who are mentally or physically challenged from the moral sphere. Humans who cannot speak due to physical or mental impairments, if Descartes’ criteria is used to define moral status, may be reduced to the status of “brutes” or animals.  Descartes, however, explains that his speech criteria does not exclude the mentally or physically disabled, on the grounds that individuals who lack verbal speech often find other ways to communicate their thoughts to others. For instance,  person who is born mute may learn to communicate through sign language. A person who is mentally handicapped may learn to express themselves, despite the fact that they lack the ability to communicate verbally. Descartes states that a disabled individual may have a diminished intellectual capacity, but is not excluded from the moral sphere due to the fact that humans who are intellectually “inferior“  possess some capacity for self expression. An animal, on the other hand, not only lacks a minimal capacity for rational thought, but lacks any capacity for rationality at all.
Although Descartes explains that his speech criteria will not exclude humans (including the mentally and physically disabled) from the moral sphere, Descartes’ explanation fails to recognize the fact the speech criteria may indeed reduce some humans to the status of mere “brutes”. Some humans do lack any capacity for speech, such as profoundly retarded individuals or the comatose. In addition, some animals have acquired the capacity to express their thoughts through non-verbal human languages such as American sign language. And, if the traditional hierarchical view places a rational soul at the top of the natural order, the fact that some animals possess a capacity for rational thought leads us to question whether an animal that possesses the capacity for rational thought may assume a higher position in the natural hierarchy. An animal that possesses a rational soul may disrupt man’s assumed position at the top of the natural hierarchy. A human who lacks the capacity for rational thought, such as the mentally challenged or the comatose, may be relegated to the status of animals and excluded from the moral sphere.

As humans, we feel reluctant (intuitively) to exclude people who we feel not only merit moral consideration, but also fit into the moral sphere. We feel that it is wrong to exclude any human from moral consideration on the basis that a person lacks the capacity to articulate their thoughts. We feel that despite their physical or mental handicap, a human mentally or physically disabled human is still a human, and that their humanness demands moral considerability and inclusion in the moral sphere. But, what about an animal who, despite a mere physical or mental difference from other rational beings, possesses human-like qualities, such as rationality and the ability to articulate its thoughts through language?  Is there a criteria for moral status that will allow us to include both rational animals and marginal cases? I believe that the answer is yes. I hold that Kant’s criteria for moral status allows us to include rational animals, but more importantly, Kant’s moral status criteria allows us to preserve marginal cases for moral consideration in the moral sphere.

It is  possible that nature may produce a chimpanzee with cognitive abilities that exceed the capacities of the average human. The fact that this “super chimp” ( let’s call him “Arthur Crackpot”), surpasses the intellectual capacity of the average human cannot be ignored, nor can it be dismissed as a mere aberration. It would not be difficult to imagine that Arthur Crackpot or any chimpanzee that possesses a high capacity for rational thought would not hesitate to articulate its thoughts or express what it considered to be its own interests. We can be most certain that Arthur Crackpot and any other “super chimp” would demand immediate inclusion into our moral sphere. The fact that the animal can do so forces us to deal with it in a manner that does not conform to the traditional biblical, natural hierarchy, nor can we treat the animal as a mere machine that is fit to serve man’s needs. So, if the difference between man and animals — primates in particular — is trivial, and a naturally occurring “super chimp’ is not outside the realm of possibility, then the mere fact that man and animal are different species is not a morally relevant difference to account for the exclusion of animals from the moral consideration or the moral sphere.

If we grant moral consideration of smarter animals, and we include Arthur Crackpot and other “super chimps” in our moral sphere because they rank higher on the hierarchical scale, then, if we are to be consistent, we must exclude certain marginal case humans who possess intellectual capacities far below the capacities of other animals. But, as I said before, this sounds intuitively wrong. We should not exclude humans simply because they lack the ability to articulate their thoughts or the capacity for rational thought. So, what perspective allows us to include both “super chimps” and marginal cases? I believe that the Kantian approach to moral agency allows us to  not only extend moral consideration  and inclusion of animals such as Arthur Crackpot, but the Kantian approach also allows us to keep marginal case humans in the moral sphere.

Kant states that rational beings must be treated as ends in themselves. That is, beings that possess the ability for rational thought cannot be used as a mere means to another person’s ends. Rational beings, according to Kant, are self-legislating and autonomous. The fact that rational beings possess an autonomous and self-legislating will grants them moral agency. Moral agents are not only morally accountable for their own actions, but are also morally obligated to moral patients. For Kant, rationality is not a matter of degree, but a characteristic that is all-or-nothing. Beings are either rational or they are not rational. Although Kant’s criteria seems to push us once again towards the hierarchy, the concept of moral patients pushes us away from excluding rational animals and irrational people.

Kant states that man’s duty to animals is indirect, in that our duties to animals are limited to treating them in a non-abusive manner, but Kant also states that our treatment of animals reflects how we are likely to treat other humans. Although we consider our treatment of animals from the Kantian perspective, we only consider their welfare from our own perspective — we do not want to cultivate abusive personalities in people who might harm their fellow man. This approach gets us away from the hierarchy it seems, but perhaps not very far. But, let us remember, Kant states that his criteria for our moral obligation is rationality.  More importantly, Kant does not specify a degree of rationality that qualifies a being for admission in our moral sphere. For Kant, rationality is all or nothing. So, from this perspective, an animal that possesses a minimal degree of rationality is included in the moral sphere. So, one might say this criteria requires that a “super chimp” like Arthur Crackpot, who possesses a level of rationality rival to that of a human must also be regarded as a human moral agent.

If Arthur commit’s a moral transgression, he must be held accountable for his actions. So, for instance, if Arthur kills a human, he could be held accountable for his actions not only morally but legally as well. But this is not correct. For Kant, having moral agency does not necessarily follow from having rationality. There are minimally rational people who cannot be moral agents. These individuals are moral patients. Moral patients are included in the moral sphere insofar as their interests are the subject of moral consideration, but are excluded, in a sense, from a moral obligation to other moral agents. On the other hand, moral agents are morally obligated to moral patients.  It is clear that the concept of holding a trial for a chimpanzee is ridiculous (not to mention next to impossible to find a jury of Arthur’s peers). A chimpanzee, no matter how rational it may be, should not be held accountable for his actions in the same way that a human is held accountable for her actions. Like a child, an animal that possesses a minimal degree of rationality may  be incapable of comprehending the moral ramifications of his actions. If an animal is like a child or an other moral patient, we are obligated to consider the welfare of that being. Likewise, if a human possesses a minimal degree of rationality, we are obligated to consider the welfare of that person. And, the fact that we have taken these individuals into our moral consideration signifies that both some animals and marginal case humans possess moral status in our moral universe.

The traditional, biblical, and Cartesian perspectives on moral status and moral considerability fail to enable to include animals who should be granted moral status. Even more detrimental to these perspectives is the fact that adherence to these perspectives forces us to remove humans as well.  Kant’s rationality criteria allows us to include rational animals like “Arthur Crackpot” in the moral sphere without excluding human marginal cases. The concept of moral patients and moral agency allows us to include individuals that may not be fully rational in the sense that they are capable of moral responsibility, but rational to the degree that they count in the moral sphere. Kant’s approach — though it is not perfect — is the best perspective we have to determine moral considerability, moral status and the inclusion of human marginal cases in the moral sphere.

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.