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.

A hickie from Kenickie

I used to be a fan of Dr. Drew Pinsky. I used to listen to him on Loveline. That was back when Adam Corolla was the co-host (or was he the host?). That was years ago. Nowadays, Dr. Drew’ got a TV show. Well, actually he has a few of them. He’s got Dr. Drew’s Lifechangers, which, if I was asked to describe it, I would say that it’s a smash up of an episode of the Jerry Springer Show and a counseling session with a high school guidance counselor. You know, that one. There’s Dr. Drew’s basic cable TV show (I guess that’s for the high-brow, well-informed, politically active demographic… but then it does follow the Nancy Grace show). And then, there’s VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab.

A better name for this “TV show” would have been The Marginally Famous Bottom of the Barrel Variety Hour.

I know, I’m hatin’.

The thing that gets me about this show is the fact that a) it’s on TV, and b) I was under the impression that proper rehabilitation requires, what is that thing called — anonymity. Ok, I realize that famous people need to be famous, even when they are systematically destroying their lives and the lives of their family and friends with their chronic drug use. And the show never said it was an AA meeting. These things are almost forgivable. What’s not forgivable, however, is the fact that no one on the show ever seems to get sober. Former Guns N Roses drummer Steven Adler and famous for being his daughter’s father, also known as Michael Lohan, are series regulars. I looked up Dr. Drew’s celebrity rehab success rate (because I’m curious about stuff like that) and the show’s FAILURE rate is 76%. Worse yet, three celebrity rehabers have died.

Alright, so far, they say that Rodney King (may have) drowned.

That can’t be a good thing.

I know that I posted some time ago about The Bad Girl’s Club and the fact that I could not (I still can’t) find a reason to justify this show existing. But, what Dr. Drew is doing is a worser kind of philosophical crime. You see, he thinks that he means well and that he is performing a public service. If the audience can see how drugs screw up the lives of people who have everything (fame, fortune, etc.), we can see that drugs are bad for everybody.

Jeff Conaway went from looking like this

to this

If this is what Dr. Drew’s intention is, then his intentions are good. But what about the “celebrites” on the show? Their (the “celebrities” on the show) intention (I’m assuming here) is to get sober. If Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab failure rate is above average, then perhaps what his celebrity clients need isn’t to be on TV but to get effective treatment. If we think about Dr. Drew’s show philosophically we have a fairly strong Kantian justification for disapproving of the show — no matter what intention Dr. Drew claims that his show serves.

Television, at its heart, is meant to entertain. And we, the audience enjoy a good show. We enjoy watching the “celebrity” rehabers at their worst. And really, the entertainment happens when they screw up. We eagerly await the relapses. We want these people to fail so we can see them back again next season.

And with Steven Adler that’s almost a 100% guarantee.

But, if we are watching for mere entertainment, aren’t we just using these “celebrities” as mere means to our ends? We want to be entertained; not to help. We aren’t watching to see that drugs are bad; our watching is purely exploitive. We watch to laugh, to ridicule, and for the pleasure of saying “I’m not surprised” when one of them dies.

I realize that the TV is there to entertain, but really, is Dr.Drew’s kind of entertainment really what I (or we) need to see?


Moral questions, ambiguous answers

There’s something funny about morals. Even though we all agree that there is a right and a wrong (at least most of us agree that there is a right and a wrong), no one is really all that sure exactly what right and wrong is. Philosophers have made a good game out of  talking and thinking and thinking some more about matters of morality and ethics, but for all these centuries of talking and thinking even the most learned minds can’t definitively tell us what to do and what not to do.

The lack of a definitive answer has become a problem.

You don’t have to be a student of philosophy to know of or practice a philosophical school of ethics; utilitarianism, deontological ethics, divine command theory, ethical relativism, ethical egoism, and so on. If I had to make a wager, I’d bet that most people are utilitarians. That is, most people, even if they don’t know it, think that our moral choices should have something to do with the common good. I think this is the way that most people are designed; that humans have some sort of innate want to see to it that others are cared for, even if that means that we will do without. Our need to act in the interest of the common good is why we have public schools, welfare, social security, and fire departments. Most people would say these are good things…. most people.

That’s our problem. Even though we’d like to say that utilitarianism is the right moral theory, we can only say that it applies to most people. Followers of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism would certainly object to the utilitarian obligation to increase the happiness of others, and state that the utilitarian Greatest Happiness Principle  is not only morally objectionable but downright evil. Even utilitarians can’t agree on what the common good is. Is every person entitled to free medical care or a minimum wage? Should we tax the rich to pay for the poor? Is that fair? Is it really serving the common good? Is it right to make others suffer to provide for others? What about torture? War? The death penalty?

Ethical relativists, Kantians, and even followers of divine command theory would even agree that facilitating the common good is not always a good thing. Still, every moral theory commands that I do the right thing.

So, what do I do? Should I pursue the common good? Should I pursue my own rational interests as Ayn Rand commands? Should I do only what God tells me to do? I don’t know. But as I see a world full of suffering I realize that cannot spend time thinking about what to do.

And it seems my philosophy hasn’t gotten me any closer to finding an answer.



This Egoist Is No Fan of Ayn Rand

      Some time ago, I wrote blog post called “What Is Kantian Egoism?”. Although the concept of egoism was clear to me, I soon realized that others had other ideas in mind, namely, an idea that, from 1905 to 1982, was known as Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982), the Russian-born author/philosopher, most known as the founder of Objectivism and the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, is often associated with egoism and it’s ethic of rational self-interest. For those unfamiliar with Ayn Rand’s sentiments on rational self interest, Rand wrote this:

“Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles. This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness.”

Although egoism is most associated with Ayn Rand, Rand is not the first to espouse the virtues of egoism. The German philosopher Max Stirner (1806-1856)   said that it is irrational not to act in one’s own interest. Pursuing one’s own interest is a part of our self-realization. According to Stirner, egoism isn’t necessarily about getting the immediate pleasure or good. That’s why interests are called rationalself interests, we think before we act. And for the egoist, an act is morally permissible if and only if the act produces the greatest good for the agent — even if we have to wait awhile to get what we want.

Now, I can explain that egoism simply means acting in a way that is beneficial to me and my interests, but no matter how many times I omit the words “Ayn” and “Rand” from my description, the first question I inevitably hear is “Oh, so you like Ayn Rand?” For the record, my answer to that question is and shall be no. I am not a fan of Ayn Rand. I freely admit that I harbor more than a few kooky ideas — but none of my ideas includes the sentiment “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”

For the record, Ayn Rand’s ideas did.

As an egoist, I admit I just don’t understand Ayn Rand. Sure, we’d all like to think of selfishness as a virtue. And really, how many of us has been accosted by a particularly aggressive panhandler and wished that said “moocher” would go away; or rather, that we could find a place to live that’s moocher free? Those sentiments are easy to understand but they’re often difficult to live by. As much as we’d like to live for no one but ourselves and our own rational self interest, there’s a big world out there filled with people that, moochers or not, we have to interact with. An egoist, if he’s smart enough, will figure out that the world is just too big — and the romantic ideals of (completely) self-made, self-sufficient men like Howard Roark and John Galt work better on the page or the silver screen than in reality.

If you don’t believe that’s so, remember this: Ayn Rand died on Social Security.

Zombies and Matters of Pragmatism

Funny thing about zombies…

The zombie film, most associated with George A. Romero’s flesh eating ghouls first depicted in Night of the Living Dead (1968), isn’t supposed to be something that one thinks about — that is to say, when one watches a zombie flick, one’s attention would not be focused on analyzing complex philosophical issues or concepts. Certainly with the standard zombie fare represented by notable titles such as Bong of the Dead, Redneck Zombies, Hood of the Living Dead, L.A. Zombie, Nudist Colony of the Dead, Zombie Strippers, Pot Zombies, and Aaah! Zombies, it’s no surprise that any serious philosopher would dismiss the entire zombie horror sub-genre as crap. I will admit I am no exception to this rule.

Don’t get me wrong, most zombie movies are crap. And really, they need not be anything more than what they are — simply movies with people being attacked and consumed by hoardes of the undead. (NOTE: the fact that a movie is crap does not negate the fact that it may be entertaining). The funny thing about generalizing, even when you generalize in the name of philosophy, is that sometimes — often times — you make a mistake. The mistake I’m thinking about goes by the name of the AMC series The Walking Dead.

Now I know what you’re asking, “what on earth does a TV show about zombies have to do with philosophy?”. Philosophers can debate whether zombie movies and TV shows like The Walking Dead are worthy of metaphysical or epistemic analysis, but certainly no philosopher in his or her right mind would ever claim that a zombie and/or zombie movie or TV show cannot be subjected to ethical scrutiny. My answer to the question is this: SHANE WALSH IS THE MOST PHILOSOPHICALLY FASCINATING CHARACTER ON TELEVISION. And how, you say, is Shane Walsh the most fascinating character on television? The answer is this: ETHICS.

Ethics is defined as the science of morals in human conduct. Ethical philosophers construct theories concerning how individuals can and should act. Ethical theories include utilitarianism, deontological ethics, situational ethics, divine command theory, ethical egoism, emotivism, intuitionism, pragmatic ethics and applied ethics. To be sure, Shane Walsh, or rather the late Shane Walsh (formerly played by Jon Bernthal) is certainly an ethical piece of work. We, the audience, watch Shane, a cop before the zombie apocalypse, devolve into a paranoid, murdering, unrepentant, would-be rapist psychopath, whose scheming to murder his best friend and former partner Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) results in Shane’s eventual death and zombie resurrection. To the causal observer Shane Walsh lacks any remaining thread of civility, but the philosophically-oriented eye, Shane is a case study in pragmatic ethics.

Just as pragmatism, founded by American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) holds that the truth of a theory rests on how the theory works in practice, Shane Walsh’s method of dealing with and operating in the zombie apocalypse rests on his ability to get things done — that is to say, how his theories work in practice. William James wrote, “In practical talk, a man’s common sense means his good judgment…”, and certainly Shane Walsh’s common sense is based on his good judgment.

So… when Shane shoots Otis in the leg and leaves him to be eaten by a pack of zombies, or openly expresses his desire to call off the search for Sophia, or when Shane, against Rick’s orders, opens Hershel’s barn and treats the denizens of Hershel’s farm to the zombie equivalent of a turkey shoot, or when Shane openly challenges Rick’s ability to protect his wife and son (Shane tells Rick, “I don’t think you can keep them safe”), or when Shane leads Randall out to the woods to kill him, or attempts to kill Rick on three separate occasions, it’s not because Shane has lost all contact with his humanity. Shane does what he does because he know that his method of getting things done is simply what works.

Shane tells Rick, “You can’t just be the good guy and expect to live”. And in the end, Shane is right. In the last episode of season two, “Beside the Dying Fire”, Rick Grimes (after dispatching Shane) declares that he is leader of the group of survivors and that the group is no longer a democracy (fans of the show lovingly refer to Rick’s declaration as the beginning of the “Ricktatorship”). Rick realizes that Shane is right. In the post-civilization zombie world, high-minded ethical systems like Kant’s deontological ethics or Aristotle’s virtue ethics are no longer applicable. If a man wants to survive the onslaught of the undead he has to be willing to only do what has practical value — what will allow not only himself, but others to survive.  Shane Walsh does not lack morality, as some have claimed. He is neither amoral, nor is Shane Walsh purely in it for himself (Shane’s repeatedly tells Rick that he wants to protect Rick’s wife and son, and even saves the lives of others, including Rick Grimes and fellow survivor Andrea, thus demontrtating that he is motivated by someting other than his own desires). Instead, Shane Walsh exhibits the kind of morality that is not bogged down by concepts of virtue or absolute duties. Shane’s willingness to follow the pragmatic approach to morality not only saves lives, but also allows Rick Grimes to live long enough to stab Shane through the heart.