Archive for the ‘ethics’ tag
Here is a passage I came across during my day job as a scholar of early modern philosophy. It is taken from Francis Hutcheson, the influential eighteenth century thinker. He briefly discusses the nature and usefulness of the sense of humor. It’s from his lecture notes, which were later published as a textbook. (Translated from the Latin by Michael Silverthorne. Full text available here.)
By the aid of these senses, then, some of the things that happen to us appear delightful, fitting, glorious, and honorable to us, while others seem vile and contemptible, and we may discern yet another reflexive sense: a sense of things that are ridiculous or apt to cause laughter, that is, when a thing arouses contrary sensations at one and the same time. In the case of men’s intentions and actions, bad behavior that does not cause grievous sorrow or death gives rise to laughter, because there is some dignity in the very name of man because we have a certain opinion of his prudence and intelligence, whereas bad behavior that leads to serious pain or death rather excites pity. In the case of other things, we are moved to laughter by those which exhibit some splendid spectacle at the same time as a contradictory image of something cheap, lowly, and contemptible. This sense is very beneficial, whether in increasing the pleasure of conversation or in correcting men’s morals.
Much of what he says here about the ridiculous and contradictory is a fairly standard theory of humor that dates back to Aristotle. What I find intriguing is that last sentence.
We can all agree that having a sense of humor is beneficial because it increases the pleasure of conversation. But how exactly does a sense of humor “correct men’s morals”? I suspect he is referring back to his earlier point that we laugh at bad behavior (short of death or “grievous sorrow”), which serves as a corrective to bad behavior. Basically, when we laugh at louts, they are shamed into acting better.
Going beyond the text, this passage got me thinking about the role that a sense of humor has in living a good life. I’ve long thought that a sense of humor (both the ability to laugh when appropriate and to make others laugh) is an important character trait. But it is not a virtue that is developed on its own. As Hutcheson reminds us, our sense of humor influences our other character traits. For instance, being able to laugh at our foibles gives us a healthy distance that can encourage us to improve them.
But I’m still wondering if a sense of humor improves us in other ways. How does being able to laugh and make others laugh improve our other character traits? Is a kind person made more kind by having a sense of humor? Is an intelligent person made more intelligent or better demonstrate that intelligence when they have a sense of humor?
I presented a paper in applied ethics at the Sport and Society Conference cosponsored by St. Norbert College and the Green Bay Packers, probably the first collaboration between a professional sports team and a college or university. There were a variety of interesting talks, roundtables, and presentations.
I’m providing a link to my paper which asks the question “Is Team Loyalty a Virtue?”[PDF]. My goal was to ascertain whether the loyalty of a sports fan to a particular team is justifiable. The paper is still (in my estimation) only about half worked-out. Surprisingly little has been written on the subject, so a lot of what I was trying to do was just lay some groundwork. The paper, as it is now, is really a suggestion for what it would take to show that the loyalty of a fan to a team is virtuous.
Anyways, enjoy, and feel free to leave comments below.
Community has a well-earned reputation for mixing in lots of meta-humor into its character humor and one-off jokes. A lot of the humor comes from seeing how the writers play off sit-com clichés. When done properly, it adds a layer of sophistication to the show that I find very compelling. A show won’t survive long just doing that; it still needs characters we are interested in or stories we find compelling. In its first season, Community has done this remarkably well, incorporating nearly every kind of joke you could ever want in a sit-com.
We can appreciate those jokes about television (directed at itself, at other sit-coms, or recently at Glee), and it can lead to us thinking of Community as a smart show, one that it takes attention, background knowledge, and intelligence to watch. But I want to highlight a different way that Community‘s creators express and expect intelligence in their show. Here’s an exchange from last week’s “Modern Warfare,” an extended parody of action films.
The dialogue I want to draw your attention to is not the characters’ awareness of clichés and how they see themselves against those clichés. It’s the following.
Britta: “You’re right, you know. I am a phony. I try to act compassionate because I’m afraid that I’m not.”
Jeff: “Oh, please. I invented phony.You care about people. I accuse you of faking to convince myself that I’m not such a jerk.”
Britta: “Jeff, you help people more than I do and you don’t even want to. You’re not a jerk; you’re fine.”
There is a sophistication to this exchange that I really appreciate. Britta expresses a profound insight about herself: that what looks like compassion is actually rooted in a fear of being uncompassionate rather than a true benevolence. Jeff dismisses her worry because, as a phony, he recognizes what phoniness is and can see it in other people. Those are two really insightful observations for characters to make, and it takes an awareness by the writers of who these characters are and an ability to verbalize it without sounding pompous or distracting from the mood of the show. That is really smart writing.
But then it gets better. Britta recognizes a distinction between a person who has positive character traits (e.g., a compassionate person who wants to do go for others) and a person who produces positive consequences (e.g., a jerk who actually does good for others). Britta recognizes that the character traits, intentions, and desires that make a person a good person are not always correlated with actually doing good. On the other hand, there are people who are able to do a great deal of good that don’t have a great character. For example, Richard Nixon has done more good than most people who lived in the 20th century. It doesn’t follow that he had a morally praiseworthy character; he probably didn’t. It also doesn’t follow that he didn’t do a great deal bad, as well. He certainly did. Jeff, through elements of his personality and his position in the group, is able to do a lot more good for the study group (and the community college) than the person who is dedicating her life to doing good. That doesn’t make Jeff the better person, just the more powerful one.
One thing that Community has done a great job of this season is tracking Jeff’s reluctant immersion into the group. Positioning himself as an outsider who in the pilot claimed that he was a moral relativist who doesn’t care about other people to a group-member willing to make sacrifices (that he doesn’t fully understand) for the sake of others. This can only be achieved when you create really complex characters, and the writers have a really firm grasp on them and the intelligence to draw out of those characters compelling stories and sensible dialogue. What makes Community the smartest show on television isn’t (just) all the self-referential humor, it’s also the ability to articulate very finely the social interactions of these complex characters while exploiting the backdrop of a community college to draw out interesting ethical and socio-psychological insights.
And it’s funny.
My Best of the Decade albums list is yet to come, but I so enjoyed writing about my path into Television in the 2000s, that I thought I would sketch out the highlights of my experience of music over the past decade. This isn’t a list, it’s a story.
On October 2, 2000, alt-rock heroes Radiohead released Kid A, which stands as turning point in the history of popular music. At the time, people focused on the album’s use of “electronica” – a wishy-washy term for a mish-mash of genres that had developed parallel to and largely without interaction with rock and alternative music in the 1990s. Was this the end of rock and roll? The beginning of electronica’s mainstream appeal? The album debuted at number one in the US and went platinum in its first week in the UK. What listeners today focus on is the album’s complex arrangements, and now a proper analysis of the album should really explain its debts to twentieth century avante-garde, classical, and jazz traditions in addition to the various styles of electronic and rock music that were also influences. But for me, this album wasn’t about any of that (well, a little about electronic music). For me, it was the first time I was so overwhelmed listening to an album, that I stopped everything I was doing, turned out the lights, and just listened to the album all the way through. It blew me away. I wasn’t sure that I liked it, but I knew that it was important. I knew that I was hearing something new, something that mattered, something that I should have an opinion about. As the sound flooded my college dorm room through my parents’ thirty-year-old Kenwood stereo system (still the best sounding system I’ve ever owned/borrowed), I was awash in wave after wave of gorgeous sound. Lyrical mimimism and sonic richness would be Radiohead’s calling card in the 2000s, and it began here. Since that first listen, I’ve never forgotten the horn part that first enters 2:40 into “The National Anthem,” which still sounds to me like one of the most crucial tracks in the history of popular music.
In college, I did a little bit of music reviewing and a couple interviews for an online-only publication run by my roommate out of our dorm room, which he had inherited through an internship he had while the publication was print-only. And my first taste of being a real critic came when I got an advance copy of U2′s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Sure, I got the album the night before it’s October 31, 2000 release date, but still, I got it early. That’s a big deal for a person was then (and still now) a huge U2 fanboy.
That experience was one sort of thrill, but seeing U2 at Madison Square Garden just weeks after September 11 was a different sort of thrill. They were unveiling the giant white banners with the names of the 9/11 victims scrolling down it, which would reach a national audience during their performance at that January’s Superbowl halftime. They honored NYFD by having them join the band on stage during the closing number, “Out of Control,” which they were also celebrating on the 20th anniversary of that single’s release. I’ve previously called attending a U2 concert a spiritual experience, but this reached a level of transcendence I never expect to have repeated in my lifetime. If there’s a heaven, it will be something like that night. Earlier that evening I had met two friends from college who were working with homeless people near the World Trade Center in the months leading up to the attacks, and because they were known to the people there, they were some of the few people allowed to hand out food, water, and coffee to the rescue workers in the days after the collapse of the towers. After sharing a slice of pizza with them, I went to Madison Square Garden for a different kind of tribute with a different kind of beauty.
During that time in graduate school was the peak of my interest in downloading music illegally. Maybe some day I’ll get around to a post on the ethics of downloading illegally (after all, I do teach ethics to college kids). But let me make this one point now, which was then the most important feature for me: Being isolated from people very knowledgeable about the sort of music I was interested in, my only way of finding bands was to test out songs by downloading them through file-sharing websites. (My personal favorite was Audiogalaxy.) Then, if I liked the songs I heard from a band – and this is key – I would legally purchase the entire album. Downloading an entire song was the only way to test a band’s sound before the 30-second samples on iTunes and Amazon MP3. I threw myself into the (legally purchased) collected works of The Velvet Underground, Matthew Sweet, and Stereolab because of what I discovered through Audiogalaxy.
I took some time off from graduate school in the middle of the decade, and during part of that time I worked at a Borders store, where my musical knowledge grew through chatting with my coworkers and playing the most interesting music that wouldn’t offend families looking for You: The Owner’s Manual or The Da Vinci Code. (While working there, I also met Dennis Quaid a week after his wedding. He was buying his son Spiderman 2.)
I then moved to the Twin Cities for a teaching job, where I threw myself into 89.3 The Current, the best radio station I know about, which was then at its peak of DJ-selected variety. (It’s since restricted its playlist and given DJs less power, but I still recommend it for people looking for non-commercial radio.) Twice on The Current I had heard songs by some guy named Sufjan Stevens, and on the basis of those two songs alone I dragged my wife to a late night concert at First Ave. Come on Feel the Illinoise! had just been released, and it had yet to appear at the top of everyone’s Best of 2005 lists. What we experienced that night was pretty remarkable. The band, dressed as University of Illinois cheerleaders performed melodically fascinating songs set to bizarre instrumentation (the banjo player is now playing the trombone!) interspersed with cheerleading routines. It’s hands-down one of the best concert experiences of my life. We would also see Death Cab for Cutie in that same club at about the same time; Plans had just been released and six months later they would return to the Twin Cities at the Target Center arena.
Returning to graduate school in 2007, I sat down one night in the fall and downloaded all the legal and free MP3s I could find at sites like download.com. Shortly thereafter, I subscribed to eMusic, and expanded on those initial findings to begin my complete immersion into the world of indie rock. Breaking away from the recommendations of my more knowledgeable music friends, I began to explore for myself. In that time I discovered The Fiery Furnaces, Kimya Dawson, Mates of State, and I’ve never been quite the same since. I’ve developed new musical passions since then, but I haven’t yet stopped my indie rock obsession. For instance, so far this year I have bought 39 albums released in 2009. (That number would go up considerably if I added albums from other years.) Nearly all of them are artists releasing on independent labels and most have come to me through eMusic, which until this summer was a subscription service devoted solely to independent labels. This would lead us to great shows at Toad’s Place in New Haven and a few in NYC. The best of these, and in many ways the best all-around concert experience I’ve had, was seeing The National perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Promoting Boxer during BAM’s year of celebrating the variety and quality of Brooklyn music, the concert was flawless in execution, energetic in performance, perfect in acoustics and line-of-sight, and featured a walk on by Sufjan Stevens to play piano on “Ada,” which he helped arrange on the album.
Ccritical consensus seems to be that this is one of the best decades for popular music since the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s. What I know is that it has been a great decade to explore the fringes of popular music.
Spoilers for the first 30 minutes of Wendy and Lucy
Wendy and Lucy, a very small and moving film about a woman working her way across country to a job in Alaska but is delayed in a small town in Oregon, is so careful in its study of a person at the edge of society that in its brief 82 minutes it reveals a great deal about individuals and the way they understand and interact with society.
Although there is a lot to consider in this film, one scene struck me particularly. In this scene, Wendy has been caught shoplifting dog food for her dog Lucy. An eager teenage stock boy grabs her arm roughly and leads her into a back office where a manager sits. At first, Wendy denies that she took anything. When the young stock clerk pulls her purse from her and pulls out the cans of dog food, she begins to scramble reasons for why she did it and why she’ll never do it again. The teenage stock boy goads the manager into calling the cops. “It’s store policy.” “You have to treat everyone the same.” “If she can’t afford a dog, she shouldn’t have one.” Having grown attached to Wendy over the early scenes, these words sound snide, almost hateful.
What director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond have done is to provide a nicely encapsulated feminist critique of rule-bound ethical systems. While not clearly endorsing any particular ethic of care or explicitly acknowledging any link to the pioneering work of Carol Gilligan, the film presents instead a simple moment in which the viewer hears words that he or she has probably spoken at some point, words that sound very right when spoken in generalized form, but that seem very, very wrong when we see the consequences they have for Wendy (and for Lucy). By placing these generalized ethical rules in the mouth of a teenage boy, it further emphasizes that these sorts of rules are adolescent, limited, and we need to move on from them toward a system that allows us to treat Wendy with the care that the film recognizes she deserves.
That’s a very thoughtful moment in a film that addresses homelessness, social blindness, charity, friendship, and more in a very sophisticated yet never preachy way.
Spoilers for Glee through 1.6 (October 7)
One of the most strident criticisms of Glee by those who like the show but don’t love it or consider it to be uneven at best is that Terri Schuster, the wife of Glee coach Will Schuster, is so shrewish. She is shrill, conniving, ditzy, and altogether unlikeable. She schemes to keep her husband from wandering by failing to tell him that she is not pregnant as she originally thought. She bullies and manipulates a teenage girl into carrying a baby to term so that she can pass it off as her own. She is the nagging, conniving wife, a role played for maximum shrillness by Jessalyn Gilsig. By making her so unsympathetic, some critics (like Todd VanDerWerff and Alan Sepinwall) have complained that we are not conflicted about the choice that Will must make between his wife Terri and the neurotic but lovable counselor (or as Sue Sylvester, played by the always welcome Jane Lynch, calls her “a mentally ill, ginger pygmy with eyes like a bush baby”). Since we are given no reason to like Terri the wife, we can’t be emotionally invested in Will’s choice between the wife he fell for in high school and the woman he is falling for now. There’s just no competition.
As a general rule, this criticism brings out an important point about characterization (both in writing and in acting). Unless you find something human to associate yourself with a character, that character will always seem like a prop rather than a human being. Good writing requires good characterization, and television – which relies on a weekly commitment over years to the lives of certain characters – requires even greater investment in these people. And this is where Glee is said to fail.
But I think Ryan Murphy and the rest of the Glee writers are doing something more interesting that a mere battle for one character’s heart. Glee deals with one overriding idea: going for what you want. What makes this show interesting is the creators’ desire to explore the consequences of going for what you want, and in particular the social structures that curtail achieving that desire. It might be upsetting the social hierarchy of a high school by making yourself stand out, it might be committing to coach glee club for no money and extra time, it might be trying to make it out of a small town when everything is pulling you back in. Whatever it is, following your passion means sacrificing your pride, your comfort, your sense of self, and most importantly your function in society and facing the consequences of that decision.
So when we look again at Will’s choice, we see that the structuring idea of the show pushes the creators away from dealing with a choice between two women and towards the choice between what one wants (the other woman) and the social structures working against it (a marriage). The more sympathetic the wife becomes in this scenario, the less the choice is between what one wants and the social forces preventing it. Perhaps following out this idea leads to sacrificing something in the way of sympathy for a recurring character and turns off some viewers, but I find that it actually creates a richer viewing experience because it generates another interesting nuance to the question of what social pressures exist to keep one from going after what one wants. Is it always best to go for your dream? Is it always best to make your dreams less ambitious? Glee is about the choices that must be made every day in working toward a life of passionate ambition and the social pressures (external and internalized) that keep us from achieving those amibitions.
And that’s why I’m okay with keeping Will’s wife as a broad, penciled-in caricature. (That, and she says things like “Oh, please, Will, it’s a public school.”)
(And for die-hard Glee fans, you might be interested to know that the cast’s scheduled appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was cancelled because NBC didn’t want to promote another network’s show, leading to yet more bad press for NBC.)