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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Decent LifeA Delicate BalanceA Fragile LifeA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Mirror Is for ReflectionA Mirror Is for ReflectionA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Tapestry of ValuesA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst MarriageAgainst 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Posthuman FutureOut of EdenOut of Its MindOut of the ShadowsOverdosed AmericaOxford Handbook of Psychiatric EthicsOxford Studies in Normative EthicsOxford Studies in Normative Ethics, Volume 7Oxford Textbook of Philosophy of PsychiatryPassionate DeliberationPatient Autonomy and the Ethics of ResponsibilityPC, M.D.Perfecting VirtuePersonal AutonomyPersonal Autonomy in SocietyPersonal Identity and EthicsPersonalities on the PlatePersonhood and Health CarePersons, Humanity, and the Definition of DeathPerspectives On Health And Human RightsPharmaceutical FreedomPharmacracyPharmageddonPhilosophy and This Actual WorldPhilosophy of BiologyPhilosophy of Technology: The Technological ConditionPhysician-Assisted DyingPicturing DisabilityPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying God?Playing God?Political EmotionsPornlandPowerful MedicinesPractical Autonomy and BioethicsPractical EthicsPractical Ethics for PsychologistsPractical RulesPragmatic BioethicsPragmatic BioethicsPragmatic NeuroethicsPraise and BlamePreferences and Well-BeingPrimates and PhilosophersPro-Life, Pro-ChoiceProcreation and ParenthoodProfits Before People?Progress in BioethicsProperty in the BodyProzac As a Way of LifeProzac on the CouchPsychiatric Aspects of Justification, Excuse and Mitigation in Anglo-American Criminal Law Psychiatric EthicsPsychiatry and EmpirePsychological Concepts and Biological PsychiatryPsychology and Consumer CulturePsychology and LawPsychotropic Drug Prescriber's Survival GuidePublic Health LawPublic Health Law and EthicsPublic PhilosophyPunishing the Mentally IllPunishmentPursuits of WisdomPutting Morality Back Into PoliticsPutting on VirtueQuality of Life and Human DifferenceRaceRadical HopeRadical VirtuesRape Is RapeRe-creating MedicineRe-Engineering Philosophy for Limited BeingsReason's GriefReasonably ViciousReckoning With HomelessnessReconceiving Medical EthicsRecovery from SchizophreniaRedefining RapeRedesigning HumansReducing the Stigma of Mental IllnessReflections on Ethics and 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Troublesome ChildTechnology and the Good Life?TestimonyText and Materials on International Human RightsThe Moral Psychology of AngerThe Age of CulpabilityThe Age of CulpabilityThe Aims of Higher EducationThe Almost MoonThe Altruistic BrainThe American Psychiatric Publishing Textbook of Forensic PsychiatryThe Animal ManifestoThe Animals' AgendaThe Art of LivingThe Autonomy of MoralityThe Beloved SelfThe Best Things in LifeThe Big FixThe Bioethics ReaderThe Biology and Psychology of Moral AgencyThe Blackwell Guide to Medical EthicsThe Body SilentThe BondThe Book of LifeThe Burden of SympathyThe Cambridge Companion to Virtue EthicsThe Cambridge Companion to Virtue EthicsThe Cambridge Textbook of BioethicsThe Case against Assisted SuicideThe Case Against PerfectionThe Case Against PunishmentThe Case for PerfectionThe Case of Terri SchiavoThe Challenge of Human RightsThe Character GapThe Code for Global EthicsThe Colonization Of Psychic SpaceThe Commercialization of Intimate LifeThe Common 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VirtueUnsanctifying Human Life: Essays on EthicsUnspeakable Acts, Ordinary PeopleUp in FlamesUpheavals of ThoughtUsers and Abusers of PsychiatryValue-Free Science?Values and Psychiatric DiagnosisValues in ConflictVegetarianismViolence and Mental DisorderVirtue EthicsVirtue, Rules, and JusticeVirtue, Vice, and PersonalityVirtues and Their VicesVoracious Science and Vulnerable AnimalsVulnerability, Autonomy, and Applied EthicsWar Against the WeakWar, Torture and TerrorismWarrior's DishonourWeaknessWelfare and Rational CareWhat are you staring at?What Genes Can't DoWhat Have We DoneWhat Is a Human?What Is Good and WhyWhat Is Good and WhyWhat Is the Good Life?What Price Better Health?What Should I Do?What We Owe to Each OtherWhat Would Aristotle Do?What's Good on TVWhat's Normal?What's Wrong with Children's RightsWhat's Wrong with Homosexuality?What's Wrong With Morality?When Animals SpeakWhen Is Discrimination Wrong?Who Holds the Moral High Ground?Who Owns YouWho Qualifies for Rights?Whose America?Whose View of Life?Why Animals MatterWhy Animals MatterWhy Does Inequality Matter?Why Honor MattersWhy I Burned My Book and Other Essays on DisabilityWhy Not Kill Them All?Why Punish? How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
Jamie Watson and Robert Arp clearly put a lot of time and effort into this rather ambitious book that seeks to bridge the synthetic bifurcation between philosophy and the "real world." Following on the heels of the widely popular Philosophy and Popular Culture book series (published both by Wiley-Blackwell and Open Court Press), What's Good on TV incorporates excellent examples from a variety of television shows in order to illustrate rather difficult philosophical concepts. The book is fun and informative. It is clearly meant as a teaching tool, and so this review will focus on its merits in this capacity. Right away, I should mention that the book contains no primary literature. While some important philosophical essays are discussed quite well by the authors, there are no excerpts from those readings. This alone, for me, would bar it from being the sole text I would use in a course, since I am an ardent proponent of students reading primary literature. However, as a complimentary text this book would do the job quit well. In the interest of providing a thorough analysis for those who would wish to use it for their classes, I will present a short synopsis and review of each individual chapter.
The book is divided into three main sections (or, in keeping with the theme, into three 'series.'), and each section is broken up into 'episodes.' The sections/series cover meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. It is here where the originality of the book most shines in that it incorporates important philosophical essays, relevant televisions episodes (which are easily accessible through iTunes, Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu), and then study questions which will help the students integrate both philosophy and popular entertainment.
In their introductory chapter, the 'pilot episode', Watson and Arp offer a brief introduction to ethics as a philosophical and academic discipline, and they provide a succinct, yet useful, summary of deductive and inductive logic. They effectively and humorously explain what a philosophical argument is (via the use of Monty Python's 'Argument Clinic'), followed by an explanation of validity and soundness, a section on ways of evaluating arguments, and a summary (with examples) of six commonly committed informal fallacies.
Series I -- Is there anything "good" on television: The nature of moral value
Episode 1. Truth and Nihilism in Ethics
Given that so many introductory ethics students confuse healthy tolerance with embracing relativism, I was very pleased to see Watson and Arp devote a whole section to unraveling the cogency of, as they call it, 'moral nihilism' -- the denial of the existence of moral facts. This is importantly different from 'moral skepticism,' which is an epistemic claim concerning our inability to know moral facts, rather than denying that they exist altogether. Moral claims are not simply preferential claims, akin to endorsing one brand of cola over another. Keeping in line with their endorsement of the principle of charity (explained in the pilot chapter) when it comes to assessing opposing arguments, Watson and Arp first show why some philosophers have embraced moral nihilism before they proceed to present some difficulties with the view -- in particular, they grapple with J.L. Mackie's defense of error theory in his 'The Argument from Queerness.' In response to Mackie's position, they include an analysis of C.S. Lewis' argument in favor of moral realism. They finish this section with a discussion of moral nihilism as illustrated in an episode of The Office.
Episode 2. Normativity -- Social, Legal, and Moral
Students often conflate moral rights with legal rights, or morally good with legally permissible. I encounter this regularly, for example, when teaching Peter Singer's 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality,' where the students interpret his claim that there is a moral obligation to care for the poor as an endorsement of laws that require one to give away excess money (and argue against his thesis based on the latter interpretation rather than the former). Because of this common scenario in ethics classes, I was grateful to see a discussion on the similarities and differences between social, legal, and moral claims. Watson and Arp do this through engaging literature by John Rawls and John Stuart Mill, and then ending the section with a discussion of a pertinent episode of The Sopranos.
Episode 3. God and Ethics
Because so many students come to class with religious backgrounds which deeply infuse their moral values, it seems imperative that an ethics class should include some discussion on the intersection of religion and morality. In this chapter, Watson and Arp include a section on the most basic of all paradoxes for Divine Command theorists -- Euthyphro's Dilemma. In addition, they include a discussion on other relevant questions: Can moral claims make sense if there is no God to justify them? If there is no God, from whence does the motivation to be good arise, especially in absence of eternal repercussions? How, if God's (whether arbitrary or necessary) nature is the only standard for goodness, can we coherently understand what it means for God to be good (in that there would be "no standard against which to evaluate the morality of his actions except his nature, and his nature is just whatever it happened to be" (69))? These are just three of the issues they touch upon. This is one of the better chapters I have encountered on God and morality in an ethics book. A discussion on the difficulty of epistemic certainty in the face of varying commandments within different religions, and even sometimes within the same religion, would have improved this 'episode.' Another theme I find relevant to any discussion on God and ethics is how to decipher between eternal moral truths (such as 'Thou shalt not kill') and commandments based on societal norms and circumstances (such as dietary laws). I have found that such a discussion plays an important role in assessing which commandments should or shouldn't transfer into our current society; e.g., should the prohibition against homosexual sex in Leviticus be interpreted as an eternal moral truth or a consequence of cultural norms? Watson and Arp can hardly be faulted for not including every possible theme, however -- but perhaps this is something they could consider for future editions. Overall, this chapter is excellent. The inclusion of a Law and Order episode concerning faith healing serves as a good catalyst for discussing other pertinent issues, e.g., whether parents who are Jehovah's Witnesses possess the authority to deny their child life-saving blood transfusions on religious grounds.
Series II -- What's Right and Wrong?: Ethical Theory
Episode 4. Moral Relativism
The normative consequence of moral nihilism is moral relativism, the claim that "moral truths are relative to certain times and places" (80). Any ethics teacher has undoubtedly dealt with students who adhere to moral relativism (again, as abovementioned, this seems to be a consequence of wanting to embrace tolerance and understand individual and cultural differences, none of which are bad things in themselves), so a chapter about this normative position is vital to include. This chapter covers a lot of the same ground as did the chapter on moral nihilism, but also includes additional conversation on egoistic relativism, context relativism, and cultural relativism. Watson and Arp then go on to discuss Ruth Benedict's arguments in favor of ethical relativism, and James Rachels' arguments against it, including pointing out that there are some moral rules that all societies do seem to share (a general prohibition against killing innocent people, for example). They then go on to list additional reasons why cultural relativism is problematic, and end with a discussion based on episodes of Deadwood and South Park. Again, given the preponderance of ethical relativism amongst students, this 'episode' was a welcome addition and definitely offers much material to incite classroom conversation.
Episode 5. Deontology
Unsurprisingly, a discussion of Immanuel's Kant's categorical imperatives begins this chapter, pitting his moral absolutism against the relativism discussed in the previous chapter. Watson and Arp cover many of Kant's basic concepts: the good will, hypothetical vs. categorical imperatives, perfect vs. imperfect duties, the difference between acting from duty vs. in accordance with duty, the formula of universalization, the formula of humanity, and the formula of the kingdom of ends. These explanations are brief, but rather clear for an introductory ethics course. Disappointingly absent, however, was any discussion on other non-Kantian methods of deontology. There is a two paragraph section on Onora O'Neill's defense of Kantian deontology in light of Kant's rigorism (which also deserves more attention that is given here), but there is no discussion of, for example, W.D. Ross' system of deontic morality, which is supposed to help save deontology from the pitfalls of Kant's absolutism/rigorism (albeit with some faults of its own). The chapter, therefore, is really just a chapter on Kant's version of deontology which, while undoubtedly the most important incarnation of the theory, is not the only one. Without giving a voice to someone like Ross, students may perceive deontology is irredeemable given Kant's rigorism. On a side note, however, their use of the show Friends is excellent here, and the selection they use could also double as a catalyst for a discussion on ethical egoism. Their use of an episode of Arrested Development will serve to incite good conversation on the ethics of lying.
Episode 6. Consequentialism
You cannot talk about utilitarianism as presented in the media without mentioning Jack Bauer in the series 24; thereby, Watson and Arp appropriately begin their chapter on consequentialism with such a discussion. After briefly mentioning the utilitarian philosophers that came before John Stuart Mill, the chapter is largely devoted to Mill's version of utilitarianism and a general analysis of the principle of utility. At first, Watson and Arp approach utilitarianism from a hedonistic perspective, offering examples of TV characters who are obsessed with having sex with multiple partners as embodiments of the principle of utility. They quickly (and thankfully) move away from that perspective, bringing into the mix Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures; their discussion of this distinction is rather extensive and excellent. From my experience, students often conflate Mill's utilitarianism with some form of hedonism, so I was glad to see Watson and Arp emphasize that "utilitarianism does not necessarily encourage a society of people who only pursue their animal urges. Experiencing more and more higher pleasures is also morally good" (119). Along the same vein, they are also careful to distinguish utilitarianism and ethical egoism, and ultimately argue that the sex-crazed TV characters whom they discuss at the beginning are more aptly characterized as ethical egoists than utilitarians. Utilitarianism is concerned not just with one's own pleasure, but with the pleasure of all sentient beings affected by an action; "in the grand scheme of things, overall happiness is good, not merely your happiness or my happiness" (124). The chapter ends by utilizing episodes of Battlestar Galactica and The Twilight Zone as case studies.
Episode 7. Virtue Ethics
I was personally very pleased to see the authors devote a whole 'episode' to virtue ethics; I regard it as a rich moral theory that is not often, unfortunately, seen as very applicable to practical moral dilemmas. Including it here, and giving examples of television situations and characters that embody the theory (I am not a big fan of Family Guy, but was admittedly quite amused by how Watson and Arp fit the show in with virtue ethics) will help any teacher who wishes to find a more robust place for virtue ethics in applied situations. One aspect of this chapter that caught my attention is how Watson and Arp set up virtue ethics as a response to the deficiencies of Kant's and Mill's respective action-centered moral theories. They explain virtue ethics almost exclusively through the lens of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and some of his other writings (later on, when discussing an application of the theory to Star Trek, Watson and Arp also include a discussion of Plato's 'Ring of Gyges'). It is difficult to fault them for this, since Aristotle is essentially virtue ethics' main figure; however, given the contemporary debates surrounding varying kinds of virtue ethics, a brief acknowledgment of these differences would have been welcome (the authors do briefly cite Alasdair McIntyre on p. 142 -- but perhaps a section on other contemporary virtue ethicists, e.g. Michael Slote and Rosalind Hursthouse, would have advanced this 'episode'). Nevertheless, it is otherwise a fine summary and analysis of Aristotle's account of the theory -- the chart explaining the doctrine of the mean (140) will be particularly helpful to students. This 'episode' ends with examples from the British TV show Foyle's War and Star Trek -- The Next Generation in order to complete the analysis. While at first I doubted these choices - the former being an international show and the latter perhaps a bit too dated for contemporary college students -- upon reflection it seems like a good idea to widen students' perspective beyond the 'reality' shows and crude comedies that permeates modern television.
Series III -- What's Right When…? Practical Ethics
Episode 8. Environmental Ethics
Being that applied ethics is my main area of research, I was excited to move on to this section of the book. This first 'episode' in the 'series' left me with a bad taste in my mouth (but that did thankfully change in subsequent chapters). Watson and Arp begin this section by explaining the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic worth, and then asking whether nature, or the environment, should be protected for its own sake or for some instrumental reason. They refer to the former position as "biocentric" and the position that "all living organisms deserve the same moral consideration" as "biological egalitarianism" (157). This is followed with a rather brief, and unfortunately superficial, explanation of pantheism and Theravada Buddhism insofar as they tend to hold that nature has some sort of divine significance. Also conspicuously absent from this discussion are the works of Aldo Leopold and Albert Schweitzer, both who have vitally contributed to the field. Instead, the authors focus on Paul Taylor's "life-centered ethic," which argues that all living creatures have some welfare that can be thwarted or enhanced, and that, moreover, all living things "share a common relationship to the Earth" (158). After discussing some possible objections to the view, Watson and Arp go on to explain the position that nature only has extrinsic, or instrumental, value -- the "anthrocentric" view. It does not follow from this that nature or the environment have no value, or that they can be wantonly treated; nature needs to be valued and respected, but only insofar as it benefits human beings. Here, the authors do a good job explanting why, regardless of whether one holds that nature is intrinsically or instrumentally valuable, the environment is something that should be cared for and respected -- the defining difference is why we ought to do so (i.e., should we care for nature for its own sake, or for our own sakes). They then devote some time to explaining William Baxter's defense of anthrocentrism. While I did appreciate Watson and Arp's careful explanation of both positions, I was disappointed to see primarily anthrocentric views defended; Taylor's view is too easily dismissed and Baxter's view is too quickly embraced. Indeed, their prejudices are revealed later when they openly admit that "we have little reason to believe nature is valuable independently of human considerations" (164). While this conclusion may be correct (or it may not), they do not afford the contrary position the respect that it deserves. Again, Leopold presents compelling reasons why nature may be intrinsically valuable, but Watson and Arp never mention him or his writings.
Episode 9. Animal Welfare
The first section of this chapter had me nodding my head in agreement because Watson and Arp present a stark contrast between our aversion to animal abuse (especially when it involves domestic animals) and our antipathy to the living conditions of factory farmed animals. Almost immediately afterwards, however, they lose me by dismissing ASPCA commercials showcasing animal abuse as committing the 'appeal to pity' fallacy. Appealing to pity is only fallacious when it is used in lieu of a rational argument and when it is irrelevant to a conclusion. But feeling pity given relevant circumstances seems wholly appropriate. If a student misses an exam because he suffered a major illness, he wouldn't be committing a fallacy if he brings that up as a reason I should give him a make-up. Similarly, it is not a fallacy for the ASPCA to show pictures of horribly abused animals to incite viewers to donate to their cause, since their goals include curtailing the very abuse that incites or compassion. While Watson and Arp's second criticism of these commercials are warranted (that PETA and the ASPCA's use of celebrity endorsements is an appeal to inappropriate authority), I started wondering what the purpose was of deriding these commercials in a larger conversation on animal rights. Certainly the question of whether animals are proper subjects of rights is an independent consideration from whether some of the arguments presented in these commercials are fallacious. The whole conversation here seems out of place. Watson and Arp then move on to discuss competing positions on whether animals have a welfare that renders them moral subjects. They begin by discussing animal welfare through the lens of utilitarianism, focusing on animals' (generally uncontroversial) sentience as sufficient grounds for moral status (although there is a brief interesting discussion on whether invertebrate can feel pain), and responding to some possible objections to the utilitarian perspective. They then discuss animal rights from a deontic perspective, focusing both on Tom Regan's 'strong rights' view and Mary Anne Warren's 'weak rights' view. Their discussion here is rather strong and, unlike the environmental ethics section, much more even-handed. They do, however, end their analysis with what seems to be a false dichotomy: "Either [we] accept that all animals (human and nonhuman) deserve equal moral consideration, which may require that we come vegetarians, or accept that human fetuses, infants, children and mentally handicapped people are no more morally valuable than the family pet" (182). There are a variety of more middle-of-the-road positions here that are not considered. One can argue, for example, that nonhuman animals possess morally relevant traits that render them proper subjects of moral rights but that, because they lack others (e.g., the potential to become persons, which embryos and fetuses possess) they do not have equal moral status to humans. There are also arguments in favor of more humane meat eating practices that may meet the moral requirements imposed on us by animal sentience without necessarily committing to vegetarianism. It would have added depth to the chapter to discuss such views. One very nice inclusion, however, is a discussion on the ethics of eating meat and supporting animal suffering indirectly through our food purchases. They do this through the lens of a particular episode of House -- one I have seen but would have never made the astute connections that Watson and Arp provide.
Episode 10. Abortion
Abortion ethics is my main area of research, and it invariably makes its way into all of my ethics courses. As such I was excited to find new ways to teach the topic to my students, and so I eagerly read this chapter. I was extremely pleased to see them include in this section six oft-committed fallacies in the abortion debate, including pointing out that the 'pro-choice' / 'pro-life' labels amount to a false dichotomy, and are largely political terms that do not necessarily translate exactly into the moral realm. Because so many students rely on the fetus' potential personhood in order to ground its right to life, Watson and Arp do well to point out some very serious flaws with this line of reasoning from both sides of the aisle, although there are plausible arguments in favor of fetal potential being a morally relevant consideration that I wish they would have at least mentioned. I was very pleased to find these fallacies encompassing mistakes in reasoning made by both abortion rights supporters and detractors; the treatment of the issue far more neutral here than in the environmentalism 'episode'. Watson and Arp then proceed to discuss three of the most relevant pieces of abortion ethics literature: Judith Jarvis Thomson's 'A Defense of Abortion,' Don Marquis' 'Why Abortion is Immoral,' and Mary Anne Warren's 'On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion.' One curious argument they make is that choosing to have sex, even protected sex, is like playing a card game and taking chances of losing your money. Even if you take those precautions, they argue, if you still lose all your money you cannot demand it back. Similarly, just because one takes contraceptive measures to prevent pregnancy, this does not mean that a woman can demand returning to her pre-pregnant state via abortion (she cannot 'ask for her money back' because she did, in the end, concede to 'playing the game.'). However, the comparison between losing one's money and losing one's bodily integrity and the physical, mental, and emotional intimacy of pregnancy is so dissimilar that I cannot imagine why Watson and Arp believe their argument from analogy here is an adequate one. There are also several excellent articles written on virtue ethics and abortion, which would have benefitted the chapter and also illustrated a practical application of the theory. The chosen case studies, episodes of Law and Order and Maude, do a good job of inciting conversation about these issues.
Episode 11. Homosexuality
Watson and Arp begin this chapter by looking at arguments against the permissibility of homosexuality, and they do an excellent job responding to the most prevalent, and deeply flawed, ones, e.g., that homosexuality is wrong because nonprocreative sex is wrong. As they argue, such a blanket condemnation of nonprocreative sex would affect those whom we normally do not condemn, e.g., sexual activities between the elderly or the infertile, and also assumes that the potential for procreation is the only virtue present in sexuality. They then consider two arguments against homosexuality presented by Norman Geisler - that homosexuality is immoral because it has never been approved by society (an appeal to cultural relativism) and also that homosexuality is wrong because it is a health threat (e.g. because it contributes to the dissemination of AIDS); the authors do an excellent job here showing why these arguments, too, are flawed. After briefly mentioning the religious arguments against homosexuality, Watson and Arp turn to arguments in favor of the permissibility of homosexuality, e.g., that homosexuality is morally permissible because it is biologically caused and cannot be controlled (here they rightly argue that claiming that something is outside the realm of conscious control is insufficient for rendering any consequent behavior morally permissible) and that the same virtues that are found in heterosexual relationships can also be found in homosexual ones. They then turn to consider the arguments of three prominent scholars who disagree on this issue - Stephen Macedo, Robert George, and Gerard Bradley -- and bring in considerations of natural law, the telos of sexuality, and whether sex is something that is intrinsically or instrumentally good. What I liked best about this chapter is that, although focusing on the ethics of homosexuality, it poses questions that can incite an interesting conversation with students about the ethics of sexuality in general: What is the purpose of sex? What are its virtues? What counts as 'good' sex or 'bad' sex? Is promiscuity morally permissible? What's wrong with polygamy? Their chosen case studies, episodes of Law and Order and Family Guy, also serve to raise interesting questions: Is homophobia something that can be controlled (which leads to the more basic question if humans are simply predisposed to hate some out-group, and if we can be morally blamed for our prejudices if we cannot control them)? Is a moral condemnation of homosexuality reasonable grounds for rendering same-sex marriage illegal (given that there are many immoral behaviors that are not legally condemnable)?
Episode 12. Punishment and Capital Punishment
This section begins with an appeal to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I always interpreted as pinning utilitarianism against justice: should we accept a policy in which all crimes are punishable by death (even the most mundane) in exchange for social bliss? Watson and Arp pose the same question, and use it as a springboard for conversing about the moral dimensions of capital punishment. This includes a discussion on different theories of punishment, e.g., how do we assess moral responsibility, blame, and appropriate/just punishment (in particular, the authors discuss four theories that offer responses to these questions: the retributivist theory, the behaviorist/therapeutic theory, the utilitarian theory, and the liberal deterrence theory). They then proceed to consider arguments both in favor and against capital punishment, incorporating the four theories of punishment and bringing back earlier discussions of utilitarianism and deontology, which serves to emphasize the practical uses of these theories. I was also pleased to the authors venture outside of philosophy to include citations from empirical studies, particularly the evidence that capital punishment does not seem to function as a deterrent. The chart on page 244 clearly detailing arguments both against and in favor of capital punishment is an excellent inclusion, and I wonder why the same kind of chart was not provided in previous chapters for the other issues. Watson and Arp then, by appealing to the writings of Jeffrey Reiman, draw an invaluable distinction between capital punishment as an idea and the reality of that idea in practice, especially in light of racial and class discrimination. The chapter ends by using another episode of Star Trek: TNG and HBO's prison drama Oz to discuss other relevant questions: Should someone be punished for a crime for which they are not responsible?, Are human beings accurate arbitrators of guilt and justice?, Are criminals intrinsically valuable despite their crimes (rendering capital punishment a violation of that value)? All these are questions that would incite vigorous classroom discussion.
Episode 13. Assisted Suicide
In this final 'episode' of a generally well written, thoughtful, and rich 'series,' Watson and Arp tackle the ethics of assisted suicide. Although it is generally uncontroversial that mature human beings have a right to life, do we equally have a right to die, especially a right to die under our own terms given our individual values? The authors provide a helpful glossary of terms that are indeed often used wantonly (although I would have included distinctions between voluntary, nonvoluntary, and involuntary euthanasia, especially since students often conflate the latter two), and reference philosopher James Rachels' highly influential argument in favor of the moral permissibility of active euthanasia given our society's general acceptance of passive euthanasia. Due to the impact Rachel's argument has had on this topic, perhaps more time should have been devoted to analyzing his position - the brief appeal to consequentialism to defend assisted suicide on page 261 is not sufficient for capturing Rachels' view, even though he does present a utilitarian argument. Rather than concentrating specifically on euthanasia, they instead proceed to discuss arguments against the permissibility of suicide in general. Although I can appreciate their desire to address more basic questions about suicide before getting into issues about a particular kind of suicide, I do wish they would have concentrated more on arguments for and against euthanasia, given that the questions at stake here are importantly different than in more typical cases of suicide (e.g., questions about medical liberty, the right to refuse treatment, the obligations of physicians, the teleology of the medical profession, and so on). They do touch upon some of these questions when discussing the chosen TV shows for this section (Picket Fences and Scrubs), but I would have liked to have seen questions of these sort constitute the majority of the chapter, given that there are a lot of complex answers that deserve to be probed. Perhaps discussing relevant legal cases, e.g. Nancy Beth Cruzan and Terri Schiavo, would have added a beneficial dimension to the chapter as well. Given that so many students will one day have to make decisions about euthanasia for their parents and grandparents, this chapter could, with a few tweaks, serve as an excellent guide for helping them navigate through the moral dimensions of such an emotionally heart-wrenching and delicate decision.
The Epilogue: Does TV erode our values?
This final chapter could be a book onto itself, and questions the moral dimensions of television as a media outlet and a form of entertainment. Like it or not, television is highly pervasive and, like most forms of media, can indeed function as a moral educator. Given this, to what degree, if any, should television be subject to censure? Watson and Arp present a Kantian condemnation of censorship -- simply put, as rational agents we are the final arbitrators of what we should or shouldn't watch so long as we do not harm others. I was extremely pleased to see an Aristotelian response to this Kantian argument -- virtue is inculcated through imitation, and the arts (whether that be film, literature, music, or television) serves a moral educators in that people will imitate what they see displayed (in the words of Perry Glanzar: "If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book [or any media for that matter], you also have to believe that no one was ever improved by a book (or a play or a movie). You have to believe, in other words, that all art is morally trivial, and that, consequently, all education is morally irrelevant"). While this may not provide adequate grounds in favor of censorship, it should at least give us occasion to ponder our responsibilities to ourselves and our children to make responsible decisions concerning the kinds of entertainment to which we subject ourselves. As Watson and Arp also point out, it is uncontroversial that a fair amount of exploitation and objectification takes place on television (their example is Survivor, which thrives on the premise that humans need to instrumentalize each other in order to win a game); one need only to watch an episode of Jersey Shore to see how women, men, and sexuality are demoralized. The reality show Toddlers and Tiaras takes this objectification to a concerning level because it involves parading young children and judging them based on their appearance solely to appease their parents' desire for success (280). Watson and Arp also discuss whether it is immoral for a person to voluntarily subject himself to demeaning situations (is Snookie violating any duties to herself when she chooses to participate in an exploitative TV show?). While they discuss a neo-Kantian defense of self-exploitation by appealing to our moral right to make rational, autonomous choices (even bad ones), there is a strong Kantian argument against self-exploitation: the formula of humanity prohibits treating ourselves as mere means, as well as others (283). In the last section, Watson and Arp discuss the ethics of using others as a means for entertainment, particularly when the 'fun' comes in the form of causing them extreme fear or anxiety (e.g., Punk'd and Scare Tactics). A similar question surrounds exploiting the financial misery of others for entertainment; the series Repo Games, for example, is a trivia show where unsuspecting poor people have to answer trivia questions in order to keep their car from being repossessed. This final chapter is one of my favorites in the book -- it is rich with ethical quandaries and that will lead students to assess the moral dimensions of their entertainment choices.
This is, overall, a really enjoyable and informative book, and would function well as secondary literature in an introductory ethics or applied ethics course. As abovementioned, I would not use this as my only ethics textbook because I believe students should read primary texts, but it would indeed serve as an excellent supplement to primary literature. Students will undoubtedly find the book fun and, importantly, accessible, even if they have never taken philosophy. Watson and Arp have provided an excellent contribution to the literature, and I hope to see an even better version of the book in subsequent editions.
© 2012 Bertha Alvarez Manninen
Bertha Alvarez Manninen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Arizona State University