Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Try This at Home!

January 18, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post, “Try This at Home!

I live and work in Hollywood. Some of my friends are screenwriters, and they tend to be politically progressive. They often criticize conservatives for ignoring scientific evidence when it conflicts with their politics. But when it comes to the negative effects of violence in the media, my friends dismiss the idea and insist that it is unfair to blame artists for societal issues. When confronted with scientific studies that point to media having an impact on violent behavior, most say that this is merely a reflection of what is already there. But if there is evidence of an effect, even nominal, is it unethical to write (or produce or direct) violent films and shows? NAME WITHHELD, LOS ANGELES

My Answer: Every week the Times picks almost the same questions: “Is this ethical?”, “Is someone obliged to do something?”, “What should I do?” I thought when I started this commentary there’d be more variety. I guess if you buy into the idea of ethics being absolute, then you don’t question the premise of asking someone else about what’s right, wrong, good, bad, ethical, etc. I guess then you focus on the content of the question instead of the underlying beliefs driving it.

To me that’s like asking what’s the best price I can get for a product I don’t need—that is, missing the point. If you don’t need the product, you’ll probably improve your life more by understanding your needs and motivations leading you to consider a product you don’t need than by comparing prices. This Times column keeps reinforcing the comparing-price perspective at the expense of suggesting people think for themselves. I know the point of a column is to sell papers and page views, not to teach ethics. I presume the column is in the Sunday magazine to create leisurely conversation over coffee. Still, why not change people’s perspectives and help them grow?

This person writing in seems to look down on their friends and to be looking for ammunition to say “See, I told you I’m right. You’re hypocrites and the New York Times agrees,” as if appealing to authority established truth instead of just revealing another person’s opinion. The Times can say they just offered an opinion, but they don’t present their response that way. They write as if they have some authority, but only talking about the equivalent of the prices of things, concluding, as always, something equivalent to “This product has the best value for the cost.”

Well, I’ll give my usual answer to the questioner: There is no absolute measure of ethics. If there was, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer, and been done with it. There isn’t, so you didn’t. All you have are opinions and there are as many of them as people alive. Your friends think their behavior is ethical. Others disagree. What do you think? Why do you think asking the Times would change anything?

If I were in your place, I would consider what I would do about this situation beyond talking and writing newspaper columnists. I would look at the disagreement as a chance to build your relationship with them, learn their perspectives, and, if I disagreed, either learn to accept and celebrate the differences, try to influence them, or focus our relationships on other issues. As for yourself, I would ask myself what I thought, try to understand my values more, and use that understanding to live more consistently with my values. I believe that’s why the phrase “Know thyself” has stood the test of time and shows no sign of being replaced by “Know others’ selves more than thyself.”

The New York Times Answer: Global advertisers are expected to spend around $538 billion this year, operating on the premise that words and images can influence the decisions people make. This being the case, it’s naïve to argue that the words and images in film and on television — words and images people actually want to consume — don’t have an even greater potential to shape how we think and live. It’s absolutely possible that a fictitious movie could prompt a real human to do something crazy or adopt a problematic worldview. But this is an abstract risk, not a scientific inevitability. And that raises a different set of ethical issues.

If I throw a brick off the roof of my apartment building, I know it will fall at 9.8 meters per second squared. My building is tall, so I know that if the brick hits someone on the head, that person will almost certainly die. There is no disputing this. But what if I made a movie about a man who loves throwing bricks off tall buildings? It’s possible that someone might watch my film and decide to toss an actual brick off an actual roof or simply become desensitized to the horror of random brick-tossing. Yet it’s far more likely that this would not happen. That relationship is not concrete. So the question over violent films is this: Does the artistic value of the product justify the very small risk that an unreasonable person might take the film too seriously?

This is a situation in which motive matters. If a director makes a propaganda film that actively instructs people to commit violence — well, that would be self-evidently wrong. But this is almost never the case. Artists usually have a different intent. And as long as artists are sincere about those intentions, they have an ethical right to employ imagery that could be subjectively misinterpreted. Charles Manson supposedly believed that a Beatles album was commanding him to initiate a race war, but it would be insane to view the making of the White Album — and all albums like it — as a potentially unethical act. And while I realize the cinematic image of a person committing murder is less open to interpretation than the lyrics to “Helter Skelter,” the principle is the same: You can’t self-censor art based on the possibility that some people might misunderstand the point.

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