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The Ethics of…Game of Thrones! May 29, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Film, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Time for some early summer fun; lucky those (like me), for whom fun and work often end up merging, such as in narrative ethics. And I’ve found the HBO series Game of Thrones to be seriously fun, once you get into the fictional, pseudo-historical universe. (Haven’t read any of the books yet—I understand the TV series is deviating from the original in increasingly dramatic ways.) If anybody wants to catch up on the series before the season finale on Sunday, HBO is running the entire season this week. You can have an early-summer GoT marathon—and afterwards you can acquire a copy of Game of Thrones and Philosophy from Blackwell, which I have just ordered as a light summer read! If you are not worried about reading a spoiler article, take a look at Time’s review of episode 9, “Game of Thrones Watch: Smoke on the Water, Fire in the Sky” (those of you over 50 can start humming now…). It contains good character analyses, and a particularly insightful view of the character who emerges as the real focal point of the story, Tyrion Lannister:

I was on the verge of calling Tyrion’s behavior “heroic,” but that’s not really the term. Notably, we see that this is not Tyrion rising to his true calling or discovering that it is a far, far greater thing her does, &c., &c. It’s a practical decision, in that if the defenders of the city are not inspired, he will die. He plays the part (and Peter Dinklage does) masterfully, but he rouses his men with a purely practical argument too: “Don’t fight for your king, and don’t fight for his kingdoms. Don’t fight for honor, don’t fight for for glory. Don’t fight for riches, because you won’t get any.”

And the reviewer could/should have added what comes next—what Tyrion tells his army: “Fight for your homes.” Because Tyrion may be pragmatic, but he is not altogether a cynic.

All in all, it is a story about moral decisions, big and small—split-second decisions that come from the heart, or weighed by a calculating mind, and which all have consequences. Some decisions are made from a utilitarian, some from a deontological stance. Lots of ethical egoism in there, too, and just knee-jerk egoism. And some characters are pure at heart, and we see their ethic of care, their virtue ethics unfold, such as Sansa who from being a victim all of a sudden finds strength in helping others.

And so forth! If you’re looking for a joyride this week, leading up to the season finale on Sunday (and have cable), watch the 9 shows on HBO and look for all the moral, immoral and amoral viewpoints swirling around. A well-told tale, well acted, just right for some summer speculations about fictional problems of fictional characters.

Enjoy your summer!




Friday Food Blogging: Food Justice and Philosophy May 8, 2009

Posted by Ian Duckles in Culture, Education, Film, Food and Drink, Teaching.
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Last weekend I attended the informative and inspiring Cultivating Food Justice Conference at City College. In addition to building a solar oven and learning how to make tempeh, the conference got me thinking again about the insane food policy we have in this country; a food policy in which the government encourages US farmers, through subsidies,  to grow food that makes us sick, malnourished, and obese (yes, you read that correctly, many people in in the US and around the developed world are both obese and malnourished at the same time! See also Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me).  In addition, though there is much more to learn, it is starting to appear that the swine flu Influenza A H1N1 has at least some relationship to industrial hog farming. All of this suggests a system that stands in need of major reform, but the question that emerged for me from the conference was, what can I do about it? I am already a vegetarian (some fish, some eggs), I grow food in my backyard, my neighbor supplies us with fresh eggs from her chickens, and I live a block and a half from the greatest, most socially responsible grocery store I have ever seen: Ocean Beach People’s Food Co-op. So, aside from changes in my own life, what can I do to affect the community at large?

It seems to me that one of the biggest problems facing reform in our country is that many people don’t quite realize how bad things have gotten. Few people ever experience a modern industrial farm and many still have a romanticized ideal of farmers, not realizing that most farms are run by large agribusinesses and that the family farm is (with some exceptions) a lost relic of the last century. Fortunately, in recent years there have been a number of important books and films that seek to shed light on the problems facing our country and also suggest some solutions.

One answer to the question of what to do that immediately occurred to me as a professional philosopher and teacher is to take a more active role in exposing my students to these issues and topics. One of the great things about being a philosopher is that there is, essentially, no topic that is out of bounds for philosophical investigation. Theologians shouldn’t really talk about science, scientists should probably stay away from religion, but as philosophers all these topics and more are fair game. Thus, I have decided that I need to take a more active role in incorporating issues of food justice into my courses. Since I mainly teach critical thinking, this is fairly easy to do.

More generally, I think it would be a great deal of fun to try and teach a course on the philosophy of food. Clearly, in the current economic situation, the idea of introducing a new course that doesn’t immediately suggest a transfer of credits to the UC’s or Cal States is ludicrous, but a fellow can dream. I think such a course could begin with an examination of philosophically significant theories of justice (Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Rawls; the usual suspects). Then, in the second part of the course, we would apply these theories to various issues surrounding food and food policy. Fortunately, there is a plethora of recent books and films that would provide excellent material to examine. A partial bibliography might include:

I think this would make a great course that many students would really enjoy (especially if I incorporated some “labs” and field trips intot he curriculum).

Maybe a Brockovich Moment? April 4, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Film, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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I watched part of Erin Brockovich yesterday, and caught one of the best moments in the film—a really stellar movie moment—where the female corporate lawyer at the Big Meeting is trying to marginalize Erin’s concern for the drinking water while lifting a glass of water to her lips. Erin points out that the water could come from the contaminated area, and the woman pauses, looks at the water glass, and puts it down, with a look of terror and defeat on her face. This is a “Golden Rule” moment: How would you like it if you were the one about to lose your uterus, or your life, because of contaminants? The reason I bring this up is because of the news that baby formula, here in the U.S., has been found to contain low levels of a chemical also used in rocket fuel, perchlorate—all 15 brands tested. Now this is not exactly a melamine story, or even a contaminated-peanuts story. Nothing was added deliberately, or a contaminant ignored, for profit.

Perchlorate has been found in the water supplies of 35 states and has been detected in everything from vegetables to milk. In the case of dairy, the rocket fuel in the water flows into grass, which is eaten by cows, and is then passed along into milk.

And the Environmental Protection Agency says the levels are safe. But the concern is that not only does the formula contain the chemical in powder form; when it gets mixed with water (with local perchlorate) the contamination increases.

CDC researchers write that “this is reassuring at first glance,” but add that it could be problematic because drinking water in 26 states has high perchlorate levels. So, mixing contaminated powdered milk with contaminated water in those places could result in a dangerous exposure.


The current study was done in one (unnamed) city only, so it could simply be that that city is the one with the problem. Maybe. But how did perchlorate get into the water supply? The ABC News article quoted here doesn’t say, and neither does a New York Times report on the same story. So maybe it has a natural origin? This is what I’ve been able to find, from the CA Department of Toxic Control’s website: It’s partly naturally occurring, in caliche, but mostly found in fertilizer and, yes, rocket fuel. And it is really prevalent in California. But the news articles I read don’t say if the chemical is removed by water filters, or whether it is also present in bottled water. A lot of us simply don’t drink tap water, anyway. So is this the time to declare that our babies are slowly being poisoned? For some researchers and politicians, the EPA’s levels of safety are too high, and need to be revised. Others, such as Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana from U. of Washington and a Seattle children’s hospital, says that this concern may be premature:

“Considered in isolation, these perchlorate concentrations in formula are not concerning for child health,” Sathyanarayana wrote in an e-mail to ABC News. “The reason that some may be concerned about health effects to children is that there are several sources of perchlorate in our environment … and, therefore, the cumulative dose of perchlorate to an infant may be much higher than that found in the formula.”

“That being said,” she added, “the most well-respected studies (only a handful exist) on perchlorate contamination have not found any link between perchlorate contamination in water and health impacts in children. Therefore, we truly do not know if this kind of contamination may be leading to health problems or not.”

 This may be another Alar scare (remember that? 1980s. Nobody dared eat apples because of a low-level carcinogenic chemical used to spray fruit. The concern was not unfounded, but blown out of proportion, according to some. As a result, Alar was removed from fruit production). And let’s face it, media scare stories get a lot of attention. I’m adding to it myself right here…This is an incomplete story. We need knowledge, not suspicion, hysteria, or paranoia. Sometimes chances are worth taking if the benefits are great, on social as well as personal levels. We all know that. But once we have solid knowledge (not “opinion,” or doxa, as Socrates would have said), we need to apply the Brockovich test, as part of our evaluation process: Even if it is statistically safe for, say, tens of thousands, would you agree for your own baby to be number 100,001, the statistical victim?

Who is John Galt? Clay, or Pitt? March 29, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Film, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

You may have seen bumper stickers around the country—not as many now as in previous decades, but I think we are likely to see more of them: “Who is John Galt?” Some of you will know that John Galt is one of the main characters in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s novel from 1957, and in the novel the question of John Galt’s identity is increasingly important as the plot develops. And perhaps, after more than 50 years, we will actually get to see a film based on Atlas Shrugged! Amazingly, this American classic hasn’t been officially visualized yet, but it isn’t for lack of trying: According to Wikipedia, attempts to boil the mammoth novel down to movie size have been underway since 1972, and Rand herself was working on the screenplay when she died ten years later. And now Lionsgate is striving to bring it to a theater near you in 2009, with (possibly) Angelina Jolie as Dagny Taggart. Can Jolie portray a literary hero of mythical stature? We shall see. I’d probably prefer someone else as Dagny, but I’ll watch it, and I plan on being magnanimous and ready to welcome an even partially good film. Reading about the production on the IMDB (Internet Movie Database) website made me curious: the elusive but all-important character of John Galt has two actors listed: Brad Pitt (“rumored,” it says), and an unknown, Jamie Clay. Now it isn’t likely that John Galt will be portrayed by two people, so what’s up? It turns out to be a prank: Jamie Clay is not an actor, but he is an Ayn Rand fan with friends who have a sense of humor, and they posted his name on IMDB as the new incarnation of John Galt. In this (supposedly authentic) letter posted on the Ayn Rand website The Atlasphere Clay tells the story, and claims they’d have to torture him to play John Galt. Apparently IMDB was informed that it was a prank, and the name disappeared, only to reappear again.

Now why is this worth blogging about? Because it is, in a sense, completely in the spirit of Ayn Rand, and Atlas Shrugged. In the novel the identity of John Galt is a mystery to all but a select few, and now the movie hype is reviving the Galt mystery, apparently inadvertently.  In Old Hollywood of 50 years ago, such a mystery would have been created on purpose as part of the hype, and the tabloids would have been guessing as to the actor’s identity. Today the Internet picks up a story and it acquires a life of its own—free advertising for Lionsgate. Even so, it amuses this mostly cynical heart of mine; in a universe of conspiracies, I think Jamie Clay would probably be John Galt: Double disinformation. For those who really care, some Ayn Rand fans would rather see Christian Bale than Brad Pitt as John Galt…

Dangerous Stories December 8, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Film, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Isn’t this exciting! We have a new movie getting folks all upset, again. I’m referring to The Golden Compass, based on a series of books (His Dark Materials) by Philip Pullman. The last time I saw this kind of concern over the religious impact of a movie was when The Chronicles of Narnia came out, but that was a different crowd voicing their concerns. The Golden Compass (which I must admit I have neither read, nor seen yet) supposedly advocates atheism, although the author, a British “self-proclaimed atheist,” says he was just telling a story. In particular, Catholic groups worry that parents might take their kids to see a cute movie with talking animals, and be inadvertently exposed to an anti-religious message, thus being indoctrinated with atheism. Now flip to the The Chronicles of Narnia discussion a few years ago (fabulous Wikipedia article), where some media commentators voiced concerns that children would be exposed to a story of sacrifice reminiscent of Christ when watching a cute movie with talking animals, thus being indoctrinated with Christianity. There were also Christian groups worrying that Narnia would convert children to paganism. All this worry about stories, in a time of a Culture War—what luxury, that we can take time out for these kinds of concerns when terrorists are at our gates, and our climate seems to be going haywire, for whatever reason.

           So let’s enjoy the luxury and put this in perspective: We are, with the phrase coined by Alasdair MacIntyre, “storytelling animals.” Stories have been the favorite way to express world views, as far back as we can trace myths and legends, and sometimes these world views collide. Good stories generally have several levels, the plot level, and the level of deeper meaning(s). Is it possible to enjoy a well-told plot while disagreeing with the message? Of course it is—it is one of those nicely challenging cultural moments where one’s brain actually gets a workout. Can it be dangerous for gullible minds to be exposed to stories that may sway them in a new direction? Yes indeed, that’s what we call propaganda. Sometimes the danger is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes we have to resort to the theory that there actually is an underlying set of good values that we should all subscribe to, and that some stories are harmful in themselves if they espouse a lack of respect for other human beings (that ought to be another blog thread).

But the bottom line is that stories are great vehicles for discussing cultural values. There are stories kids shouldn’t be exposed to, because they don’t understand them yet, or because the stories are downright obnoxious—but stories with multiple levels, told well, can be wonderful opportunities for adults to have real conversations with kids about the deeper things—and in addition, the adult may get something out of it, either as a confirmation of one’s own set of values, or a challenge to them. But maybe that’s one reason why “concerned” groups harp on movies—it’s a hassle to have to explain them to their kids…


The Commitments April 24, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Ethics, Film.
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No, not the band. This is for Netflix addicts. I watched an interesting film called Downfall, a dramatization of Hitler’s bunker during his final days, as remembered by his personal secretary. The usual suspects, Goebbels, Himmler, Speer, etc. make appearances along with their wives and children, and a variety of ordinary Germans caught up in the madness. The film humanizes these monsters but there is much to be learned from it.

The film graphically portrays the danger of the idea of total commitment, promoted sometimes by existentialists, especially Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard advanced the idea that freedom and genuine subjectivity are possible only with total, passionate commitment. In Downfall, although most of the characters are wholehearted Nazis, and the realm of the ethical is not much in evidence, a few of the characters in the film seem genuinely in control of their lives and are capable of a modicum of moral insight. These few held apparently something of themselves in reserve, and did not wholly define themselves in terms of National Socialism and the aims of the Reich. They were believers with few moral qualms but maintained the sense that they were independent selves, not consumed by loyalty or dedication. Perhaps holding something in reserve is necessary for moral insight.