The Ethics of Reality TV
eBook - ePub

The Ethics of Reality TV

A Philosophical Examination

Wendy N. Wyatt, Kristie Bunton, Wendy N. Wyatt, Kristie Bunton

  1. 224 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Ethics of Reality TV

A Philosophical Examination

Wendy N. Wyatt, Kristie Bunton, Wendy N. Wyatt, Kristie Bunton

Dettagli del libro
Anteprima del libro
Indice dei contenuti

Informazioni sul libro

Reality television is continuing to grow, both in numbers and in popularity. The scholarship on reality TV is beginning to catch up, but one of the most enduring questions about the genre-Is it ethical?-has yet to be addressed in any systematic and comprehensive way.

Through investigating issues ranging from deception and privacy breaches to community building and democratization of TV, The Ethics of Reality TV explores the ways in which reality TV may create both benefits and harms to society. The edited collection features the work of leading scholars in the field of media ethics and provides a comprehensive assessment of the ethical effects of the genre.

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Flourishing: Reality TV and a Life of Ethical Excellence

Christopher Meyers
All the best stories are true.1
Or better yet: all the best stories tell truths. Good stories often capture and convey aspects of us and our moral lives far beyond what logical analysis could ever hope to touch.2 The best stories, thus, are inherently normative: they can make our lives better, both through what they teach us and in how they enrich our lives with their beauty.
Stories, even the best ones – the technically best, the rhetorically best, the emotively best – can also, of course, make our lives much worse. They can create or exacerbate bigotry and xenophobia. They can dumb us down. They can scare us into inaction or, worse, into taking dreadful action – recall General Colin Powell’s great story before the United Nations Security Council in 2003, which provided the Bush Administration’s (purported) justification for invading Iraq.
Stories can be told through a wide range of media – oral narratives, plays, songs, novels, newspaper accounts, film and reality TV – and there is no inherent moral difference among them. Theatre can be exploitive and demeaning – consider myriad live sex shows – or raise us to the heights of a William Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill or Tony Kushner. Television, similarly, can appeal to our basest instincts (think Temptation Island, The Swan and Joe Millionaire) or challenge us intellectually, emotionally and politically (think The Wire, All in the Family and West Wing).
The task given to me with this chapter is to try to determine whether watching reality TV is consistent with a life of ethical excellence or areté.3 For reality TV to be so consistent, it has to satisfy three criteria: (i) it has to contribute to (or at least not undercut) the elements that contribute to excellence; (ii) it cannot cause undue harm; and (iii) it cannot treat persons with disrespect. My conclusion: reality TV is not inconsistent with areté; that is, reality TV, in its current form at least, does not significantly violate either of the central ethical conditions (avoid harm and respect persons), nor – assuming one has balance in one’s life – does it essentially corrupt any of the elements. In fact, I take the conclusion a step further: Some reality TV actually contributes to an ethical life in the same way other good narratives do, namely, by directly promoting three of the elements: learning, sociality and pleasurable play.
Excellence, however, certainly falls along a continuum with respect both to a life’s overall flourishing and to the individual elements that contribute to it. Thus, while some shows detract from areté – either by promoting conditions that diminish flourishing or by treating others as mere means – as long as, again, there is sufficient balance, watching even those shows does not wholly corrupt one’s excellence.
Reality TV does not corrupt one’s excellence because our lives are always in development, moving (one hopes) toward a more excellent state and because very few reality shows will completely fall on one end of the continuum or the other – Pawn Stars is no Iron Chef America, but at least it is better than Jersey Shore,4 which also has at least some redeeming features. The bulk of reality shows reside in the middle, partly contributing to and partly detracting from a flourishing life. Hence, one more time, balance: “It is better to rise from life as from a banquet neither thirsty nor drunken.”5
That reality shows fall on a continuum of flourishing features is part of the reason I think my analysis here has only modest practical import. I do not suggest, for example, that those shows that fall below some mid-point moral criterion should be subjected to social censure, or at least no censure beyond that provided by a marketplace that can choose to shun them. Rather, I see the argument’s primary value as contributing to efforts to increase media literacy, a principal research goal of at least one of this book’s editors:6 The better evaluative tools we have, the better choices we can make and the better we can be at guiding others, especially parents, to make good viewing choices.
Those familiar with the Western tradition in moral theory will recognize I do not rely on a single theoretician. Rather, I use a method of moral reasoning7 that incorporates the insights from the three major camps: (i) Immanuel Kant’s respect for the inherent value of moral rules, especially, here, his “Kingdom of Ends” formulation of the categorical imperative (never treat persons as a mere means, or tool, for the benefit of others, but always as absolutely valuable “ends in themselves”); (ii) John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian exhortation to act so as to promote the greatest aggregate pleasure, particularly higher or intellectual pleasure; and (iii) Aristotle’s virtue theory with its call to each of us to develop our character, to strive for moral and intellectual excellence.
One last introductory point is that how one characterizes “reality television” certainly influences the analysis. Should, for example, Keeping Up with the Kardashians (a show celebrating the antics of a family famous, seemingly, for being famous) be included in the same conceptual category as, say, Mythbusters (which humorously uses a scientific method to test the plausibility of various urban and Hollywood myths)? Both are non-fiction television programs that ostensibly reflect unfiltered, if not unedited, reality and neither relies on professional actors. They are otherwise, however, far apart in content, structure and quality.
Whereas one might wish for an analytic or conceptual definition of reality TV, one that would provide a neat method for clear distinctions, the subject matter simply makes that implausible; the range of types of shows is too wide (and is being expanded almost weekly). My definition, thus, is sociological or descriptive;8 it appeals to how people – producers, critics, journalists, participants and viewers – refer to it. Namely: Reality TV is at least largely unscripted, normally relies on untrained actors, and purports to provide a narrative of ordinary life. This liberal definition also avoids the straw person of focusing only on the worst; a more inclusive definition – keeping Mythbusters9 alongside Kardashians – captures the diverse mix and complexity of the genre. The more inclusive definition is thus both fairer and, it turns out, more sympathetic to reality TV. Within the array of programs that qualify, some morally enhance while others demean, and persons’ lives are made ethically better when they partake of the former and avoid the latter, or at least when they more frequently do so.
Getting to this conclusion requires some foundational work. First, I provide an argument for the relative values of higher and lower pleasures; second, I claim that persons have a duty to strive for arête; and third, I give a brief description of the full set of elements that contribute to areté, with a discussion of how they must in turn be guided by character and practical wisdom. With these elements in place, I then return to show that reality TV can promote some of those conditions, while not fully contradicting any. The last step is to test watching reality TV against the ethical conditions (avoid harm and respect persons), from which I conclude, again, that done in moderation, reality TV is not inconsistent with an excellent life.
Higher and Lower Pleasures
In line with the utilitarian tradition, I take all pleasure to be good, as long as it does not violate the ethical conditions. However, as Mill makes clear, some pleasures are better than others; namely, the higher, intellectual, pleasures are better than the lower, the physical. The higher pleasures are exemplified in many of the elements that make up areté, and they help create the mental capacities necessary for practical wisdom, via which appreciation of those elements is made possible. In short, they are the features that distinguish persons from other animals.
The argument for this (admittedly elitist) view comes from well-known passages in Mill’s Utilitarianism:
Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification… It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others… If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another… there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure… [Thus] it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.10
Much of reality TV gets its appeal through stimulation of the lower pleasures, through erotic titillation, voyeurism and a vicarious amusement with characters’ sexual, alcoholic and violent antics. Contrast this with activities that stimulate physical and mental pleasure – say a great meal with fine, smart friends. Paraphrasing Mill’s argument, those who know and appreciate both kinds of pleasure, those who are essentially experts on the subject, know the latter to be a better pleasure, “and if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” Further, even if for whatever reason one does not immediately experience the intellectual pleasures as better, one’s capacity for flourishing has been enhanced, as per the argument above.
I am not saying, mind you, that physical pleasures are inherently degrading or debased; life would not be as rich, as excellent, without great sex, good wine and hot fudge sundaes. But a life devoted only, or even mainly, to the physical is incomplete.
A Normative Approach to Flourishing
Mill expands upon the “higher pleasures” argument in On Liberty, where he shows how human enhancement, “development,” occurs through the exercise of such intellectual activities. These produce, he says, “different experiments of living,” in which,
the human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best… It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation… Having said that individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Contents
  4. Editors’ Note
  5. Foreword: The Morality of Amoral TV: James Poniewozik
  6. Introduction: Reality TV Matters: Wendy N. Wyatt and Kristie Bunton
  7. 1 Flourishing: Reality TV and a Life of Ethical Excellence: Christopher Meyers
  8. 2 Stereotypes: Reality TV as Both Creator and Confronter: Kristie Bunton
  9. 3 Privacy: What Has Reality TV Got To Hide?: Madeleine Shufeldt Esch
  10. 4 Cultural Values: Reality TV Manufactures Marriage: Mira K. Desai
  11. 5 Community: Reality TV Reaching Out: Gareth Palmer
  12. 6 Inspiration and Motivation: If Reality TV Stars Can Do It, So Can I: Janie Harden Fritz
  13. 7 Commercialization: The Intersection of Economics and Ethics in Reality TV: Bastiaan Vanacker
  14. 8 Deception: Reality TV Playing Us False: Edward H. Spence
  15. 9 Democracy and Discourse: How Reality TV Fosters: Deni Elliott
  16. 10 Exploitation: When Reality TV Becomes Degradation: Wendy N. Wyatt
  17. Conclusion: Reality TV Conveys Responsibilities: Wendy N. Wyatt and Kristie Bunton
  18. Bibliography
  19. Contributors
  20. Index
  21. eCopyright