The Black Hole (Phil and Olly, 2008) – a short, but perfectly formed, exploration of metaphysics and greed. Enjoy!
The Black Hole (Phil and Olly, 2008) – a short, but perfectly formed, exploration of metaphysics and greed. Enjoy!
Karl Marx stated, ‘the philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. Marx’s sentiment is, I think, shared by many; philosophy can be seen to be an abstract pursuit, and philosophers far-removed from everyday concerns. One philosopher who cannot, however, be accused of such abstraction is Peter Singer. Singer is rightly heralded as a philosopher at the forefront of Applied Ethics, the area where philosophy comes into direct contact with ‘the real world’.
In Examined Life, Astra Taylor places Singer at the heart of Manhattan, among boutiques and fast-food joints. Against this backdrop of wanton consumerism, Singer presents some of his most significant contributions to the field. In his Famine, Affluence, and Morality (1972), Singer asks us to consider the following argument:
We cannot argue with the validity of the argument here; but, if we are to establish its soundness, we must ensure the truth of the premises, thereby guaranteeing the truth of the conclusion. Now, premise 1 seems to me to be uncontroversial. There are few who would doubt that suffering and avoidable death are bad things. In support of premise 2, Singer provides his famous pond thought-experiment:
If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
I think we must all agree that anyone refusing to rescue the child, on account that he would ruin his clothing, would be considered a moral monster. Yet Singer’s point is that most of us act in such a reprehensible way most of the time, by, for example, spending money on luxury clothing rather than sending the same money to help save starving children. The fact that these children are thousands of miles away, or that there are many others who could help them, makes no significant difference to Singer.
Firstly, aid agencies and NGOs have frameworks in place that can deliver aid quickly and effectively across thousands of miles. This option may not have been open to us in the past but is now. Some may state that, even though it is possible to help others in faraway places, charity should still ‘begin at home’. While this may have made sense in the past, Singer believes that we ought to have more concern for those in absolute poverty in the third world, rather than the relative poverty of those in developed countries.
Secondly, the fact that there are others who can help is irrelevant. Suppose, for example that there were other people around the aforementioned pond, equally able to help but doing nothing. Does that mean that I should not help the drowning child? As such, unless we believe that our wearing designer clothes, driving executive cars, or eating in expensive restaurants is of more moral importance that the suffering and death of millions of people around the world, it seems clear that we ought to sacrifice some of these things in order to help out. Furthermore, most of us in the developed world are fortunate enough to be in a position to make this sacrifice (premise 3), therefore, we must accept the conclusion of the argument. But what exactly would this mean for us and how we live our lives?
Giving money to the starving would no longer be an act of charity, it would be our duty. Where would our obligation stop? Would we have to give maximally, until the point that what we are sacrificing is of more moral importance that the bad we are helping prevent? Although these are indeed questions to which Singer must respond, it seems clear that the least we can do is to do more than we are already doing: a portion of our income; giving up a holiday; eating out less often; having less pairs of shoes, etc. It is likely that such sacrifice would be enough to alleviate the suffering in the world to a level where no further is needed. Peter Singer donates 25% of his salary to charity; he suggests that those of us that can afford it donate too, even if only 1% of our income. Please see Singer’s The Life You Can Save site for further details.
Why should we act morally? Why should we ‘do the right thing’ if we could do the wrong thing and get away with it? Imagine a situation where you find yourself able to get something that you desperately desire, provided you lie, steal, or perhaps even murder. Would you do it? Why? Why not? Is the only reason we ever act in accordance with justice due to our fear of being caught and punished? These are some of the questions addressed in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Astra Taylor’s Examined Life may just appear to be just another philosophy documentary (not that there are nearly enough of them). What I mean by this is that we may be tempted to consider it as merely a vehicle for philosophers to convey their ideas; ideas that could be just as well conveyed through print (or even radio or podcast). However, there’s more to it than that. Examined Life places contemporary philosophers in contexts that force us to consider the relevance and, sometimes, urgency of the arguments they make.
Dogtooth (Kynodontas) is the third feature directed by Giorgas Lanthimos. Released in 2009, it received international acclaim, winning the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes before being nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite these accolades, Dogtooth is a film that many will find unsettling, disturbing even. While it features scenes of incest and violence, this is not, in my view, the source of the discomfort viewers will feel. This is, rather, due to the fact that Dogtooth is what I will call a philosophical film.
Imagine a procedure whereby you could rid yourself of troubling memories. Suppose that you could have particular people or traumatic events erased from your mind. This is the basis for Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where just such a procedure helps rid tormented souls of the memories of their lost loves. If the science-fiction like technology shown in Eternal Sunshine was available, ought we to use it? Under what circumstances, if any, would we be justified in erasing our memories?
Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) provides a striking illustration of Marx’s theory of Alienation.
Modern Times opens with a shot of a clock-face, the second-hand rushing towards 6 (am we suppose) and determining the start of the working day. This is followed by a shot of workers filing into a factory, cut with a shot of sheep being led to the slaughter (a superb example of intellectual montage), with the notable black sheep representing our hero.
When we first see Charlie he is working on an assembly line. This type of modern assembly line was actually developed by Henry Ford in the early twentieth century and, as such, is post-Marx (who is writing about factory production and increasing industrialisation in the mid-nineteenth century). However, through the innovation of Ford, we perhaps see Marx’s fears most clearly realised.
Chaplin’s comic portrayal of an assembly line worker illustrates Marx’s view concerning mechanisation due to the division of labour. The machines here do not aid Charlie’s work (he is a bolt-tightener) but rather determine the nature of his boring yet demanding task. The process of labour is entirely outwith the worker’s control; he is unable even to stop to sneeze without causing the production line to grind to a stop, much to the annoyance of his co-workers and foreman. It’s not just the workers that struggle either. Even the capitalist factory owner seems to have problems; popping pills as he sits in his panopticon attempting to maximise production.
Marx’s point about the product of labour as power that confronts the worker is captured brilliantly in the seminal scene where Charlie is sucked into the machinery, and passes through the cogs and wheels. Furthermore, the film demonstrates how the assembly line actively transforms Chaplin from a man into a machine. At first we see his body twitch and jerk, as a result of the repetitious work; but later his transformation is complete, as he views the world around him solely in terms of his labour. Chaplin’s physical and mental mechanisation is complete – he has become a bolt-tightening machine.
Modern Times is, in my view, a superb example of what film can bring to the philosophical table. It does more than merely provide a vehicle for Marx’s views on alienation; it actually shows what it means for a man to be turned into a machine – albeit overemphasised for comic effect.
The arguments of French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) have had an enormous impact on philosophy. In what follows, Descartes arguments will be examined through the contemporary viewfinder of Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los Ojos (1997). The intention, however, is not to use the film as a mere vehicle for conveying Descartes’ thought, but rather to consider whether the particular context that Amenábar provides, and the nature of film itself, can enhance our understanding and and provide fresh insight into the issues that Descartes raises.
Tuesday 5 – Tuesday 26 March 2013
The relationship between philosophy and film is as old as film itself. Initially, philosophers concerned themselves with questions on the nature of the medium: Can film be art? What is film’s connection with reality? How does film engage our emotions? While such discussions contribute greatly to our understanding of film, they tend to overlook the contribution that film itself can make to philosophy.
More recently, philosophers have begun to take seriously the claim that certain films may themselves be considered as works of philosophy. A philosophical film, like philosophy itself, will likely cause us to question ourselves, and the world around us. It may provide more questions than answers; yet, in doing so, it will expand our ideas and allow us to view familiar things in unfamiliar ways.
This short season features four of the most original and thought-provoking films of recent years. Join us as we explore philosophical issues such as knowledge and belief (Dogtooth), language and meaning (Pontypool), faith (Sound of my Voice), and objective truth (Catfish). Each screening will be preceded by a short introduction by James Mooney and will be followed by an opportunity to discuss the themes addressed.
Buy tickets for all four films in this season and get 25% off. For further details and to book online, go to the Filmhouse website: http://www.filmhousecinema.com/seasons/filmosophy/
In Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Leonard Shelby suffers from a very particular disability. When he and his wife are attacked, Leonard suffers a head injury which renders him unable to form new memories. In considering Leonard’s condition, it is possible to examine how important memory is in making us who we are, and in ensuring the continuation of our identity over time.
Ever wanted to be someone else? What would it be like to be someone else? In Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999), Craig (John Cusack), a struggling puppeteer, stumbles upon a portal that allows those who enter it the experience of ‘being John Malkovich’ – or does it?