Professor draws upon popular culture to illustrate today’s moral issues

April 4, 2008

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In a popular episode of "The Simpsons," Homer secures an illegal, free cable television hookup. Lisa is appalled by her father's crime and faces an ethical crisis. She announces her moral objection to stealing and refuses to watch the stolen cable TV programming.

Daniel Bonevac
Dr. Daniel Bonevac, professor of philosophy, has published articles on ethics, metaphysics, logic and the philosophy of mathematics. He is the author of several books, including "The Art and Science of Logic" and "Worldly Wisdom."

Homer later complains to Marge: "There's something wrong with that kid. She's so … moral. Why can't she be more like … well, not like Bart … but there's got to be a happy medium."

It's a funny moment in the Emmy award-winning episode, "Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment," that points to a major philosophical conundrum, says Dr. Daniel Bonevac, professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin. According to Bonevac, Homer raises an intriguing Aristotelian dilemma by asking the question, can one be too moral?

"For Aristotle, virtue is essentially the mean between two extremes," Bonevac says. "Homer's question offers a great way to explain this abstract ideal in a way that really resonates with students."

Bonevac specializes in making philosophy relevant. For more than 15 years, he has used "The Simpsons" and other examples from film and television to teach esoteric philosophical concepts in the class, "Contemporary Moral Problems." Bonevac's willingness to engage popular culture may explain why the class is one of the most sought-after philosophy courses at the university.

"In teaching philosophy, you need common stories to refer to that illuminate theoretical ideas," Bonevac explains. "In the past, Bible stories, Greek myths and Shakespeare performed this cultural role. What common stories can we rely on today? The best example I can think of is 'The Simpsons.'"

The Simpsons
"The Simpsons" (1989- ), an animated sitcom created by Matt Groening, parodies American culture, politics and society. Courtesy 20th Century Fox Television.

Teaching the D'oh! of Homer

One of Bonevac's favorite episodes is, "Homer the Vigilante," which he says illustrates John Locke's approach to the state of nature. In the episode, Homer forms a vigilante posse to combat the Springfield cat burglar.

"Homer's actions highlight Locke's argument that, without governmental authority, people would band together in private associations to protect themselves," Bonevac says. "But they also reveal why that doesn't solve the problem. Homer's gang quickly spirals out of control, prompting Lisa to wonder, 'Who will police the police?'"

To engage students in the philosophical debate on the nature of the soul, Bonevac screens the episode, "Bart Sells His Soul," which raises penetrating questions about the soul's existence and value. Philosophers and theologians have pondered the elusive concept throughout history.

"In many ways, philosophy is the most abstract of all disciplines," Bonevac admits. "It addresses very general questions such as: What is real? How do we know? What should we do? But philosophy also is the most practical of all disciplines because it aims at wisdom. Living wisely, displaying good judgment, and understanding yourself and your surroundings are the keys to living well."

Daniel Bonevac
Characters in the television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1997-2003), represent philosophical archetypes, Bonevac says.

Another pop culture example that appeals to students is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," a television show Bonevac's teenage daughters introduced him to in the late 1990s. After viewing several episodes, the scholar found that each of the characters tended to represent a different philosophical ideal, making it an excellent tool for illustrating how ideals translate into behaviors.

"Buffy represents the Kantian viewpoint, that all life is precious," Bonevac explains, "and she's in constant conflict with her watcher Giles, who represents the Utilitarian viewpoint. For example, Buffy isn't willing to kill one innocent person, even to save the entire world. Giles is, and does.

"Meanwhile, Willow is an Aristotelian, worrying about how it's possible to be virtuous in a world full of evil. And Xander represents common sense, which, at some crucial moments, saves the day. The tension between these perspectives pervades the whole series, so there are many examples to draw upon."

Tradition of Engagement

The university's Department of Philosophy has a long history of engaging popular culture and making philosophy relevant to today's issues, Bonevac says. He was chairman of the department from 1991 to 2001 and led a diverse faculty that included the late Robert Solomon.

Waking Life
Philosophy Professors Robert Solomon and David Sosa appeared in the animated film "Waking Life."

video icon Watch Solomon discuss Existentialism and Sosa discuss free will on YouTube.

Many of Solomon's best-known works, "Spirituality for the Skeptic" and "The Joy of Philosophy," were written with the lay reader in mind.

Both Solomon and David Sosa, now chairman of the department, appeared in Richard Linklater's 2001 film, "Waking Life." In the animated feature, Solomon discussed the relevance of Existentialism in a postmodern world while Sosa addressed the problem of free will.

"Bob was a legendary teacher who engaged students with literature, films and popular culture, as well as philosophical texts," Bonevac says. "His course on Existentialism was a model of how to get students excited about philosophical issues."

Another professor who confronts the intersection between philosophy and popular culture is Tara Smith. She studies Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, revealed in her novels, "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," as well as philosophical essays. According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress, "Atlas Shrugged" is the second most influential book for Americans today, after the Bible.

Translating Philosophy's Relevance

Cover of Rand's book 'Atlas Shrugged'
Ayn Rand's magnum opus, "Atlas Shrugged" (1957), explores philosophical themes such as individualism, free will, logic, self-interest and reason.

Yet, Bonevac concedes there are still significant barriers to making philosophy relevant to students today. Many philosophy texts are hard to read and principles can be difficult to interpret.

"Reading philosophy is not like reading anything else. Philosophers don't tell many stories. They don't present many facts. They don't tell many jokes," Bonevac says. "What do philosophers do? They reflect. They ponder. Frequently, they argue. Learning to read philosophy requires a new set of skills."

That's why 10 years ago, Bonevac set out to create a book that would combine theoretical and practical considerations. "Today's Moral Issues: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives" now in its fifth edition, is used by professors in ethics courses across the nation.

The book introduces students to theoretical approaches from heavyweight philosophers such as Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, Locke and John Stuart Mill, and places them in conversation with a wide range of contemporary moral problems from abortion, animal rights, capital punishment, drug legalization, the environment and euthanasia, to free speech, gay marriage, pornography, privacy, racial equality, sexual behavior and war.

Cover of Bonevac's book 'Today's Moral Issues: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives'
Bonevac's book, "Today's Moral Issues: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives" (McGraw-Hill), is used by professors in ethics courses across the nation.

"Looking at these hot-button issues provides students with the opportunity to not only apply philosophical theories to real world examples, but also to test and evaluate them," the scholar says.

The topics that consistently inspire the most discussion and debate in the course are abortion, capital punishment and war, Bonevac adds.

"With the situation in Iraq, war is the most gripping topic students are addressing today," he says. "It's one of the best examples of an issue that enables students to put theory into practice. When you're thinking about questions like, 'Do we attack that city, or not?,' it makes ethical questions very accessible."

Bonevac has taught "Contemporary Moral Problems" for nearly 30 years and more than 10,000 students have passed through the doors of his classroom. However, he warns that the course doesn't offer any easy answers.

"These philosophical approaches don't give you the answers to life's difficult questions," Bonevac concludes. "What they do is tell you what questions you should be asking. My goal by the end of the class is for students to learn how to ask the right questions, so that when they come into contact with any new issue, they have the basic tools to approach the issue from a philosophical point of view, rather than just an emotional or partisan perspective."

By Jennifer McAndrew

Photo of Dr. Bonevac: Christina Murrey

Image on banner graphic: Homer Simpson by Matt Groening,
courtesy 20th Century Fox Television;
"The Thinker" (1902) by Auguste Rodin, Paris, France.