“Ethics Matters”: A New TV Series
Dr. Dan Halliday is a political philosopher at the University of Melbourne. Recently he has presented a TV Series, Ethics Matters, that investigates live philosophical issues under a number of topics through interviews with prominent philosophers and ethicists. It’s very good. The series has been playing this month on ABC3 but can be watched online in it’s entirety here.
We spoke to Halliday about the series, some of the issues it raises, and the general topic of philosophy’s role in wider society.
Epoché Magazine: What problems have you been working on lately?
Dan Halliday: I’ve just finished writing a book on inherited wealth, which has been keeping me pretty busy for the last couple of years. Inheritance is one topic where philosophy comes into contact with economics. I’m very drawn to the sort of questions that come up when we ask about justice with respect to how we should regulate the distribution of wealth, markets, and so on. So I’m also writing articles on private education, and co-authoring a textbook on the moral foundations of market society.
E: What were the aims or motivation in putting the show, Ethics Matters, together?
DH: The production company, Snodger Media, already had existing relationship with ABC television: Making a series on philosophy happened to be their next objective, and they settled on it before approaching me about the presenter role. I was attracted to the project largely because I wanted to help do something to introduce young adults to moral and political philosophy. At the moment, we really just rely on students showing up at university and wanting to study the subject, and I thought that working on the series would be a good opportunity to help the profession connect with people. It was also just a chance to do something new and work with some interesting people.
E: In recent decades philosophy seemingly has not done as good a job as the physical sciences, psychology, or history, in promoting itself. However, as you say, I think very rightly, in Ethics Matters, philosophical issues, and the work that philosophers do, is directly pertinent to important and pressing concerns of our day to day life, and our public debates. Is it something about philosophical work itself that makes it difficult to translate to a popular forum like television, or is it just that there simply haven’t been enough attempts, or another reason entirely?
DH: Great question and one I wish I could answer more fully. A lot of people would probably point to the fact that universities often push their staff to concentrate on academic publishing and/or teaching. But this is true of all academic disciplines, including the ones that come up often on television, which you mention. So I would suggest that the relatively low profile of philosophy on our screens could owe something to the fact that relatively few people study philosophy at school or university. If most people working in the television industry didn’t get much acquaintance with philosophy earlier in life, then I suppose they might be less inclined to embark on a production involving philosophy and professional philosophers.
Ultimately, I don’t think philosophy is actually that hard to translate into the television format once you put some thought into it. It may be that much academic writing in philosophy is written in ways that are most intelligible to specialists, but everyone has a stake in the issues.
E: Do you feel optimistic, pessimistic, or ambivalent for a wider social engagement with philosophy in the near future?
DH: Definitely optimistic. Philosophy is hard, but not hard to get into. Public debate often becomes bad-tempered and hostile when it gets onto ethically contentious questions, and no progress gets made. Philosophy can bring some relief here, by encouraging a more disciplined method that moves past the rhetoric and focuses on the actual arguments. Working through a disagreement can become more of a cooperative process and much less of a combative one.
Of course it would help if universities could find ways to support academic philosophers seeking to do more engagement, and I hope that universities find ways to provide this sort of support for their philosophers.
E: In the episode on “Creating Borders” you hint at the following sort of argument: The concept of “a country” is vague, and culture/national identity is dynamic rather than fixed. Therefore, the common claim that countries have a right to exclude migrants for the sake of preserving their culture is not plausible. I feel a leap is made here. Do you care to elaborate on this argument?
DH: Here we’re trying to make a focused point about one way of grappling with an argument. We often hear opposition to migration along the lines of the state having a moral right to ‘self-determination’, and that this right is violated unless we have full ability to refuse entry to migrants. One way to evaluate this argument is to ask what it presupposes. In this case, the idea that excluding people is a way of exercising self-determination makes most sense only if we already accept that a county is in a position to really control the evolution of its culture in the first place, and that it’s a good thing for culture to stay more or less the same. But these are both presuppositions that are worth questioning, even if they can be defended. If culture is going to change anyway, as ideas move across borders, why not let people move across too? Of course, as with many of the arguments that come up in the series, there’s reasonable disagreement about what we should conclude.
E: One of the important ethical concepts in the series is “responsibility”. You make it clear in the episode “Past Injustices” that there is a distinction to be made between accepting responsibility on the one hand, and assuming or admitting guilt on the other. I think this is a very interesting and important distinction, especially looking at the types of issues that were explored in that episode, and the way that fear of guilt is wrapped up in the debate. I’m curious what your position is on what ‘taking responsibility’ consists in?
DH: Philosophers enjoy drawing distinctions. Responsibility is one of those concepts that philosophers love because there are so many varieties of it, conceptually speaking. For example, saying that I’m responsible for looking after my children is not the same thing as saying I’m responsible for committing some specific act. Only the second kind is really about guilt or wrongdoing, whereas the first kind is probably about assigning some sort of duty or role to someone worthy of it (as opposed to when we call someone ‘irresponsible’). As Mick Dodson said in the episode, taking responsibility for the injustices of the past is not about feeling guilty or doling out blame. Instead, it’s about a willingness to understand what’s happened so that we can learn from it, and do a better job in the future.
E: Did you yourself face any dilemmas or concerns of an ethical type in putting the show together?
DH: Ultimately, I don’t think I did. That being said, there were certainly hazards: A lot of the topics we covered are quite emotive, and there’s always a risk that if you present them in the wrong way, then the audience will get alienated and stop watching. But the director was able to use her experience to work out when this hazard was present and took the lead on avoiding it.
E: If there was to be a second season, what further issues would you like to explore?
DH: A second season would be nice if we can all find the time and the funding. This time round, we didn’t manage to fit in anything to do with ethics and violence. Philosophers have had much to say about self-defence, war and terrorism, and these would make for good episodes. And we could probably dig a bit deeper into some questions relating to the big concepts, like freedom and equality. I would also like to do something about patriotism, along the lines of what it is and whether it’s always good. It would also be interesting to discuss whether Australia should remain a monarchy or become a republic, which touches on the question of inheritance (of status, if not wealth).
E: That brings us back around to your upcoming book. Would it be possible to summarize your thesis, or do we have to wait and see?
DH: Sure. In a nutshell, the book makes a case for focusing on the cumulative effects of inheritance. Inheritance poses a problem for social justice when, left unchecked for a long time, it is part of what allows inequality to replicate itself down the generations. Part of what makes inheritance interesting is that there may be reasons to tolerate inequality within single generations (for example, when it reflects differences in choice and effort) while becoming concerned when such inequalities ‘roll over’, so to speak, into the next generation.
This is not exactly a new idea, but it’s been dormant in political philosophy for a long time: There was much discussion of inheritance in the 19th century, but curiously not so much in the 20th century. After World War 2, social mobility was relatively high in developed countries and those who didn’t inherit could often ‘catch up’ with those who did because of faster economic growth and its effects on wages. There’s some evidence that the economics of the 21st century are going to be more like the 19th. Once again, inheritance is becoming important as wages stagnate and wealth inequality grows. The case for taxing inheritance draws on these trends. But a more complete approach needs to grapple with other longstanding philosophical puzzles about how far parents should be allowed to go in benefitting their children. Here there is much that can be said.
So I suppose my book is trying to adapt and update a set of old ideas, while developing some new ones along the way.
E: And what’s next for you?
DH: Well, we’re about to start recording podcasts that will accompany the series, along the lines of a more in depth look at some the themes touched on in the episodes. I’m looking forward to this. Apart from that, it’s back to the usual work of teaching and research in the University.
E: Thanks for your time!