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Bioethics at the MoviesReview - Bioethics at the Movies
by Sandra Shapshay (Editor)
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009
Review by Hannah Hardgrave, Ph.D.
Apr 13th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 15)

Having eagerly anticipated Sandra Shapshay's Bioethics At the Movies, I am delighted  to find my expectations more than fulfilled  The twenty-one essays, together with an excellent introduction by  Shapshay, are a welcome addition to the bioethics literature,  making up for some of the deficiencies of the usual case studies found in most bioethics text books.  Most of the major distinctions, problems, and arguments which make up the field of bioethics are presented in uniformly well written essays typically focusing on a single film.  Each essay is accompanied by study questions and excellent bibliographies.  I have used some on these essays in both undergraduate and graduate courses and I intend to use this book in the fall as the main text of a course called, not surprisingly "Bioethics at the Movies" 

Shapshay's introduction deserves careful attention.  In it she gives a general justification for using films in philosophy courses with a focus on Bioethics. Building on the work of Mulhall's and Nussbaum's work on the moral significance of narratives, Shapshay suggests that films enable viewers to acquire "an emotional understanding of people unlike themselves."  (P.4) The example she uses is the plight of the poor illegal immigrants depicted in Dirty, Pretty Things but the homeless people used as guinea pigs in Extreme Measures provides another example.  If this were all that the films depict, they would be closer to propaganda, but they also allow the villains (Senor Juan "Sneaky" and Dr Myrick respectively) to defend their practices.  In both films, it is (poorly argued) utilitarianism which ends up getting the short end of the stick. The villains are guilty of bad reasoning rather than bad character, a useful lesson for students. Even when the moral problem is quite black and white, the films still show a situation which is much more complicated than do the case studies, modeled after medical histories, which are the usual examples found in textbooks.  In this sense the fictional situations of films are more lifelike than the typical cases in medical ethics. When using case studies (or in my experience engaging in clinical consultations) students and participants always want more information, often about motives, which is unavailable. In studying ethics in films what you see is all the information there is, and, as these essays illustrate, it is often sufficient to provide the background for sophisticated analyses of the moral problems.

Shapshay proposes three functions of film in bioethics: pedagogical, interpretive and experimental.  I have used films in my medical ethics courses and have found them to be the best means of introducing students to the abstract concepts and arguments of bioethics. Students are better able to focus on the concrete details of films and are more willing to make moral judgments about fictional characters than about real life situations. The film itself can be treated as the object of critical thinking which is often very difficult for students to practice; films force the student to see both sides of moral problems rather than devoting all their efforts to defending their own views. The essays provide examples of how to approach the moral problems depicted in a film.  The two essays on Million Dollar Baby show that the same film may be interpreted in two very different ways – is this a film about the permissibility of assisted suicide or is it a film which expresses  a demeaning attitude toward disabled individuals?  The articles on Gattaca by Shapshay and Gavaghan  provide an analysis of  the thought experiment depicted in the film about the moral permissibility of genetic enhancement..  These paired essays will, I believe, be most valuable in teaching students to see that the formulation of a moral issue found in a particular situation presupposes an interpretation of that situation; it is not simply a given.  One of the few disappointments I have with the anthology is that it does not have more paired essays.

I have had considerable experience using some of the films discussed in the anthology and find that the essays contribute significantly to my understanding as well as aiding students to understand the moral issues.  I have used the film Extreme Measures more times than I care to admit, but Eberl's discussion of the use of tainted  experimental data (found in the literature discussing  the use of results from Nazi medical experiments) in terms of Thomas Aquinas's analysis of  moral scandal was new to me and adds significance to the last scene of the film.  McConnell's article on Wit , a film based on  play,  is vital in enabling students who for the most part identify so much with the suffering of the character Vivian that they see the researchers as moral monsters to respond to the film less with a gut reaction and more reflectively..  Wit is an exception to my claim that films humanize even the villains and McConnell's interpretation of the film deepens it and frees it from the accusation that it is simply a biased tear-jerker.

Although all of the essays are well written, I do have reservations about some of them.  Despite the fact that Nobis recognizes the problem in interpreting the film Babe as an argument for vegetarianism, I cannot agree with his interpretation of the film.  It's not simply that pigs don't talk, it is that narratives are, as Aristotle said, imitations of actions, human actions; all fictional narratives about animals, however charming they are, anthropomorphize the animal to a greater or lesser extent.  I also have to demur on the use of the film Soylent Green despite Burstein's valiant attempt to redeem it. I could not insist that my students watch what is a pretty wretched movie. Nonetheless, both essays are worth a thoughtful reading.

Obviously I am excited about using Bioethics at the Movies in my graduate course this coming fall, and I hope to provide an addendum to this review, relating my use of these essays.  My only regret is that so many relevant films are not included, both older ones like the viciously funny Hospital and more recent ones like Extraordinary Measures and My Sister's Keeper. I can only hope that Shapshay is preparing a sequel to this excellent anthology.             

 

© 2010 Hannah Hardgrave, Ph.D.

 

Hannah Hardgrave, Ph.D. Department of Philosophy, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem NC 27109


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