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Wanda Teays in Seeing the Light has written an enthusiastic volume for use as the primary textbook for an introductory class in ethics, both normative and applied. Although intended for a post-secondary audience the text could be used successfully in a secondary educational setting as well.
Teays begins the book with an introduction to the text followed by a brief but useful overview of Aristotle's Poetics in the second chapter. The next fifteen chapters follow the same general format. They begin with a summary of a scene from the principal film under consideration with a brief explanation of the ethical theories or ideas of concern in the chapter. Teays then explores these ideas as represented in a number of films. Using a film based motif, each chapter contains "Spotlights," "Short Takes" and "Outtakes." Spotlights, of which there are two or three in each chapter, provide an extensive (5-7 pages) discussion of each film. "Short Takes" provide a shorter discussion (1-3 pages) while "Outtakes" provide the briefest discussion, typically just a paragraph. A chapter may make use of as many as ten films. Each chapter closes with a short bibliography. The final chapter of the book is a tribute to the benefits of watching films. In addition to the main text the book contains supplemental material including an additional reading list, a list of moral problems and related films used in the book, official websites for the movies and an index. There is also an accompanying website (http://www.exploringethics.com) containing some of the material from the book, teaching resources including a sample syllabus, discussion or essay questions, lecture slides and a blog that is updated about twice a year with material on recent movies.
This book is refreshing in that the films selected are of more recent origin than films often used in classes such as Teays envisions. There is just a brief mention of Ingmar Bergman and no mention of Akira Kurosawa in the text. Since many of the films included are of recent production, many will already be known to students and reflect a style of filmmaking that they readily understand. The large number of films included also gives the instructor great flexibility in which films to have students watch. Teays' interpretations of the films are robust and complex, identifying numerous themes, both those that form the focus of the chapter as well as others. More than once her interpretations made me rethink my own assessment of these films, identifying themes that I had neglected to observe.
Despite these strengths, I would be hesitant to use this as a textbook for my classes. The summary of ideas is often too brief to help students clearly understand the ideas or their implications. The balance of discussion in the text between the content of the film and the content of the ethical theories or problems under consideration skews heavily in favor of the film. Often the explanation of new ideas is just a sentence or two related to the recounting of a scene from the film. This problem makes the book appear less about philosophical ideas and more as an apology for why we watch movies. Movies have deep ideas and therefore it is beneficial for us to watch them. An instructor should not expect to use Seeing the Light without significant supplementation through additional reading materials or lectures if the concern is that students grasp ethical concepts and theories in more than a superficial way.
Additionally, when the ideas do receive substantial treatment they often seem confused or unclear. For example, in Chapter 1.3, "Autonomy and Liberty," Teays writes "Autonomy and liberty are the linchpins of self-determination." A page later we read "At the heart of personal autonomy is self-determination." The relationship between the concepts is circular. The focus of a chapter on autonomy and liberty shifts to self-determination and is the focus of the films discussed in this chapter. Then why not call the chapter "Self-determination?"
One might be further confused by recalling that in Chapter 1.2, "Authenticity," Teays wrote that "authentic individuals think for themselves, rather than follow the dictates of others." Does authenticity just collapse into autonomy or self-determination? The films Teays discusses for authenticity, Groundhog Day and Up in the Air, in her treatment are not foremost about being true to oneself but about living shallow lives, lives that do not seem to reflect an understanding of human nature and the good life that requires relationships with other people. But this approach to human nature and the good life is explicitly rejected by the existential approach to authenticity Teays presents as the proper framework for authenticity.
As a final example of philosophical difficulties in the textbook, I found the chapter on John Rawls confusing. Teays short discussion on Rawls' "justice as fairness" is sandwiched between a discussion of revenge from the films Taken and My Cousin Vinny. As Teays notes undoubtedly Rawls would have "cringe[d] at the idea of revenge being equated with justice." But her attempt to make a connection between revenge and justice for Rawls by relating distributive justice to retributive and compensatory justice fails and ultimately obscures the importance of Rawls' contributions regarding the role of institutions and social structures in the achievement of justice.
Teays is committed to the value that films can add to our understanding of ethics and life. I, however, found her unbounded enthusiasm, surely intended to appeal to students, distracting. I am not convinced that one must write philosophy with double exclamation points to be interesting!!
© Russell W. Askren
Russell W. Askren teaches philosophy at Utah Valley University. He may be reached at [email protected]