Issues in Philosophy Philosophy on the Small Screen

Philosophy on the Small Screen

Ethics Matters is a new television philosophy series that addresses philosophical issues including freedom of expression, ethical consumption, rights, animals, and the environment.  The twelve 12-minute episodes–released on ABC3 and available online–are presented by Dan Halliday, who teaches political philosophy at Melbourne University, and directed by Catherine Gough-Brady.

Interviewees include Elizabeth Anderson, Monima Chadha, Tony Coady, Mick Dodson, Bronwyn Finnigan, Serene Khader, Marcia Langton, Kate McDonald, Luke Russell, Julian Savulescu, Robert Simpson, Peter Singer, Jiewuh Song, Katie Steele, John Tasioulas, Janna Thompson, John Thrasher, and Caroline West.

Christian Barry, professor of philosophy at the Australian National University, also appears on the show and is co-hosting a podcast with Halliday (launching in October) that will explore topics such as the ethics of parental partiality and immigration.  I connected with Catherine, Dan, and Christian about the show.

How did the show come about? 

Catherine Gough-Brady, Producer of Ethics Matters
Catherine Gough-Brady, Producer of Ethics Matters

Catherine Gough-Brady: The ABC approached me a couple of years ago and said they wanted a series on ethics. Initially I said, “Okay, but why don’t I make a series about Australian law?”, because as far as I could see it was the lawyers who were the ones in the public limelight urging us to be more moral, in workplace law, in migration law, pretty well everywhere. After I made Legal Briefs I thought it would be interesting to go deeper into the idea of morality and ethics, and the philosophers were the obvious people to do that with.

Dan Halliday: Once a commitment had been made to make the series, the production company approached philosophers based in Melbourne who might be willing to help out. I was eager to be part of any effort to get philosophy to a wider audience, so was very happy to take on the presenter role when this was offered to me.

Catherine Gough-Brady: Dan has a ‘lean forward’ attitude, I could tell he wanted to engage with people outside of the discipline, and bring philosophy to a wider audience, and that he’d be good at it.

Christian Barry: Dan told me about the idea when it was more or less fully formed—I thought it was a terrific initiative and offered to help in any way I reasonably could. I didn’t realize at the time that it would be so imaginatively and professionally produced–Catherine made the episodes flow and fit together so well, and made them visually interesting.

Caroline West on Ethics Matters
Caroline West on Ethics Matters

The show seems to try hard not to be judgmental, and to present at least two perspectives to each argument, such as the episode on Society which presents egalitarian and libertarian viewpoints.  So, would it be correct to say that the goal is to introduce people to philosophical thinking about big questions and to start conversations?  What other goals do you have for the show?

DH: That’s absolutely right. We wanted to portray philosophy not as warfare but as rising above everyday combative exchange. Disagreement about difficult questions is reasonable, and can also be quite friendly. We want to show that philosophy is a constructive enterprise that brings discipline through reason and logic, which are of course helpful. People often think of arguments as things you win or lose, but they’re better thought of as things that you use to persuade people, or (perhaps better yet) allow yourself to be persuaded by. Doing philosophy is about keeping an open mind and not getting stressed when someone wants to challenge your beliefs or intuitions.

Christian Barry Ethics Matters
Christian Barry, Ethics Matters podcast co-presenter

CB: Yes, a main goal of the show is to help people think, rather than convince them of any particular point of view. When people are not familiar with a question, or not used to thinking about it in the way that philosophers do, it can help them to hear others who are a bit more practiced articulate different and diverse viewpoints. Dan does a great job of weaving all the views of the interviewees into spirited dialogue.

It has been decades since Bryan Magee’s BBC television shows, and last year Michael Sandel hosted The Global Philosopher debates, but Ethics Matters is quite different from these.  Why do you think this hasn’t been done much before? 

DH: There’s definitely less television made about philosophy than about other humanities disciplines, like history, literature, and even classics. And yet philosophical questions are extremely natural ones for humans to ask. To me, this suggests that the lack of television productions in philosophy might be traced to institutional factors rather than real intellectual reasons. As a discipline, I think philosophy is in a situation where members of the profession have concentrated on communicating with each other, which has made it harder to communicate with members of the public. It may just be a matter of momentum: History documentaries get made often because, well, they already get made often and there’s a body of expertise and someone for academics to team up with. I suspect that there’s been a bit of a vicious circle: The lack of philosophy in children’s education may translate into fewer adults in the television industry who have enough familiarity with philosophy to want to give it a go. If there is such a circle, hopefully we’ve done a bit to break it and created some momentum for philosophy.

And a bit of trivia: A young Peter Singer actually appears in the Brian Magee series!

Peter Singer on Ethics Matters
Peter Singer on Ethics Matters

What do you hope will be the impact? 

DH: As I’ve said, people outside of universities have little opportunity to access academic philosophy without actually enrolling in university courses, which is often not practical. Consequently, it’s common for people to misunderstand what academic philosophy is about and to miss out on the benefits it can bring. So my hope is just that we do more to spread philosophy around. I’d like it even more if we could raise the standard of public debate about some of the issues we cover. Many of our themes are highly emotive, which is understandable, but it’s always frustrating to see these topics generating bad-tempered exchanges in public life, which is unnecessary and counter-productive.

CGB: The desire for ethical understanding is so great at the moment that we’ve already had feedback from fans. One person let us know they’ve enrolled in philosophy as a result of watching it, a few have been very active in sharing it, and another person has created a Farsi introduction so Farsi speakers can engage with the series. And that’s just what we know about.

CB: I hope the show helps to convey to the general public that philosophy is not, for the most part, a remote, abstract enterprise entirely divorced from everyday life.  In each episode Dan builds up to the philosophical questions by drawing attention to practical challenges and puzzles that we face in everyday life, or which we are concerned with in politics, and how thinking hard about them involves philosophical reflection.

Serene Khader on Ethics Matters
Serene Khader on Ethics Matters

What do you think is the most interesting ethical dilemma you’ve presented on the show? 

CGB: When we create the episodes we create various roughcuts of the interviews before we go out to film the presenter (Dan’s) segments. In those roughcuts I test the presenter script we’ve written in the edits, to check that it links the interviews properly, but also for length. At that stage of the process I read the script myself into the system and the screen is blank. This usually works really well, but in one instance it didn’t. In the episode where we examine the body the episode moves from Serene Khader talking about adaptive preferences and genital cutting to Julian Savulescu talking about the preservation test and the impact of science on the body.  What was interesting was that the linking presenter segment worked fine when I read it, but as soon as Dan said it to camera, it no longer worked, because the gender of the person speaking had changed. Gender impacted how we could move from genital mutilation to science, from a female to a male philosopher. I think this is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing, sometimes the presenter can be ‘us’ and sometimes, who they are, determines that they have to be ’them’, and that changes what they can say. In the end we had to rescript it and record a new linking section.

DH: For me it was easily the episode about historic injustice. I think this is because, as a philosopher, I was quite familiar with the material from other episodes and I had a pretty good idea of what other philosophers were going to say when we interviewed them. But for the episode on past injustice we interviewed some Indigenous elders, which was a new experience for me, and one from which I learned a great deal.

Mick Dodson on Ethics Matters
Mick Dodson on Ethics Matters

Which episode has been the most popular?  The most controversial? 

CGB: Unlike any other series I’ve made, people tend to binge watch Ethics Matters. I find that fascinating. So it means that there isn’t yet a clear leader in terms of popularity. But it’s very early in its life, since it was only released a week ago. In the first week the play button was pressed 10,000 times.

Who is your audience?  Who do you hope will watch and what do you hope they will gain?

DH: Given the show’s origins in the ABC’s goal of contributing to education, our immediate audience is high school children in Australia. But I think the episodes have turned out in a way that could be engaging for other adults. The good news is that we’ve been able to put all the episodes on a website that has no geographic restrictions, so people can watch in any country that has freedom of internet use.

How did you decide upon the topics?  

DH: We started with what I regarded as a fairly typical assortment for an undergraduate practical ethics class. We then adjusted so that we could cover some themes that fitted with the Australian high school curriculum. After a bit of thought, we decided that it would be good to use the opening episodes to cover some more generic material about the nature and methods of moral and political philosophy. So our first three episodes are more theoretical with the remainder having a more practical focus.

CGB: Yes. In documentary it is best to allow space for the work to be fluid, rather than be too prescriptive. The episode topics emerged from Dan’s knowledge of the field, but also from what the interviewees said. To explain: Dan often had a good idea of what the interviewees were going to say, but what is never known, is what they are going to say really well. That’s the material that ends up in the show, and helps to shape the nature of each episode.

Luke Russell on Ethics Matters
Luke Russell on Ethics Matters

What are the main challenges you’ve faced in creating the show? 

DH: On the whole, philosophy works better when it’s allowed to go slowly and where you have plenty of time to work through the ideas and arguments. Television doesn’t allow for this at all – you can’t talk quickly and you’re constrained by the episode length, as well as a need to balance verbal and visual content. To put this in perspective, the presenter scripts were well under one thousand words per episode. Really that’s tiny for the topics we were dealing with: A typical written piece with comparable breadth (say, an encyclopaedia entry on any of our episode themes) could easily reach ten thousand words. So the biggest challenge was having to cut out so much verbal content.

CB: I think one of the challenges for the interviewees is to forget that we are talking to Dan Halliday the professional philosopher, and to imagine a general and much younger audience. We have a tendency to communicate in ways that may not be as accessible as the show aims to be.

Jiewuh Song on Ethics Matters
Jiewuh Song on Ethics Matters

What’s surprised you most while creating the show? 

DH: The fact that it’s really quite easy to talk to a camera. In some ways, it’s easier than talking to a person! I also really enjoyed interviewing, which differs in some subtle ways from how you’d have a normal (i.e. off-camera) conversation with someone. You have to get them talking in such a way that someone else can learn from it after your (the interviewer’s) speech has been cut out. Once you’ve learned about making television this is all common sense, but it’s not something I’d anticipated before getting involved.

What was the most challenging part of the project? 

DH: Wearing a suit jacket and jeans, and no hat or sunglasses, in the middle of the Australian summer!

CGB: It seems like being on TV is going to be glamourous, but as Dan points out, it’s really not. Once Dan’s outfit is screen tested, it stays the same throughout the series, no matter the weather. And this series was largely shot outside, because we aimed to take the philosophy quite literally out into the world, and so the visuals reflected that. It takes a year to shoot a series like this, and that meant Dan was faced with both ends of the weather extremes.

Julian Savulescu on Ethics Matters
Julian Savulescu on Ethics Matters

What’s next? I see there’s a podcast being launched soon – how will that compare to the TV series?  Will there be a season 2 of the TV show?  

DH: The constraints of TV meant we only got to scratch the surface, so the podcasts will help us go more in depth as well as bring in some more voices: We’re going to have input from members of the public, which will frame the conversations in the podcasts themselves. We don’t think this has been tried yet in the philosophy podcasts already out there. Plus we’re getting some other philosophers on board, like Simon Keller and Holly Lawford-Smith.

There are certainly enough topics we didn’t cover to fill a second series. But we’ll have to see what sort of funding we can obtain, and how busy we all are!

CB: I think it would be terrific if we could find a way to do a second series where philosophers are not just talking to other philosophers, but to other people who have convictions on some of the issues we discuss. In our podcast series we are going to be experimenting with this a bit.


Christian Barry is the Ethics Matters podcast co-presenter and professor of philosophy at the Australian National University. His work focuses on ethics and issues of international justice. His books include International Trade and Labour Standards: A Proposal for Linkage with Sanjay Reddy and Responding to Global Poverty: Harm, Responsibility, and Agency with Gerhard Øverland. He is co-editor of the Journal of Political Philosophy.

Catherine Gough-Brady is the director of Ethics Matters and creates TV documentaries funded by organizations including Film Victoria and Seoul Film Commission.  She also creates video works for specific projects, including ‘Three Photographers’, which premiered at Adelaide International Film Festival and screened in Australia and South Korea as part of the George Rose exhibition. Catherine also has created 11 radio features for ABC Radio National funded by the Australia Council.

Dan Halliday, presenter of Ethics Matters, teaches political philosophy at Melbourne University, where he’s worked since completing his PhD at Stanford University in 2011. He grew up in London and became hooked on philosophy as a teenager. His current research focuses on social justice and economic matters, such as taxation and markets. His book on the ethics of inherited wealth will be published in 2018, and he is also working on a textbook about the ethics of capitalist societies.

Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.

Skye Cleary
Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.


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