Are you familiar with the English philosopher Iris Murdoch? I was introduced to her writings in a class entitled “The Phenomenology of Moral Experience,” and although it was my first encounter with phenomenological texts, I was struck by her arguments.
Murdoch saw morality as being connected to vision, or the idea that how you see the world affects what you think about it and, by the same logic, how you live in it. Her thought means a lot to me, and makes me worry about the nature of modern television.
As you probably know, television was quite different in previous decades. Shows usually featured a clear protagonist who was aiming for “the good,” which often involved a clear connection to moral values. The Southern classic, The Andy Griffith Show, is an excellent example. In this show there is always some commotion in Mayberry, North Carolina, where Andy resides, but because of his moral judgments, there is always a harmonious solution that allows someone in the town (be it Opie, Barney, or even Aunt B) to learn a moral lesson. Usually, these conflicts help the audience member to appreciate others and see them in a different light.
Following Murdoch’s logic, shows like Andy Griffith are good for us because they improve our “moral vision,” helping us to understand morality better, but also helping us to see people better, improving our judgments and actions in the world.
Modern television is far different than The Andy Griffith Show.
Modern television is more characterized by the ambiguity and protagonists who have little sense of morality and little care for others. Though I appreciate the show for a number of different reasons, House of Cards is a great example of the trend in modern shows, where characters like Frank Underwood have only one thing in mind: attaining and keeping power. Frank often goes to extreme measures to keep his power, devaluing other human persons in the process. In one political move in particular, Underwood has Peter Russo killed in order to become Vice President.
If Murdoch’s idea holds true, then watching shows like House of Cards could inadvertently impact the way that we see the world and affect how we live in it. This is especially concerning when you consider the growing amount of freedom in the modern world. We have more freedom than ever to do what we please, but little guidance in how to live.
Maybe we need a little more Andy and less Frank in our lives.