Christopher Falzon


Book Outline





Films represent a kind of col­lective visual memory, a vast repository of images, through which many of these ideas and arguments can be illustrated and discussed

Philosophy and film


Against movies: Platonic myth of the cave would seem to represent a deep philo­sophical prejudice against the visual image as an avenue to philosophical enlight­enment

In favor of movies: with this myth, Plato himself incorporates a striking image into his philosophical discourse in order to illuminate his own position, to convey a sense of what he wants to say

Philosophers have always resorted to a multitude of arresting images and imaginative visions to illustrate or clarify their position, to help formulate a problem, or to provide some basis for discussion

Falzon’s interest in film: how cinematic images in particular can be used to portray and talk about philosophical themes, posi­tions, and ideas

Stephen Mulhall: films might actu­ally engage in a kind of philosophising

Some films require more ingenuity to make them philosophically relevant than others, and as a result there is a sense in which those films are being forced into philosophical service

The philosophical approach

What is philosophy

Philosophy is often seen as dealing with the 'big questions' about the ultimate significance of life

The problem is that philosophy asks its questions about a wide range of topics-about knowledge, the self, our moral lives, our social and political existence, and so on

philosophical reflection might be better seen as a certain kind of approach, a certain way of thinking that can be applied to all kinds of subject matter

A philosophy, a systematic vision of the world, is a comprehensive way of think­ing about and making sense of the world and ourselves.

The history of philosophy can itself be seen as an ongoing series of critiques, disputes. arguments, and reformulations, an ongoing conversation

To do philosophy is above all to philosophise, to think about things rather than simply take them for granted.

Overview of the book



Plato's cave

Summary of Plato’s myth

Point: everything we ordinarily take to be reality might in fact be no more than a shadow

Interpretations of the myth

Interpretation 1: an invitation to think, rather than to rely on the way things appear to us'

Interpretation 2: illustrates Plato's own philosophical views about the nature of knowledge

Interpretation 3: uncanny similarities between the cave Plato imag­ines and the modern cinema

Interpretation 4: liberation bound up with knowledge: To gain knowledge is to escape from the imprisonment of our ordinary conception of the world (e.g., advertising, political propaganda)

Plato’s myth in the movies

The Conformist, Cinema Paridiso, A Clockwork Orange

Descartes, dreams, and demons

Questions our ordinary reliance on sense experience for our knowledge of the world and to challenge our confidence that what we take to be knowledge really is knowledge

Dream hypothesis: difficulty in determining whether what we see is a dream or reality (e.g., Total Recall, eXistenZ)

Any test we might come up with for determining whether we are dreaming or not, such as pinch­ing ourselves, or seeing if our eyes are open, might itself be part of our dream

Evil demon hypothesis: Everything we experience might be an illusion, generated in us by the evil demon. (e.g., Truman Show, The Game, Dark City, Matrix)

Might it not be the case that everything we experience, everything we have ever experienced, even what we take to be basic logical truths, could be a fabrication generated by some evil demon (or supercomputer)

Movie director as arch deceiver (e.g., Jacob’s Ladder, The Usual Suspects): these films force us to fundamentally rethink our assumptions about what we are seeing, about the reality of what we experience, and to appreciate the vulnerability of the senses to deception

Rationalism and empiricism

Q: How can we go beyond the world of ordinary experience in order to comprehend the world as it really is?

Rationalist answer (Plato and Descartes): the senses are not our only source of knowledge; true knowledge comes from reason

By employing certain procedures of reason alone, we can attain at least some important truths about the world

Plato: knowledge involves recollection of the unchanging forms

Descartes: through our reason alone (the light of nature) we come to comprehend the true nature of reality – e.g.,

He exists (I think therefore I am), he has a mind, an non-deceiving God exists, the external world exists

Criticism of Descartes: Descartes’ proof for God is unconvincing, so we’re left with our own minds (see

Criticisms of rationalism: their views are nothing more than ungrounded speculations on their part, merely personal fantasies dressed up as knowledge; they differ radically from each other

Empiricists answer: the only way to gain knowledge of the world is to go out and actually observe things

Reason by itself, independently of experience, cannot establish any truths about the world

Locke and Hume: reacting against Descartes, and trying to formulate a conception of how we acquire knowledge that was more in keeping with the methods of the new natural sci­ences

We no longer have to rely on some mysterious rational capacity that discerns ultimate truths about the world inde­pendently of ordinary experience

Is seeing believing?

Empiricism: Knowledge is founded on basic perceptions (e.g., Locke’s simple ideas, Russell’s sense data)

Criticisms: what we experience is always sub­ject to interpretation or judgement of some sort, in the light of some framework of beliefs (what we know or believe influences what we see in the first place)

In cinema: it is impossible to draw any strict boundary between perception and interpretation (e.g., Rear Window, Blow Up)

Kant and relativism

By itself, sense experience is a meaningless, unintelligible confusion of sensa­tions. We only acquire knowledge when we bring order and intelligibility to our experience, when we actively impose ourselves upon it through rational mental principles (the categories)

These rational principles are the spectacles through which we see the world

All humans have the same ordering principles, and so there is a uniformity to knowledge

Cognitive relativism criticism:

Our world views, conceptual frameworks, forms of knowledge, or guiding interests differ amongst different individuals, groups, or cultures; consequently these peoples or cultures have fundamentally different but equally legitimate ways of viewing or understanding the world.

e.g., Citizen Kane: Who Kane 'really is' remains elusive, because he never appears outside of some perspective or other

Also: He Said She Said; Hilary and Jackie; Rashomon; 12 Angry Men; some of these might be about the unreliability of human testimony, not about the relativism of truth

The truth and nothing but

Strong notion of truth: knowledge is attainable (through reason, through experience, or a combination of the two)

Abandoning this will lead to moral and political problems

Classic movie detectives represent champions of truth

Cynical view of movie detectives: detectives uncover the truth, but nothing changes (Name of the Rose; Chinatown)




We usually think of our self as something within us, as that which is most central to who we are

There are times when we want to say that our behaviour is not expressive of 'who we really are'

Many have gone so far as to think of this true self as being immaterial or spiritual

Plato and the parts of the soul

The soul is immaterial, indestructible and immortal

The soul has parts

Based on intermental conflict: we want to drink the poisoned water, but we also don’t want to drink it

Three parts

Irrational appetitive part: wants to drink the water

Rational reasoning part: does not want to drink it

Spirited part: self-disgust, as well as shame, anger, indignation, and strength of will

Mental health:

When all these parts are in harmonious balance with one another, each playing its proper part in the whole

Charioteer example

Human existence is fundamentally a struggle between reason and desire, a struggle that reason ought to win

The rational side is more central to who we are

Christianity: we must subdue our desires

Descartes and Kant: The soul or mind is to be identified with reason, and we must battle against the irrational part

Hume’s alternative view

Humans are primarily creatures of feeling; reason should be the slave of the passions (and thus is compatible with the passions)

Star Trek

Spock represents Plato’s view

McCoy represents the Humean view


Plato’s and Hume’s views are both extremes

Three parts

The ego: the rational I which deals with the outside world;

The superego: or moral conscience, containing social standards of behaviour acquired during childhood

Id: containing all the instinctual drives that are constantly seeking imme­diate satisfaction

Unconsciousness: most of our selves, most of what motivates our actions, is buried in our unconscious

The primary con­flict is between the superego, the moral conscience, allied with the ego, and the desires of the id

Repression: push forbidden desires right down into the unconscious portion of the mind

Main point of difference between Freud and Plato: for Freud excessive repression of desires becomes harmful and self-defeating

In film:

Repressed religious figures whose attempts to deny their desiring side have left them tortured and hypocritical; i.e., repressed desire is us unhealthy

Chocolat: giving in to our desires is an antidote to hypocritical and unhealthy repression

Vampire movies: we can’t give in to our desires too much

Jekyll-Hyde: we need an integration of both parts to be normal


There are costs involved in excessive self-denial, especially as prescribed by religion

But we cannot abandon all constraints and give our primitive instincts free rein, which would revert us to the status of brutes.

We need to 'sublimate' or 'spiritualise' our drives: transform them through self-discipline and turn them into something 'higher', more spiritual and noble, such as artistic or creative endeavours.

Real power lies in self-mastery (not master over others),by disciplining, organising and giving shape to one's own desires

Descartes and dualism

Dualism: human beings are composed of an immaterial soul or mind and a material body

Descartes’ dualism

Body: composed of gross physical matter, has mass, and occupies space; it is a kind of machine

Mind: a non-physical, ghostly, rather ethereal kind of entity, the seat of consciousness and various mental states. Being non-physical, it does not have any mass or occupy any space.

Benefits of dualism

Explains life after death

Minds do not seem to be physical

Thinking seems to be beyond the capacity of any physical machine

In the movies

All of Me: two minds occupying one body

Mind-swap movies

Being John Malkovich

Ghost movies

Identity over time

Identity is connected with one’s mind, not one’s body (our bodies are just clues to who we really are)

Eg., mind-swap movies

Problem of how minds and bodies interact

How can the mind be something wholly non-physical, able to operate in ways that entirely escape the laws of nature, and wholly undetectable by physical means, and yet also be able to cause physical bodies to move?

Anything that can move a physical thing is surely itself a physical thing

Movies: Casper, Ghost exhibit the incoherence in how ghosts interact with the physical world

Problem of other minds

I can directly observe other bodies, but I cannot observe other minds; thus, I may be the only mind that exists

Solution from analogy

I exhibit behavior X when I experience mental state Y; you exhibit behavior X, thus you probably experience mental state Y

Criticism: I am generalizing from only one example (i.e., my own behavior and mental state)

Materialist alternative

We are wholly physical beings, and that the mental phenomena we encounter in ourselves are in some way explainable in physical terms

Hobbes: all mental processes can be accounted for in terms of interior 'motions'

Reductive materialism: reducing all psychology to physiology and ultimately to physics

Criticism: it is difficult to explain consciousness and capacities like reasoning in physical terms

Locke and personal identity

Problems in personal identity

Retaining our identities over time as our bodies change

Multiple personalities


Physical resemblances and continuity of memories

Movies: The Return of Martin Geurre, Olivier

Descartes: our identities are determined by our spirit-minds (sameness of mental substance)

Locke’s view:

Human identity: The identity of the same human being consists in  the human organism, the biological human being, and the principle that holds it together is its organisation as a living unit

Definition of a person: “a thinking, intelligent being that has reason and reflection”

Memory view of Personal identity: a person has a sense of themselves and of their continuity and identity over time as the same person

Avoids problems of dualism

Movies with the Lockean memory view of personal identity:

Two people in the same body; memories determine their respective identities

Total recall, Angel Heart, Grip of the Strangler

The same person in a radically changed body

Robocop, reincarnation movies

Problems with Lockean memory view of personal identity

False memories feel the same as genuine memories

Breaks in consciousness: sleep

Locke's claim that if I do not remember doing something then I literally did not do it seems rather implausible

Character-based accounts of personal identity (psychological criteria different than Locke’s memory view):

Identity is connected with well-en­trenched beliefs, or basic desires, tendencies, and preferences.

These character traits change more slowly over time and offers a more stable account of personal identity than memory

Movies: someone has two sets of memories (or lost memories, or altered memories), but still has the same character traits that establishes his identity

Cypher, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dark City

Kant, personhood, and moral worth

Persons have a special value and are deserving of a special kind of respect

Persons are primarily characterised by their rationality and being rational agents, capable of deciding for themselves the shape and goals of their existence

The capacity for rational self-determination makes persons uniquely valuable, and thus we should treat them with these goals in view and not merely as the instruments or means for the realisation of our own projects

Human beings vs. persons

Human beings: biological category, not necessarily of moral importance (e.g. people in comas)

Personhood: a characteristic that confers moral importance on a being

It is possible for there to be persons who are not biological human beings

e.g., Data and Star Trek

Issues have arisen about whether some humans are not persons (e.g., mentally impaired, slaves)

Rationality criterion of personhood creates problems

Moral importance does not extend to non-rational creatures, e.g., lower animals

Emotional complexity is also needed for personhood (e.g., Sonny in I Robot, replicants in Bladerunner, Hal in 2001, all of which have emotions; Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the aliens lack emotion and are thus not persons)



The ring of Gyges

Traditional view of morality: transformation of people who are only concerned with themselves into people of moral integrity

Movies: Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Fahrenheit 451, Schindler's List

Why should we be moral

Movie: Wall Street: greed is good; self-interest is, and indeed should be, the major factor guiding our conduct

Ring of Gyges

Tension between self-interest and morality

Gyges, a poor shepherd from Lydia, found a ring that had the power to make the wearer invisible. Using this ring, he seduced the Lyd­ian queen, plotted with her to kill the king, and, taking over his position, became wealthy and powerful.

Only a fool would continue to do what is right under such circumstances.

Removes even the motivation to be good that might come from the fear of being caught and punished


Conventional movies where morality triumphs: Hollow Man, Groundhog Day

Unconventional movies where evil is not punished: Chinatown, Crimes and Misdemeanor

Plato and inner balance

Plato’s answer to the story of Gyges: self-interest is not really in conflict with morality

Each part of the soul has its proper function in the whole. In a properly balanced soul, the rational part rules

Moral goodness thus amounts to a kind of mental health or well-being

If we were not morally good in this sense of being well-balanced we could not pursue our own interests

Morality also involves knowledge of the moral forms, e.g., wisdom, courage, temperance and, above all, the form of the good.

Criticism: can we know what the right thing to do is, in the way that we can have mathematical or scientific knowledge

Criticism: There is nothing in self-mastery itself that implies that one has to be morally good.

Criticism: people still do immoral things even if they know what is right

Religion and morality

Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov: if God does not exist, everything is permissible

Divine command theory: moral rules are God's laws, his command­ments

Morally right means that which is commanded by God, and morally wrong means that which is forbidden by God

Criticism: how can we be certain that he is doing the will of God

Criticism: God’s commands are arbitrary there is no reason why God cannot command, what seem to us to be hideously evil acts like murder

Natural law theory

There is a God-given moral structure to the universe, an order or plan built into its very nature that we ought not to violate

Aquinas: there is a 'natural law' inherent in things and human nature, an objective set of principles that expresses God's will for creation

the natural world is not a realm of meaningless facts, empty of value and purpose, but an objective moral order in which God's plan for creation is built into the very nature of things

Our natural purpose is built into our human nature, which we can understand through a rational evaluation of our natural inclinatations

e.g., sexual behavior is wrong when not done for purposes of reproduction

Criticism: human beings may serve many purposes, strive for all sorts of goals. How do we single out a particular purpose or goal as the proper or natural one?

Criticism: Aquinas’s theory falls down if we reject the idea of a purposive world, in which things have a role or purpose in some larger, more comprehensive plan or order

Modern scientific world view: physical laws operate impersonally, whereby things work blindly and with­out purpose

Problem of evil

Suffering in the world raises questions about the existence of an all good God

Dostoyevsky: any being who could design a world that necessarily involves the suffering of little children does not deserve respect or forgiveness

Movies: The Rapture, Virgin Spring, The Seventh Seal

Types of evil:

Moral evil: human caused suffering

Natural evil: suffering caused by nature

Theodicy: a good, all-powerful God and worldly evil can be reconciled

Free will defense: evil is the result of free human choices

Criticism: Paradox of omnipotence: if God created us with a totally free will, then he cannot be omnipotent since there is something, namely human free will, that he cannot control

Evil brings about a greater good

e.g., Confrontation with evil makes it possible for us to build moral character and perfect our souls

Criticism: we can still ask why a benevolent, all-powerful God allows quite so much evil in the world and does not intervene to at least lessen it

Kant: doing one’s duty

Decline of religion: a distinguishing mark of our modernity is that we no lon­ger appeal so readily to religious authority to back up our guiding principles

Morality now turns to various conceptions of human nature for its basis

Kant: Morality is no longer obedience to God, but to our own rational conscience.

Rationality is not knowledge of the forms, but

Human reason provides the organizing forms of categories in terms of which we organize our experience and acquire knowledge of the world; this includes morality

Duty in Kant’s theory

The rational command of moral duty should take precedence over merely personal interest, desire, and inclinations

Movies: High Noon, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon

The consequences of our acts have no bearing on the moral worth of our actions

Only actions motivated by duty are moral ones

Universalizability: for an action to be moral, it must capable of being consistently be followed by all agents in relevantly similar situations

Categorical imperative: ct only on that principle that could be turned into a universal law

Promise keeping example: it is wrong to break promises when they suit me because if everyone did so, no one would believe promises people made in the first place, and the whole practice of promis­ing would break down

Free will

Kant shares with Plato and also Christian moral thinking a hostility towards desire

The whole world operates according to mechanical laws (including animalistic desires), but humans don’t

Only rational beings have the capacity to act consciously in accordance with prin­ciples they formulate for themselves

Being moral is a constant struggle to rise above, suppress and control our desires and inclinations

People as ends

We should always treat rational agents, ourselves and others, never simply as means but always also as ends in themselves

Morality requires freedom

I cannot act freely if I am subject to the mechanical influences of personal desire or external influences

Criticism: abstract rational process cannot determine whether a principle can be consistently made a universal law sufficient to establish all moral principles

Criticism: the exclusion of desire makes morality cold, and an absence of love or compas­sion in our moral behaviour in fact amounts to a moral failure

Criticism: sometimes consequences seem relevant

e.g., would it be morally praiseworthy never to break a promise, even if doing so would save thousands of people from a terrible death?


An action is right insofar as it tends to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people

Bentham’s utilitarianism

Human beings are primarily creatures that feel, creatures that seek to maximize pleasure and avoid pain.

The role of reason is to calculate what we can do to best bring about pleasure and avoid pain, and morality is a matter of the consequences of our acts

Why be moral: we should be moral because human beings seek pleasure, they value happiness, and moral acts are those that promote this happiness

It possible to calculate with certainty what the right thing to do is, which opens moral­ity up to rational debate and resolves moral dilemmas (e.g., Sophie’s choice)

Problems with Bentham’s approach

Criticism: there can be practical difficulties in calculating the consequences of our actions, in determining how much overall happiness they are going to produce (e.g., Saving Private Ryan: how do we determine the overall effect Ryan will have on the world)

Criticism: we need to be able to compare happinesses, to say that one act produces more overall pleasure or happiness than another

Criticism: there is no essential difference between types of pleasure (e.g., party games vs. poetry)

Mill’s utilitarinaism

There are higher intellectual pleasures and lower physical pleasures, and that we should aim to maximize the higher ones “'better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied'”

Superiority of higher pleasures: If people are faced with a choice between higher and lower pleasures, having properly experienced both, they will always opt for the higher ones.

Movies: My Fair Lady, Educating Rita

Criticism: some educated people prefer the baser pleasures, (Movie: dangerous liaisons)

Criticism: people value things other than happiness

Nozick’s “experience machine”: most people would prefer a harsh reality over a pleasurable virtual reality

Criticism: we can justify doing unjust actions in the interest of the greater good (Movies: Breaker Morant, The Siege, The Last Supper)

Existentialism: absurdity, freedom, and bad faith

There are no pre-existing standards or values (external or internal) that human beings can appeal to in order to justify their existence or actions, but human beings are free to give their lives whatever goal or pur­pose they choose

If there are moral rules or values of any sort, it is because we have freely chosen them, and nothing can guide us in these choices

Main concepts

The world is absurd: there is no reason for the way the world is, human beings have no reason or justification for existing, and the world is a meaningless place

God is dead: there is no longer any God-given order or grand plan which we can appeal to in order to give point and purpose to our existence (Movies: The Rapture, The Seventh Seal)

Philosophical suicide: to try to evade absurdity at the cost of denying thought and sacrificing our critical faculties


Anguish: experiencing a fundamental anxiety regarding our the necessity of having to choose of being totally responsible for my existence

Bad Faith (self-deception): pretending that our goals and values are imposed on us, and thus trying to evade our freedom and responsibility

Existentialism as Humanism: “we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself”'

Movies: Crimes and Misdemeanors (Louis Levy)

Existential hero

A person who heroically refuses to appeal to pre-existing values and standards, but instead shoulders the heavy burden of responsibility for their existence

Camus: Sisyphus defiantly and joyfully embraces his absurd task

Movies: The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, American Beauty

People who refuse to fall into unthinking conformity with conventional values and the expectations of those around them, who strike out on their own path, even though this might mean being unhappy, troubled and lost

Opposite of the existential hero: evading responsibility for our choices

Movies: Quiz Show (justifies cheating on a TV quiz show: “What was I supposed to do, disillusion the whole country?'”


Sartre: suicide is a perfectly acceptable option and quite consistent with his account

Camus: suicide is not an option: to kill oneself is to capitulate to absurdity and admit defeat (Movie: Hannah and Her Sisters)

Criticism: there are other reasons for self-deception, such as the desire to preserve a flattering self-image, and not just the denial of freedom and responsibility

Criticism: underestimates the influence that our histories and personal circumstances have on what we choose

Movie: Breathless (Michel seems to be a free spirit, but is considerably influenced by his culture); Blue (woman unsuccessfully tries to put her memories of her dead husband behind her)

Sartre: later questioned whether people can stand apart from all external circumstances and choose complete freedom

Marxism: human beings are profoundly influenced and constrained by their social, political and historical circumstances




Antz movie

This tendency to see the individual as having priority over society is a distinctively modern view of social and political existence

Plato’s ants

The unity of the state is the most important thing, in which each individual plays his or her proper role

Plato explicitly compares his ideal society to a beehive

Three classes of people: the aristocrats, the soldiers and the workers

The rulers have knowledge of the best social arrangements and the interests of society as a whole and should be obeyed

The authoritarianism that is already present in his account of the self, in which reason needs to firmly control the desires, has here been turned into a political authoritarianism,

Movies that criticize totalitarianism

Antz: stands up for the individual and for the struggle to make society respect the individual's choices as to how to live

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Starship troopers

Preserving one's individuality requires a courageous rejection of social conformity

The widely held modern view is that human beings are individuals first and only secondarily members of society (started in the 17th and 18th centuries),

Liberalism: the heroic individual

Liberalism: human beings are, first of all, individuals and only secondarily members of society

Governmental restrictions are a necessary evil, but should be as minimal as possible

State of nature (Hobbes and Locke)

If all social authority were removed, things would be very unpleasant

Hobbes: it would be a 'war of all against all' and life would be 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'

Movies: Lord of the Flies, Mad Max

Social contract

In this contract, everyone agrees to give up some of their freedom, to submit to a central authority

Why be moral: we need to obey moral rules in order to avoid the problems of the state of nature

Type of government needed

Hobbes: an absolute monarch with sweeping powers

Locke: a representa­tive, democratic form of political authority is what is required

If the government violates the limits of the power given to it, it may be removed immediately from office


There must always exist a certain minimum area of personal freedom that should never be violated.

A distinc­tion must be drawn between the realm of public life, where the state's authority rightly prevails, and private life, on which the state may not legitimately encroach

Locke: rights to life, liberty, health and property

Movies: People vs. Larry Flynt

Negative rights: freedom from interference

Criticism: negative freedom may not be enough since our desires may be manipulated through coercion, or brainwashing

Movies: 1884, Manchurian Candidate, A Clockwork Orange, Bob Roberts, Wag the Dog

Mass media play a key role to play in the manipulation of peoples' perceptions and attitudes for political ends (e.g., the Truman Show)

Positive freedom

Kant: independence from external influences and the exercise of rational self-determination

Self-determination is fundamental to human dignity, and individu­als should be respected as the originators of their own life plan.


The proper goal of each person is self-realization or self-fulfillment, which each of us must do independently

The only constraint that can legitimately be imposed on an individu­al's freedom is if their actions bring harm to others

Answers problems with negative freedom (coercion and brainwashing)

Kant, my real wants are those that originate from me as an autonomous, rational individual

Mill, they are those through which I fulfil or realise myself.

Marxism: the social individual

Two assumptions of liberalism

Human beings are primarily isolated individuals, with certain natural needs and wants, and only secondarily members of a society, which is formed by the coming together of these already-formed individuals

Criticism: we could never live totally outside society; we’d be social misfits and psychologically flawed if we really were independent what we’d be like if we really were independent of each other

We as individuals find ourselves caught up in an already-existing framework of social relations in which we decide and act

Movies: The Wild Child, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Rousseau: society is needed to complete the natural person

Our primary social reality is society's political organization

Criticism: There are important relations in society other than those between a govern­ment and its citizens

Economic structures may oppress people in ways that aren’t addressed by political structures

Two assumptions in Marxism

Individuals are seen as necessarily part of a community

Shift from political structures to economic ones: to understand our social existence is primarily to understand its economic structure (the way that labor is organized).

Problems with modern capitalism

Workers are exploited by capitalists: the employer extract the maximum amount of labour out of the workers for the least possible wage

Workers are alienated (separated): they are cut off from what is rightfully theirs; they are separated from one another, from the products of their labour, from control over their lives

Movies: Matewan

False consciousness:  the mass media, education-even film and popular culture-have been seen as promoters of a dis­torted, ideological view of the world

Marx’s view of human nature

We are communal creatures who seek to produce collectively; and rational creatures who should be able to organise our collective productive activity for ourselves

Workers need to rise up against their political and economic masters, and take control of the work process

Movies on collective unions: Matewan, Salt of the Earth, Norma Rae

Marxism goes beyond unions: only collective effort on the part of the people can bring about progressive social change and liberation

Movies: Blue Collar, October

Criticism: it’s hard to determine what one’s “real interests” are

We may be subject to ideological manipulation

They may play a role in forms of political oppression (e.g., identifying one’s real interests with a communal entity like the church

Criticism: Marxism doesn’t adequately explain non-economic aspects of society; not everything may be a tool of economic structure (e.g., religion, gender roles)

Movies: A Question of Silence


Three faces of power

Liberal notions of power as overt constraint: overt constraints imposed on us by the gov­ernment through its laws

Marxist notions of power as manipulation: the government’s power to manipulate people’s wants through ideological manipulation by which individuals are reconciled to their place in the capitalist system

Foucault's notion of power as Social regulation' disciplinary techniques (disciplinary power): techniques that make people more capable, productive, useful and efficient than they were before, while simultaneously making possible strict control over them

The first two forms of power are both negative since they prevents you from doing what you want, from pursuing your real interests

Main elements of disciplinary power

Uses surveillance, so people assume that they’re being watched all the time (e.g., Bentham’s notion of a central observation tower in prisons)

Involves keeping records of people’s behavior for ever more sophisticated disciplinary control.

These techniques are used in many areas of society, and not just by the government

Movies: Ghosts of the Civil Dead, Face-Off, Fortress, M, The End of Violence, Ladybird Ladybird

These techniques aim to both control people, but also better them by turning us into good students, proficient soldiers, or reliable workers

Doctors promote healthy bodies and stable minds; social welfare agencies encourage good mothers and proper fathers

We are only permitted to be certain kinds of individuals, and other forms of behavior are considered to be abnormalities

There is no determinate human nature which we need to realise

Limits of disciplinary power

People are stubborn, though, and will resist if such disciplinary power goes too far

(e.g., prison revolts against penal discipline, the resistance of workers against workplace discipline through strikes and machine-breaking)




Films: Modern Times, Alien resurrection

The dominant attitude towards science and technology has been that they are central to human progress

Scientific utopias

16th and 17th centuries: the rise of an outlook that we can recognize as scientific in the modern sense

Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Galileo, Newton

A rejection of the idea that we can understand the world through appeal to the authority of tradition, biblical or religious authority


Assault on religious world view

Social reform

'Unassisted human reason, not faith or tradition, was the principal guide for human conduct”

Materialistic view of human beings as creatures of desire, creatures driven primarily to seek pleasure and avoid pain

Hume, Bentham, Kant (“have courage to use your own reason”)


Condorcet: [human beings will devote themselves only to “rational knowledge and science, including knowledge of the laws of human functioning, the better to. improve and perfect themselves and the wider soci­ety. Through education, existing knowledge will be passed an to new generations who will add to it, contributing in turn to further progress”


Name of the Rose: confrontation between science and religion

The Sleeper: parodying scientific devices

Star Trek: calm and rational outlook of the scientist; no prejudice, superstition, social inequality; democratic and individualistic

Things to come: technocratic despotism


Playing God: scientific hubris

Films with concerns about science

Frankenstein: science and tech­nology now appear as an arrogant challenge to the deity

Island of Lost Souls (Dr. Moreau): produces creatures by surgically transforming animals into semi-humans; sci­entific hubris leads to monstrous creations, which in the end turn on their creator

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: meddles with the soul itself “Is it wise to tamper with the problem of good co-existing with evil in the human soul”

O Lucky Man: grafting a human head onto a pig’s body; dangers of uncontrolled medical experimentation

Alien Resurrection: scientists cloned Ripley so they can extract and study the alien life form she carries within her

Jurassic Park: dangerous organisms, plant and animal, may escape into the environment to cause havoc

The Fly: human beings themselves being irreparably altered by accidents at the genetic level

Dr. Strangelove: the elaborate system of safeguards and deterrents the Americans and Russians have set up to prevent nuclear war ultimately frustrates their efforts to avert disaster

Terminator, The Matrix: the computers we are becom­ing so dependent on might one day acquire independent intelligence


Religious objections: we are playing God

Reply: It now seems rather old-fashioned to couch our objections in terms of our trespassing on areas properly left to God

Reply: If we reject certain kinds of scientific investigation and technological interference, such as interference with life at the genetic level, because they are intruding in areas that are properly God's alone to govern, then it would seem that we would have to abandon a whole range of scientific advances that have improved our existence in various ways.

Non-religious objections: science carries risks and dangers.

Reply: any possible evils will be outweighed by their benefits

Establishment of proper control mechanisms, such as ethical codes and committees and accountability to the wider community

Alienation in a technological society

Through industrialization and mechanization technol­ogy has created an inhuman social environment, an alien, impersonal world.

Workers live a dehumanized, alienated existence, increasingly subject to the requirements of the machine and those who control the machines

Marx: technology reinforces alienation;

The introduction of machines brings about improvements in efficiency and pro­ductivity, but now workers have to conform to the requirements of the machinery and have effectively been reduced to an appendage of the machine

Taylorism: “scientific work management” studying workers’ movements to make them more efficient

Films depicting technological alienation

Modern Times: worker has a single monotonous task to perform (automatic feeding machine for workers)

Metropolis: machines are visualized as modern versions of the Phoenician god Moloch, to which the workers are being sacrificed just as the Phoenicians once sacrificed their children.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey: astronauts are little more than appendages of their own sophisticated technology, and upstaged by the anxiety-prone computer HAL

Fahr­enheit 451: firemen burn books to protect people from ideas that might make them unhappy with their lives, and the populace is kept distracted and stupefied through television

Marcuse (Marxist Franfurt School)

Technology and mechanisation may have increased productivity enormously, but they have also served to increase humanity's subordination to the technological apparatus of production and to those who control the technology

The only significant questions about society seem to be technical ones, the only considerations those of maximizing efficiency

Marxist position

Human beings live an impoverished, diminished, and alienated life in mod­ern technological society.

Society and technology are not organized so as to serve genuine human needs and interests.

We can only escape from this situation if we make a radical break with existing science and technology and develop a new sci­ence, involving a more responsive, receptive, and nurturing relationship to nature

Films emphasizing the need for religion in technological society

Koyaanisqaatsi: time-lapse photography portrays the frenetic pace and mechanical patterns of modern city life and by implication to question the technologically driven world to which we have become subordinated

Contact: science and technology are by themselves not enough, and that religion is required to provide a larger mean­ing, direction, and structure for human existence

Star wars: refers us to a higher reli­gious perspective, the Jedi religion, which supports central human values includ­ing respect for life, justice, and liberty

Criticism: such recourse to religion might be thought to represent a step back­wards to a pre-modern position, to the religiously ordered world of medieval soci­ety

Films emphasizing the need for art in technological societies

A humanistic, artistic, or literary culture, which gives expression to what is most central to our humanity

Alphaville: what is missing are the artists, writers, musicians, painters, the people who make possible a human society

Fahrenheit 451: literature expresses what is most central to the human soul


Technological control and manipulation are characteristic of the productive dimension of human existence, in which we work on nature and we have no other way of relating to the natural world

Equally important is the intersubjective dimension, which involves communication and interpersonal discourse

Through language and collective discussion we are able to articulate our needs and interests, and in the light of them, to agree on the proper values and goals we as a society should pursue

A more optimistic Marxist critique

For Marx also, the problem is not machine technologies as such, but rather the kinds of social relationships in which they figure

Recent technology, new views

A central assumption made in these radical critiques of technology is that impersonal tech­nology has no place within the interpersonal realm and our relationships with one another

Biomedical technology: cloning IVF, inorganic body parts

Films with humane technology

Robocop: inured policeman is transformed into a half-human, half-robotic crime fighter, but it is only when he recovers the memories of his former self that his human side returns

Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Schwarzenegger returns as a more 'human' cyborg, but he himself has now been superseded by a new line of entirely inorganic and even more ruthless terminators

Technological threats with reproduction

Gena Corea: reproduc­tive technologies make it possible for reproduction to be increasingly controlled by male-dominated medical, legal, and state agencies

Women's bodies will be reduced to mere objects of medical manipula­tion, controlled by medical technologists and experts for the purposes of repro­duction

The Handmaid: the United States chooses 'handmaids', surrogate moth­ers to give birth on behalf of society, and women in general are reduced to child bearers, domestic servants, and mistresses

Technological threats with genetic engineering

Gattaca: one's profession and social status is largely determined by genetic inheritance, and those with genetic' defects' are relegated to the worst jobs

Humanized technology

It is not clear that technology necessarily dehumanises or oppresses individuals; it also enables, enhances human capacities, empowers individuals. e.g., the pill

People are never simply passive, that they actively engage with, criticize, and resist social practices

Foucault: discipline pro­duces individuals, in the sense of producing trained, socially useful individuals; but individuals are never simply passive and malleable, unable to resist forms of social control

e.g., reproductive technology involve sophisticated forms of surveillance, such as ultra­sound and electronic foetal monitoring. These do not aim to suppress or eliminate women, but to enhance their capacities, particularly their repro­ductive capacities.

e.g., genetic aims primarily to improve human functioning, to enhance capacities, to produce socially useful and productive kinds of indi­vidual; and this is inseparable from the imposition of various medically defined notions of genetic normality and abnormality


Technologies play a role in empowering peo­ple, while at the same time people determining how the technologies are implemented

But the risks and dangers of technology are so evident now that we cannot return to the enlightenment view that science and technology, applied to society, will lead inev­itably to moral progress and the betterment of the human condition.



Reasoning and arguing

When arguments go wrong

Formal fallacies

Informal fallacies of language

Informal fallacies of relevance

Informal fallacies of evidence

Closed thinking

The importance of being critical