The Philosophy of “One Life to Live”

My dad had a wonderful mind. That mind, and his gentleness, were perhaps his best features. He kept the gentleness as his mind began to slip away from him so he never became one of those irascible Alzheimer’s patients who are mad all the time and can’t remember why.

Toward the end of his life, he spent a lot of time watching soap operas on TV. He knew that wasn’t a respectable thing to do, apparently,philosophy 5 because he justified it to me one day when I was visiting. “These stories,” he said, “are deeply philosophical.” [1]

“Really?” I said, either inwardly or outwardly rolling my eyes, “One Life to Live? Philosophical?” He knew I wasn’t accepting the claim. He might have just been trying it out. So we didn’t talk any more about whether daytime soaps are deeply philosophical.

So I get to do it today.

So in this imaginary episode,  Laura lies to her husband, Kevin, about whether her mother had offered to hire a detective to find out whether he was having and affair. Pretty standard stuff.  I’m sure there are a Laura and a Kevin somewhere on the show.

Now imagine that there is an audience which is there to respond to this episode. They divide into two responses. The women say she did the right thing because by the end of the episode, it is clear that this lie produced good things for everyone (in that episode) and nothing bad for anyone. The men—both of them [2]—said she did the wrong thing because she lied and lying is wrong.

philosophy 2Now we cut to a third segment in which a moderator sits in an easy chair, taking occasional sips of coffee from a mug on the little round table in front of him. He is flanked by two philosophers. (This picture shows a different table, but otherwise it is what I had in mind.)  Their job is to treat the episode and the audiences’s reaction to the episode as the familiar conflict between consequentialist and deontological ethics. Deontological ethics can be borne, they agree, by societies where there is fundamental agreement on the rules underlying social interaction, but that kind of agreement is not present in the episode from which this instance is drawn. That argues for the priority of consequentialist ethics—Laura was right to lie to her husband. But, says the deontologist, the real cost will be seen more clearly in future episodes.

Is it philosophical yet?

Of course it is. So…when did is start getting philosophical? Is the soap “inherently philosophical” because the plot turns on actions that can be understood differently in different philosophical traditions? Is it “expressly philosophical” because the audience of men and women immediately turned to debating the ethics of an act? If they had argued instead, that Laura could not bear the emotional consequences of admitting what her mother had done, would the discussion have been “inherently psychological?”

What if the deontological approach had been justified on the grounds that consequentialism is only a creeping relativism and that there is no way to keep a firmly rule-oriented society without seeing to it that rule-breakers (Laura) are punished for breaking the rules? Is that “inherently sociological?” Inherently political?

Here’s what I wish I had said to Dad. “What philosophy do you see in the episode you just watched?” And I wish I had prefaced that with, “So…tell me about the episode you just watched.” Then, as he told me the story, I could have run the inner tape of the consequentialist v. deontological discussion [3] myself. Dad could be doing the implicitly philosophical version and I the explicitly philosophical version.

So is “One Life to Live” a program that is “deeply philosophical?” By now, it is easy to see what is wrong with the question. “Philosophical” is the way you approach the issue. It is the language you get to use. It is the presuppositions of the discipline that support the careful use of that language and that judge the worth of rival truth claims.

Is a daytime soap “philosophical” or not turns out to be a silly question. Is a study of the causal attribution patterns of undergraduates, “political?” My dissertation committee thought so. [4] Events that are understood in a certain way become psychological issues; but if you understand them in another way, the path to their becoming political issues is right there in front of you.

philosophy 1I studied “episodes” like whether the common room of the dorm was “too loud” for people trying to study and whether a girl in the dorm was taking advantage of her roommate (the roommate was the one I was working with). I showed, to the satisfaction of my committee, that the cognitive and emotional routines by which these events were handled were politically significant in two important ways.

First, the students would use the same mechanisms to decide whether the roommate was really “that inconsiderate” and to decide whether the Chicago police were really “that violent.” [5] Second, the students who had some idea how they could make those judgments on their own, rather than adopting the judgments of their peers or their professors, would have a basis for active and authentic citizenship. Otherwise, they would be buying their political opinions off the rack like everyone else.

With that kind of understanding in my toolkit, I could have treated Dad’s discovery of the “philosophy” of One Life to Live with a little more grace and I wish I had.

[1] It wasn’t my best moment either. I was busy regretting the loss of the part of the man I had always counted on and when he, because of that loss, said things I thought were stupid, I didn’t move toward compassion. I moved toward anger.
[2] I guess that would be Dad and some other guy.
[3] I had never heard of either of those terms at the time. Fortunately, in the meantime, my niece, Kendy, has become a professor of philosophy and I have learned a lot of new words.  I don’t know much more about these two tendencies of thought that appears in this essay, but I think they are right as far as I have taken them.
[4] They didn’t think so in the beginning. Their openness to the possibility that it MIGHT be “political”gave me the chance to make the case. My dissertation adviser assessed my dissertation as two parts competent and one part “brilliant.” Selling causal attribution to the committee as “really political” was the part he thought was brilliant.
[5] “That” is a major weasel word in determining whether an event needs to be taken seriously. In time, I came to refer to it as “that control,” trying to cue up associations with “thought control.”  And “that control” can be just a form of “thought control.”  Really.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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