Robyn and I have been working our way through Spooks, known in the UK as MI-5, a television series that takes you inside Section D of the British Intelligence Service. It’s a utilitarian political handbook – all decisions are made on the basis of the “greater good” many decisions are bad actions taken for good outcomes. Some of them make my stomach churn a little. While I’m all for utilitarian frameworks I think I’d redefine my view as achieving the best outcomes with whatever means possible (rather than necessary). And I’d rule out a bunch of actions as “impossible” based on my theology. Anyway. Long intro. Check Spooks out. But that’s not the point.
Philosophy and ethics classes in the US are increasingly turning to comic book characters to frame ethical debates. And I reckon that’s pretty awesome. There are even books being published with titles like “Batman and Philosophy” and “X-Men and Philosophy.”
Christopher Bartel, an assistant professor of philosophy at Appalachian State University, asks students to read the graphic novel Watchmen in order to explore questions about metaphysics and epistemology.
In one class, he uses the character of Dr Manhattan, who claims that everything – including people’s psychology – is predetermined through all the causal laws of physics.
Mr Bartel uses this to teach theories of determinism and free will, and the moral responsibilities entailed in those world views.
Mr Bartel says his course – Philosophy, Literature, Film and Comics – is a “fantastic recruiting tool”, and that more of its students go on to specialise in philosophy than students in any of his other courses.
“I usually have students read Plato, Aristotle and Hume in introduction to philosophy courses. They often find it interesting, but get scared away by just how hard it is to read the stuff,” Mr Bartel told the BBC.
“Comic books can provide really good illustrations of these philosophical ideas without scaring them off.”
Here’s a sample question:
“Imagine for example, that you are Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) and you have just discovered that you have superpowers. Do you have a moral obligation to use your new-found powers to help others?”
And another awesome quote:
“Shaun Treat, who teaches at the University of North Texas, is not bothered by “highbrow” critics either. For him, the proof is in the pudding: the students lap it up.
After years of teaching traditional debates like Hobbes versus Locke, he says, “it’s amazing how much more the students are interested and engaged when you them put in cape and tights and have them slug it out”.”