The Ethics of Reality Television: Kant and Bentham on the Jersey Shore

As Jersey Shore builds to a not-at-all climactic conclusion, Jim Jividen discusses what we’ve learned about ethics from watching Snooki, JWoww, the Situation, Ronnie, and all of their gym/tan/laundry pals.

 

As Jersey Shore comes to an end, it’s reasonable to consider what will be the most important takeaway from its six seasons. My initial instinct, upon looking at Snooki’s new face, is as a cautionary tale against overly aggressive dentistry.

But that would take us too quickly to the football picks.

So, consider instead the following moral philosophy treatise:

How do we solve ethical dilemmas? Is it moral to steal food when you can’t otherwise afford to feed your family? Is it moral to murder one innocent to save the lives of thousands? What are our obligations to those who cannot care for themselves? What space in the moral community should be awarded animals and the unborn?

To these questions, we now add the following – what should Sammi’s roommates have told her about Ronnie’s creeping at the club before coming home to crawl into her bed?

♦◊♦

It’s okay if you’re not conversant in the Gym/Tan/Laundry subculture; you’ll still be able to follow the arguments. And for those of you who think this insufficiently worthy of scholarship, consider that my alternate discussion was going to be if Kayleigh on the Bad Girls Club had an ethical responsibility to aid her roommates in their fight on the beach.

Sammi and Ronnie have an on again/off again relationship; they appear, in a Ross/Rachel way, to be “on a break” as Season 2 begins (this raises a tangential ethical issue – the morality of looking to temporarily break up with someone in the hopes of hooking up with some hot, random girl and then returning to your previous relationship. A couple of decades ago, this struck me as a strategy to consider. It is a mistake. You’re welcome.) The gang gets their South Beach clubbing on; Ronnie and Sammi squabble (which was probably on the rundown sheet of each Jersey Shore ep. from the first three seasons); Sammi goes home early, and after she leaves, Ronnie makes out with as many women of questionable virtue as he can get his mitts on.

Ronnie goes back home and gets in bed with Sammi. The next episode (possibly the next night) it happens again.

All of their roommates either witness or become aware of this behavior.

Should they tell Sammi?

♦◊♦

Here is where the great debate of the last five hundred years of western civilization comes into play – is morality properly based on absolute principles (the Immanuel Kant argument) or is right and wrong better seen as based on circumstance (the Jeremy Bentham argument)?

Kant’s great unified theory of everything (his WAR, for my sabermetric peeps) was the categorical imperative; that one should behave as if his behavior should be a universal law. So – why is it immoral to lie? It’s immoral to lie because you’re of no greater moral importance than I am; and if you take for yourself the ability to determine which lies are justified under the circumstance – then either you’re saying that you possess special, magical powers of moral deduction that I do not or that I must also be given the same opportunity. And not just me, but everyone – and so lying fails Kant’s test as world where everyone can define when lying is moral is a world where, pretty quickly, lying about virtually everything virtually all the time becomes moral.

So – don’t lie. Sure, it means sometimes, grandma, a living saint of a woman, makes you a cherry pie and says, “do you like my cherry pie, Tommy?” and you’re stuck telling the truth, “No, Nana, it’s a pretty terrible pie – and my name is Janet” but nonetheless, you’re stuck.

Sammi goes to the roommates and asks if they know anything. They all deny it.

Immanuel Kant shakes his fist at the Jersey Shore kids - tell the truth. Tell the truth! But we’ll compromise our friendship with Ronnie, they tell you in between fist pumps. Kant cuts them off. No exceptions. Morality is categorical. You are duty bound to tell the truth. And Ronnie’s sort of a sleazeball, right? Motorboating that cocktail waitress. And there’s no way he passes the PED test. Tell the truth!

♦◊♦

Jeremy Bentham slowly raises his dead British hand. Utilitarianism is based on creating the greatest maximum happiness and that is it. Wendy drunkenly kills Tony in a hit and run. Is it moral to turn herself in? Before you reflexively say yes, Bentham asks you to consider the circumstances. Wendy’s got children – Wendy’s got a job where dozens, maybe hundreds of people depend on her. Wendy going to prison would negatively ripple through the lives of thousands. Tony has no one. Heck, Tony’s sort of a jerk. Tony’s a criminal of some type; Tony’s a burglar. Maybe Tony was on his way to do him some burgling. Get his burgle on. Go Tony! Go Tony! You’re a burglar! It’s your birthday! And Wendy has no drinking problem; this was an isolated incident, unlikely to be repeated.

Bentham says – let’s look at the world that actually exists and make it the best place we can – here Wendy sits with an ethical dilemma – to turn herself in or not. Which decision creates more happiness – in a “choose your own adventure” sort of a way – which choice leaves the world in a better place?

Keep your mouth shut, Wendy. Bentham says. Don’t listen to Kant. Morality isn’t based on these absolute principles that do not change regardless of circumstance – morality is based on taking each individual situation on its own and making the best out of it. Keep your mouth shut.

And when it comes to the Jersey Shore kids – maybe the same advice applies. Sammi’s unhappy if she knows the truth. Ronnie’s definitely unhappy if he is exposed. The house then becomes uncomfortable, really for the remainder of their summer – it is a truth that maybe benefits Sammi and literally no one else.

This is where it’s time to recognize that this is a television show, the entertainment value of which, in Season 2, was watching Ronnie make out with two girls at the same time at the club and then stumble back into Sammi’s bed a couple hours later. If the roommates tell Sammi, then the millions of people enjoying Ronnie’s audacious flaunting of all propriety are deprived of that happiness. Sure – tell her eventually, for the entertainment value of the conflict – but there’s a good month left to be mined from Ronnie’s deception.

It’s better to lie. Not always, but sometimes. Use your head. That’s Bentham’s response.

It doesn’t matter what the result is. Lying is wrong. That’s Kant.

What winds up happening of course (like you don’t know – come on!) is JWoww and Snooki write an anonymous letter to Sammi (Ronnie immediately suspects them; after all, there are only so many roommates from which to choose – but decides against it because the letter uses the word “wisely” – and Ronnie notes that “Snooki doesn’t use that type of vocabulary.” A laugh line not as funny as Brandi’s “I Been Sleep!” from the aforementioned Bad Girls Club, but funny nonetheless). And that opens up additional lines of philosophic inquiry. Sammi feels betrayed that “her girls” did not immediately reveal Ronnie’s actions, but at no point is particularly critical of her male roommates for keeping Ronnie’s secret. Moreover, that implicit understanding – that the women in the house were the only ones who had the moral dilemma and that it would obviously be wrong for the male roommates to expose Ronnie — ran throughout the house to the point where it went outside of discussion. The Situation was, pretty unquestionably, a closer friend back in season 2 to Sammi than was he to Ronnie, but there was never a question that he, or any of the other men, would violate the “Bro’s before Women Who Will Touch Your Genitals for Monetary Compensation” ethos that ran through the house. Further, when he does feel free to talk is after the letter is written – Ronnie, of course, denies the contents of the letter, saying he never hooked up with anyone, but the Situation sort of casually confirms it in a conversation with Sammi, and when Sammi says something to the effect of “wait – you’re saying he was hooking up – ’cause he says he wasn’t” – the Situation defers to the letter. “Hey, it’s in the letter – I’m just saying what the letter says,” as if having it written down gave it an evidentiary value. What would have been a rumor if whispered throughout the house, a rumor on which the men would not have been free to comment, became a fact once it was made part of a text: “hey, it’s in a letter – it’s on the page – so there you go”. The mere existence of a text provides both cover and a degree of rhetorical power that is permitted to replace argument. Perhaps you’ve encountered that kind of public policy rationale yourself.

Ethics are everywhere. Just look. And now I should be able to write off my U-Verse package on my tax return next year. Sorry, Immanuel Kant.

I’m 97-85-2 for the season. Here are the picks.
Lions +4 Falcons
Panthers -8.5 Raiders

Balt +2.5 NYG

I don’t plan on writing next week or making any Week 17 picks; I’ll be back the following week with my final installment in the SFGiants postseason run and my NFL playoff picks.

Photo–Flickr/Ekelly89 

NOW TRENDING ON GMP TV

Super Villain or Not, Parenting Paranoia Ensues
The Garbage Man Explains Happiness
How To Not Suck At Dating

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Jim Jividen

Jim Jividen (@JimJividen) is a lawyer, a professionally produced playwright, a game show winner, and the owner of a 2009 Honda Accord on which he diligently makes payments. He can distinguish among dozens of different suplex variants and may be occasionally read at his two non-revenue producing blogs, Basically Gherkins and What if Steamboat Beat Hogan? Jim’s been a college instructor since the top of 2004 and is currently working in the mist as a Course Mentor for Western Governors University.

Trackbacks

  1. […] he thinks he’s people!” A modern analogue would be our national acceptance of special needs reality star Snooki. Girl got hops. Can’t take that away from her. But the truth is, Webb was better at the end […]

Speak Your Mind

*