Good and Evil, Autumn 2021

Module Leader: Dr Eszter Szép, Milestone Institute

From the very first moment of this course we will be exploring our gut moral intuitions, our almost instinctive understanding of what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. Our aim is to make strange what has been familiar – to look at these intuitions in new ways. With the help of comics, films, a novel, psychological experiments, and philosophical texts, we will find new ways of seeing, thinking, and talking about moral questions.

The first part of the course focuses on decisions and consequences, and we will also familiarize ourselves with ways of moral reasoning. Then the course turns to the relationship between the individual and society, and we will see if / how institutions and authority complicate the questions of good and evil. Finally, we make excursions into the fields of contemporary feminist ethics and environmental ethics with the help of a Margaret Atwood novel.

Each week, students will have to submit a short essay (150-200 words) before class to demonstrate that they have thought about the questions asked by the given text/film/comic assigned for that week.

At the end of the course, students will have to submit one of the following:

  • a longer final argumentative essay (1500 words without bibliography) on a topic related to those discussed in class. There will be a set of questions and topics for the students to choose from.
  • a piece of creative writing (short story, poem, dramatized scene) (2000 words) related to one of the topics and questions discussed in class.

Learning outcomes

Students will 

  • have a more reflected view of their own moral preferences as well as of how questions of good and evil have been asked by philosophers and artists;
  • have an understanding of the problem of the banality of evil as well as of different positions on society and sociability;
  • develop the ability to discern and evaluate arguments in philosophical texts;
  • have gained experience in close reading texts in various media, including text-based and multimodal media;
  • be able to articulate their own well-argued position on key questions presented in the course.

2.1. Week-by-Week Lesson Plan

2.1.1. Session 1 – Introduction: Ohba Tsugumi – Obata Takeshi: Death Note (vol. 1.)

Based on the first volume of Death Note, a highly successful and controversial manga, we will map what we think about good and evil. In this manga, our protagonist starts killing of criminals and serious offenders with the help of a notebook that he acquired from a death god called Ryuk. Some of you are most probably familiar with the anime version but for this class the manga is to be read.

We will focus on the character of Yagami Light when we explore if and how certain deeds can be justified. We will learn about categorical and utilitarian reasoning and views of ethics (objectivism, relativism, subjectivism). 

Required Reading

Ohba, T. and Obata, T. (2007) Death Note Volume 1: Boredom, San Francisco: Viz Media. 

Burnor, Richard and Raley, Y. (2018) Ethical Choices: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy with Cases, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 5-10, 26-38.

2.1.2. Session 2 – Authoritarian superhero or anarchist supervillain? V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

We read Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s now classic comic, V for Vendetta and study the characters of V and Evey. Is V a hero or an anti-hero and why? We will discuss autonomy, revenge, and anarchy. 

This is a long comic that is rather text-heavy, so give yourself enough time to read it. Importantly, there is a film version but several questions have been edited out, so it is essential that you read the graphic novel.

Required Reading

Moore, A. and Lloyd, D (1989) V for Vendetta, New York: DC Comics

Alan Moore Talks V for Vendetta on Youtube. https://youtu.be/QX7ehbE1vc0

2.1.3. Session 3 – Sound and fury – Macbeth written by William Shakespeare and directed by Roman Polanski

Macbeth is a young successful Scottish warrior coming home from a battle that he has gloriously won. Three witches, the weird sisters, who always use dubious speech (“fair is foul and foul is fair”) prophesize that he will be given a new title, the Thane of Cawdor, and that he will be king of Scotland. And yes, the new title arrives on schedule, but it seems that King Duncan needs to be killed. And this is only the first step on a long and bloody road.

We will discuss the consequences of Macbeth’s actions as well as questions of free will. We will also investigate Lady Macbeth’s role in the chain of events. Although Shakespeare’s play has several film versions, it is important that we all watch the 1971 version directed by Roman Polanski (the best one by far).

Required Reading and Watching

Macbeth (dir. Roman Polanski, 1971) [You can choose between original English and Hungarian dubbing, as well as between subtitles in English or Hungarian.]

Green, J (2018) Free Will, Witches, Murder, and Macbeth, Part 1: Crash Course Literature 409, https://youtu.be/VPYOs0EGgJk

“Tomorrow and tomorrow: Ian McKellen analyzes Macbeth speech 1979” Kris Joseph YouTube Channel, https://youtu.be/zGbZCgHQ9m8

Greenblatt S (2018) “Chapter 7: The Investigator” in Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics W. W. Norton: New York, 96-112.

2.1.4. Session 4 – Everymen in the Pub – The Fifth Seal directed by Zoltán Fábri

A watchmaker, a book seller, and a carpenter are drinking in a bar with the owner. Is this the first line of a joke? Nope, this is the first scene of one of the masterpieces of Hungarian film, The Fifth Seal directed by Zoltán Fábri. We are in Budapest in 1944, and even the seemingly insignificant chitchat of the characters is telling. Later, however, they all have to answer the ethical question asked by Gyuricza, the watchmaker. In class we will discuss the unfolding dilemmas the film presents not only to the characters but also to the viewers.

Required Reading and Watching

Az ötödik pecsét / The Fifth Seal (dir. Zoltán Fábri, 1976) [English subtitles provided if needed.]

Burnor, Richard and Raley, Y. (2018) Ethical Choices: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy with Cases, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 46-56.

2.1.5. Session 5 – The Banality of Evil – Hannah Arendt

In the fifth session, we discuss Hannah Arendt’s approach to the banality of evil, which she shows in her analysis of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1962. Eichmann was kidnapped by the Israeli secret service and brought in to stand trial for his role in the Holocaust. He, however, claimed that he did not ever kill any Jew, nor did he ever hate Jews: he was merely responsible for the deportations and the transportation of Jews to concentration camps. Like other Nazi leaders during the Nuremberg trials, he claimed he was following orders and never broke the law. Arendt uses this to question what it means to be evil/do evil, and to be good/to do good. 

Required Reading and Viewing

Arendt, H., (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, The Viking Press, New York, 14–21 (“The Accused”), or 65–72 (“Duties of a Law-Abiding Citizen”), and 130–139 (“Postscript”)

Short excerpt from the documentary film The Specialist (1999): https://eyalsivan.info/index.php?p=fichefilm&id=11#&panel1-5

2.1.6. Session 6 – Obeying Authority – The Experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo

We will discuss two famous experiments from the history of social psychology to have a more complex understanding of how social structures can promote evil actions — and also good actions. 

In 1962, Stanley Milgram at Yale told participants of an experiment that they are testing if punishment contributes to better learning results. “Teachers” administered an electric shock whenever “learners” made mistakes. In fact, Milgram and his colleagues were examining to what extent those in the role of the “teacher” followed orders.

In 1971, Philip Zimbardo artificially assigned the roles of prisoners and guards to students, while he himself acted as the director of the prison. In the class, we will ask what we learn from these experiments and if/how they are relevant today in a globalized and digital world.

Required Reading and Watching

Milgram, S (1974). Obedience to Authority, Tavistock, 1-12, 32-43, 44-54.

The Stanford Prison Experiment – BBC Documentary, https://youtu.be/F4txhN13y6A

2.1.7. Session 7 Nonviolence: Judith Butler

So far we have mostly focused on evil and violent acts, but we must not forget that nonviolent protest has a rich history and is a powerful political tool. In this class, we will ask, together with contemporary feminist philosopher Judith Butler, if it is possible to imagine a society in which social structures are organized differently: could we organize the social and political sphere on the recognition of mutual grief and pain and vulnerability? Can the interdependence between people be recognized and made the foundations of an ethical position?

We will examine how it is possible that vulnerability is not a negative quality, and we will also study the individual’s relationship to society according to Butler. We will discuss who is the “Other” and how we can meet them ethically. As always, we ask how we can apply Butler’s theories in 2021. The text is sometimes difficult, I suggest you to print it and mark in advance key ideas as well as points that are not clear to you.

Required Reading and Watching

Butler, J (2004). Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 19-49.

Butler, J (2018). “”Non-violent resistance works.” A Talk Europe! interview with Judith Butler” ERSTE Foundation https://youtu.be/7c_SdvaP9CE

Green, J (2015). “Nonviolence and Peace Movements: Crash Course World History 228” Crash Course https://youtu.be/eP-mv5IjFzY

2.1.8. Session 8 – Children of the Future: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

In the last session, we turn to Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s first novel in the Maddaddam trilogy. Please note that this is a longer text, give yourself enough time to read it. After reading, watch Atwood talking about the book at MIT and reading certain sections (it is hilarious).

Snowman lives in a future world made only partially habitable due to human pollution. He is responsible for and at the same time he is tired of a group of humans called Crake’s children or Crakers. Snowman spends his days remembering a very different time when he was called Jimmy, and when he was a student enjoying the company of Crake and Oryx. 

In our discussion, we will address the ethical implications of humanity’s relationship with nature and non-human animals. We will also ponder Crake’s actions.

Required Reading and Watching

Atwood, M (2003). Oryx and Crake (any edition). 

Margaret Atwood at MIT: Oryx and Crake Revisited. MIT YouTube Channel. https://youtu.be/kB_bhdEX8OE

Minimal reading requirement from Oryx and Crake (the page numbers refer to the PDF that you find under “Modules”, but feel free to read any edition):

  • 1/Mango p. 3-5
  • 1/Flotsam p. 6-9
  • 2/Bonfire p. 15-21
  • 2/OrganInc Farms p. 22-28.
  • 4/Rakunk, Hammer, Crake, Brainfrizz, HottTotts [all chapters] p. 49-92 
  • 5/Toast p. 95-98
  • 5/Fish p. 99-103
  • 7/Svetlana, Purring, Blue [All chapters. These will be very important.] p. 147-169
  • 8/Wolvogs [For context: Jimmy now attends a not at all fashionable university called Martha Graham, where he studies the Humanities, while Crake attends a super well-equipped university for the best students called Watson-Crick, where he studies transgenics] p. 199-206
  • 8/ Hypothetical p. 207-213