Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Good Place?: Reflections on Narrative Ethics in Singapore

Genevieve Soh
Genevieve Soh, ‘24, is a student writer in Cendana. A starry-eyed storyteller, she loves seeking beauty in everything and transforming these discoveries into words.

Story by | Genevieve Soh (she/her/hers), Staff Editor

This article was written in collaboration with our partners, Panoramic. It is a global magazine, run by students at the University of Cambridge, to provide a space for young people across the world to discuss prominent topics we face as a generation.

“Neither [murderous action] is permissible as your primary intention. The Doctrine of Double Effect, remember?” urges Chidi, a professor of Moral Philosophy.

“Well, man, I’m working with the doctrine of not being completely effed, okay?!” a flustered immortal demon named Michael exclaims in response.

Above is an exchange taken from the critically acclaimed fantasy comedy television series The Good Place, directed by Michael Schur. From this dialogue alone, we gain an insight to the series’ impressive weaving of philosophical content with comedy — a vivid embodiment of narrative ethics at work. Narrative ethics is the intersection between the domain of storytelling and that of moral values, which regards virtues and philosophy as an integral part of narratives (the living handbook of narratology, 2014). As it turns out, movies and TV shows have been serving as our personal philosophy teachers throughout our lives, perhaps without us even realising! 

However, just as a person needs both food and water to survive, a comprehensive knowledge of philosophy and ethics can only be received through narratives and formal academic materials; where narrative ethics succeeds in appealing to and inspiring people, it lacks in extensive content that formal lectures and readings on philosophy provide. My initial introduction to content-heavy philosophical academic material was fraught with puzzlement (perhaps even nausea). But with some patience, and clarifications from my professors, it was revealed to me just how well the formal academic content complemented and enhanced my initial knowledge of ethics from narratives. As Sandra Field, an Assistant Professor and political philosopher at Yale-NUS College, explains, narratives alone cannot impart comprehensive philosophical knowledge: “For the kinds of concepts I am trying to teach, I find movies often to be reductive and lacking nuance. On the whole, I find it is easier to make the materials I am teaching vivid through application to real world contexts and linking to real world materials (current news, actual history), rather than to movies.” 

Still, Narrative ethics outperform logical argumentation in terms of swaying our moral beliefs and behaviours to correspond with the messages embedded within the narrative (McVey, 2020). Indeed, The Good Place  remains my favourite TV series because of how it transformed my mindset. I remember it was during the year my beloved pet cat passed away that I started watching the series, in hopes that the entertainment would distract me from my sadness. It was a heartening surprise to find myself recovering from my grief not solely because of the series’ comedic distraction, but because of the lessons it taught me about the ethics of approaching loss. Back then, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the character Eleanor echo my pained sentiments when she asks, “What’s the point of love if it’s just gonna disappear?”. It was hearing the philosophical response that, “Since nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it’s euphoria,” that taught me to reminisce about the love-filled memories of my pet with cherishment instead of bitterness. The Good Place ultimately taught me about the ethics of coming to terms with the temporality of life; To, as one character puts it, “Embrace the pandemonium” that is the presence of death and to find the strength to move on and heal. The show serves as a form of ethical therapy, and is a clear display of narrative ethics’ influence. However, it is undeniable that a TV show of 4 seasons, that juggles aims of entertainment and education, cannot provide the idyllic, in-depth ethics content administered through formal philosophy academics. When I was watching The Good Place, the narrative introduced to me the concept of Virtue Ethics. However, it was through my readings on philosopher Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra that I received a more extensive insight to this concept of caring for and helping others. In the meal of ethics, TV shows and movies serve as appetizers that work to excite the consumer about an engagement with the formal philosophy academia main course.

In Singapore, TV shows and movies are also greeted with an eager reception from citizens. In a survey of about 4,700 people aged 15 and above, eight in ten Singaporeans said they use the Internet on a weekly basis, with 81.3% of respondents stating their top monthly online activity is watching TV, movies and videos (CNA, 2018). Over the years, traditionally conservative Singapore has relaxed media guidelines and moved away from censorship to classification so that the public can have greater access to a wider range of globalised media choices without compromising on the need to protect young children from undesirable content (IMDA website). Recently, on 23rd February 2021, Singapore became the 3rd country in Asia to launch the Disney+ streaming service (Disney’s latest movie and TV show streaming platform) for her citizens to enjoy. However, the government still censors political, racial, religious and homosexuality issues to a certain extent, which it states as necessary to avoid upsetting the delicate balance of Singapore’s multi-racial society (Censorship in Singapore). For instance, Netflix has only removed nine titles due to government demands since it launched 23 years ago, more than half of which have occured in Singapore (Campaign, 2020). The shows were removed due to their perpetuation of marijuana content, the featuring of drugs, and the depiction of religiously controversial content. In response, some Singaporeans took to social media to express their displeasure (CNBC, 2016). But the protests escalated no further than online discourse. Under the understanding that the government mostly grants unrestricted media access and  only draws the line when it comes to media inciting the adoption of philosophies that could be damaging to the country’s harmony, the efforts appear well-intentioned and reasonable to most Singaporeans.

Singaporeans’ present-day attitudes towards sexuality, religion and vices then still remain fairly conservative in relation to the government’s restrictions. However, Singaporeans are still exposed to other globalised ethics from the mostly unrestricted variety of media. “Watching the movie Parasite made me recognize that I am privileged in many certain ways and that not just hard work got me to where I am,” Tan Siow Huan, a Sociology major at the National University of Singapore, reflects on how the critically acclaimed Korean film increased her social awareness. “I realise now that when people follow the traditionally conservative Singaporean values and say that we are a meritocratic society and you reap what you sow, [that notion] isn’t exactly true. Because the truth is that your circumstances play a big role. [The globalised ethics] also made my point of view become more open-minded, and when I read about unfamiliar groups of people in societies, it becomes easier to accept and understand them as well.” A major departure from local conservative ethics pertaining to more sensitive topics has yet to manifest in Singapore’s society. However, it is heartening to know that a more globalised ethical awareness amongst the Singaporean audience is, to some extent, permitted and has been achieved through a variety of narrative ethics. 

Nevertheless, who is to say that the ethical awareness imparted to us from the TV shows and movies we watch is truly diverse? Today, the Big Five major film and TV show studios are Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures and Columbia Pictures, highlighting how U.S. film studios dominate the global film industry (Major Film Studios). Understandably, the narratives and philosophies distributed by these studios are mostly American-centric, with each film or show lacking a portrayal or representation of philosophies endemically practiced in other countries across the globe. For example, Disney only recently released Raya and The Last Dragon, the studio’s first original film depicting cultures and virtues native to Southeast Asian countries, such as the importance of communal spirit. Perhaps, in the end, as we indulge in curiosity towards international philosophies introduced to us through media narratives, giggling at an immortal demon agitated by the Doctrine of Double Effect, we overlook the occurrence that the imparted ethics are mostly Western and not representatively globalised.

And so, fellow Singaporean movie and TV lovers, the next time you find yourself engrossed in the narrative of a film or show, try and ask yourself: “Is this story introducing me to an ethical philosophy, and do I feel myself engaging with it?”. Even as you find yourself eagerly learning from these forms of narrative ethics, remind yourself that, though inspirational, these ethics are still bite-sized and oversimplified forms of the larger spectrum of ethical philosophy; thus a true grasp of ethics still requires your interaction with formal academic material. While the shows and films we enjoy also introduce liberal and new ideas into our long-persisted conservative society, let us now learn to be more conscious of where these ideas come from and who in fact has been holding the power over a generation of TV and movie watchers, namely U.S. corporations.

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