November 7, 2011
The Ethics of Derren Brown
Over the past decade the illusionist, magician and psychological manipulator Derren Brown has produced some of the most consistently entertaining and provocative television available. But my appreciation extends beyond mere entertainment, and well into the professional.
A large part of my research consists in understanding the foundations of the major western schools of moral philosophy. To simplify rather a lot, probably the two most influential and important approaches to moral philosophy in the modern Anglophone tradition are as follows. First, that which locates our moral commitments and beliefs in the operations of sentiment and emotion and relegates reason to the role of handmaiden. Second, that which privileges reason and makes rationality foundational.
David Hume remains the great proponent of the first, “sentimentalist” tradition. For Hume, “reason is, and ought only ever to be, the slave of the passions”. Moral codes are built on patterns of emotional reaction to our peers, developed over time, and heavily influenced by custom as we sympathetically identify with each other to build bonds of psychological commitment. Our moral judgements originate in our inner sentiments. They are brought by us to the world we experience and which we “gild and stain” with the passions; they are not found there by some faculty, or revealed to us by the operations of reason alone.
The alternative, rationalist, view receives its most sophisticated formulation in the work of Immanuel Kant. Simplifying terribly: Kant proposed that each rational agent could discern universal moral laws founded in the operations of reason by applying a test of universalizability to any proposed action. In essence, a highly sophisticated extrapolation of the principle that you should not do to others what you would not have done to yourself, but now on pain of fundamental contradiction as an agent engaged in practical reasoning, inviting moral failure by the transcendent and immutable standards of reason and logic. (It is a not-insignificant fact that Hume preceded Kant, and that the apparent limitations of the Scotsman’s project were a motivation to that of the East Prussian’s. And although Kant wasn’t Anglophone, his influence on English-speaking philosophers has been enormous.)
Derren Brown’s output surely lends support to some species of the Humean position (though it may generate a darker view than the great optimist Hume himself entertained). Take Brown’s latest series, “The Experiments”. In week two, a crowd thinking they were taking part in a comedy game show systematically voted, by clear majorities, to inflict ever more unpleasant events on a hapless, unwitting target. From having this unsuspecting man falsely accused of sexual assault in a bar, they then framed him for shoplifting, ordered somebody to enter his flat and smash his TV, then voted for him to be kidnapped by a masked gang and thrown into the back of an unmarked van. All in under an hour.
The power of reason was conspicuously lacking there, as the passions of mob-mentality rapidly took over. In previous series, Derren has performed a range of stunts, from manipulating ordinary people into committing armed robberies, to directing them to pick seemingly random objects and “predicting” this in advance, to getting strangers in the street to hand over their wallets and keys just by being asked. Brown’s work consistently shows just how malleable we are; not only in our behaviors, but in our reactions to each other and in particular to figures in authority.
Of course, proponents of Kantian positions will say that this is all besides the point: “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”, as Isaiah Berlin famously embellished. That human beings are in fact prone to manipulation, and that reason is frequently over-ridden by their passions, is allegedly irrelevant to the question of what they should do, and whether a more fundamental moral law does exist. Maybe so. Though perhaps one might wonder what the point of such a law is, if it seems to easily ignored, assuming it’s ever even discovered by any human being in the first place.
Rgardless, the implications for politics (as distinct from abstract moral theory) are surely different. Politics absolutely is about what will happen, and not merely what it would be nice in an ideal world. Yet the evidence from Brown, handily available online at 4OD, is that rationality and reason are just about the last things governing most of us. Not only are we buffeted about by our passions, but more worryingly, those who understand how to manipulate those passions can buffet us in directions they choose. This was something well known to Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, and now variously credited with the invention of both modern political propaganda and mass consumer advertising.
Kantian political philosophies that emphasise the rationality of citizens as the primary loci for discussions of (for example) what more just and equal societies might look like, may thus be barking up two wrong trees simultaneously. Firstly, if rationality is not be the primary matter of political action and reaction, taking it as one’s starting point may well doom one’s conclusions to parochialism and irrelevance. Secondly, waxing hypothetical about what a more just or equal society would look like risks missing what really matters in politics: working out who controls who, how they do it, and making sure they do it in ways that are less nasty than others. To spell the point out: the symbiotic relationship between Fox News and the Tea Party, with the specter of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election now firmly on the horizon, surely does not reflect well on the dominant trend for rationalist political philosophy in many North American and British universities.
In these respects, Derren Brown offers important materials for thinking about both moral and political philosophy, at least for those willing to accept that dusty tomes and wise authorities do not have a monopoly on insight. Of course, it may be replied that there’s nothing in Derren Brown that can’t be found in the properly peer-reviewed experimental psychology literature. Don’t we know all of this from Milgram and the Stanford Prison experiments? Actually, this simply raises another host of questions. Because in his latest series, Brown has been conducing “experiments” that would never pass a modern academic experimental ethics committee.
Take his latest offering: The Guilt Trip. In this special feature, Brown systematically manipulated a totally unsuspecting man, Jody, into feelings of guilt, whilst inducing situations which caused him to repeatedly doubt his own memory. Over the course of a weekend, Brown – working behind the scenes – used systematic deception and manipulation to maneuver Jody into confessing to a murder he did not commit. Jody was subjected to increasing stress over a series of days, and his every move was filmed without his knowledge (including the use of cameras in his hotel bedroom). During his first interview with the “police”, and in the interval between this interview and his walking to the local police station to hand himself in for a murder he did not commit, Jody exhibited high levels of stress, confusion and panic. He consented to none of this. Given how uncomfortable this was as viewing “entertainment”, one can easily imagine how it felt to be Jody. And to know one would not like it.
I say that this “experiment’” would not have passed an academic ethics committee. How do we know? Because by the standards of modern experimental ethics committees, no academic department would now permit the Milgram or Stanford Prison experiments. (Indeed it was partly because of these experiments that the rules on what you could and could not do to volunteers were dramatically tightened). Yet, arguably at least, judging by the standards of prolonged distress and acute anxiety – not to mention systematic manipulation, deception and unwitting surveillance – what Brown did to Jody was worse than, say, what Milgram had his subjects think they were doing to other people.
But does this simply mean that vital psychological experimentation can now only be conducted outside of the academy? Brown’s results in his latest series – pace any discrediting hidden trickery – are fascinating. Getting a hypnotized man to think he’s shot Stephen Fry; directing a masked television audience into advocating the kidnap of an unsuspecting man; manipulating an innocent into confessing to a murder he did not commit. These “experiments” stand to tell us not just about our psychologies as individuals and groups, but about the moral and political philosophies compatible with those internal workings. Has academic science now become so restricted that truly important work has to be done in the intellectual wild west of television?
That’s a difficult question. But it wasn’t the one that bothered me the most when watching a traumatised Jody agonise about whether he had been capable of murdering a man with a croquet hammer, and not even remembering he’d done it. What most truly disturbed me was the feeling that Brown had simply gone too far this time. My sympathetic identification with Jody ensured I spent most of the hour wanting this “experiment” to stop. Here was a man being put through hell, and not primarily in the name of science (let’s be honest), but for mass entertainment.
When it comes to science, questions of the benefit some potentially harmful experiments might yield versus the rights and welfare of the individuals affected are notoriously difficult to settle. Was the insight gleaned from Stanford sufficient to justify the abuse the “prisoners” went through at the hands of their “guards”? Do utilitarian benefits trump some of the rights of some individuals? Given the value of scientific and intellectual advance, those are genuinely difficult questions. What seems more clear cut is that framing a man for shoplifting (with corresponding “arrest” by “police”), or getting another to think they have killed another human being in cold blood, simply in the name of Friday-night-fun, is not acceptable.
But then, Brown has a strong reputation for looking after the psychological wellbeing of his subject (victims?) after the show is over. And in the case of Jody, several minutes were dedicated to his personally enthusing after the event about how great the experiment had been. Cue numerous shots of Jody immediately seeing the funny side of it all, laughing along with not-a-little relief. By pulling the emotional heartstrings so adeptly, Brown dramatically lessened the sense of viewer guilt that what had been done to this man was wrong. All’s well that ends well. Right? And who’s to say whether Brown was wrong to so manipulate us viewers – isn’t that part of what you accept when you tune in to this sort of show? And if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – we actually learn from Brown’s “experiment”, does that make it OK? Even when bearing in mind that what he ultimately gets paid for is the provision of our entertainment?