“I’m just trying to imagine what Kant would make of this.”
“I don’t think he’d have a problem with it.”
“Think about what this could mean for the cause of education. Forty million people will watch you on Twenty-One.”
It is at this point that I press the STOP button on the remote and ask that the lights be turned on in the classroom.
After teaching the film Quiz Show for the past six years I had an epiphany: If we pause the film at this pivotal moment, then we can examine the generally unnoticed relationship between schools of philosophy and the process of making life-changing decisions.
It has often been said that everyone, at their core, is either a Platonist or an Aristotelilan. W.H. Auden, in his essay The Greeks and Us, refutes this by stating, “it seems to me that there are more contrasted and significant divisions than this.” Agreed, and the lines quoted above are an example of such a “more contrasted and significant” division.
Charles Van Doren, instructor at Columbia, after being offered the opportunity to win on the quiz show Twenty-One by being asked only questions that he already knew the answers to, wonders aloud about how someone like Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher famous for his belief in Categorical Imperatives (rules that can never - under any circumstances - be broken), might deal with this situation.
His interlocutors - first Albert Freedman, and then Dan Enright - do their best to turn Van Doren to their way of thinking. Freedman, who probably thinks Kant is one of Charlie’s poker buddies, claims that Kant wouldn’t “have a problem with it”. The more subtle Enright appeals to Charlie’s devotion to education: Imagine how many young people will now think that learning is cool. Jeremy Bentham and his student John Stuart Mill, the earliest proponents of what is called Classical Utilitarianism (doing the most good for the greatest number of people - ends justify means), would have been proud.
Whenever we have been perched upon the horns of a dilemma such as that which formed the basis for this film, we have felt the internal tug-of-war either to stand by our principles (Kant) or to be swayed by how many people we might help (Bentham/Mill).
As the rest of the film shows, the most important thing about any particular decision that we make is ultimately what role that decision plays in the formation of who we are in the depths of our being: in Christian terms, in our relationship with God and with the person whom He intends us to be.
To walk away from the offer will put Van Doren on a particular life-path, and to enter this deception will be the first step on a very different journey. As the film—based on the real-life events of those involved with the quiz show scandals of the 1950s—illustrates, not only are there a number of moments that one can walk away from a bad decision, but that the walking-away gets more and more difficult over time.
In a course entitled Christian Manhood the goal is not to turn students into clones of Immanuel Kant or Jeremy Bentham, but to shine a light on the limitations of both views of ethics and to offer a third way (actually, a fourth way, since Existentialism/Nihilism is also taken into account) known by a variety of names: Virtue Ethics, Christian Personalism, Rta, the Tao, Logos, the Gospel.
In this course we try to awaken and energize within each student the longing to be his best self, to be the person who God, in His eternal vision, sees when He looks at us. Despite the lasting influence of Kant, Bentham, Mill, Sartre, Nietzsche, and so many more, none who follow directly in any of their footsteps will walk the path that leads to that person. Unlike any ethicist, God has bigger concerns than what we do or what consequences flow from our actions. For Him the only real issue is who we become because of what we do and how we learn from what consequences we bring into the world.
For the Christian, it is only the path of Christ and His Gospel that matters, and, unlike any merely ethical road, this one leads to the true self, to the person who is already residing in the eternal present of the Father’s Kingdom.