Ethics in America
September 7, 2011 4:52 PM   Subscribe

In 1989, The Columbia University Seminars on Media and Society (later called the 'Fred Friendly Seminars') produced a ten-part series entitled Ethics in America, hosted by Fred W. Friendly [obit]. The show, which aired on PBS, featured prominent American thinkers of the time -- including psychologists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, theologians, professors, business leaders, district attorneys, politicians, journalists, and a supreme court justice -- engaged in round-table debate concerning hypothetical ethical dilemmas. It was reprised in 2007 as Ethics in America II. Both incarnations [I; II] are viewable for free at, which describes the original version thus: This series uses the Socratic method to build analytical skills and examine ethical questions. The programs aim to sharpen moral reasoning without favoring a particular position by exploring ethical dilemmas in legal, political, medical, corporate, and military arenas. Panelists include Antonin Scalia, Faye Wattleton, and Peter Jennings.

Program descriptions pulled from Follow the links to view episodes within the category. Disable your pop-up blocker and click 'VoD' on site to watch an episode.

Ethics in America
1. Do Unto Others
Must we house the homeless or report a child abuser? A panel including Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Faye Wattleton of Planned Parenthood, and Willard Gaylin of the Hastings Center discusses the question of community responsibility.

2. To Defend a Killer
What rights do the guilty have? Ethical dilemmas of our criminal justice system are discussed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, defense attorney Jack Litman, and philosopher John Smith of Yale.

3. Public Trust, Private Interests
Jeane Kirkpatrick, Joseph A. Califano Jr., Senator Alan Simpson, Peter Jennings, and others address the problems of trust — within government, between one public official and another, and between the government and the public.

4. Does Doctor Know Best?
Should you save the mother at the risk of losing the baby? Doctors from the National Cancer Institute and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center discuss controversies created by modern medicine with C. Everett Koop, journalist Ellen Goodman, and others.

5. Anatomy of a Hostile Takeover
Merger mania presents an alarming array of ethical problems. Debating the issues are T. Boone Pickens; chief executives from Borg-Warner, Goodyear, and Berkshire Hathaway; economist Lester Thurow; and Senator Tim Wirth.

6. Under Orders, Under Fire (Part I)
How do we wage war when the enemy dresses as civilians and children throw bombs? Generals William Westmoreland, David Jones, and Brent Scowcroft, correspondents Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace, and others question the duty to follow orders and a commander's obligation to protect soldiers.

7. Under Orders, Under Fire (Part II)
The carnage of My Lai raises the issue of confidentiality between the soldier, his religious confessor, and military justice. Generals debate the clash between military tribunals and the right of confidentiality with Chaplain Timothy Tatum of the U.S. Army War College, the Reverend J. Bryan Hehir of the U.S. Catholic Conference, and others.

8. Truth on Trial
Is an attorney's first obligation to the court, the client, or the public? Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Judge Robert Merhige, attorneys Floyd Abrams and Stanley Chesley, philosopher John Smith, and others debate civil litigation's ethical dilemmas.

9. The Human Experiment
Does finding a cure justify putting test subjects at risk? C. Everett Koop is joined by Dr. Arnold Relman, editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and other distinguished panelists in a discussion of the medical research field.

10. Politics, Privacy, and the Press
What conduct on the part of a public official is relevant to "the public's right to know?" Panelists from both sides, including Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, Peter Jennings, Mike Wallace, and Geraldine Ferraro, debate this issue.
Ethics in America II
1. Three Farewells: Medicine & the End of Life
This program looks at the difficult choices a loving family makes as they confront the end of life. When a perfect pregnancy ends in unforeseen complications, and the newborn suffers very severe brain injury, how should the parents decide what is best for their baby? When, a few years later, the baby’s grandmother descends into dementia from Alzheimer’s, should her earlier wish to forego all medical treatment be honored, even though she may no longer understand — or agree — with the statements she made when she was competent? Still later, another family member receives a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. If she is terminally ill, should she be able to avail herself of medications to aid her in dying?

2. War Stories: National Security & the News
Four years previously, a coalition led by American forces invaded the Central Asian nation of Khaoistan, where warlords had destroyed the central government and were supporting major terrorist activities. Today, the process of rebuilding the nation and fighting off an insurgency continues, covered by a group of journalists based in the capital city. Meanwhile, back in the States, a journalist covering national security issues investigates allegations of illegal phone taps by the government. In each case, reporters are faced with dilemmas that go to the heart of their responsibilities as journalists, and as Americans.

3. My Brother's Keeper
In a neighborhood perhaps like your own, in a family perhaps not too different from yours, individuals struggle with their college applications, with promotions at work, with the actions of their neighbors, and try to determine what to do when important values about questions of fairness, loyalty, secrets, and trust conflict.

4. Choosing Justice: Elections and Judicial Independence
John Fairfield, a former prosecutor and respected state trial judge, is thinking of pursuing a life-long dream: a seat on the state Supreme Court. In Fairfield’s state, Centralia, all the judges are chosen in nonpartisan elections, with no limits on what can be spent — or said — in the process of campaigning. Fairfield wonders what will be required of him — especially regarding fundraising and political advertising in what will be a fiercely contested statewide campaign — and what the implications might be for the ethical integrity of the judiciary.

5. A Better Brain: The Ethics of Neuro-Enhancement
Maria and her daughter Camilla are meeting with several challenges in this difficult time in their lives, from the exhaustion of working two jobs, to the pressure and loneliness of being an average, unpopular kid at school. Yet it appears that some new pharmaceuticals may help each of them—if they choose to use them. New drugs have also found a place in the university setting where students find that Hype Pharmaceuticals' Alzheimer's drug, Rememberall, helps them study better, work faster and remember much more. By enhancing their performance this way, are they cheating? Are they possibly endangering themselves?

6. Risk, Reward, Responsibility: Ethics in Business
Should the executives at Casablanca Cruise Lines have asbestos removed from their ships by a company based in the former Soviet republic of Novostan? The cost would be $80 million less than if an American company were used, but Novostani standards of worker safety are far less rigorous. What should executives at MaxiCorp disclose about accidents in cars using their device, which doubles the mileage of cars in which it is installed, when they have no idea whether their device is contributing to the accidents? And what should executives at Wowie Info do when the authoritarian government of Jaigunda demands the name of a Jaigundan customer who has been using Wowie’s Internet services to criticize the government? In each case, panelists struggle to make sound business decisions while observing ethical imperatives in the changing global economy.
(Fred Friendly Seminars Previously)
posted by troll (15 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man! I thought about doing this as my first post for a long time, but I couldn't find a version online that didn't require Windows Media and this is better than I would have done it.

These discussions are seriously great. You get a chance to see some people who have ended up representing some formative Western political thought of the last 30 years talking candidly about their personal beliefs. Like ... surprisingly candidly. I personally think the first series is superior, particularly episodes 2, 5, 8, and 10.

Fantastic post, troll. Thanks for doing this.
posted by penduluum at 4:58 PM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I saw the mental illness one linked in the (previously) and was blown away - I'll be watching all 16 of these.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:13 PM on September 7, 2011

I always loved the quote they open / promote these with: "Our job is not to make up anyone's mind, but to open minds -- to make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape only by thinking."
-- Fred W. Friendly
posted by Maias at 5:14 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's interesting to see the differences in topics reflecting the topics of interests of, presumably, the educated and the mindful change over 18 years...

Especially the focus on whether "doctors know best" and whether it's ok to to experiment on humans for the purposes of finding better cures shifting to end-of-life options and whether people ought to be allowed to experimenting on themselves, if you will, by modifying their own central nervous systems with pharmaceuticals.

... except for War. War never changes.
posted by porpoise at 6:16 PM on September 7, 2011

By the way, here's part of what I was going to say when I was considering this for a post:

"Did you know you can watch all of the award-winning Ethics in America programs online?

SEE: Peter Jennings, Rudy Giuliani (in a wicked bad toupee), Newt Gingrich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Arthur Miller (not that one) debate issues of public trust and governance!

MARVEL: as Antonin Scalia acts like a cavalier peanut-gallery loudmouth while discussing the rights of the accused and attorney-client privilege!

REMEMBER WHAT THE EIGHTIES WERE LIKE: while listening to T. Boone Pickens and talk about ethical concerns during corporate takeovers (spoiler: they don't think there are any). ALSO: Warren Buffet is awesome.

OTHER ETHICAL SUPERSTARS: General William Westmoreland, Mike Wallace, Geraldine Ferraro, Brent Scowcroft."
posted by penduluum at 7:49 PM on September 7, 2011

I remember this series--loved Charles Ogletree as a moderator. I squirmed at some of the questions he posed, wondering how I would answer under similar circumstances. Very thoughtful series.
posted by etaoin at 8:25 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

penduluum: MARVEL: as Antonin Scalia acts like a cavalier peanut-gallery loudmouth while discussing the rights of the accused and attorney-client privilege!

Ah, yes, this occurs in episode 2 of the original iteration.* The unguarded, musing side of Scalia is certainly on display. Despite his peppering of the conversation with blithe, one-liner quips, he is otherwise articulate. There's a questionable moment when he refers to an innocent death-row inmate as probably being "guilty of something else anyway," but he's likely just looking for laughs with some black humor.

It is interesting to see people of this stature in candid debate. Because of the charged nature of ethics and the inevitable division into ideological camps, they tend to be less guarded and reserved than as presented in their normal public capacity. The conversation seem to get progressively more intense as it develops.

*I hadn't heard of Ethics in America before last night, when I caught this episode on PBS at 2 in the morning.
posted by troll at 8:31 PM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I was in high school, I used to watch these late night on PBS. I was a weird kid.

My favorite was the one about the media's responsibility, #10 of series 1.
posted by inturnaround at 9:10 PM on September 7, 2011

Barney Frank's excellent too. I forgot he was in there, ep 3 of the first series and ep 4 in the second too, at least. He's witty and charismatic as always, and makes an excellent point about campaign finance and the theoretical ideal of de-linking the money you get from the people who give it to you. You aspire to be an ingrate, he says.

One of the things that the candid nature of debate like this tends to bring out is how really surprisingly brilliant these people are. You see politicians in the news, you read summaries of judgments, and you tend to think of people as being rather ... thin, intellectually. Shallow. But these people, when they're just freely talking about their own realms of expertise and about questions that they've been considering most of their adult lives: they're brilliant. Arthur Miller is a stunning intellect. Theodore Olsen, Sandra Day O'Connor, Charles Ogletree. The news media people they have on, the political functionaries, judges, soldiers: it's a lot more surprising than it should be how smart they all are and how approachable they make some pretty intimidating moral and ethical questions.

Example: it's easy to think of Scalia as a kind of mechanicistic paleo-con automaton. It's easy to read his decisions and think they're unconsidered, and from "unconsidered" it's not much of a slippery slope down to "dumb". I happen, personally, to disagree with basically every professed principle and opinion that comes out of the guy's mouth, but it's impossible to come away from these debates without realizing that he's really deeply smart too. I don't know whether that functionally matters all that much, at the end of the day. But it's interesting to be reminded.
posted by penduluum at 9:42 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some of these remind me a bit of the BBC's excellent Inside the Ethics Committee series. Since they're radio programmes, they should work for US listeners as well.
posted by Acheman at 3:24 AM on September 8, 2011

I remember this show! That was great to see: smart people talking about something important. *sigh* I suredly do miss that.

I wonder why they wouldn't air these now? Or do a new run of episodes? Certainly there's enough new things to talk about (Abu Ghraib, SOX, interrogation memo, etc., USW)!
posted by wenestvedt at 7:40 AM on September 8, 2011

I caught one on TV a few months ago and found it riveting, but I agree that they should definitely do more of them. I'm coming to the conclusion that part of the problem in the US media is cable & satellite; there are too many damn channels, so your chances of finding an audience for thinky stuff like this is diminished.

On the upside, there's always Charlie Rose.
posted by anigbrowl at 10:27 AM on September 8, 2011

When I was in high school, I used to watch these late night on PBS. I was a weird kid.

Same here. They very heavily affected my ethical development at the time (I remember Mike Wallace talking about a journalists professional duty being to mankind, not his or her country) and I still recommend the series to people I think would appreciate them. Last time I went looking, I couldn't find them online, and I had kind of given up hope, so this is just fantastic. Thanks, troll.
posted by Amanojaku at 10:48 AM on September 8, 2011

Excellent fpp.
posted by dejah420 at 2:02 PM on September 8, 2011

Is there any way to convert these to audio files, like say of the "iTunes U" podcast/lecture type?

And I guess it's just a typo, but when I saw "" in the FPP, I imagined it had something to do with Tikkun, an ethical organization in its own right. Annenberg Learner, got it.
posted by psoas at 7:31 PM on September 8, 2011

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