How Can I Know Right From Wrong? Watch Philosophy Animations on Ethics Narrated by Harry Shearer

The history of moral philosophy in the West hinges principally on a handful of questions: Is there a God of some sort? An afterlife? Free will? And, perhaps most pressingly for humanists, what exactly is the nature of our obligations to others? The latter question has long occupied philosophers like Immanuel Kant, whose extreme formulation—the “categorical imperative”—flatly rules out making ethical decisions dependent upon particular situations. Kant’s famous example, one that generally gets repeated with a nod to Godwin, involves an axe murderer showing up at your door and asking for the whereabouts of a visiting friend. In Kant’s estimation, telling a lie in this case justifies telling a lie at any time, for any reason. Therefore, it is unethical.

In the video at the top of the post, Harry Shearer narrates a script about Kant’s maxim written by philosopher Nigel Warburton, with whimsical illustrations provided by Cognitive. Part of the BBC and Open University’s “A History of Ideas” series, the video—one of four dealing with moral philosophy—also explains how Kant’s approach to ethics differs from those of utilitarianism.

In the video above, Shearer describes that most utilitarian of thought experiments, the “Trolley Problem.” As described by philosopher Philippa Foot, this scenario imagines having to sacrifice the life of one for those of many. But there is a twist—the second version, which involves the added crime of physically murdering one person, up close and personal, to save several. An analogous but converse theory is that of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (below) who proposes that our obligations to people in peril right in front of us equal our obligations to those on the other side of the world.

Finally, the last video surveys one of the thorniest issues in moral philosophical history—the “is/ought” divide, as problematic as the ancient Euthyphro dilemma. How, asked David Hume, are we to deduce moral principles from facts about the world that have no moral dimension? Particularly when those facts are never conclusive, are subject to revision, and when new ones get uncovered all the time? The question introduces a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between facts and values. Moral judgments founded on what is or isn’t “natural” flounder before our terror of much of what nature does, and the very partial and fallible nature of our knowledge of it.

The problem is as startling as Hume’s critique of causality, and in part caused Kant to remark that Hume had awakened him from a “dogmatic slumber.” What may strike viewers of the series is just how abstract these questions and examples are—how divorced from the messiness of real world politics, with the exception, perhaps, of Peter Singer. It may be instructive that political philosophy forms a separate branch in the West. While these problems are certainly difficult enough to trouble the sleep of just about any thoughtful person, in our day-to-day lives, our decision making process seems to be much messier, and much more situational, than we’re probably ever aware of.

Related Content:

Free Online Philosophy Courses

A History of Ideas: Animated Videos Explain Theories of Simone de Beauvoir, Edmund Burke & Other Philosophers

How Did Everything Begin?: Animations on the Origins of the Universe Narrated by X-Files Star Gillian Anderson

What Makes Us Human?: Chomsky, Locke & Marx Introduced by New Animated Videos from the BBC

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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Comments (7)
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  • Rafael Oliveira says:

    Thos animations are really nice to make us think a little about our lives.

  • Rafael Oliveira says:


  • Paxalot says:

    After seeing these overly simplistic examples I can’t have much faith in philosophy. People are not rational and they don’t have free will so all the talk about choice is wasted effort.

  • Paxalittle says:

    You give up on an entire pursuit of study because you weren’t thoroughly educated by a minute and a half overview summary of a piece of a philosophical debate?

    Sounds PERFECTLY rational ;-)

  • No philosopher says:

    Nice videos to start a discussion. As to the first video I would also suggest; don’t cooperate with evil, especially if cooperating will cause another harm. Better to not say anything, shut the door and warn your friend, get a gun and defend yourself and your friend. Be willing to put yourself in harm’s way to save a friend. You noticed, I didn’t lie.
    Second video; Do the best you can. Take positive action to save as many as possible. Enlist help from others nearby. Switch the tracks, save the 5 and warn the one. Throw something on the tracks to slow the train down but not your friend. That would be murder since there is no hope of survival as there would be should you switch the tracks and warn the one. Be willing to get in harms way to save another.
    Third video; we as individuals can’t save the whole world but each person can do their part to improve the world one life at a time. There is more benefit to personal giving than impersonal giving such as government programs funded through taxes. We should personally seek to be prosperous so we can give more to relieve pain and suffering as well as teach others to become prosperous. Teaching everyone a philosophy of prosperity and giving will do more to relieve pain and suffering in the world vs. the typical government program which tends to create another class of dependent poor who can’t live without a handout. Of course, if you are the poor then any help is better than none. I’m just saying, I believe there is a better way.
    The “is/ought” video should be simple for the atheist as well as the God believing. From either perspective, if we draw our values from what is or what was, we will fail to properly consider what could or should be. By evaluating our current state, reviewing the pros and cons, we can then form in our minds a better state to become our target for change. Reaching out and connecting with others is a creative act that will cause us to prosper as individuals and/or a race of beings. If you don’t set a target for a better life or world, you will live an aimless life devoid of real meaning. You will end up negatively impacting progress much like adding 1,000 lbs. of rock to a truck load of grain needlessly slows the truck down and hurts the markets ability to meet society’s needs. And if you’re not prosperous enough to save a tribe somewhere, try picking a charity with a clear purpose you can believe in and give $5. In many countries, $5 can save a life. Now wouldn’t that make your day?

  • Miguel says:

    It seems as If everybody is concerned about saving other people, but as always they forgetting a very important fact: human specie are the most destructive beings over the earth, therefore if you save a human life, Are you really making good?

  • Harmandeep kaur says:

    This helps to think more deeply about life and decisions we make

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