The "Homeland" approach to ethics and philosophy

homeland and philosophy

Are you an ethical person?

Has a TV show ever changed your outlook on a moral issue?

Adultery, drug use, violence… Ethical dilemmas are at the heart of any good TV drama, and over the last 15 years, the best shows have gone out of their way to illuminate the tortured minds of some highly questionable—if not outright despicable—characters.


Acclaimed philosopher Dr. Robert Arp wrote the book on understanding ethics through television, literally. Happy Nice Time People used the excuse of his new book on the philosophical concepts behind the TV show Homeland to pick his brain on the dark but golden age of modern television.

First up, when did Americans become so enamored with villains-as-protagonists?

“Actually, it was The Sopranos and specifically Tony Soprano that set the stage for shows of the caliber of Homeland, Breaking Bad, and others with morally ambiguous characters,” Arp told Happy Nice Time People. “Even more so with Walter White of Breaking Bad. He wasn’t a cold-blooded gangster; he was just a cold-blooded average American turned Meth producer and dealer who did it for his family. So, if it wasn’t for The Sopranos, then Breaking Bad, I don’t think any other show would have been as successful.”

But it doesn’t take a Tony Soprano to reshape your world view. As Arp points out, that’s been happening since the earliest days of the bewb tube.

“TV has always influenced the American public. Consider the TV series Perry Mason, which ran from 1957-1966. PM would get the defendant to confess on the stand—the so-called Perry Mason Moment—and so real jurors started to expect that same thing to occur in real life. That real jurors expected this because of the influence of Perry Mason is known as the Perry Mason Syndrome,” said Arp.

“Many people think: Law & Order is how it is in the real-life courtroom; ER is how it is in real-life emergency rooms of hospitals; The West Wing is how it is in the real-life West Wing of the White House complex; and (I’m sure) Homeland is how it is with the CIA and such.”

As you might guess, Arp is particularly fond of shows that challenge the viewer to explore different moral and ethical perspectives. So which shows get his noggin cranking?

“The Law & Order series has had the most influence on me because not only did they ‘rip ethical and political issues from the headlines,’ but I also believe that they really tried to present both sides to a particular issue—and they did it with phenomenal acting. After an episode, it was rare that I didn’t think, ‘Wow, that was emotionally heavy and thought provoking,’ Arp told us. “Many Star Trek episodes—from all of the different series—left me feeling and thinking that way, too. Actually, South Park is quite thought provoking, believe it or not, midst all of the vulgarity and over-the-top-ness about it.”

Arp has edited several volumes in the [Show Title Here] and Philosophy series and authored chapters in several more. The latest is Homeland and Philosophy, with Arp as editor. HNTP was interested, of course, because it’s among the shows we recap every week. (Check out the recap of last night’s episode here!) So, the obvious question—why Homeland?

“My wife, Susan, said, ‘You gotta watch this show, and you should do Homeland and Philosophy.’ When I watched the pilot episode of Homeland, the al-Qaeda component reminded me of where I was when 9/11 occurred. It’s crystal clear in my memory: I was in grad school at Saint Louis University, getting ready to go teach Introduction to Philosophy, standing in the kitchen of my home on Hampstead Street in St. Louis, looking out the back window at the flowers we planted in the spring, having just placed my dishes in the dishwasher, and my wife called me from her 1st grade classroom and said, ‘Turn on the news. A plane just flew into the World Trade Center,’” said Arp.


“Like most everyone else, I was deeply depressed that day and for several days after; then angry, then sad again, then angry again. Because of these emotions (and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this), the Islamist jihadist extremism of al-Qaeda—complete with the terrorist activities associated with it—is what initially attracted me to Homeland.”

So what’s in the book?

“There’s the obvious question of the nature and ethics of terrorism in Homeland, but things got deep pretty quickly as I was able to pinpoint numerous philosophical themes in the show the more I watched,” said Arp. “And I’m not alone. The authors in this book present some straightforward philosophical topics and arguments picked out from Homeland stories, but they also have used characters, ideas, and plot lines as a springboard into some of their own philosophizing.”

Torture, drones, religious fanaticism… there’s a lot in Homeland for modern philosophers to explore. We wanted to know which issue Dr. Arp found most compelling.

“I think that drones are a kind of necessary evil,” said Arp. “I’m going to sound cliché-ish and definitely pro-America here, but it’s true that we need to be vigilant and proactively monitor, then take out, those enemies of America. For example, that ISIS SOB with the British accent who has been beheading journalists—a drone needs to find him sooner rather than later.”

From Dan Quayle blaming Murphy Brown for the collapse of the two-parent family to Republicans citing Jack Bauer as the reason our country needs to torture people in the War on Terrorism, TV shows have often been part of our country’s political conversations and moral debates. But never before have TV dramas had the opportunity to explore the most darkest corners of our minds and culture. There’s never been a better time to write about television… whether you’re a commercially successful philosopher (see?! there is such a thing!!) or a snarky little bleeding heart liberal blog like us.

robert arp

Pensive Robert Arp is pensive.

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