Philosophy profs mine comic strips for examples of ethics


CORVALLIS - It's not easy to teach this MTV generation of college students about the origins of modern philosophy and ethics. Mention Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and eyes begin to glaze.

So two Oregon State University professors have come up with an innovative way of reaching their students.

They use comic strips.

Instead of pontificating about Kierkegaard's existentialism, they dust off panels of Calvin and Hobbes. To introduce Immanuel Kant's primary moral law, they might, for example, use a panel from For Better or Worse.

"Getting beyond the humor of comic strips takes philosophical skill and a great deal of self-examination," said Courtney Campbell, an associate professor of philosophy at Oregon State and director of OSU's Program for Ethics, Science and the Environment. "We can hold up these comic strips and look at ourselves, while not taking ourselves too seriously."

Campbell regularly uses comic strips to introduce issues ranging from animal rights to gender relationships. His colleague, Lani Roberts, also regularly scans the funny pages for examples of ethics, and together they taught a course on the subject.

Both philosophers say Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip about a young boy and his stuffed tiger, is the all-time champion for providing examples of classic philosophy and ethical dilemmas. Written by Bill Watterson, it is no longer a daily series, but still can be found in books and calendars.

One of Roberts' favorite examples shows an excited Calvin saying, "let's go to the zoo today." A taciturn Hobbes, in return, replies, "Okay. And when we're done, let's tour a prison."

"In three short panels, you can introduce the classic arguments of Kant versus Singer about animal rights," Roberts said. "Kant argues that animals are for human use, while Singer says that if animals suffer, we have a moral obligation to treat them humanely."

Campbell concurs. "That strip easily generates an hour of discussion."

The OSU philosophers say it isn't unusual for any number of comic strips to tackle societal issues these days, but it wasn't always like that. The trend began in the 1960s, Campbell said, when Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz used panels pitting Snoopy against the Red Baron to make social commentary on the Vietnam War.

In the 1970s, Doonesberry popularized the trend of politicizing comics to the point where many newspapers debated whether to put the Garry Trudeau strip on the comic page or the editorial page.

Calvin and Hobbes came along to rule the 1980s. Roberts and Campbell both insist that Watterson had to have some kind of formal philosophical training because the ideas and the language of many of the daily strips mirrored classic philosophical and ethical theories. Likewise Gary Larson's The Far Side was practically a textbook on ethics in science, Campbell said.

With the demise of Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, however, there isn't really a leading moral voice in the comic strips, the philosophers say. Dilbert is the reigning champ, portraying the illogical side of the corporate world. Other comics have their moments, they point out, including For Better or Worse, Cathy, Stone Soup, and Foxtrot.

Then there are those that make the attempt and fall short.

"Beetle Bailey tries to be ethical and fails miserably," Campbell said. "I wish it would just die. And Peanuts doesn't work anymore. B.C. and Wizard of Id both try, but they're a little heavy-handed."

One problem with many comics, Roberts said, is they are just too white.

"I sometimes wonder why African Americans or Latinos would read the comics," Roberts said. "But things are starting to change. Curtis and Safe Havens are two examples, and the other day I saw a comic strip that featured a teacher with a buzz cut and a nose ring. I found that refreshing."

Roberts said comics provide a light introduction to very serious topics and, in their own way, give a 1990s sense of credibility to issues.

"I've found that if I start talking in a heavy-handed way about suicide, sexual abuse and battering, students get up and leave," Roberts said. "I now take it on faith that at least one student in my class has experienced those things. And when they see those issues in a comic strip, they aren't insulted or traumatized. They realize those issues are in the public consciousness."

And, to be honest, teaching with comic strips is fun, Campbell said.

"Thomas Aquinas said that man is the animal that laughs," he pointed out. "If we lose that ability, we lose our humanity. So it stands to reason that humor should be a part of our teaching process as well."