Ethics Quiz: Dr. Phil, Shelley Duvall, And Exploitation


A 30-second promotional clip for today’s episode of “Dr. Phil” is disturbing, beyond question. It shows Shelley Duvall, from “The Shining,” “Popeye,” “Nashville” and other well-known films talking to the fake doctor about her mental illness.The syndicated advice show’s promo shows Duvall, almost unrecognizable, talking about how her “Popeye” co-star, the late Robin Williams, is alive and “shape-shifting.” She says she is being threatened by Robin Hood’s Sheriff of Nottingham, and that a “whirring disc” is inside her.

The ad ends with Duvall, 67, telling Phil McGraw, “I’m very sick. I need help.”

She certainly sounded like it, and looked like it too.

Now Dr. Phil is being criticized for exploiting a vulnerable mentally ill woman for her audience drawing powers. The daughter of Stanley Kubrick, who directed Duvall in her most famous role as Jack Nicholson’s terrorized wife in “The Shining,” is leading the charge. Vivian Kubrick called for a boycott of the popular daytime program, tweeting, “You are putting Shelley Duvall ‘on show’ while she is suffering from a pitiable state of ill health. Unquestionably, this is purely a form of lurid and exploitative entertainment — it’s appallingly cruel.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is it unethical for “Dr. Phil” to feature Shelley Duvall this way?

Continue reading

Are “Freak Shows” Unethical? Because They Are Back.

Abigail and Brittany Hensel: Who’s exploiting who?

Circus and carnival sideshows were banned by law and ordinance over half a century ago. Silly me: I remember hearing about that as a child and assuming that it represented human progress, that civilized Americans had decided that it was degrading to both the “human oddities” displaying themselves to gawking onlookers and the gawking onlookers themselves, and that we were better than that. The ethical attitude toward people with deformities, strange maladies and unusual physical characteristics was compassion, acceptance, kindness, and treatment as equals, not voyeuristic ogling. It made sense at the time.

Of course, as a child I had yet to experience the full oppression of political correctness. The sideshows were banned because the people who had no interest in them felt that they could dictate conduct to the people who did, and that it was also somehow virtuous to forbid the human exhibits from making a living—for their own good, of course. It is certainly time to repeal those bans, which were of dubious constitutionality anyway, since the freak shows that were deemed unhealthy and degrading on the carnival circuit are now openly thriving on television, making more money and being seen by more Americans than P.T. Barnum could have imagined in his wildest dreams. The original question remains, however: Are they ethical? Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: The Peculiar Ethics of Carnival Games

The AARP website has a post about rigged carnival games, a topic that I have always found intriguing from an ethics perspective. The games…The Basketball Shoot, The Balloon Dart Throw, The Ring Toss, The Milk Bottle Pyramid, The Duck Pond and the rest…are rigged, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know they were rigged. It didn’t stop me from playing the silly things. A carnival is a state of mind, a flashback to the days of P.T. Barnum and flim-flam artists. An ethical carnival? Isn’t that an oxymoron? We eat terrible food, pay to go on disappointing rides, listen to barkers who we know are lying through their teeth, and play games that are scams in order to win cheesy prizes worth a fraction of what we paid out to win them and that we wouldn’t dream of buying outside a carnival anyway. That’s the carnival experience. It’s all unethical, and we consent to it.

Or is this just a rationalization? Is capitulation the proper ethical course, or should we carefully regulate carnival games, make sure all of the food is cholesterol-lite and sugar-free, and force the barkers to issue disclaimers and warnings like the recitations in TV drug commercials?

That’s your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for the day, my friends:

Do traditional unethical practices become ethical in the culture of a carnival and similar environments, where the public voluntarily participates in and consents to its own victimization?

With cotton candy dancing in my head, corn dogs singing their siren song and images of the Wild Man of Borneo howling in my fevered brain, I have to confess that my inclination is to say, “Yes.”

And you?


Spark: AARP

Graphic: Photolibra