We like things in life to fit neatly into boxes: There are good people and then there are bad people; moral decisions and immoral ones. Unfortunately, the reality is that the field of ethics looks less like neatly stacked boxes and more like oozing, overlapping puddles. Here, Harriet Fitch Little rounds up five podcasts that consider morality from its most unsettling angles.
Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things
All Things Considered, May 2012
Fraud is a crime that makes people uneasy: The potential harm is huge, the moral line crossed is clear, and yet the perpetrators are often straitlaced professionals holding down nine-to-five jobs or raising kids in the suburbs. This episode of NPR’s flagship news podcast, All Things Considered, takes as its jumping-off point new psychology research suggesting we are all capable of acting in ways that wildly conflict with our moral compass if the right situation presents itself. The producers take a deep dive into the case of Toby Groves—a much-loved small-business owner who committed fraud on a monumental scale when he discovered his company was in debt. The most jarring detail? His employees, and even strangers, pitched in to help him do it.
The Bad Show
Radiolab, December 2013
How do you solve a problem like Fritz Haber? At the beginning of the 20th century this young German chemist revolutionized food production, saving millions of lives in doing so…and then went on to pioneer the production of military poison gas. “Here’s a guy who just wanted to do everything better than it had been done before—whether it be feeding or killing,” Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad concludes. In “The Bad Show,” the Radiolab team considers several troubling cases of moral polarity, emphasizing the thin dividing line between good and evil, particularly in cases of great genius. It’s all pulled together with typically slick production, although the show’s willful blurring of science and morality may leave some feeling uneasy.
Where Should We Begin?, May 2017
Esther Perel is the go-to couples therapist of the rich and famous. In her just-launched podcast, Where Should We Begin?, she’s pulled off an incredible coup, securing the permission of certain (anonymous) patients to record their sessions on the couch. In episode four, “The Addict,” we listen in as Perel talks to a husband and wife whose 40-year marriage has fallen apart after the husband revealed he had been systematically cheating on his wife, often paying for sex, for almost the entirety of their relationship. It’s the sort of monumental betrayal that could easily lead us to brand him a monster, but Perel’s whip-smart, sensitive approach compels the listener to reserve judgement and consider the capacity of good people to engage in bad, destructive acts.
The Lady Vanishes
Revisionist History, August 2016
Pop academic Malcolm Gladwell launched his history podcast last year with the story of 19th-century artist Elizabeth Thompson. For a few years Thompson was a celebrity, and her work was exhibited at Royal Academy shows in London. Then, quite suddenly, she was shunned by the establishment and forgotten. Gladwell argues that this is a perfect example of a phenomenon he calls “moral licensing”: By celebrating one tiny example of moral progress, we absolve ourselves from having to engage more deeply with society’s shortcomings (or, indeed, our own). He sees Obama’s election as having served a similar function in terms of how Americans thought about their own racism. “[People] think they’ve demonstrated their open-mindedness,” he explains.
I Was Your Father, Until I Wasn’t
Death, Sex & Money, March 2017
Few moral codes have the same instinctual quality as parenthood—we feel bound to look after our children by virtue of having created them. In this episode of Death, Sex & Money, host Anna Sale looks at what happens when that bond is suddenly and irreparably shaken. She interviews two men about their relationship with the same child: One is starting to doubt he is the biological father, while the other is starting to wonder if perhaps he is. It’s a gut-wrenching investigation of moral responsibility: What is your role in a child’s life when, after two years raising them, your understanding of your relationship is altered irreparably? Does biology determine moral duty, or is it something else? As always, Anna Sale has the presence of mind to ask difficult questions where most would fumble.
Words:Harriet Fitch Little