Teaching Moral Reasoning with Terminator and Jesus

Semester after semester, I embarked on helping students to appreciate that morally relevant decisions are not a matter of personal preference, and I struggled to enable them to consider that moral judgments cannot simply be borrowed from an alleged moral authority – be it God, some political leader, or a famous media pundit. Then, one day, I accidentally found an old video by Mad TV, titled “Terminator vs. Jesus: The Greatest Action Story Ever Told.”

Since I have been teaching philosophy at the undergraduate level for over two decades, I have often found myself in the difficult position of commenting on students’ assertive statements unsupported by arguments, particularly when it comes to issues in ethics. Some students have a hard time understanding that when they state, for instance, that “plagiarism is morally wrong,” they need to demonstrate why it is morally wrong. And some of them have a hard time understanding that a claim such as “plagiarism is wrong because it is immoral” is a tautology, while asserting that “plagiarism is unacceptable because it is incompatible with Kant’s ethics” is not a convincing argument, if it is not accompanied by the application of the categorical imperative to this issue.

For many years, I spent an incredible amount of time and energy trying to elucidate the difference between an argument and a mere assertion.

Upon watching this video, I told myself: “This is great! I might use it in class.” And I decided to show this video in the opening sessions of my Ethics and Introduction to Philosophy courses, although the first time I showed it to students, a couple of years ago, I was quite worried. I was afraid that this short, humorous fake movie trailer would offend some of my students’ religious convictions. Anyway, I clicked on its YouTube link and I announced to the class: “Now I am going to show you a video with Terminator arguing with Jesus.” But a young lady, with a perplexed facial expression, raised her hand and asked me: “Who is Terminator?” And one of her classmates promptly asked the whole class: “And who is Jesus?” (This is what I call “genius.”)

I did not, and I still do not, show the whole video to my students. I only show them a portion of this fake trailer—from minute 1:48 to 3:07—consisting of two scenes. In the first of these two scenes, Terminator saves Jesus from three Roman soldiers who intend to capture him while he is preaching to a crowd. Upon shooting the three Romans dead, Terminator offers his hand to Jesus and tells him: “Come with me if you want to live!” But it is the next scene that is truly helpful to my purpose. In this scene, Terminator explains to Jesus, while walking with him in the countryside: “My mission is to protect you.” Jesus reacts by revealing to Terminator that “there is a plan, a master plan.” But in the middle of Jesus’ one-to-one lecture about his own mission, Terminator spots three Romans enjoying the shade of a tree. He points his shotgun at the three legionaries, but Jesus deflects it away, thus preventing him from shooting at those men, and angrily tells him: “You cannot go around killing people!” Terminator keeps his cool and, with his typical expressionless face, asks Jesus: “Why?”

At this point, I pause the video and tell my students: “This is the right approach! Whenever you write in an essay, or somebody else maintains, that something cannot be done, you have to ask: ‘why?’”

Then, I restart the video to make them listen to Jesus’ (unconvincing) reply: “Because it’s one of God’s commandments: thou shall not kill.” I pause the video again and explain that ethics is not a matter of obeying an alleged moral authority—particularly if such an authority is not universally accepted, as is the case with God (and with your president, your prime minister, some influencer, and your mom as well). And even if you believe in God and you think that someone—such as a priest, a rabbi, an imam—has the power to interpret God’s will correctly, you should still ask the question that Terminator poses to Jesus again in this video: “Why?” To which Jesus answers: “Because it’s a sin!” Here, I explain to students that it is true that killing is a sin, but one still needs to satisfy Terminator’s curiosity by clarifying why killing is a sin, given that in the video, once again, he asks his excellent question: “Why?” And this time, an increasingly frustrated Jesus replies: “Because it’s not nice!” But Terminator (correctly) insists with his question: “Why?” At this point, an exasperated Jesus has no more answers and, turning his eyes to the sky, exclaims: “Forgive him, Father. He is a robot from the future.”

After showing this scene, I stop the video and tell students: “When attending our classes, and when writing your essays for this course, do NOT follow Jesus’ example! In other words, do not give me mere statements unsupported by arguments. Follow Terminator’s example and always ask: ‘why?’ And when answering this question, provide an argument by using, say, Kant’s deontological ethics or Mill’s utilitarianism (which we will study in the next few weeks).” And I give them a Kantian argument against murder, drawing on the first formula of the categorical imperative. Then, I also offer a utilitarian argument, grounded in Mill’s concept of general happiness, against “going around killing people.” I give them these two examples to spell out the difference between Jesus’ assertive statements and the way in which, conversely, philosophers and particularly ethicists substantiate their viewpoints with arguments based on specific normative theories.

Of course, there are still students who come up with tautological or assertive statements, or merely refer to some alleged moral authority, when attempting to draw a conclusion concerning a certain ethical issue, a given problem or dilemma, or a hypothetical situation. However, nowadays the number of students who make such mistakes is much lower than in the past. And more and more students endeavor to follow Terminator’s example, thereby asking the question “why” and seeking the answer by means of argument.

The Teaching and Learning Video Series is designed to share pedagogical approaches to using humorous video clips for teaching philosophy. Humor, when used appropriately, has empirically been shown to correlate with higher retention rates. If you are interested in contributing to this series, please email the Series Editor, William A. B. Parkhurst at [email protected]

Diego Lucci

Diego Lucci is a Professor of Philosophy and History at the American University in Bulgaria and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Naples “Federico II” and has also taught at Boston University and the University of Missouri St. Louis. He has held research fellowships at various institutions, including, among others, the University of Hamburg, Gladstone’s Library, and the Institute of Historical Research in London. His research focuses on the philosophy and intellectual history of the Age of Enlightenment, mainly on English deism and John Locke. He is the author of three books and over fifty journal articles and book chapters. He is also the editor or co-editor of six volumes. His most recent monograph is “John Locke’s Christianity” (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

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