This paper applies a number of ethical concepts to Angela’s actions in the documentary Catfish.


Introduction

This paper addresses the question ‘what is your ethical evaluation of Angela’s deception of Nev in the film Catfish?’ Catfish is a documentary created by Nev Schulman,  Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost in 2010 that follows Nev Schulman as he begins an online friendship with a girl named Abby and culminates in a visit to Abby’s home in Michigan (Catfish 2010). Angela Wesselman-Pierce is Abby’s mother and this much was established by the documentary to be true. However, practically every other disclosure made by Angela prior to her meeting with Nev and sometimes during the meeting is an admitted fabrication on her part. This paper will examine Angela’s reasons for doing this from an ethical point of view.

Ethics is the philosophical branch that deals with the moral questions of right and wrong (Dupré 2013, p. 9). Dupré also states on that same page that ethics are by what we guide ourselves by, the principles that govern our lives and compel us to do right or wrong. So what principles guided Angela as she fabricated a welter of lies and misrepresentations to Nev? Using several of the numerous branches of ethics, there will be a step-by-step analysis of Angela’s deceptions and come to the conclusion that she has done net harm to herself.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is the principle of providing the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest amount of people (Bentham, as cited in Dupré 2013, p. 78), so how does this ethical theory apply to Catfish? Angela sees a photograph made by Nev, and paints a rendition of it, alleging it is the work of her daughter Abby. This is the initial contact made by Angela to Nev, then with Nev seemingly showing a greater interest in Abby, Angela creates a plethora of Facebook contacts including a fictitious older sister in Megan. At this stage, Angela and Nev are pleased by proceedings; both have benefitted from Angela’s burgeoning fantasy, with no harm yet to come. Angela has benefitted from knowing her respondent has developed an interest in the personae she has created, and Nev’s interest has been piqued by the introduction of Megan, an apparently young and attractive woman.

When Nev and Angela finally meet, it is clear that Angela was taken by surprise. Their pleasure has ended, and a new pain has begun. Nev has the pain of disappointment and a failed deceitful romance, and Angela has the pain of a destroyed fantasy and confabulation. Using utilitarian principles devised by Jeremy Bentham, we can readily ascertain that the resultant pain outweighs the pleasure both initially felt (Bentham 1907).  The good tendencies of Angela’s fantasy have unravelled and she is forced into creating more lies – she has uterine cancer – (Catfish 2010) and extending the lie of the Megan persona. Further, this pain is pre-existing as her child Abby is of the belief that Megan exists, so was the transient pleasure she derived from concocting personae and snaring Nev is a web of deceit worth it?

There is also the issue of her husband, who she has also deceived into believing she is deriving an income from the paintings and was unaware of the personae and staged romance. There was no net pleasure for him at any stage, only potential pain, in which the likelihood of that trickling down to Angela would be strong. In conclusion and in summing the component parts of her actions, Angela’s net result to herself using utilitarian principles is harm.

Deontology

Deontology is the field of ethics that considers whether acts are intrinsically good or bad regardless of the consequences (Dupré 2013, p. 324). There is little doubt from evidence in the documentary that Angela was acting in nobody’s interests other than her own. The consequences of her actions became clear to her when Nev came to her place. Her lies and concoctions were unravelled and her involvement of unwitting family members (viz. Abby) in her fantasy is further evidence that she was heedless of where her actions led. Although she admits to Nev that she had considered ending the fantasy, she felt she had invested too much emotionally to quit (Catfish 2010). After Nev’s arrival, she confesses her sorrow for involving him but there is doubt as to the sincerity of this. This comes across as the guilt of the caught rather than the guilt of the remorseful.

Iain King in his 2008 book How to make good decisions and be right all the time suggests that people ultimately derive their choices from what they want to do and what other people want to do (p. 220). This is to say, that Angela, if she was acting from deontological principles, should have considered Nev’s needs and feelings when she was concocting her fantasy. While it could be readily argued she was catering to his baser desires, his other emotions and feelings were not taken into consideration. In this way, Angela has acted the same way as Plato’s Gyges (Dorbolo 2010). Substituting the social power Facebook has for the invisibility ring, Angela was able to enter Nev’s world, practically sight unseen, and involve him wholly in a realm of deceit.

Facebook was the ring and Angela used its power for fabrication, dishonesty and emotional deceit. Therefore, Angela has taken a path where she thinks she is doing good for all concerned, but in reality, is behaving in a self-serving and selfish manner which ultimately leads to hurt, disappointment and shame for her and it is wrong conduct.

Consequentialism

Consequentialism is defined in one book as “do whatever has the best consequences” (Gensler 1998, p. 242). Probably without ever knowing of this ethical belief, Angela has certainly acted in this manner. Once she had Nev “hooked” into the Facebook personae she had created, the consequences for her actions were increasingly positive for her – until Nev caught up with her in person. As the fictitious world she had made for herself crumbled, Angela realised that the consequences were more serious and less playful than she imagined. People were hurt because of her actions, primarily herself. Nev’s attitude toward Angela (or her personae) shifted from love and desire to disappointment then pity. At the cessation of Catfish Nev states that he feels sorry for Angela.

Although consequentialism is considered the opposite of deontology (Alexander & Moore 2012) it is interesting to note that Angela applied both concepts positively throughout her charade, combined or in tandem. She genuinely thought she was benefitting herself and Nev by perpetuating the fantasy and at the same time she was oblivious of the teleological results of her actions. Did she take in the consequences of involving her true daughter Abby in her schemes? Or the consequences of being deceitful to her husband, her disabled step-children or anyone else in her life? Not before or during the fantasy, only post facto. Once Nev arrived at her house, it was over. The consequences of her deceitful behaviour were made clear and she felt remorseful, though as mentioned earlier, this was most likely as a result of being found out, rather than an assault of her conscience – especially in light of her further falsehoods with regards to cancer and the persona of Megan. So, it can be stated that Angela created her personae and her fantasy with little regard for the consequences.

Conclusion

To summarise, Angela deemed she was doing herself and Nev a net ethical benefit by instigating then perpetuating the personae and the fantasies. The reasons for her doing so go beyond philosophy into the realm of psychology and so will only be briefed upon. From deduction of her actions and words, it is clear Angela lives with a good deal of regret for what she considers a wasted or unfulfilled life. There are clear indications that she is inhabiting a “go-nowhere” existence and her own life has been put on hold to care for her husband’s disabled children. Perhaps then, this is what has driven her to concoct the elaborate fantasy of extended family and friend circles. Despite the pleasure she and Nev initially derived from this, when the reality became known, this same pleasure vanished and was replaced by at first more lies and contrivances, then a pitying remorse. Her ethical choices were shown to be injurious ones, to both herself and those around her.

With utilitarianism, there was pleasure and happiness granted by her actions to all the players until the truth was discovered then net unhappiness outweighed all else, to be replaced by remorse and pity. Therefore, from a utilitarian perspective, Angela has acted unethically. By deontological principles, Angela had only ever her feelings and pleasure needs foremost in her mind, and minimal emotional consideration for anyone else. While she may have considered what she was doing as a “good act”, her deceit and lies in the end provided no net benefit for anybody. Her actions were not overall “good acts” as they led to pain, therefore they were unethical from a deontological viewpoint. From a consequentialism view, her deeds were also unethical as the final consequences were not positive ones and left her in a more negative state than when she started, and left Nev in a likewise final negative state. In conclusion, Angela has behaved in an unethical manner.

References

Alexander, L & Moore, M 2012, ‘Deontological Ethics’, viewed 12 September 2015, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/

Bentham, J 1907, ‘An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation,’ viewed 12 September 2015, http://www.econlib.org/library/Bentham/bnthPML4.html

Catfish 2010, DVD, motion picture, Supermarché/Hit the Ground, New York

Dorbolo, J 2010, ‘Plato: Ethics – The Ring of Gyges’, viewed 12 September 2015, http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Plato/plato_dialogue_the_ring_of_gyges.html

Dupré, B 2013, 50 ethics ideas you really need to know, Quercus, London

Gensler, H 1998, Ethics: A contemporary introduction, Routledge, New York

King, I 2008, How to make good decisions and be right all the time, Continuum, New York