The Potter Box is a simple four step model involved in ethical decision making. Developed by Harvard theologian Ralph Potter, it gives a very easy test to help determine whether something is ethical or not. I will outline this case using the model
Step 1: Understanding the facts.
David Sutherland made a documentary of a small farming family in Nebraska. He chose to be completely removed from the situation–purely a third person view without getting emotionally connected to family at all. The family struggled.. a LOT, yet Sutherland did not get involved. The documentary was a huge success in the end.
Step 2: Outlining the values inherent in the decision.
Sutherland’s primary value lies with his passion for good film making where documentaries are concerned. They are meant to be completely objective, which he managed to do by excluding the use of a narrator. He also recognizes the value of good ol’ American living.
Step 3: Application of philosophical principles.
I feel as though this step cannot adequately be covered in a simple summary of a case study. How are we to apply Hume’s fork or Aristotle’s golden mean in a few paragraphs? Maybe I could shorten the categorical imperative to a phrase or two?
I feel the easiest way to tackle this step would be to take a look using The Moral Premise. Popularized by Lajos Egri in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, The Moral Premise is oftentimes used in writing screenplays and dramatic visual entertainment. Whatever a central character follows a specific pattern based on his or her moral premise. Whenever evaluating someone in a story, you always have to ask why. Why did the character act this way or that way? Fleshing this out helps you understand their Moral Premise.
I maintain this documentary did so well because of the very obvious Moral Premise present throughout the whole film. Sutherland did a good job making it very obvious.
Step 4: Articulation of Loyalties.
Sutherland had a commitment to objectivity in his documentary. Mr. Buschkoetter had a loyalty to providing for his family, as did his wife. Both held true to the end, aiding to the success of the filming.
So in the end, did Sutherland make the right choice filming this family without helping in any way? According to the potter box, it looks as though for a good documentary, he absolutely made the right choice, but when it comes to helping the family without letting them worry or suffer.. he may have had to compromise some of his moral self in order to let it happen with full objectivity.