‘To thine own self be true’ and Pluralist Ethics

Jay Ruby identified three essential ethical responsibilities a filmmaker must grapple with in documentary production:

(1) the image maker’s personal moral contract to produce an image that is somehow a true reflection of their intention in making the image in the first place-to, use a cliché, it is being true to one’s self; (2) the moral obligation of the producer to his or her subjects; and (3) the moral obligation of the producer to the potential audience.

(2005: 211)

The filmmaker’s responsibly to their own creative autonomy is the least intuitive aspect of the documentary triad of ethical commitments because creativity is not commonly associated with the field of ethics. This is because because a person’s commitment to themselves contravenes the dominant perception of ethics as concerned with the treatment of others or the principles of how to behave in a society.

I would argue, a useful way to reflect upon Ruby’s use of Shakespeare’s aphorism, ‘to thine own self be true’ (2003, 1.3: 32), is to see it within the framework of pluralist ethics.

Pluralist, relativist, and sceptical theorisations of ethics were developed to account for the wide variety of normative definitions of “moral” behaviour. They each argue the variety in values and behavioural codes are informed by a specific context, history, and culture. The strong argument of meta ethical relativism positions each moral framework as alternatives to one another. They are equally legitimate in context, but ultimately incomparable, because of differences in material, social and historical conditions (Baghramian and Coliva, 2020: 228). A sceptical position asserts there is no such thing as ethical truth because ethics is entirely subjective and thus lacks any foundation (Baghramian in Boland Smith, 2021). Whereas a value pluralist would argue:
‘…. there are many objective ends and ultimate values, some incompatible with others, pursued by different societies at various times, or by different groups in the same society, or by particular individuals within them. People can lead valuable moral lives by pursuing conflicting but equally ultimate and objective ends.’ (Baghramian and Coliva, 2020: 250-251).

Ethical progress has occurred in human history, for example the abolishment of slavery and the improvement of women’s rights, and some moral principles can be defined uncontroversially, particularly negative ones such as “torturing children is bad”. So, while pluralism postulates the existence of ethical truths, it posits that it is both hard to define and there may be many correct answers (Baghramian in Boland Smith, 2021). Some value systems or individual acts may be more ethical than others, and competition between these perspectives may account for ethical progress.

“Being true to oneself” is an investment of trust in one’s own judgment, over normative codes of ethics. From a pluralist perspective, this can be seen as a commitment to behave in a way that, while distinct from others, is still anchored by meaningful insights, that aspire towards elusive ethical truths.
I have deconstructed Ruby’s formulation to show that autonomy, rather than being antithetical to ethics, can guide individualised interpretations of what counts as ethical behaviour. Furthermore, many philosophers — including Ayn Rand (1964), Jean-Paul Sartre (2015), Simone de Beauvoir (1948) and Jacques Lacan (2013) — have argued that autonomy is a virtue that should orient one’s ethics. It is beyond the scope of this text to engage fully with each of these theorists on the topic of autonomy. My point is a filmmaker’s commitment to their own creative autonomy, is a relevant ethical consideration to balance against the treatment of participants and a responsibility to their spectators.


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