Topic: Sports & Entertainment

"Survivor" Ethics: The Saga of Dreamz and Yau-Man

It’s the season of year when the flowers blooming and the reality shows are picking their winners. There is usually a good ethics controversy to be found among the ramped up drama, clever editing and unmistakable odor of cheese. As it has several times before, “Survivor,” the granddaddy of all reality shows, came through with the best ethical puzzler.

“Survivor,” for those of you smart enough to avoid it and do something better with your time, like, oh, watching the newly released DVDs of “McHale’s Navy,” is a game show in which a bunch of contestants play Robinson Crusoe on some remote and primitive locale, as film crews record them competing in teams and finally as individuals. Every episode ends with someone being “voted off the island” by the participants, a decision that can be based on dislike, revenge, or strategy. The last three contestants win cash, a million bucks going to the winner, and there are other substantial prizes to be won on the way to the finals.

As the 2007 edition of “Survivor” got down to the final four competitors, there was a so-called “rewards challenge” for which the prize was a new truck. The challenge, and the truck, was won by good-guy contestant Yau-Man, but he offered the truck to a fellow competitor, “Dreamz,” if he would agree to give Yau-Man his immunity if Dreamz won the upcoming immunity challenge. The winner of these “challenges,” a fancy name for the kind of games people are forced to play at corporate retreats, can’t be voted off the island in that week. Though giving away his immunity would subject Dreamz to the risk of being voted off himself, he accepted the deal and the new truck, saying that he wanted to teach his young son the value of keeping one’s word.

He taught his son something else. Dreamz won the challenge but kept the immunity and helped vote the now truck-less Yau-Man, perhaps the strongest competitor, out of the competition—a smart move for someone wanting to win the million dollar prize, and a classic betrayal. Dreamz didn’t win, but he did finish third, earning a substantial cash prize in the process. He also established himself as the current #1 villain in the reality show blogosphere.

Did Dreamz do anything unethical? It seems like a silly question: he lied, he betrayed, he double-crossed—what else could you call such conduct? But he didn’t cheat. In “Survivor” all of this is within the rules of the game, just as bluffing in poker is neither cheating or lying. The objective of “Survivor” is not, as the name suggests, to literally “survive” on an island. If the stay on Fiji was going to be indefinite, ethical conduct would gradually become essential for all: imagine if Yau-Man and Dreamz had to work and live together after the betrayal. But “Survivor” has a much less complicated pay-off: winning the top prize after a limited number of weeks. The contest’s creators purposefully encourage alliances and betrayals, because they make the game entertaining; this is, after all, a TV show. Lies, within the parameters of “Survivor,” are simply tactics. They may be ill-advised (make too many enemies early, and you’re a cinch to be voted out early), but anyone who has followed the show through the years knows that trickery has been part of the successful game plan of most season winners, beginning with first season winner Richard Hatch, who made the mistake of carrying “Survivor” ethics into the real world and got himself sent to prison . The producers of “Survivor” could easily make rules that forbid the sort of double-cross that Dreamz pulled on Yau-Man. But what fun would that be?

Culture determines ethics, and in the culture of “Survivor,” lying and betrayal are not unethical. Stealing, however, is. Dreamz cannot keep the truck. For him to do so would be straightforward theft, and grand theft at that. The deal for the vehicle was broken by his reneging on the promise that was the only payment given to obtain it; Dreamz has no right to the truck whatsoever. As for his comments about teaching his son integrity, well, Dreamz was either being needlessly disingenuous or he’s an idiot. “Survivor” is no place to teach anyone about integrity, honesty, or ethics. On the island, unlike in real life, ethical principles are simply tools to be used or discarded for other conduct that will win the game. Discussion for another time: how does this differ from politics?

But you still can’t steal a truck.

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