Good Art ≠ Moral Art

This is a follow-up to the previous post, about Noël Carroll’s talk at the SCSMI conference—a revision of the long comment I wrote. I’m still sorting out my ideas, so I’d love feedback.

Here are a few things I jotted down in my notes, during Carroll’s talk:

  1. History (à la Tacitus) and poetry are not the same. History teaches us facts, while poetry (for Carroll) teaches us how we should behave.
  2. “Situationists” tell us that we are victims of our situation and circumstances, no more. Their evidence includes experiments like Milgram’s, Darley and Batson’s “Jerusalem to Jericho” experiment, and others.
  3. Carroll went against these “situationists” (not to be confused with the Dada-inspired artistic/intellectual movement perhaps most famously characterized by Guy Debord) by arguing that art (in particular literature and film) can teach us how we should behave and how we should judge others.
  4. This value is social in nature.
  5. The learning of moral values (what we should or should not do) means that we not simply victims of situations, but that our characters play a/the key role in determining our actions, the actions of others, and how we judge them.

These are just notes. They miss a great deal of Carroll’s argument, including its nuance. Still, the talk (and my notes) leave me with the feeling that there is a kind of mismatch between what Carroll was talking about and what I regard to be the role and potential of art in imparting values.

While some art can teach us how we should behave, I think that moralizing works—works that have a “you should do this and not that” message—are not necessarily the strongest works. The best (“strongest”) works, for me, do not show us how we should behave, but how we could behave. Or, rather, while all narrative art shows us how we could behave, but the best narrative art does not feel compelled to moralize about that behavior.

Let me clarify what I mean by reintroducing history into the argument. Carroll distinguished history from poetry, and that distinction is a fair one. But we can also draw a parallel between the two. If art tells us how we should behave, then so does historiography. Certain historical figures—Idi Amin is the one that came to mind, but murderous dictators in general fit this bill—are upheld as examples not to follow. That is, some history and historians tell us that we should not behave in the way Idi Amin did.

That, for me, is “weak” history. History that offers up moral lessons fictionalizes the past. I do not mean that a history declaring Idi Amin to be a bad person tells us lies per se, but that it uses the tropes of fiction to make a judgmental narrative out of events that surely were not imbued with judgment as they developed in reality. It sacrifices complexity in order to appear weighty or useful or relevant (or simply “moral.”) “Look,” it says. “We can learn from the real world that some people are bad. We should not be like them.” Narrative fiction often does the same thing—making simplistic moral tales, often drawing on the actual past (as The Last King of Scotland does with 1970s Uganda), in order to seem weighty or useful or relevant.

This detour into history sets the scene to think about the moral value of fiction in different terms: not in terms of either showing us how we should act, but in terms of showing us how we could act.

What do I mean by this?

I mean that in reading a novel or watching a film, I am not seeking moral lessons on how to behave. Rather, by regarding different people behaving in different ways, I am contemplating a range of choices and behaviors. I could do good or I could do bad. A good work of art (like a good work of history) will not present me with simplistic moral choices. It will help me see how moral and immoral actions are embedded in and arise from complex situations.

This sounds like I am heading down the “situationist” road, as though character and choices are determined by circumstance. (E.g, Had I been brought up just like Idi Amin, I’d have been just like him and behaved exactly as he did.) What I am actually saying is that good fiction helps us recognize that we make choices and that we are responsible for them.

In the Milgram experiment, which Carroll discussed, most people administered painful shocks to other people when instructed to do so. To the “situationists,” this is supposed to show that our moral character is determined by our situation. I gather that, for Carroll, a fictionalized story that shows similar circumstances would be taken as a kind of moral lesson—an example of what not to do or what kind of person not to be. For me, a better kind of fiction would be one that emphasizes that we are responsible for our choices. We do not have to behave as most of Milgram’s subjects did. As I said before, such fiction would not tell us how we should behave, but how we could behave.

Art that tells us, by implication, how we should behave discourages us from thinking. It invites us to merely follow instructions, to act by rote. In contrast, complex characters that invite us to think through how we could behave—whether they are good, evil, nuanced, ambiguous, torn, unsubtle, changing, schizophrenic, or whatever—force us to think about the why. It also forces us to realize that virtue is not just a matter of intrinsic character; it is a matter of social behavior or, more precisely, of social choices. “Good” and “bad” are not about what kind of people characters are; they stem from what kind of choices characters make.

In other words, I want to say that the best fiction does not teach us what choice to make, but that we have a choice. This best fiction is not about judging characters, but about not judging characters. It is about trying to understand why characters make the choices they do. Judging characters as good or bad is an obstacle to this. It is better to try to understand how we could be these people than why we should be them (or not).

Fiction that invites us to think in terms of could rather than should can push us beyond mere morality (thinking in terms of what is good and what is bad) towards ethics (thinking in terms of choosing how to act in every moment). This may be a lot to demand of movies—Hollywood movies, anyway—but it seems to me that it is precisely what is required of fiction that strives to the status of art. It must show us that true character is not about behaving well or poorly, it is about being responsible for our choices and our actions. True art can thus invite us to strive to lead an ethical life.

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