They can, at least. That is what Noël Carroll argued in his closing presentation at our SCSMI conference. In a spirited defense against “situationists,” Carroll argued that, when we admire Gregory Peck’s character’s measured response to violence in The Big Country, we learn an important lesson about self-restraint. Even if the movie does not actually make us more self-restrained, it teaches us to value self-restraint, which is a good thing.
I like Carroll’s logic. I want to believe it. The problem is, if movies can, indeed, make us more virtuous, they can just as easily make us less virtuous. Take Pulp Fiction. If there is any moral take-away from that movie, it is entirely eclipsed by the celebration of bad behavior. Does watching Pulp Fiction therefore make me less virtuous? I certainly hope not, because I enjoy the movie and show it to my students.
My question is, how can one defend movies like The Big Country on the ground that they teach virtue without condemning movies like Pulp Fiction on the grounds that they teach immorality?