Narrative Goodness 1

The first passage below is from Colin McGinn’s book Ethics, Evil, and Fiction (1997). I’ve chosen it by way of prompting reflections on how we learn to be moral (I’m going to ignore here any putative distinction sometimes made between ethics and morality, indeed, I think it’s only relevant when the latter concept is used in a descriptive sense, while I’m here relying on a normative conception of what’s ethical or moral). From a Platonic perspective, it may be the case that, for the individual, learning to live an ethical life is not first and foremost a matter of being taught how to be ethical, say, in the manner in which one is taught the rules of grammar, or the facts of geography, or the names of birds. In other words, and in a peculiar sense, ethical understanding or moral knowledge is a different kind or peculiar sort of knowledge, at once both robustly objective and subjective, involving both a “knowing that” and a “knowing how” (that is, both propositional and non-propositional knowledge) in a way not conspicuously intrinsic to most things we conventionally group under the rubric of “knowledge.” All the same, Plato does seem to have held that we learn to be moral, that we can become, as Aristotle taught us, habituated to virtue, that we can learn to live virtuous lives (and such virtuous living is not necesssarily confined to lives in the familial and intimate realms of daily life, for its standards are equally relevant to arenas of collective action or the public realm). I hope to speak to this question again in a future post that builds upon the material broached here so suffice for now to keep in mind that any references to “teaching” or “learning” to be moral may be qualified if not clarified so as to incorporate and reconcile what Plato (or Socrates) meant in the Meno by claiming that virtue cannot be taught with the ostensibly contrary message in the Protagoras that argues for the “teachability of virtue.”

“[O]rdinary people—which means all of us—find [the] story mode of moral discourse [i.e., the form which includes parable, the play, short story, the narrative poem, the novel and the film] uniquely palatable and nutritious; it seems perfectly designed to engage our moral faculties. Our moral understanding and the story form seem fitted for one another. No rote learning is necessary: it all seems to flow quite naturally. This is the way our moral faculty likes to operate. It is almost effortless to take in a story, pleasant even, though the story may be replete with moral discourse. The novel, in particular, is a text of a very different kind from the scientific treatise. It is also very different from the philosophical text, which is what philosophers, naturally, are most comfortable with. Thus the novel form has tended to be ignored by moral philosophers: it is not, for them, the place to look for canonical expressions of ethical truth. Yet, quite obviously, it is for most educated people one of the prime vehicles of ethical expression. (Film plays a similar role for the less word-minded.) In reading a novel we have ethical experiences, sometimes quite profound ones, and we reach ethical conclusions, condemning some characters and admiring others. We live a particular set of moral challenges (sitting there in our armchair) by entering into the lives of the characters introduced. [....] Stories can sharpen and clarify moral questions, encouraging a dialectic between the reader’s own experiences and the trials of the characters he or she is reading about. A tremendous amount of moral thinking and feeling is done when reading novels (Or watching plays and films, or reading poetry and short stories). In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that for most people this is the primary way in which they acquire ethical attitudes, especially in contemporary culture. Our ethical knowledge is aesthetically mediated.”

I think McGinn’s conclusion is largely correct: our ethical knowledge is, indeed, “aesthetically mediated,” insofar as we learn about the virtues (whatever particular cluster of same our worldviews place emphasis upon), or how to be moral through narrative aesthetic forms. And such story forms are not just “secular,” for they are often the products of religious traditions. In fact, I happen to believe that for many individuals who at least nominally identify with religious worldviews, this aesthetic mediation assumes in the first instance a spiritual form (‘spiritual’ because its meaning is a bit wider than what we typically denote by the adjective ‘religious,’ and thus, for instance, we can include under this heading the Hellenistic ethical ‘therapies of desire’ as defined by Martha Nussbaum). Furthermore, to the extent that such aesthetic mediation is not “spiritual” or religious, I would contend it is less reliable or dependable as a form or medium of moral knowledge or ethical instruction, especially but not only when we are young. Put differently, spiritual and religious literature is ideally suited for the aesthetic mediation of moral knowledge, for learning what it means to be virtuous, for it is here we find “exemplars of goodness.” It is not the only or even primary way in which we learn to be moral, for we obviously and ideally learn to live a virtuous life, as both Confucius and Plato would remind us, from those who are responsible for our upbringing: our parents, caregivers, teachers, and others who are, it is hoped, suitable “role models,” those entrusted to take care of us until we reach the “age of reason.” Intriguingly, both Plato and Confucius appear to agree that learning to be ethical for children entails a training in the arts, particular arts to be sure, but there is something about the arts that these two philosophers find integral to the habituation to virtue, as a necessary yet not sufficient condition to being moral. And even as adults, we might learn something about virtuous living from those with whom we come into meaningful personal contact in daily life:

“It is not implausible to think we are elevated by others who are more developed than ourselves in their striving for harmonious hierarchical development and for a valuable life. We are aided and encouraged along our own path of development by their striving for self-development and purer feeling; contrast the effects on us of encountering those with a sour mixture of one-upmanship, self-aggrandizement, desire to dominate or destroy, and other festering emotions, the effects of wending our way and bending our attention to their motivations and trajectories. [….] We all know people, I hope, who bring out the best in us, people in whose presence we would be embarrassed to speak or act from unworthy motives, people who glow. In their presence we feel elevated. We are pushed, or nudged further along a path of development and perfection; rather, we are inspired to move ourselves along, in the direction shown. [….] We want to find a way of living whereby our best energies and talents are poured out so as to speak to and improve the best energies and talents of others. We want to utilize our highest parts and energies in a way that helps others to flourish.”—From Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations (1981)

In her book, Divine Motivation Theory (2004), the philosopher Linda Zagzebski makes an argument for what she terms a “direct reference” theory of the good. I will not go into the philosophical background and specific premises of her argument but want to invoke it in support of the idea that one of the primary ways by which we learn to be moral is through stories of one kind or another, narratives in which we learn about what it means to live a “good life:”

“I have proposed that ‘good’ is defined by direct reference. If so, it is plausible that ‘good life’ is defined by direct reference as well. It is a life like that, which is to say that we know it when we see it [Plato has some things to say about how this is possible]. Describing lives is one of the functions of literature and biography. [….] If we defined the good life as a life like that, we do not do it independently of referring to persons whose lives we want to imitate. We imitate persons we regard as exemplars, and we imitate lives we regard as exemplary, and these are not independent activities. [….] So what is a flourishing life? I propose that it is determined by what the exemplars say it is. [….] The exemplars make the determination of good lives in the hard cases. If ‘good life’ is defined by direct reference independently of a ‘good person,’ then the life of a good person can come apart from a good life. However, if I am right, that is not the way these concepts work. The lives we want to imitate are lives of persons we want to imitate.”

One lesson we might—or should—draw from Zagzebski’s proposal is that our choice of narrative sources for “exemplars” is fraught with consequences. For example, are contemporary novels, or films for that matter, invariably stocked with characters or protagonists who we might christen “exemplars” of the good life, of characters who exemplify virtuous living? And even if frequently bereft of such characters, might these stories nonetheless have some role to play in clarifying what the struggle to live morally entails, of what the moral life involves, of the relation between evil and the good, or the obstacles and difficulties faced in attempts, among people like us (so to speak) to become virtuous? After all, the vast majority of us are not living lives that call to mind a Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis, Dorothy Day, Maimonides, or “Friends of God” in the Islamic tradition. The hoi polloi, in other words and by definition are not prophets, saints, ascetics, seers, sages, or simply pious and wise teachers. At the same time, save Jesus’ Christian theological status as God incarnate, these exemplary spiritual figures are men and women who provide us with concrete models of human goodness, of what it means to live a spiritually flourishing life, of how to simultaneously engage in the processes of individual self-discovery and self-actualization, of how to incarnate and express moral and spiritual values, not in the sense of slavish and literal imitation but as inspirational exemplars worthy of ethical emulation in the widest sense as part and process of psychological and spiritual (or eudaimonistic) individuation.

The problem of moral development is the problem of discovering the conditions necessary and sufficient for the manifestation of the virtues and the actualization of value(s). Each person is morally obligated, from the perspective of virtue ethics, to sincerely and persistently endeavor to actualize, conserve and defend those values he or she identifies with as the product of self-examination and the prerequisite of self-direction and self-realization. The specific cluster of values so identified may (and usually does) vary from person to person and no one individual is capable of realizing all such values, although one might nonetheless recognize and appreciate all values (or value as such), especially insofar as these values have become identified with other individuals. Individual values identification brings in its wake the intrinsic and intangible rewards of personal fulfillment and flourishing. We are all alike with regard to values-potentialities by virtue of our human nature, but we differ, owing to genetic inheritance, upbringing, circumstance and so forth in the manner of values-identification and actualization. We might see this as the interdependence of value-actualizers, serving to confirm our inherently social nature as human beings. Such interdependence, furthermore, is capable of (has implications for) filling out the meaning of true community.

Perhaps contemporary literature (at least some of it) provides us with the narrative and biographical equivalent of “middle terms” that modulate for us the gap between ideal (and idealized) moral and spiritual virtues, and the morally messy lives lived in the shadows of such overwhelming or intimidating goodness: most of us cannot “stare” into the Sun, the Platonic metaphor of the Good in the Allegory of the Cave, but we can nevertheless look upon, and thus learn from, that which it illuminates. And even if one attains the Platonic vision of the Sun at the summit of dialectical ascent, one is obligated in Plato’s account to return to the Cave, to make the corresponding dialectical descent into the realm of particularity and the concrete, the world of the “ten thousand things” (wanwu) in Chinese philosophy, and it is with that world our contemporary novelists and filmmakers can be fairly said to be well acquainted, if sometimes or even often in a confused or uncertain manner, at least with regard to ethical values and moral insight. The extent to which we envisage contemporary literature, or any narrative vehicle, playing such a role appears to importantly depend upon our ability to make aesthetic and ethical discriminations and judgments as to what is morally and spiritually availing, another issue Plato addressed in as much as he asked how we can come to recognize goodness unless we are not already, in some intuitive or inchoate but no less real sense, in possession of or have some acquaintance with such goodness.  

In a future post I hope to expand upon some of the ideas and themes introduced and sketched here in a preliminary fashion.

 [Cross-posted at]

One comment

  1. Pingback: Ethics, Literature, and (internal) Deliberative Democracy « The Literary Table

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