Friday, May 12, 2006

Why Do the Good Guys Always Win in Morality Tales?

When we're teaching children morality, we tell them tales of virtue and self-sacrifice where -- virtually always -- the person who was virtuous and self-sacrificing ends up better off materially in the end the person who is greedy and grasping. Whatever sacrifice the protagonist makes, whatever goal is not pursued due to moral qualms, is more than compensated in the end. The good guy refuses to cheat but wins the fight. Cinderella gets the prince. Virtue pays -- in golden coin!

Recently I've been reading through the ancient Chinese philosophers Mencius and Xunzi. And whenever I do, I'm struck by their repeated, seemingly Pollyannish, insistence that following the rules of morality will lead one to wealth and political success while breaking those rules will bring disaster. Their aim in saying such things is to win the hearts of vicious princes over to the path of morality.

Now maybe it's true that virtue pays better than vice in the long run -- that there's something paradoxically self-defeating about greed and something paradoxically profitable in self-sacrifice -- but that empirical question isn't what's troubling me now. The issue I want to raise is: Why is it so rare (except in the most subtle adult literature and film) to portray a virtuous protagonist as losing out because of her virtue, while still conveying the message that it's a good thing to be virtuous? (Minor characters are allowed to suffer for their virtue.)

Consider the end of Saving Private Ryan. The platoon shows mercy on a captured German, letting him go rather than executing him. The German comes back and kills one of them in a later battle. The audience seems invited to the conclusion that it was a mistake to have let him go, because of this bad consequence. The audience is not drawn to the conclusion (I think) that letting him go had been the right thing to do and simply had a bad outcome. Now maybe it was a mistake to let him go. Maybe it wasn't all things considered the right thing to do. But it doesn't seem to me that the fact that he comes back to do harm should close the question from the point of view of the narrative. And yet it does.

One might worry that incorporating the "virtue pays" structure so deeply into our morality tales risks teaching children that if virtue doesn't pay, it isn't really virtue. If we really want to inculcate an ethos of self-sacrifice and a willingness to do what's right regardless of the consequences, why don't we offer tales in which the protagonist may suffer or be rewarded for her virtuous behavior, but is admired nonetheless?

Now, I respect folk traditions of moral teaching enough to think that morality tales have the structure they do for excellent reason, and I have some preliminary thoughts about why that might be, but this seems to me a question that deserves more attention than it gets in treatments of moral education.

9 comments:

Brad C said...

I think this is a very interesting issue. I have three comments, the first two of which draw attention to other genres of stories.

First, there are the "virtue does NOT pay in worldy happiness, but pays off later" stories. Here the new testament and christian martyr stories are the case in point, although eastern thought has parallels that make use of the idea of karmic influenced rebirth. Your worries about the value of these stories is similar to recent debates about the need or prudence of Buddhists retaining a belief in karamic rebirth.

Second, there are stories such as those of Chuang Tzu, which "glamorize" people and traits which are not useful. One way of reading these is that they depict virtue as being good in part because it does not lead to social-material success.

Third, one suggestion about the value of stories that yoke success to virtue. Plato would argue that our affects - esp our tendency to feel pleause at the thought of certain types of characters - are trained by our engagement with literature (or plays) at a young age. Maybe reading these stories helps trains us to have good feelings associated with good characters in a way similar to how advertisers aim to yoke our pleasures to their products (they put the bikini clad women and the beer in same comercial for that reason, not because they think we will come to believe drinking that beer will get us those kinds of women) This thought could be naturally developed by a discussion of internalized shame.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thoughts, again, Brad! Yes, I agree that the issue arises in theology with the idea that virtue pays in the afterlife. However, I'd complicate that idea with the concern that maybe many fewer people believe in the afterlife than *say* they do. (I might write about that in a post next week.)

And, yes, I agree with your take on Zhuangzi as well. He breaks all the rules! That's partly why he's so darn fun to read.

Your third point appeals to me also. I hadn't formulated it to myself in quite that way, I think. The analogy to beer commercials is great! Another thought is the bait-and-switch. If you can get people to start doing positive things for *any* reason, even an extrinsic and selfish one, once they actually start doing those things their motivations start to change and they can become more intrinsically and laudably motivated.

Jonathan said...

Well, Plato had quite a bit to say about this, didn't he? I guess the theory is something like, we should positively reinforce virtue, and one way to do that is to give the impression that virtue pays.

It's pretty plausible that this would work, as a psychological motivation. (I don't think there's a serious risk of the public _identifying_ virtue with "whatever it is that happens to pay.)

Suppose we had a media which consistently portrayed gamblers as big winners. (Maybe we do? I'm not sure.) This seems likely to cause an increased motivation to gamble.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I don't know, Jonathan. I think it's complicated. For one thing, in telling a story, one is not reinforcing virtue in the standard psychological sense of rewarding a virtuous act. One is instead creating a certain mythology around virtue, or certain assocations or expectations or something like that. But surely there is something like an "I want to be like him" effect, in which the reasons for being like him and the relevant features of him (e.g., fortunate, moral, admired, happy) rather blur together.

Another thought about "reinforcement" in the standard psychological sense: Work in social psychology suggests that if one too blatantly rewards good behavior that can sometimes have the paradoxical effect of making the child value it less -- she comes to think of it as a means to a reward rather than valuable for its own sake and is less likely to do it when no reward is offered.

Jonathan said...

However the psychological mechanisms work, it seems pretty likely that repeated observations of even fictional correlations between some behavior and success will generate some motivation for that behavior.

This is the same tendency that makes cool cartoon characters who smoke dangerous for children.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes. I agree with that completely!

Here's the worry, then (or one worry). If every cool cartoon character smokes, then kids might conclude that if you don't smoke you're not cool. What, then, will kids conclude if every morally good decision is portrayed as leading to material benefits? Maybe, as you say, there's no serious risk of simply identifying the moral with what happens to pay, but mightn't there be some subtler consequence -- such as an increase in "just-world thinking"?

("Just-world thinking" is the phenomenon noted by social psychologists for people to tend to assume -- even when it's clearly irrational to do so [because, for example, the success is demonstrably due to chance] -- that successful, wealthy, etc., people are morally better, smarter, etc., than those who are unsuccessful. Such thinking can lead to devaluing the poor, the oppressed, minority groups, etc.)

Anonymous said...

'Work in social psychology suggests that if one too blatantly rewards good behavior that can sometimes have the paradoxical effect of making the child value it less -- she comes to think of it as a means to a reward rather than valuable for its own sake and is less likely to do it when no reward is offered.'

In this case it's possible to argue that 'virtue' is always rewarded with some sort of social validation. If virtue is always rewarded then it shouldn't necesserily follow that the number of virtous acts a person commits will decrease outside of these parameters. The question then becomes 'How important is it that a person act morally for the sake of the act itself rather than for a promised reward?' The result is surely the same.

The marketing analogy makes a great deal of sense if you suppose that the purpose of these tales is to encourage a certain behaviour by associating it with the desireable state.

The analogy about gambling also raises an interesting point. That the association with large payouts will increase motivation to gamble seems to follow logically. The point it raised for me is related to 'teaching children that if virtue doesn't pay, it isn't really virtue. ' Well in relation to our gambling analogy the gambler who finds himself loosing, as he will, learns that gambling doesn't pay. He does not change the way he identifies gambling as only those activities which do pay so that when he wins it's gambling and when he loses he assumes he's engaging in some other activity. Surely the danger is not that people change what they think of as virtuous acts but only realise that virtue does not pay in a material manner.

I don't even know if that makes any sense and I'm resurecting a long dead discussion by hey-ho.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Anon. I do keep tabs on these old posts!

It would be nice if we could also learn not only that virtue often doesn't pay in a material manner, as you say, but often that it doesn't pay socially either (assuming that's true). How do you teach that through fiction without seeming to undercut the message? By portraying the protagonist as inwardly satisfied? That seems subtle. Also: What if even inward satisfaction doesn't follow....

Anonymous said...

In the Old Testament the "good guys" don't really "win into the end". They get sent into horrible exile full of persecution culminating in the Nazi's.

When they do eventually half-return to the promised land the whole plan turns out to be a flop, nobody can agree on anything, and the whole world still hates them and wishes to annihilation them.

Now how's that for a Morality Tale for western civilization!