Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Moral Order and Happiness in Fiction

Imagine this change to Macbeth: Macbeth kills King Duncan and some other inconvenient people, he feels briefly anxious and guilty, and then he gets over it.  Macduff finds out, comes after Macbeth, and Macduff and his family are killed.  Macbeth lives happily ever after.  In a final soliloquy, perhaps, Macbeth expresses satisfaction with his decision to kill Duncan and with how his life has gone.

What would the message of such a play be?

It's hard to imagine Shakespeare writing such a play.  Even if in real life evil sometimes prospers and the perpetrators feel no regret, in fiction evil cannot in the end prosper -- not unless the work is a very dark one.  (Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors comes to mind.)  In reality, I think, evil sometimes prospers and sometimes fails, but somehow this nuanced attitude is difficult to bring across in any but the most subtle fiction.  We are, perhaps, prepared from early childhood to expect fictional wrongdoers to suffer by the end, so when they don't, it's jarring enough to suggest that the writer embraces a dark vision of the world.

Similarly, when the protagonist makes a difficult moral choice and then suffers as a result, we read the work as suggesting that the protagonist made the wrong choice.  But why is that?  In real life, sometimes we make the right choice and suffer.  Here I think of the Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan.  The platoon captures a German soldier and after much debate decides to set him free out of mercy rather than execute him.  Later that same German solider returns to kill one of the group that freed him.  The audience, I think, is invited to conclude that setting him free had therefore been the wrong decision.  Watching the film, it's hard to avoid feeling that!  But might it instead have been the right decision that happened to have a bad consequence?

Here's what I'd like to see -- what I can't recall ever seeing (though I welcome suggestions! [update Jun. 14: in light of further suggestions and reflection, I think I overstated this point yesterday]) -- a work of fiction in which the protagonist makes the morally right decision, and suffers in consequence with neither an outward triumph in the end nor even a secret inner victory of the soul, no sweet comfort in knowing that the right choice was made.  I want a work that advises us: Be a good guy and lose.  Even if evil triumphs, even if the wicked thrive and the upright protagonist collapses in misery, even if the protagonist would have been much happier choosing evil, still he or she was right to have chosen the moral path.

Or is it just a fact about fiction that prudiential triumph -- the final happiness of the protagonist -- will inevitably be understood as a kind of endorsement of the character's choices?

Update June 16:
This is one of those posts I would reorganize from scratch if I could. First: I think I overstate the conclusion somewhat.  And second: I don't think I was sufficiently clear about what the conclusion was, even in my own head. Of course there are a number of works in which a morally upright protagonist loses, without even a secret inner victory, and the morally vile opponent thrives without even secret inner suffering. What I think is challenging -- not impossible! -- is to portray that in a way that is neither (a.) some sort of critique of conventional morality, or (b.) dark enough to constitute some sort of critique of what might be thought of as the mainstream moralistic picture of the world. Such an outcome shouldn't have to be dark, one might think. Sometimes good guys lose and bad guys thrive in in a relatively upbeat understanding of the real world (anything short of pollyannaish), so it should be possible to portray it in fiction without committing to it as typical.  But maybe the darkness flows from the symbolic function of fiction as presenting the moral order, or lack of it, within the fiction as somehow representative of how things generally are...?

(The Book of Job is an interesting case, as pointed out in one comment.)

24 comments:

Brian Ballsun-Stanton said...

What constraints on this are you looking for? Published? Fanfic? Short form or long form?

Carl M. said...

I recall hearing that Kant wanted such stories read to children and suggested as an example the first half of Job.

Bence said...

There are TONS of example both for 'be a nice guy and lose' and for 'be an asshole and do well'. Basically all Italian neorealist and French new wave films (with Bicycle Thief and The Cousins as two obvious examples) and almost all 20th Century modernist novel, eg, Proust and Moravia, but even Mann. To go a bit less highbrow, pretty much all episodes of How I met your mother...

Björn said...

All of us are familiar with the fact that good guys often loose, and most of us accept this as a basic fact of life, without abandoning our ethics or our aspirations to live according to them. Most fiction serves as an existential band-aid in our sisyphean toil. Consolation and inspiration are probably the primary raisons d'être of fiction.

On the other hand, you can definitely get too much of a good thing... Hollywood, religion, positive (but unrealistic and ultimately detrimental) thinking, etc.

Rob said...

The protagonist, Ritai, in Mountain Patrol, and Matthias Glasner's courageous, harrowing and unforgettable Der freie Wille.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the suggestions, folks! I think you're probably right that some of these works pull it off -- though I do want to carefully separate cases where the moral order is inverted and this is meant as a *critique* of conventional morality from cases in which we are invited to fully accept the wisdom of the good guy who loses. I suspect, Bence and Bjorn, that not all of your examples follow that pattern. I also suspect it might also be slightly more difficult to portray a completely happy and successful bad guy without seeming to be critiquing the wisdom of conventional morality than it is to portray a good guy who wisely makes a moral choice that leads to a bad outcome.

D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
clasqm said...

Perhaps what we need is some cross-cultural input here. Western non-comedic literature is still firmly based on the Greek hubris/nemesis structure. Pride MUST goeth before a fall, otherwise there's no story. Quite possibly this wouldn't work the same way in Indian or Chinese literature.

Take the Scandinavian Egil's Saga, for example. OK, it's supposed to be autobiographical, but it still functions as literature.

Egil Skallagrimson, grandson of a berserker and a werewolf, lies, cheats and kills his way across tenth-century Northern Europe. He lives to be eighty years old and dies in bed, a rich and influential farmer in Iceland. And still a killer: one of his last acts is to murder the servant who helped him bury his treasure.

So yes, it can be done.

clasqm said...

Correction "biographical", not "autobiographical"

PS the captchas are really getting cryptic. Is that a picture of two forks lying on a kitchen sink?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Clasqm: What attitude are we invited to take toward Egil? Thought experiment: Could Kant or Mill have written it, or does the literature convey an attitude at odds with mainstream philosophical normative attitudes?

clasqm said...

Yes, that is the point I was making. Egil was strictly a pagan Viking - His son was among the first Icelanders to convert to Christianity.

Egil's saga was written around one or two hundred years later, when Iceland was formally Christian, but the prevailing attitude in the book is still "hey, whattaguy". You can get the boy out of the vikngs, but you can't get the viking out of the boy!

Christian influence on Icelandic society was a very thin veneer for a long time, and the saga literature just didn't absorb much of the Greek/Hebrew ethos and style. It reflects mainstream Viking normative attitudes. Which makes it a bit hard for us to read. To us it seems like there is no plot, no denouement, just an endless list of "Thorstein killed Olaf, and Olaf's relatives killed Thorstein's brother-in-law ... and when there were no more of Olaf's relatives left, Thorstein's great-grandson lived happily ever after."

Keep in mind that Norse mythology saw the end of the world as quite literally the end of everything, up to and including the gods. In such a worldview, ethical relativism comes easy, and one's personal integrity and family honour is all that really matters.

It's a bit of a specialised literary taste. But it does indicate that the inevitability of good triumphing over evil may well be an artefact of specifically modern western literature. Mills could not have written a Norse saga. Kant? That is a trickier question.

Scott Bakker said...

Neuropath... ;)

My fantasy series actually takes this question even further, positing an ontologically objective good for the 'paracosm' that is, from our standpoint, evil.

Either the 'good' or the 'guy' dies, you can't have both, much to my agent's chagrin! Writers depart from manichean resolutions at their professional peril - quite literally.

dioscuri said...

Scarface? Tony Montana's unequivocal downfall is the direct consequence of an unimpeachable moral choice (he don't kill no kids).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Clasqm: Right, so that rather supports the point of the post rather than serves as an example of the sort of thing I was seeking as unusual.

In retrospect, I think I expressed myself confusingly and too strongly in the original post.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Scott --

As it happens, I just finished Neuropath. Thanks for sending! An interesting book. I'm inclined to think you're more or less right about the neuroscience and psychology but that the normative consequences (as I think you intend?) are still very much an open issue.

As you point out, Neuropath is naturally read as presenting a kind of challenge to conventional morality. Also, the bad guy does get killed at the end. So it's not quite an example of what I was seeking (though interesting in other ways).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dioscuri: I haven't seen Scarface. Montana isn't a positive moral examplar in general, is he?

Scott Bakker said...

I'm glad you liked. I would argue that the true 'villain' in the novel is the Chiropractor, who really is the last man standing. Neil is the antagonist, of course, but the hope was to have mixed the moral puzzle pieces so much that his fate only appeared to be part of a Manichean resolution. As with the 'conventional' ending of the hero and his family reunited in 'love.' Everything is topsy-turvey.

One thing, however, I've really come to appreciate over the years writing for a living is the way the 'moral stakes' you think you're encoding as a writer are so easily blotted/overlooked by readers with different moral backgrounds. Once a reader passes a certain moral judgement at a certain point, interpretation becomes cherry-picking. Haidt's 'elephant and rider' metaphor for moral thinking becomes very apt indeed.

Given this as a disclaimer, I would say that a popular narrative that is almost *exactly* what you're looking for would be Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours.

Scarface is a traditional mobster morality tale.

By and by, I recently posted a draft of an anti-literary literary novel (that invokes Scarface, coincidentally enough) I've been working on that tackles all these issues head on. For those interested, I'm actively soliciting feedback, and it's entirely free at:

http://rsbakker.wordpress.com/stories/light-time-and-gravity-draft/

It begins with, "What is the meaning of a deluded life?"

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cool. Funny, I saw the Chiropractor more as a victim than as a villain. In whatever sense we can still say that some people have freer wills than others and thus more moral responsibility, it seemed to me that he had less than Neil. (Is that too old-fashioned for the message of the book? :-) )

Crimes and Misdemeanors is actually exactly the work that was in the back of my mind as I wrote the post. It seems to me hard to read the film as an endorsement of conventional morality, only with bad consequences. I read the film instead as an endorsement of murder in the right circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Scarface was mentioned, but I think a much better example for what you are looking for is the later (and in my mind superior) gangster film made by the same team (director de Palma and lead actor Pacino): Carlito's Way. I don't want to include spoilers, but in that film, as I understand it, (1) Carlito is undone by his own morally commendable but nonprudential choice, yet (2) we get the sense that his choice was the right one and that he is a better person (and in that sense, if in no other, better off) for having made that choice.

And for an example of what you say is the harder trick to pull off -- portraying an ultimately prospering villain without a rejection of ordinary morality -- how about Robert Altman's The Player?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Anon! The Player, in particular, has been on my list for a while. I'd better buckle down and see it!

Anonymous said...

What about Hannibal Lecteur? He eats all his enemies- apparently a good thing because they just weren't as classy as him, and gets the girl at the end because, poor thing, she was some sort of hillbilly, but didn't try to hide it which is why she gets to sail off, in a dim Romantic haze, with the cultured European who ate her Office supervisor or that lady in the DMV who gave her a hard time and as for them Korean girls at the nail salon who laughed at her- well, he made a swell kimchi out of their pitutary glands which was real thoughtful of him coz that's the true answer to Freud's question 'What do women want?"

Anonymous said...

One interesting case is 'Wacky Races'. Those who cheat and those who play fair win about equally often, but Dick Dastardly never does. The show generally doesn't deal in moral judgments (no one seems perturbed at the presence of a whole team of gangsters, for instance), but because Dastardly is a villain-stereotype and because it's typical for villains to lose out at the end of the story, he always has to lose, even if only by deus ex machina.

Actually, given that the Dastardly situation is merely an extended joke, the show pretty much fulfills Kant's wishes. It's targeted at kids, and shows that there's sometimes no net gain in following the rules.

Anonymous said...

Consider Judas as portrayed in "Jesus Christ Superstar." He is acutely aware that his betrayal of Jesus is foretold and 'necessary.' It is to him part of his duty to take the money and disclose the location of Jesus. And he knows that he will be 'damned for all time' as a result. He can have no inner satisfaction as a result, his complete lack of moral redemption for performing the act is explicitly laid before him (unless you consider the recently discovered 'Gospel of Judas' and consider it a redemption of sorts for the character). He knows his historical legacy of damnation. But he chooses the same.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

A very interesting story. Have you seen Borges's version of this -- or rather three versions?