Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Ethics Without the Costs: Two Tropes in Fiction

I've been binge-watching Doctor Who, and two days ago I finished Susanna Clarke's new novel Piranesi. I love them both! Doctor Who is among my favorite TV series ever, and the images of Piranesi will probably linger with me for the rest of my life. But. But! I'm a philosopher and a critic and I'm never satisfied and I've spent 52 years cultivating a fussy intellect. What good is a fussy intellect if not to find fault in everything?

Clarke is wonderful in part because she bends and defies genre expectations and fiction-writing expectations (also in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). She writes slowly and atmospherically -- with prose so beautiful that you don't mind that nothing is happening. After a while the almost-nothingness becomes its own kind of plot and tension -- surely something will happen soon! Ah... ah... ah... as if you're on the edge of a sneeze. The tiniest thing becomes major plot news. On page 52, Piranesi is given a pair of shoes!

With as unconventional a writer as Clarke, you might expect the climax of Piranesi to be... SPOILER ALERT.

Spoiler alert. Stop reading.

[image: The Round Tower by Giovanni Piranesi]

You haven't stopped. Last chance! I'll wait if you want to get the book and come back in a week or two. I'm patient. I'm not even a real person, just some html code on a Google server somewhere. Time is meaningless.


The climax of Piranesi is surprisingly ordinary. It fits perfectly into an overused and predictable trope. I'll call it Hero Tries to Save Bad Guy's Life but Fails Because Bad Guy Is Just Too Vicious. (Suggestions for a shorter name welcomed.) Behind the trope is a sugary ethical fantasy that we probably shouldn't indulge too regularly, lest we mistake it for the world.

In Clarke's version, Bad Guy is caught in a flood, trying to shoot Hero who is taking cover with Helper behind some statues high up above water level. Near Bad Guy is an empty inflatable boat. If Bad Guy gets into the boat, he will live. If not, he risks drowning. Hero tries to save Bad Guy. Hero shouts "Get in the boat! Get in the boat before it's too late!" Bad Guy ignores the shouts (or maybe doesn't hear amid the noise) and shoots again at Hero. Hero shouts again to get in the boat, the tide is almost here! Again, Bad Guy ignores or fails to hear, instead leaving the boat behind to aim more shots at innocent Hero. The flood arrives, killing Bad Guy.

So familiar! Bad Guy is trying to kill Hero. In the attempt, Bad Guy falls into danger. Hero admirably finds the compassion and courage to try to rescue Bad Guy. In some variants, Bad Guy is temporarily rescued. Regardless, Bad Guy viciously continues the unjust attack on Hero, confirming Bad Guy's deep wickedness. This final, especially unjust attack precipitates Bad Guy's death despite Hero's rescue efforts, delivering a happy ending of moral clarity in which Bad Guy's evil directly causes Bad Guy's death while Hero needn't do anything as unseemly as intentionally permit that death.

Examples of this trope abound. Consider the end of Disney's version of Beauty and the Beast. Gaston (Bad Guy) is chasing Beast (Hero) across a roof. Gaston slips. Beast reaches down, grabs Gaston, and helps him up, momentarily saving his enemy's life. Instead of abandoning the quarrel in gratitude, Gaston stabs again at Beast, loses his balance, and falls to his death.

The appeal of this trope is part of the broader appeal, I think -- which we see throughout literature and film -- of ethics (or seeming ethics) without costs. Hero gets to do the (seemingly) ethical thing of forgiving and helping even the Bad Guy, revealing Hero's amazing courage, compassion, and strength of character. But Hero pays no price for this choice. Bad Guy dies anyway, in a final act that confirms his irredeemable viciousness, and the world becomes safe. It's win-win. Hero gets to embody a certain version of deontological ethics or virtue ethics and then also gets the good consequences too.

Yes, sometimes things to work out that way! I confess to being tired of how often, in fiction and movies, they work out that way. Good luck engineers a happy ending with no real costs or tragic losses (for Hero at least; we can feel faint sadness at bad outcomes for some minor characters). Escapist fantasy, I suppose. Which is a fine thing. We all need it sometimes. But from the scintillatingly unconventional Clarke I guess I'd been hoping for something a little less middle-of-the-trope.


Doctor Who makes no pretense to be anything other than escapist fantasy, right in the middle of every trope. Sometimes it's so absurdly on trope as to verge on parody. At the end of every timer is the destruction of (at least) the entire Earth, and salvation never arrives until the last hair of a fraction of a second. Every whiff of trouble, with utter predictability, means real trouble, with some preposterously destructive Bad Guy behind it.

Last night, we watched "Kill the Moon" (2nd era, s8:e7). (Spoilers coming.) The Moon, it turns out, is an egg about to hatch a giant bird! The heroes face a moral choice: Kill the innocent bird embryo an hour (a minute, a split second...) before it hatches, to prevent the risk to the Earth that would presumably be entailed by having an unpredictable Moon-sized hatchling nearby, or let the innocent thing hatch and accept the risk to Earth.

Thus looms another familiar trope of escapist ethics. Let's call this one Save One Innocent Life at Risk to the World but Whew the World Is Fine Anyway (SOILARWWWIFA for short). Of course the heroes choose not to kill the innocent creature. And of course it works out fine. In the denouement, the minor character whose unfortunate plot role was voicing the consequentialist argument to nuke the egg is forced to humbly thank the wiser others for staying her hand. It's foolish to favor killing one innocent life, even to protect the world! The dour consequentialist is shamed, and the moral order of the universe is affirmed. Emotionally, we learn that there's never any real conflict between saving the innocent creature before you and protecting the world.

I loved it. Of course I loved it. If the egg had birthed a monster that intentionally or accidentally destroyed humanity, or if they'd nuked the egg and the beautiful corpse had drifted sadly but safely away -- well, my family and I wouldn't have been reassured with the comfortable thought that ethical criteria never seriously conflict. You can have have your compassion, your respect for every individual's life, your softness and humaneness, and all of your good consequences too, in one yummy package. We can retire for the night remembering the beautiful Moon-bird that, in our courageous and compassionate wisdom, we chose to let live.

ETA 09:11

The acronyms are intentionally absurd, but here's pronunciation advice anyway. For "HTSBGLBFBBGIJTV", just say "hits biggle" then give up. For "SOILARWWWIFA", "solar wife" might serve.


  1. I'm generally a Doctor Who fan, but can't say I'm a fan of "Kill the Moon." It has a lot of scientific inaccuracies, but the ethical part is outright disturbing.

    The Doctor forces a moral decision on humanity with insufficient information. It strikes me as reasonable of humanity to decide to kill the creature. Clara ignores them and chooses to save it anyway. But given what little she knows, it's an incredible risk, an act of faith in, as you say, a "moral universe." It works out, as the Doctor knew it would, but he didn't give her or anyone else the information to know that.

    The episode gets Clara's reaction right, to tell the Doctor to get lost for forcing that choice on her.

  2. Yes, I agree with all of that SelfAware -- except that it's unclear to me if the Doctor really knew, versus its being one of those points where the timeline might change. There's more that is troubling about the episode than just what I've highlighted in the post.

  3. [SPOILER ALERT] I just watched a show that subverted this called "Weathering With You" (Japanese title Tenki No Ko, "child of the weather") One of the main characters has to be sacrificed to appease the weather gods. Her love interest rescues her and, as prophesied, the weather continues to get worse. The whole world is flooded. Millions probably die. I was left with the sense that his choice wasn't wrong, despite the consequences. Still, the whole thing left me off-balance-- I wasn't sure what I felt about the conclusion.

  4. Interesting! Sounds like exactly my kind of thing.

  5. A mind making a life for itself from a body making a life for itself...
    ...Who is Self, seems the questioning attitude...Thanks

  6. One could be excused for saying that tropes are prisons of the imagination.

  7. Maybe, only if, while trying to understand, use your imagination... get free of, the prisons of the imagination...

  8. Hello Eric,

    With trope 1, what outcome do you imagine that'd work for you?

    I think an issue that comes up is its easy enough to find a problem with something and say what you don't like. But it doesn't say what you do like. And if you were to say what you like, might it not come with its own tropey issues? What price IS enough?

    With trope 2, have you seen the Dr Who episode "The beast below"? Slight spoilers - there's a clue as to the trustworthiness of the important creature.

    Okay, the thing is if we actually express the outcome that sometimes someone who seems trustworthy will go ahead and stab us in the back, where does that go? At best it seems the set up for a stories starting conditions, rather than a conclusion of a story. How well does 'Sometimes they just stab you in the back' work as a moral of the story?

    Indeed one might say our natural inclination is to think people will stab us in the back and these stories edge is in trying to raise us above that.

    So where does a story go when it affirms the natural inclination?

  9. OK so my response comes a bit late but I wanted to wait until I actually read the book to read your blogpost.
    Here's my thinking. The book deals with a lot of ambiguity including moral ambiguity. The protagonist basically has been destroyed by his captor, his personality is erased (Laurence Arne-Sayles hints at that), he's been horribly manipulated, it's just heartbreaking to read. At least, that's how I read the story: psychological horror.
    But, interestingly, the author doesn't give us the satisfaction of restoring the character. He remains shattered--piecing together a third identity after his second identity has also no place in our new world.
    So, I think that the tropes give something to the reader. While the protagonist does not long for revenge (except in one moment of clarity/confusion), the reader very much expects Ketterley to get his comeuppance and at the point in the novel I was like "I hope you perish in that flood" (maybe my response is atypical). We can then, as readers, deal with the remaining problems and ambiguities, including the lack of resolution of the crime (at least for the law), the lack of closure for the main character, and Laurence Arne-Sayles walking away without any problems in spite of all the harm he caused.
    As I've just gotten into fiction writing I find it an interesting exercise to see how much one should give the reader. I think without Ketterley's death the remaining ambiguities would be less strong/lingering if the main reader expectation for some form of justice for Matthew Rose Sorenson remained unfulfilled.