A Question of Morals

A couple conversations after class sessions near the end of last semester got me thinking, again, about morality.

What does this have to do with writing and worldbuilding? Quite a bit, actually.

Currently, I think our cultures generally have two views on morality: absolutist and relativist. The absolutist view says that there is a single, universal, objective system of morality, often viewed as black and white. The relativist position says that morality is, largely, a social construct that varies. Often the latter leads to the idea of morality as a continuum rather than a binary, something open to numerous shades of grey versus the black-white construct.

This should have obvious connotations for the creation of fictional cultures and individuals. For instance, in an interview with Tavis Smiley, Ben Kingsley recently stated that none of literature’s great villains thought of themselves as being villainous or evil. Rather, they all thought they were justified. As quick examples, we can look at Marvel’s Magneto, Shakespeare’s Iago, and Shakespeare’s Caliban. Simply knowing at Magneto is a Holocaust survivor is enough to understand exactly why he carries out his actions throughout all the Marvel lines, he thinks he is righteously acting to avoid another Holocaust. Likewise, Iago considers his actions righteous after Othello passes him over in order to pick Cassius as his lieutenant, despite Iago’s greater experience, competence, and proven ability. And Caliban certainly considers reclaiming the island of his mother from an invading usurper to be a righteous act (in fact, most of us would probably agree, if Caliban were not described as monstrous in appearance).

Questions of morality, particularly with worldbuilding in mind, also get us to pre-set systems versus self-explored morality. For the former, I’ll use Christianity, simply because it is one of the more widespread and unified systems. When a moral dilemma, I argue, those with a pre-set system of morality have an easy time determining the moral course of action. For instance, take the question of torture. For a Christian, the morality of torture is an easy question, simply ask, “Would Christ approve of this?” then check the Gospels (and only the Gospels, since they’re the only part of the Bible that purports to be Christ’s words). The answer is a pretty clear, “No.” Those without pre-set systems have to explore the question and consider it more fully, in many ways. Faced with the question of torture, first one must ask, “What is the purpose or goal?” Answer: to acquire information. “Then, does the act fulfill the goal?” Answer: based on the body of evidence from history, no (first, presented with pain, a subject will say anything; therefore, any information gained from torture cannot be trusted, and is therefore useless). Therefore, torture serves no purpose but to feed sadism. Therefore, it is immoral.

I pose the previous paragraph to demonstrate both socially formed morality (for building cultures) and personal morality (for building characters).

Questions of morality do vary in response from culture to culture throughout history. For instance, back in the medieval era, capital punishment (flogging, cutting off limbs, execution) was a moral act because society did not have the resources to incarcerate someone for a long period of time when 98% of the populace worked the fields to feed all of society. On the other hand, the place of capital punishment today is morally debatable, because we have more than enough resources to incarcerate people for life (with less than 5% of the populace working fields to feed everyone). Likewise, morality in fictional cultures should change, adapt, over time depending on the situation, resources, and evolution of both society and the species.

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3 comments on “A Question of Morals

  1. indytony says:

    I appreciate your thoughts. My English professors in college thought I was a fanatic when I said, “Moral critique is the most valuable form of literary criticism.” My contention is that every story conveys a message (whether the author admits it or not) and promotes a particular moral worldview that impacts readers (for good and for bad).

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    • lordtaltos says:

      Personally, I favor historical criticism, but I’ve been a medievalist since before I knew what medievalist meant. 🙂

      Actually, the question of morality has come up a number of times in post-class conversations (composition courses) probably because of some of the essays and other pieces I tend to choose. Ursula le Guin’s “The Ones Who Wall Away from Omelas”, the Dalai Lama’s discussion of secular ethics, and Stanley Milgram’s “The Perils of Obedience” often have that effect.

      I have some other, mo philosophical, thoughts on the subject, but I’m not sure how much, if any, of them I’ll post. Depends a bit on whether I care about how offended followers may become.

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    • lordtaltos says:

      Just thinking about it a bit, I think moral critique is inherent in a number of lit crit theories. But, my guess is that part of the reaction you describe may come from a reaction to 19th century views of literature, e.g. that literature had to be morally uplifting or instructional in some practical manner (particularly children’s lit), something that Mark Twain, among others, rebelled against (to some degree).

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